B-side of Don’t Mess With Bill
B-side of Don’t Mess With Bill
(Released in the UK under license through EMI / Tamla Motown)
The recent slow pace of updates here on Motown Junkies has nothing to do with the music, and everything to do with my busy work and family life, but it’s interesting to see the effect it has on the actual project itself. Way back in the day when this blog was just an idle thought, I buzzed through the whole of the eight or nine volumes of The Complete Motown Singles that existed at the time and made some brief notes on the way through, which I go back to now and again when I come to revisit those songs to look at them properly. In my notebook from 2008 is a comment about Anything You Wanna Do which praises it for being “fun and confident and sassy”; listening to it now, more than five years on, I don’t think I’d call it any of those things.
This is a throwback in more ways than one. It had lain unused on the shelf for a year and a half by the time Motown dusted it off for use as a B-side here, but compared to the intricate, grown-up brilliance of the topside Don’t Mess With Bill, it feels more like four or five years.
The A-side had featured a lead vocal from Wanda Young, in such superb form she’d take lead on every Marvelettes single from here on in, displacing the group’s longtime frontwoman Gladys Horton. A pity in many ways, as – great though Wanda is – Gladys had a fine voice, distinctive and strong, lending the early-Sixties Marvelettes a particular sound; but here, the clash of styles is jarring, and Anything You Wanna Do sounds like the work of a much younger group of girls.
It’s an off-the-peg early-Sixties girl group number; it goes for the “sass” of the typical New York sound, but the lyrics torpedo that notion. Originally written for, and by, Stevie Wonder, the lyrics take on a troubling slant when put into the mouth of a teenage girl –
Oh baby, hold me, squeeze me, kiss me
Baby, do anything you wanna do…
Just say you’re mine and I’ll let you
Baby, do what you wanna do…
I mean, it’s possible this is a character study, but it seems more likely that this is meant to be played straight, that it’s meant to be a song of love and devotion. The problem is that it’s the kind of idea of “devotion” from an age before teen relationship advice moved on from holding hands and exchanging class rings, and the implications of the philosophy “just let the man do what he wants” are, well, troubling, like I said. I don’t impute anything sinister to it, it’s just an artefact of its creation – back in mid-1964 when this was recorded, Stevie Wonder was in a creative rut, turning in a whole catalogue of clunky, rough-edged songs which very rarely transcended the average, and it’s unlikely he, co-writer and producer Clarence Paul, or indeed the Marvelettes themselves saw anything wrong with this. Nonetheless, it makes it very hard (for me!) to listen with an unprejudiced ear; the difference between this and Forever, another Marvelettes song ostensibly on the same topic of submission (sung, beautifully, by Wanda, not Gladys), is stark.
Add to that the fact this sounds as artless and unpolished as the a great many early-Sixties Marvelettes cuts – the (misleading) appearance of distance between this and Don’t Mess With Bill extends to the ages of the girls themselves, so much so that you’d swear more than eighteen months separated the two sides – and the overall impression isn’t great.
But despite all of that, there’s still some enjoyment to be had from this, if you can tune out the bothersome lyrical conceit. The band are having fun – in particular, there’s a muted, low-key but enjoyable sax part which raises the bar – and it is always interesting to hear the early Marvelettes in full flow, however lumpy, exchanging harmonies and handclaps. They were usually good, at the end of the day, and Gladys gives the ropey lyrics a splendid delivery; it’s not their fault Motown, and the world, had moved on.
It’s just hard to get over the feeling that this is a step backwards (which, obviously, it is, chronologically speaking at least); the A-sides Motown chose to close out 1965 are among the best in the company’s history, but the choice of flips is much more erratic, and this is a prime example. Coming up in the middle of a run of greatness, given the heights we’ve just crested, well, to call a record pretty stupid but quite good anyway somehow feels even harsher than usual. But here we are.
MOTOWN JUNKIES VERDICT
(I’ve had MY say, now it’s your turn. Agree? Disagree? Leave a comment, or click the thumbs at the bottom there. Dissent is encouraged!)
You’re reading Motown Junkies, an attempt to review every Motown A- and B-side ever released. Click on the “previous” and “next” buttons below to go back and forth through the catalogue, or visit the Master Index for a full list of reviews so far.
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“Don’t Mess With Bill”
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