One-sided promo record
(Written by Guy Hemric and Jerry Styner)
It’s taking us a very, very long time to get through the closing weeks of 1965 here on Motown Junkies, for one reason or another, and I don’t know if the task is made easier or harder knowing that there are still some grand Motown monuments to scale up ahead even before we reach the new year. Certainly the Supremes’ 1965 story has another key chapter for us to investigate even without me adding in extra records to slow us down yet further (this one doesn’t appear on The Complete Motown Singles series, not technically being a Motown single but rather a special appearance single by a Motown artist – but it’s included on the Supremes’ own 50th Anniversary Singles Collection, giving it a dubious pass into the canon).
All the same, I couldn’t resist including this, as it’s a great opportunity to take stock and observe just how massive and out of control this thing has become. Oh, not the blog, no (although, well, hmm) – no, I mean Motown Records.
The Motown story is the story of an incredible, against-the-odds triumph, commercially and artistically; a tiny black-owned indie label becoming not only the greatest record company of all time (subjective opinion), but also a commercial behemoth (objective fact). Motown, we’re told, somewhat unbelievably, sold more 45rpm singles in America for the year 1965 than any other label; from a standing start, a semi-literate former boxer with no business experience other than a failed record store under his belt took an $800 family loan and a disused photography studio and, within seven years, was on top of the world.
If it sounds hackneyed, it’s because life itself is sometimes hackneyed; this stuff really does happen sometimes, and it happened here. No one Motown artist’s story hews closer to this overall narrative than that of the Supremes, the unloved, ungainly runts of the litter turned flagship act, who’d gone from gawky gum-chewing schoolgirls to elegant global superstars. Whether by accident or design, Berry Gordy could have chosen no better brand ambassadors; not only did they reflect all the values he’d been grasping for, visually and aurally, but they’d done the slog too, fought in the same trenches, been there through the whole journey.
For many people, then and now, the Supremes were Motown, and so it’s both helpful and fitting that their story reflects the story of Motown. And that, in a roundabout way, brings us to this bizarre little artefact.
The Supremes, eh? Fights break out every time they’re mentioned over on Soulful Detroit, catty remarks go flying, music snobs and soul purists turn up their noses, hipsters disdain the group’s avalanche of oldies radio hits. But look, they were brilliant. They were. We’ve been over this many times now. They may not be your favourite Motown act – they’re not mine – but whether or not you agree with me on their brilliance, I posit that there’s little to be gained through pointless iconoclasm, complaining their singles weren’t as good as [INSERT NAME OF RANDOM LITTLE-HEARD DEMO OF YOUR CHOICE], and therefore dismissing them, throwing out the baby with the bathwater in the process.
For me, the keys to Motown’s true greatness are threefold: depth, breadth and quality. Depth, because however deep you dig in the catalogue the quality threshold seems to stay absurdly high – from mega-hits to more obscure A-sides to B-sides to album cuts to unreleased material, the reason I’m able to do my radio show without repeating a single track (27 hours so far!) is because there’s seemingly gold all the way down. Breadth, because as this website surely attests, for all the stereotypical jibes about production line pop, Motown was an incredibly broad church, finding room to have Give God A Chance cheek-by-jowl with Satan’s Blues and both of them sharing studio time with My Girl and Baby I Need Your Loving. The Supremes represent just one part of that, and how representative they really were depends largely on each listener’s own personal response. Finally, quality, because so many of these songs are superb, timeless, classic, whatever other shopworn adjectives you want to label them with.
That the Supremes should become the figureheads for all of this, so widely seen as the quintessential Motown group, might rankle with those who prefer a little less sugar in their coffee – but how often does your favourite politician run for President? Would you rather have the Supremes at Number One, or The Ballad of the Green Berets? And if you don’t care about sales and charts and magazine covers, then what does it matter? Shouldn’t the Supremes be afforded grudging thanks even from those who’ll never voluntarily listen to one of their records, for giving Motown the financial freedom to sign and release pretty much whoever they wanted, effectively bankrolling any number of obscure Motown soul sides? For at least helping to kick in some doors that had hitherto remained firmly closed to black faces?
It’s easy for me to say “the Supremes were probably the biggest group in America” and for it to mean nothing. But their civil rights PSA, and their appearance on the front cover of Time, and their landmark show at the Copa, and their millions of records sold, and their being the first female group to top the US album charts right on the heels of Beatlemania and the British Invasion… all of this provides some context. How many Sixties pop groups, male or female, black or white, signed a marketing deal to put their logo on bread?
But what sort of America had they, and Motown, emerged into? The world had changed, there’s no doubting it. Think of Fifties America and the Eisenhower administration, and – for those who weren’t there – the whole decade seems somehow to have taken place in black and white (and in terms of the media portrayals that reached us here in Britain via TV and bad movies, rather more white than black).
Not so much the Sixties, and that’s an example of how even the best laid plans can go awry. There’s no doubt that back in 1957, Berry Gordy would have been planning even then to take over the showbiz world as he watched a song he’d co-written climb the charts in the hands of Jackie Wilson – but while the 1957 Berry would surely not have doubted you if you’d told him he’d be sitting atop a multi-million dollar music empire in eight years’ time, surely neither he nor anyone else could have conceived of the music industry he’d actually conquer. Only eight years had passed since Reet Petite, and yet in some ways it feels like two or three times that long, not least because – in mind-bending fashion – of the musical and social influence of Motown themselves. They had put a sophisticated potion of R&B, rock, jazz and pop into the commercial mainstream, and they’d done it with black talent as the public face of a black-owned business, and they’d done it not by pandering to white audiences but by attracting them.
In 1965, the contradictions between the airy purpose of the Civil Rights Act and the reality of the socio-economic disparity faced by millions of African Americans as they sought to exercise these hard-won legal rights in the face of stubborn, ugly racism were obvious, but the short-term intractability of the problem – coupled with the longer-term repercussions of the ultimately doomed Vietnam involvement – were not yet fully apparent. For now, the empowerment bubble was still on the rise, each landmark “First Black X to attain Achievement Y” step being proudly ticked off the checklist, the word “Black” given greater weight than the achievement in question. The tensions which split the nation submerged, winding themselves tighter and tighter before finding explosive release in the race riots later in the decade.
It’s perhaps no surprise that Motown’s “Golden Age” coincides almost exactly with this period. Perhaps more than any other business, never mind any other record label, Motown were quick first to tap into and then successfully mine the mood of the nation between the Kennedy assassination and the riots of 1967, and their speedy reflexes in reflecting and shaping “the Sound of Young America” first took expert advantage of, and then showed the way to, the rapidly-changing radio and TV industries.
But we think of pop music in a series of isolated bubbles, especially if we weren’t there (or then). If the music industry reacted swiftly, far slower to catch up was the movie industry – which makes sense if one considers the magnitude of the sums of money involved to make even a mediocre film. I’m struggling to think of a good example off the top of my head (though I’m sure the comments will be teeming with them!) of a mid-Sixties American film that successfully conveys the spirit of 1964/5, the spirit of change in progress, rather than being an uneasy mish-mash grafting Sixties rebellion onto Fifties staidness.
And so it’s fitting, really, that we get to talk here on Motown Junkies (however briefly) about another American institution – but unlike Motown, so clearly on the rise in the new America, this one was undeniably struggling with the change, its early model now in the subtle but unmistakeable first throes of decline.
American International Pictures, universally known as AIP, had spearheaded the surf and beach party movie genre, one of the first movie genres specifically aimed at teen audiences. These pictures had made a handy profit for the company (budgets were low, expectations lower – it wasn’t unheard of for AIP to come up with a title and poster first, and then write the script to match!), and they cannily packed the movies with pop stars, including opportunities for Motown acts like Stevie Wonder and (yes!) the Supremes. Still, when you look at those early AIP beach party films today, there’s something not quite right about them. It’s not so much that these things embody establishment values (because they don’t, really, and in any case Motown had made plenty of attempts in that direction by trying to appeal to older white audiences), but rather that we’re inhabiting a world that’s not entirely convincing even by its own internal logic, like the details are just ever so slightly off.
Perhaps this particular issue is a racial thing. Conditioned by a decade of famous blues and jazz faces and therefore hip to the fact that many of the hottest artists among the kids’ favourites were black, AIP’s willingness to cast black musicians in their movies is both welcome and understandable – but the actual inoffensive summer-romance storylines were driven almost exclusively by white faces, and the atmosphere of most of these early AIP films feels a bit like some older white guys’ impression of, or calculated attempt at (I don’t know which is better), American youth culture.
It’s not that the details are disastrously or laughably wrong, more that their getting it subtly wrong feels somehow more jarring, like the bits in early Beach Boys records about your best girl and school pride and all that stuff: alien artefacts, created from the mindset of another time. Which brings us back to Dr Goldfoot, theme song for a long-forgotten popcorn flick, and perhaps the goofiest record we’ve yet encountered here on Motown Junkies.
I MEAN RIGHT HERE
I’ll admit straight away that I’ve never seen the film – oh, this review may have taken me two months to write, but my commitment to research hasn’t gone so far as to actually find a copy of it! – but from what I can gather, it looks like an uneasy genre-bending mashup of tropes, made at some expense by AIP and using many of their Beach Party regulars. It’s a confusing project, starring Vincent Price as a mad scientist supervillain who (as far as I can work out) has some sort of plot to take over the world by manufacturing an army of bikini-clad robots. From the reviews, I get the impression this is standard shoddy, camp Sixties throwaway fare, making limited commercial impact (though apparently it did well enough at the Italian box office to spawn a sequel made in that country, Dr. Goldfoot and the Girl Bombs, which – perhaps thankfully – won’t trouble us here).
It’s unclear who the movie was aimed at (teens who’d grown up watching AIP’s beach movies? Adult horror fans drawn in by Price, or by AIP’s burgeoning sideline in darker fare via Roger Corman and Edgar Allen Poe?), and from the clips I’ve seen, and the promotional campaign, and indeed this record (of which more in a moment), nobody seems entirely sure whether the film is meant to be a comedy or a spoof, whether it’s mocking the conventions of the spy thriller or using it as a vehicle for silly jokes and girls in skimpy outfits. Either way, it looks desperately unfunny.
The confusion extends to this theme song, too, which seems equally stranded between two islands: is it meant to be funny, or is it a pastiche? Are we meant to laugh at it, or with it, or just dance and not laugh at all?
It would be really helpful to have some historical background here, but I don’t have any. The song seems to have been through at least two iterations other than the Supremes’ version; there are several AIP promos which bob to the surface on eBay sung not by the Supremes but rather Californian garage girl group the Beas – it’s the exact same song, but a different backing track. There’s also a completely different song sung by The Gamblers (“inspired by the film of the same name”, trumpets the label), which in one of those weird Motown coincidences was actually written by none other than Ashford and Simpson, the husband-and-wife writer-producer team soon to pitch up at Motown and create records for the ages. Their Dr Goldfoot isn’t one.
But why are there three of them? And which came first? All I have are guesses. I’m guessing the Gamblers record is an unrelated knock-off of some kind, trying to cash in on whatever business the movie was doing, but I might be wrong. I can also only guess at the Beas/Supremes chronology – did the Beas record their version before or after the Supremes? Did the Supremes record their version before or after they became ultra-famous and mega-successful? These aren’t just boring discographical questions, they’re important for historical purposes. Yes, really.
ORDER YOUR ’66 MODEL TODAY
The thing that’s most surprising about Dr Goldfoot, the song, is how dated it sounds. We’ve covered nearly seven years’ worth of late-Fifties and early-Sixties pop music here on Motown Junkies and this might be the most dated-sounding thing we’ve yet come across – it’s striking just how very inaccurately the writers (Hemric and Styner, previously responsible for Stevie Wonder’s Happy Street, itself an AIP by-product, and Joanne & the Triangles’ sappy After The Showers Come Flowers) have caught the essence of the Supremes, how “off” their ear for what made the group great.
Certainly it throws the efforts of Phil Spector into stark relief; Things Are Changing is no masterpiece, to be sure, but at least it sounds recognisably like the Supremes in unfamiliar territory. This, on the other hand, is only identifiable because of Diana Ross’ voice; at least she seems to be enjoying herself.
With its jaunty, parping rhythms and swingin’ West Coast teen movie instrumentation, this evokes nothing so much as a flimsy, wobbly-set ersatz take on the beginnings of psychedelia, a mid-Sixties narrative for white Americans, now only familiar to me (a Brit born at least thirty years too late to experience the hippie heyday of flower power, never mind the confusing social maelstrom that immediately preceded it) through naff movies. Which is oddly appropriate, I guess. It’s not even grubby enough to be enjoyably trashy, it’s just kind of shabby.
I wonder, though, what people who don’t like Motown – or people who do like Motown, just not the Supremes – hear in this. Or rather, to phrase that more clearly, I wonder if this is what those people hear in Motown. To me, there’s a world of difference between the spiralling majesty of I Hear A Symphony or Baby Love and the clumsy Austin Powers cartoon Sixties shindig going on here. It’s not so much that it’s campy and stupid (obviously it is, and that’s not a crime in itself) or that it’s inconsequential (ditto), or even that it’s the wrong song for the Supremes, which is debatable (though like I say, Diana has some fun with it).
Rather, it’s that the very building blocks of the song have been made without straw. This is a cargo cult pop single, copying the tropes of big girl group hits without at all understanding what goes on underneath, and ending up as flat and unconvincing as a movie set; a Supremes record in name only. It’s often been said (though not by me!) that the Supremes’ glorious mid-Sixties Motown hits could have been given to anyone else and achieved the same success in their hands, but this one really could have been sung by pretty much anyone; that it ended up in the Supremes’ in-tray is a mark not of their suitability, but of their ubiquity, their level of fame.
NO HEART… PLAYS THE PART
Which brings me back to the lack of available information on when this was actually recorded – was it pre- or post- breakthrough? How many Number Ones had they (I’m saying “they”, I don’t know how many actual Supremes are on this besides Diana Ross) racked up before trooping dutifully into the studio to cut this piffle? It’s a fascinating story either way; what’s not in doubt is that by the time the film was released, the Supremes were famous enough to merit AIP pressing up this promo 45 to hock the film. Whether AIP lucked into the group becoming famous after they’d already cut Dr Goldfoot, or whether they got the gig because they were so famous, the fact remains that they were a Big Name, the biggest name on the books of the year’s biggest-selling label.
And still, it’s ephemera, there’s no denying it. With the best will in the world, the interest in this thing doesn’t stem from what’s in the grooves, but from whose name is stamped on the label. Rarity value is a powerful thing when it comes to old vinyl, and for an act like the Supremes, who attract obsessive fans like moons around a giant planet, it’s natural even their outlying offcuts and discographical oddities will find no shortage of takers. When it comes to quirks in the Supremes catalogue, those takers are certainly well served.
Even in the middle of this amazing mid-Sixties run of Supremes singles – none of them less than excellent pop songs (and yes, I include Nothing But Heartaches in that, before you ask), many of them chart-toppers, several of them outright masterpieces – we’ve already seen their road is strewn with distractions and asterisk-bearing novelties that don’t fit into the “official” discography. Children’s Christmas Song, Things Are Changing, the little-known 45 pressing of The Only Time I’m Happy, the abortive plan to release Mother Dear… none of these would be mentioned in any history of Supremes chart 45s, and yet the non-hits just keep on coming.
Dr Goldfoot is probably the most anomalous of all, because it just doesn’t sound like the Supremes. It’s not off-key, it’s stupid but its stupidity has a readily-understood purpose, it’s even got a chorus hook that might, on a good day, wind up getting stuck in your head. And still it’s a bad record all the same, if not a dreadful one; its main fault, really, is the stall it sets out for itself just by its very existence. For me, the likes of the Beas and the Gamblers’ takes on the concept are nothing but history and dust, filed away with all the other naff obscure Sixties pop-culture debris, exactly where one might expect a jokey tossed-off AIP novelty trinket from a cheap film to reside. But this has ideas above its station; this, it announces, is by THE SUPREMES. It says so right there in big black letters. Which causes problems.
A curious double standard often comes into play when I’m writing these essays, one I’m well aware of. What would be the ideal model for this blog? It’s funny to be asking this question almost 700 essays in, but what’s better: to try and objectively dissect everything in isolation, or to draw in as much context and off-page controversy and biography and politics as possible to inform the criticism? I think the former might be more artistically “pure”, but the latter more interesting and fits more what this blog has become; a Motown track by track guide becomes a history of Motown. So I guess I want to have my cake and eat it, which is why some records by the likes of Smokey Robinson or Marvin Gaye come off worse than if they’d been made by Joe Blow: because we all know they can do better when they give something their all. And that’s what’s at play here.
Even more so, in fact, because the story of the mid-Sixties Supremes is, as we said at the start, in many ways the story of Motown in the mid-Sixties in microcosm. So if we come across a Supremes single in 1965 – no matter however trifling and silly and apocryphal – it’s part of that story, and that is different than your run-of-the-mill cutout-bin AIP beach soundtrack joint. That’s double-edged, too, because it plays into the reason I don’t like it more: for better and for worse, the Supremes are not the Beas.
It sounds like somebody else’s idea of what the Supremes sound like, where that person has either got the wrong end of the stick, or doesn’t even like the Supremes. I don’t want to read too much into it (and I’m not, despite the thousands of words above – you’ll hopefully have noticed this whole review, which took forever to write, is really just a peg to talk about talking about Motown and the Supremes and Sixties America in much broader terms); it’s a silly piece of fluff that isn’t even officially part of the Motown canon at all. But it’s fascinating, because when I play this, I wonder: is this what other people hear when Baby Love comes on?
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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“The Flick (part 1)”
“Do Right Baby Do Right”
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