b/w Choosey Beggar
b/w Choosey Beggar
(Released in the UK under license through EMI/Tamla Motown)
On paper, it should have come out forgettable; Smokey Robinson was having a banner year as a composer, producer and singer, but so far, every time the Miracles have gone from gorgeous ballads to uptempo rockers, the results haven’t been so special. I can understand the appeal of doing harder-edged material, letting off steam and showing off their chops as a surprisingly exhilarating live act – but they were so good at the slow stuff, it was always a risky move leaving sheer unadulderated loveliness behind in favour of rocking out. And Smokey, while he often wrote his best work with a trusted bandmate alongside to mix his palette for him (Pete Moore, Bobby Rogers, Ronnie White, guitarist Marv Tarplin), well, probably by this point he didn’t really strictly need to be democratic and share out the songwriting credits with pretty much all of them, especially since the results of such many-handed Miracles songwriting pitch-ins (for the Miracles themselves, not necessarily for other Motown acts) turned into glorified jam sessions. You’re So Fine And Sweet, Since You Won My Heart, Come On Do The Jerk… entertaining enough in various degrees (well, except maybe that last one), but not really what we came for.
But yet again, records are to be judged on vinyl, not paper. Going To A Go-Go is the best of the Miracles’ rockers to date, grand and sweeping in the way all the best uptempo Motown singles are, but not afraid to be seen dancing. It’s excellent, all the more so for standing out.
The Miracles had been using Mickey’s Monkey as a high-energy pressure valve in live shows for two and a half years now, and it was getting decidedly long in the tooth; Come On Do The Jerk, supposedly created as a stopgap replacement, was really no kind of replacement at all. The need was there, as it was for almost every great group of the mid-Sixties (and not just in the soul spectrum – the Beatles, Stones and Beach Boys were all faced with similar dilemmas, trying to keep live fans happy with straight-ahead dance numbers while experimenting in the studio).
So far, so understandable – but like I said at the start, looking at this from the artificial perspective of someone who’s never heard it before, the surprise isn’t that the Miracles would come up with another daffy dance rocker, or even that Motown would issue an entire LP named after it (left) – both group and label had previous form in this regard. No, the surprise is that this is absolutely essential listening, the sort of single that both demands and deserves your attention; the ambition to move the hips and feet can be as noble as the ambition to move the heart and soul, and it can take just as much craftsmanship.
I think this probably works because it’s riveting – not only is the tune catchy and the beat infectious (as you’d expect by now, Smokey and his compadres having honed their skills writing not just for the Miracles but for the likes of the Temptations and Marvin Gaye, learning more and more how best to dominate the radio airwaves), there are lots of little touches which keep the listener interested. The belting drum riff which opens the track, making way for a shoulder-flexing bassline and great dirty chunks of chiming guitar, shows the Funk Brothers (and the Miracles’ own guitarist, Marv Tarplin, who inevitably co-wrote this one) were at least having more fun than usual; rocking out might have been more fun than endless balladeering for them too, I guess. But it grabs you straight away – already it’s a cut above something like You’re So Fine And Sweet: it’s substantial, it’s exciting, it’s got that almost undefinable quality of a Motown single such that you’d expect the vinyl to be slightly heavier, to sound a bit more solid if you tapped it. This is good stuff alright.
And then there’s Smokey’s vocal delivery, his most idiosyncratic performance in years, Robinson adopting a weird, almost scat-like cadence, the sort of vocal Michael Jackson would later build an entire career around, somehow breathless and yet never out of breath – lots of spare ah!s and uh!s and Mm!s shoved up against words and between syllables, to the point where any transcription of the lyrics seems too staid and precious without attempting to get his vocal tics in there too (“It doesn’t matter if-a you-go stag-AH! / It doesn’t matter if-a you go-a drag-AH!”), which is wholly inadequate to convey just what he’s doing here.
It’s still recognisably Smokey, but not really as we’ve heard him before, harking back to the earliest days of the Miracles – you’d have to go back as far as 1959 and The Feeling Is So Fine to find anything really comparable. And that’s without mentioning the bizarre sing-song lilt he adopts throughout (e.g. making the single word “everybody” come out like some kind of alien Caribbean patois, “Ev-ry-BOD-ee”). Written down, it sounds like something done for a bet, a bad joke, but again, it’s nothing short of riveting.
Also, I don’t know how many Motown singles we’ve had so far which have been lyrically dedicated not to love, sex, heartbreak or money, but to the joys of going out and partying – it’s quite stupid, of course, which is no kind of bar to greatness at all, but as with the Contours’ First I Look At The Purse, another similarly loose-limbed Smokey co-write, there’s real enjoyment to be had watching Smokey Robinson being faintly silly (my favourite bit being immediately after the stag/drag bit I mentioned above, Smokey then rhyming that with Every taxi-uh that you flag is…). It all works: by the end of it, this go-go is the only place you want to be going tonight, and even if the party Smokey’s singing about actually finished 49 years ago, it feels like it could still be happening down the road right now this very evening. Time to call your friends, get dressed up and head on out.
(There’s always a “but”, isn’t there? With me there is, anyway.)
Every time I listen to this – every single time – it has the same effect. I want to get up and dance, and either metaphorically or physically I do; I marvel at its quality, get swept up in the groove, admire the workmanship. I gear myself up for a 9 or maybe – maybe – whisper it – one step higher, which would mean this was one of my all-time top fifty Motown sides. At its peak, Going To A Go-Go seems like it would brook no argument over such a placing – listen to me, it shouts, of COURSE I’m one of your favourites!
And then it ends.
And I’m left thinking, well, hang on, brilliant though that was, there was something missing – the only time when its collaborative, jam-session origins peek through from behind the curtain. It’s the most convincing Miracles rock-out so far, but once the surprise has worn off (because, after all, by this stage you get the feeling Smokey could pretty much do anything he seriously turned his hand to), the feeling emerges that, wait, hold on, isn’t there something else to this? It’s missing just one magical extra ingredient – a thrilling middle eight diversion, a startling chord change, the equivalent of the lyrically-dubious but musically-thrilling Well, every woman should try to be… break from Marvin Gaye’s I’ll Be Doggone, yet another multi-handed Smokey/Miracles effort. I don’t know, it’s like this is just so close to greatness that it’s almost within touching distance, tantalisingly close, but its fingertips just can’t quite reach.
Without such a final push up to the summit, this is still excellent. Genuinely excellent, the sort of thing that helps give Motown its good name. And it’s better than anything the Miracles have ever done in this mode until now, there’s no doubt about it. Excellent. Just not quite as excellent as some of the Miracles’ 1965 highlights. Except when it’s actually playing, of course. Get up and dance.
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!)
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