B-side of Going To A Go-Go
B-side of Going To A Go-Go
(Released in the UK under license through EMI/Tamla Motown)
The Miracles produced so many outstanding downtempo numbers in the mid-Sixties, and in 1965 in particular, that it’s hard not to become acclimatised – almost take it for granted – when another one rolls along. It’s a Miracles slowie, and (of course) it’s lovely: by this point, Smokey Robinson was the undisputed king of Motown ballads, and he kept back many of his loveliest songwriting efforts for himself.
Perhaps this is why a superb song like Choosey Beggar ended up on the flip of an energetic dancer, as though the main purpose of Going To A Go-Go appearing on 45 was shaking away some cobwebs. Attention might have been paid to the risk of the ’65-model Miracles, as seen through their 45s, becoming a one trick pony (although Motown didn’t have similar concerns about, say, the Supremes or Stevie Wonder).
But it’s not a great loss that this wasn’t a plug side. Choosey Beggar doesn’t feel quite cut out for radio, either by comparison to the energetic A-side or the Miracles’ preceding run of slower numbers. (Although I have played it on the radio!) In my mind, this always feels softer, wispier, more featherlike than it is, something akin to A Fork In The Road, but when I actually come to listen to it, it’s really the light of the introductory half-minute which steers me wrong; the rest of the record is a more obvious stablemate of My Girl Has Gone and – especially – The Tracks Of My Tears, heavier and more forceful, anchored more firmly to the floor than I remembered.
Still lovely, of course.
All of the Miracles’ great songs of 1965 have their ardent adherents; each of them will be a surefire 10 in at least one reader’s book, while leaving someone else relatively unimpressed, and so I’m bound to be annoying all sorts of different people here by being neither completely entranced, nor remotely repelled. I just think it’s lovely, which is likely both not enough and too much. Such is the danger of a project like this.
Another one is mistaking release schedules for a linear archaeological record; Motown were not geared up to work that way, and it was not unknown for Motown singles to spend months, or perhaps years, on the shelf before being released, leapfrogged in the meantime by older-newer recordings which darted through closing windows to grab a precious release slot. So, confusingly, chronologically, as we finally round the final bend and catch sight of the finish line for 1965 (just ten more sides to go after this one!), Choosey Beggar looks to be the last in a line of beautiful Smokey ballads this year. In fact, it’s one of the year’s oldest – Smokey and the Miracles finished recording it on the same day as The Tracks Of My Tears back in February, and that song must have been on the group’s minds: their DNA is intermingled at some fundamental level.
So, Choosey Beggar is a prototype or a contemporary, rather than a deliberate attempt to reference past glories. We get the dreamlike, otherworldly fuzz and burr of Ooo Baby Baby (a Miracles trademark going back as far as 1959 and You Can Depend On Me), and we also get the vestigial dance hook foundations of My Girl Has Gone (or the Temptations’ Don’t Look Back, another Smokey co-write), the floaty, feather-light soap bubbles of the former tethered to the earth by Marv Tarplin’s guitar and the need to write an anthemic, memorable chorus.
The problem, I suppose – in so far as there is one, which is debatable when you’re dealing with beauty of this calibre – is that Ooo Baby Baby is a vastly better record than either My Girl Has Gone or Don’t Look Back, and with the shining example of The Tracks Of My Tears showing how successful the marriage of those two different strands of Smokey-sounds could be, it’s hard to escape the nagging feeling that all the very best ideas went into that one, and all the slightly less good ones ended up here.
So, we have a first half-minute of quite heartbreaking beauty, rivalling anything Smokey has yet turned his hand to, vibes and cymbals chiming like a broken carriage clock in another room before getting swept up in a blend of gorgeous Miracles harmonies and swirling strings, and over the top of it all a vintage Robinson melody, an unexpected second-line chord change winning the listener over straight away.
(The inexplicable use of the non-existent word “choicey” in the very first line is a bit jarring – perhaps it was intentional, or perhaps there wasn’t time for a vocal retake on a very busy day. But I digress.)
On we sail to the half-minute mark, and out of nowhere, everything starts to ramp up a gear, Smokey and pals quite obviously and quite unexpectedly building momentum for a big chorus: it’s another one of those strange Motown grafting jobs, an increasingly assertive drum fill papering over the join, leading us into what sounds like the chorus from a completely different song. It’s a good song, with a catchy enough chorus – I’m a choosey beggar, choosey beggar, and you’re my choice (you’re my choice!) – but it doesn’t live up to the promise of the intro. I’m left feeling a little as though I’ve been hoodwinked by a misleading cinema trailer: the film was still good, sure, but not quite what I thought I was going to see.
And yet the splicing of two song ideas – both of which would end up getting full expression later in the year, the results of which we’ve already seen here on Motown Junkies – is handled adroitly, with the utmost skill deployed by Smokey with all his different hats on at once, as writer, producer and singer. As if to remind us that this is the man who had once promised to “gather melodies from birds that fly, and compose you a tune”, some of the tunesmithery here is breathtaking. Again, it plays tricks on the memory: for me, in my mind’s eye (or mind’s ear, I suppose), the whole song is taken over by the intro rather than the chorus, and actually playing it is a faint comedown – not a disappointment, just a tacit acknowledgement that maybe something even better lay just out of reach.
Of course, there’s no guarantee Smokey hadn’t taken this song idea – or the two bits of song ideas which appear to have merged into Choosey Beggar – as far as he possibly could anyway. We haven’t missed out on either The Tracks Of My Tears or Ooo Baby Baby, and if Smokey and co-writer Pete Moore had indeed shied away from the conservative option and tried to keep up the dreamy, moon-dappled quality of the intro and verses, they might have ended up with something as unstructured and misshapen as I Can’t Believe: an exercise in atmosphere over content.
Which is not what we have here. Give me Choosey Beggar every time, a great record which, okay, might have been even better, but a great record all the same. (Rather than an average record which might have been quite good, as I’m no doubt making it sound.) If the raw ingredients here are the warehouse sweepings of The Tracks Of My Tears, Smokey shows his consummate mastery of weaving those base ingredients into gold. The lyrical conceit (which, I’m guessing, popped into Robinson’s head fully-formed as soon as someone came up with that title) is new and intriguing, his painfully single narrator turning down offers and steadfastly refusing to settle for anything other than the girl of his dreams, even if it means a life of loneliness. Except of course it doesn’t, because there’s no insecurity to be found in this record at all: that bold heart will win fair lady in the long run is as close to a sure thing as can be, and what’s more we’re delighted for the guy. A word, too, for the harmonies of the Miracles on this – Smokey’s performance on the A-side is a tough act to follow, but the backing vocals are probably the best on any Miracles 45 to date. And let’s not forget that even if the chorus isn’t quite as cloud-scraping as the verses seem to promise, it’s a properly catchy Smokey Robinson chorus melody, the sort of thing that will have you humming and whistling it for days afterwards.
A success all round, then, leaving aside the nagging curiosity as to what might have happened with just a couple more days’ work: a fitting way to cap the best year so far in the Motown careers of both Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, now restored to their full powers. Roll on 1966.
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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“Going To A Go-Go”
“Ask Any Man”
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