(Written by Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and Edward Holland Jr.)
(Released in the UK under license through EMI/Tamla Motown)
And so 1965, for all intents and purposes, is over. Christmas came and went, and Motown had enjoyed their biggest and best year ever, both commercially and artistically; Berry Gordy had started in 1959 with nothing, and after just seven years, he could justifiably say he ran the most successful singles label in America. Bring on 1966, and more masterpieces, and all the further glory and riches they would surely deliver. Right?
But it turns out 1965 wasn’t over, and Motown weren’t done with masterpieces.
The Supremes had hit the heights at the same time as their label, their pop powers peaking at just the right moment and in perfect synchronicity with the never-better Holland-Dozier-Holland writer-producer team. Their last release, I Hear A Symphony, daringly ambitious but successful with it, had returned them to the top of the charts with a new approach, H-D-H replacing the usual lyrical heartache with unexpected sheer heart-bursting joy to accompany the catchy, bouncy, light-filled music track.
The result had been stupendous, a thing of real beauty, but not necessarily a trick that could really be repeated without taking away some of the immortal gloss (from both the new record and the old). So, here, for the follow-up, the HDH/Supremes partnership shows us the other side of the coin: we’ve done happy music/heartbreaking lyrics, we’ve done happy music/happy lyrics, and so now logically that only leaves us only one place to go. Bring on the hurt.
TWO HEARTS IN 4/4 TIME
You might find it ironic, given the subject of the blog and the amount of words I’ve poured into it so far, that I don’t really know much about the singles market in America compared to Britain – so a lot of these observations might be off base. Perhaps you can correct me. But in the UK, the singles market has been through three distinct and radical shifts. The first was the introduction of the 45, which opened up popular music to a whole new generation of record buyers just as they emerged blinking into the post-war light clutching handfuls of pocket money; get ’em hooked young and they’ll never leave you. The last was the digital download, which has obliterated the singles landscape beyond all recognition; nobody buys or even bothers pressing up physical singles any more, beyond a couple of very rare outlying examples, and it’s not at all uncommon to see even huge stadium-filling artists miss the charts altogether with their latest efforts, wall-to-wall MTV exposure or not, if the parent album is already on people’s phones and hard drives. In the middle, in between, came another change: something more subtle, something harder to pin down, a transition that took years to bring its full effect but which changed the market forever.
The lifespan of a pop single – of a pop song – used to mainly happen after it was released and available to buy; once in the shops, the music press would cover it, DJs would pick up on it, the record would start to get played on radio and in clubs, the sales would begin to mount, the single would enter the charts low down and keep rising, perhaps for a month or two (or more!) before hitting its peak in terms of saturation and chart placing.
At some point in the 1980s, this began to change; canny labels realised records sold more on opening day if they weren’t “new”, if they’d been hyped up on the radio and in the press and, yes, by their music videos, perhaps a month or two in advance of the record actually being available to buy, building and building demand without the punters being able to satisfy that new craving; furthermore (in Britain’s 100% sales-based chart at least), if everyone went out and bought it in the first week, the record would shoot into the charts in a high position (maybe even the top), ensuring it would be stocked and prominently displayed ready for week 2. And when we reached the Nineties, by week 3, that single was already old news, because radio and music TV would now be playing the new one.
With that in mind, it’s kind of impossible for me to imagine the sense in a world where Motown put a huge new big-ticket single by their top act out in the week after Christmas, a period which in the UK is now associated with nobody putting out any new releases at all because nobody’s buying new singles in that last week of the year. (Some hard-up acts will always deliberately put records out in the New Year, another traditionally quiet time for singles sales, in the hope that their meagre sales will translate into the exposure and applause of a Top 10 hit, instead of scraping the Top 40 as they might do in May). I have to keep reminding myself that, actually, even though we have another three more Motown singles to cover in 1965, even though this goes down officially as a 1965 release, pretty much nobody would have heard these sides until we were well into 1966 and a head of steam had started to build behind the record. When this crept out, quietly in the post-Christmas winter, people were still digging I Hear A Symphony.
Probably right too, because festive this is not; despite the driving uptempo backing, there’s a sadness in these chords and changes and sweeps that feels somehow kind of desolate and inconsolable, even without the lyrics. With them, it’s as much a howl of anguish as three impeccably-coiffed ladies in impossibly sparkly ballgowns can possibly muster, and it’s quite the thrill-ride. Also, it’s magnificent.
ALONE WITH THESE FOUR WALLS
I say three ladies, but really this is as much a Diana Ross solo performance as any of the Supremes’ singles have been so far; Flo and Mary don’t really get given very much to do at all, and Diana’s co-stars are instead the Funk Brothers and the string section.
This is a Sad Song alright. It’s a kitchen-sink drama; where usually HDH would combine the beautiful bounce and swagger in the music with the anguish of the lyrics to heighten the effect, here the pain in the blood of the music not only reflects but amps up the domestic tragedy of the words.
Or is that the other way around? In lesser hands you’d have a sticky melodrama, and for sure there are clunky moments aplenty here, mainly to do with the way the lyrics and music interact, a strict AABB structure which gives us Diana Ross delivering a litany of rhyming couplets. It all feels a bit strange given the innovative meter and rhyming schemes the Supremes/HDH collaborations have brought us before, and it doesn’t make for a smooth ride. And some of the couplets either don’t scan –
“Inside this cold and empty house I dwell / In darkness with memories I know so well”
– or just sound forced and artificial:
“My mind and soul have felt like this / Since love between us no more exists”
…Who talks like that? For a group where you’re so often taken on a magic carpet ride through seamless pop perfection, the Supremes sure had a habit of dragging you back bumping along the earth from time to time. This is like the artful roughness that pockmarked Who Could Ever Doubt My Love, only ratcheted up yet further.
But not for nothing did Berry Gordy circulate that famous memo stating Motown would “only release Top Ten product” (and the Supremes only Number One material, to boot); the craftsmanship on show here is something wonderful to behold, skilfully woven into an undulating, choppy sea of woe, and it’s all about the music.
This is maybe the best band track we’ve yet encountered on Motown Junkies, full of grit and tears and strange, alien sounds all charging forward as one. From the very beginning, the buzzing distortion from a thudding bass drum almost a beat in itself as it charges the air with what’s about to come, we know we’re in for something new. The horns, the drums, the bass, everything is as good as it has ever been; 1965 is over but Hitsville is at its peak.
I’ve talked before about how Motown used strings as more than a garnish; where other, lesser labels might throw in a string quartet to add instant gravitas and grown-up credibility to their teenybopper jaunts, Motown (and HDH and Smokey in particular, schooled in the theory of classical music as well as blues and jazz) innately understood how, properly used, the strings could build the song – indeed, how the strings could be the song. In the case of My World Is Empty Without You, the defining solo isn’t a sax, guitar or organ part, but rather a wordless stretch of violins at 1:15, so high as to almost be climbing like vines out of the listener’s audible range, twisting and grasping and tangling as the melody pulls them taut, Diana’s pain bouncing off like helpless echoes. Even more so than on I Hear A Symphony with its endless modulations rising up to heaven, here the strings tell the whole story that Diana can’t quite put across.
It’s a record full of pain, this. Even after dozens of plays, while the HDH/Diana/strings combination lets us know exactly how the narrator is feeling (the picture is unflinchingly stark, right down to the nails-on-a-blackboard pizzicato stabs of unease at unconsciously remembering some little detail that haunt her every waking hour following a horrible breakup), I’m still not entirely sure what she wants the listener to do about it. The obvious reaction is that she wants him – us – to take her back, but actually on further reflection there’s very little of that in the song either, no particular reason for this relationship to start up again beyond the fact that the breakup has blind-sided her. She needs his “strength” and his “tender touch”, and love, but she always stops short of saying she needs him.
I need love now, more than before
I can hardly / Carry on any more
Hold on, what’s she threatening to do here? We’ve mentioned the S-word before in relation to the Supremes, and we’ll come to it again soon enough, but this really does sound like a woman at the very end of her tether, as though she truly, genuinely believes her world is empty without him. (In fact, just think about that title for a moment – it’s not just catchy and memorable, it’s actually bleak as hell.) And there’s no chink of light in the darkness to lighten things up, as in the Temptations’ similarly dark Since I Lost My Baby or the Miracles’ exquisitely tortured Ooo Baby Baby; this is a cry for help, to the point it almost feels voyeuristic to intrude on someone’s darkest hour like this.
But then, she’s inviting us in – she wants us to listen. It’s addressed in the second person throughout, casting the listener in the role of the ex, the Emptier of Worlds. Perhaps as a result of this casting, it’s deliberately vague on specifics; we don’t know much about the relationship or what went wrong, only that something did go wrong – and, unusually, it’s even left up in the air as to whose fault it’s meant to have been. All we have is a primal wail of shock that this breakup has happened, and a series of gut-punch vignettes to sum up what it’s done to her. (And it opens up a further theory: maybe it wasn’t a breakup at all – maybe he’s gone in a more permanent sense, whether to Vietnam or to Heaven.) Weighty stuff alright, almost impossible to reconcile with the fact the last time we met these ladies they were singing Dr Goldfoot and the Bikini Machine.
And yet, here’s where the genius of Motown comes in, of HDH, of the Supremes. It never feels melodramatic, even though on paper it obviously very much is – it feels completely genuine, and the pain somehow conveys an urgency, a need, from her heart to your hips and your feet. Nine times out of ten, any hacky Tin Pan Alley writer who’d dashed off those clunky couplets would have set them to a ballad, a slow and stentorian OTT piano number beating you over the head with its Emotional Importance; nine times out of ten, if someone had written those lyrics nowadays and given them to an R&B starlet, we’d have a melismatic soup of I AM IN PAIN LISTEN TO ME. But this is Motown, and this is Holland-Dozier-Holland, and so instead what we get is a pounding dancefloor blast, the beat of the drums and the beat of Diana’s heart intertwined, all underpinned by those soaring, twisting, hurting strings, a mockery of grandeur for a mockery of love.
So, just maybe, this isn’t meant as a desperate take-me-back plea, or a tear-blurred goodbye cruel world, or a graveside lament over an unopened Purple Heart box. Maybe Diana is going out and trying to prove herself wrong, or at least do a passable enough impression of it to fool her ex. Maybe it’s meant to be “my world is empty without you – so I’m filling the space with someone new, or with friends or dancing or wine or WHATEVER but not you, pal, you’re history”. Or maybe the dance beat signifies the intensity of her feeling, a woman who’s always been more at home on the dancefloor than crying into her pillow now heading (metaphorically if not physically) back to where she feels strongest. Or maybe it’s just the old happy/sad thing again, the vim and vigour of that Motown beat playing against not only the tragic lyrics but also the salt in the tears of the music. Whatever’s going on here, it’s spellbinding.
It’s always a thrill to hear what Holland-Dozier-Holland and Diana Ross and the Funk Brothers, in any order you like, could do when they all put their minds to something, the magic they created. Here, the music is designed and deployed to devastating effect, the vocal is as good as anything we’ve heard from Diana so far, the whole package is quite startling. It creates a lump in the throat almost exactly as big as I Hear A Symphony, but for entirely different reasons: this is the saddest-sounding outrageous pop stomper I’ve ever heard, and it’s a masterpiece.
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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