B-side of My World Is Empty Without You
B-side of My World Is Empty Without You
(Released in the UK under license through EMI/Tamla Motown)
There’s at least one thing that’s fitting about this single having crept out at the end of December 1965, after Christmas and after the year was all but over. If the A-side, the mesmerisingly miserable My World Is Empty Without You, had sent the Supremes into a strange new orbit of darkness and melancholia to a foot-stomping 4/4 beat, this B-side is the perfect partner. It’s a kind of summing up of everything that had already gone before in the girls’ Motown career, capping the second chapter of their story as well as providing us all with a quick recap of everything that had taken place from their big breakthrough to date.
That breakthrough – back in June 1964, when Where Did Our Love Go had cannoned the Supremes into the hearts of an unsuspecting public – feels like ancient history now, much more long ago than the mere 18 months it had actually taken to transform the runts of the Motown litter into the chart-topping global superstars. It seems odd now to try and think back to a time when I was writing the entries for the struggling “no-hit Supremes” in their gawky early phase, always with one eye on the future, knowing what was to come; now, with 1966 just around the corner, I have to keep reminding myself of what the pre-’64 Motown landscape looked and sounded like, without these ladies at the top of the mountain.
Everything Is Good About You is no help at all in that regard: this one just drops fully-formed, pretty much an archetypal Supremes record for the education of anyone who last heard the group circa When The Lovelight Starts Shining Through His Eyes, somehow skipped those last 18 months, and wants to know what they’ve missed in the meantime. If you distilled the essence of the Supremes’ unstoppable rise to fame, their remarkable run of singles conquering both charts and hearts, and concentrated that essence into just one song, one song to show to someone and say this, this is what the Supremes are about? That song would probably sound very much like Everything Is Good About You.
REFLECTIONS OF THE WAY LIFE USED TO BE
There’s an irony, I suppose, in a record which so carefully sums up the sound and the effect of all those wonderful Holland-Dozier-Holland/Supremes singles of the past two years, a song which might otherwise have had a pretty good claim to be a definitive (not best, necessarily, though we’ll get onto that in a moment, but definitive) example of the HDH/Supremes oeuvre in the first half of Motown’s mid-Sixties Golden Age, not actually having been written by Holland-Dozier-Holland at all.
Certainly, Everything Is Good About You is heavily indebted to a cocktail of all the sweetness and light from any number of great HDH/Supremes hits, without really bringing any of the attendant darkness, and when I first heard it I made two assumptions: one, that it was Holland-Dozier-Holland, because it is practically cut from the same cloth as More Hits by the Supremes, to the extent it sounds like an out-take from that album, and two, that it was Holland-Dozier-Holland shamelessly pastiching themselves. (Honey Boy in particular is an obvious musical inspiration, with plenty of The Only Time I’m Happy and I Hear A Symphony mixed in too.) Not that they’d run out of ideas, or that they wanted to cynically pad out the ballad ballast of the forthcoming I Hear A Symphony LP (above left) with something more reminiscent of the Supremes that young America knew and loved, and had fallen for so very deeply. No, this is a loving homage to the Supremes by the Supremes, just before everyone moved on for good, and it sounds like its writers have fallen for them as deeply as the fans. They wanted to hear more, too; they weren’t ready to move on quite yet, either; but unlike most fans who wanted to hear one more record from the ’65 Supremes, they had the chance to actually make it happen.
So to discover it wasn’t actually Holland-Dozier-Holland’s writing at all, but rather a collaboration with an outsider, is first a surprise and then the most natural thing in the world. It’s still a Holland-Dozier production, so of course it has all the hallmarks of everything that we’ve come to look for in a Supremes track, but this time the writing is handled by Eddie Holland (the group’s usual lyricist) and newcomer James Dean, a Hamtramck cousin of the Holland brothers who’d arrived at Motown after a spell in the US Army. We’ve hardly met him here on Motown Junkies so far, but he was an excellent writer, especially when he found his songwriting soulmate in the form of William Weatherspoon, notching several of Motown’s best-loved songs of the mid-Sixties. Here, though, he’s a neophyte being handed the biggest of big breaks: never having been around Hitsville when the Supremes were the laughing stock of the company, only having known them as stars, he’s written a song for the Supremes as he knows them, a song that he thinks would sound good for the Supremes because in his head it sounds like how the Supremes sound.
That makes all kinds of sense, because this is never the sort of thing that could have been a big breakthrough hit single – no matter how many times I read it, and I know this is a lot of people’s favourite Supremes record of all, I don’t see this being the sort of thing to sell millions of copies in its own right. It’s beautiful and it’s exceptional, but it’s built on what came before – it’s an absolutely perfect primer for anyone who doesn’t know what the Supremes are about (and there are more of them around now than in previous years; I’ve said before on my radio show that if you like this, you’ll like the 1964-65 Supremes, while if you don’t, you probably won’t), but it’s not the stuff massive breakthrough hits are made of. The Supremes could not have made this record in the spring of 1964 with Berry Gordy’s sword of Damocles hanging over their no-hit heads; Everything Is Good About You is a spectacularly confident record, and they could only have made it after becoming famous, after becoming so comfortable in their own skins that they believe in themselves, in their supreme (Supreme?) ability to melt your heart from fifty paces. Before, they hoped they could land a bullseye like this. Now, they know they’re good. And boy, are they ever good.
SUNSHINE AFTER THE STORM
For a record which shamelessly wears its pink pulsing love hearts on its sleeve, it’s yet another slight surprise to discover this was actually recorded the same day as My World Is Empty Without You, and another surprise which makes perfect sense the more you think about it. All the agony and torment which bubbles under almost every great Supremes track of their imperial phase is missing here – instead, all the long dark night of the soul stuff went into the A-side, and what we’ve got left over here is a triple helping of icing sugar, moulded by many expert hands into exquisite bliss. This could so easily have gone badly wrong, become sickly and treacly and cutesy and just outright irritating, but these are the 1965 Supremes we’re dealing with, perhaps at the all-time height of their powers, and right now they simply don’t make bad records.
The Supremes don’t do the happy music/happy lyrics one-two very often, and like the previous example we’ve met here on Motown Junkies, I Hear A Symphony, there’s a kind of relief to be had in hearing Diana Ross play a character who isn’t suffering some kind of torment or turmoil. Instead, any pain is strictly extra-textual and implied only by contrast – this is a song of joy everlasting, a breathless burst of laudatory praise sung by a woman who can’t believe how happy she is. I’ve said before that this kind of double-barrelled celebratory bliss is a powerful weapon, to be used extremely judiciously, and I have to wonder whether the decision to do it again so soon after I Hear A Symphony (both this and the A-side were brand-new recordings, cut less than a month before hitting the stores, the very latest sound of the Supremes) was because the ladies were about to leave the past behind and embark on a new phase of their career, a phase which would bring more success and more landmark monuments but also the inevitable growing up and almost-as-inevitable growing apart. Perhaps this is the last chance we might get to do this again. Let’s do cousin James’ happy song. Let’s have Diana be happy again. Let’s end 1965 on a high.
That high lends the record a sense of friendship, of everything being alright forever, all being well in the Supremes camp (even if, in hindsight, it’s impossible not to keep coming back to, well, hindsight) – but this is illusory, just like the record is illusory. “Here are the Supremes, carrying you away on the only fluffy cloud in a clear, blue sky, always” – but actually “the Supremes” as they were marketed, the three smiling Detroit slum girls made good, are hardly on this at all, Flo and Mary used to the bare minimum and mixed so low as to sound like ghosts of echoes. For Motown, “the Supremes” meant something different now: Diana Ross on the mic, Holland-Dozier producing, the Funk Brothers honing and tuning and turning in an ever smoother ride, pulsing crotchet notes and anchoring bass and thudding 4/4 drums and smooth strings. We get them all here, plus a riveting high-octave xylophone part picking out the basic chords like a toy piano over the bassy intro, dainty and yet confident with it, and everything buffed and sanded and polished to a high-gloss shine almost blinding in its reflective, dazzling beauty. That’s what a Supremes record sounds like, and they don’t come any more “Supremes-sounding” than this; it’s a nagging and unexpected development when you realise the level of involvement of the actual Supremes in that process was by now an incidental detail.
LIVING IN PURE ECSTASY
And yet, it works, doesn’t it?
They shouldn’t get away with this. On paper, this record should be twee and exasperating to grisly levels. In fact, it’s an absolute thrill, the best possible approximation of the heart-swelling happiness we found in I Hear A Symphony married to the riveting glide-bounce of Baby Love and a lyric which is impossible to disdain in its puppylike charm, throwing up endless one-line word-pictures telling the listener how great they are, how great it is to be in love – summer in the park, candles in the dark, the works.
The verses (which are like choruses) are specific to this relationship (“the short time I’ve been with you / Such happiness I never knew”), while the sort-of-chorus, sort-of-verse refrain (and it’s another incredibly catchy one, obviously) is more generic, more universal, like a hip new version of You’re The Top, full of compliments that would bring colour to anyone’s face. But all the way through, we get the sense Diana’s narrator is struggling to get across just how much in love she is, just what this feels like – early in the song she seems to run out of room, almost tripping headlong into the sort-of-chorus with an unpaired line – full of clover busting out all over, followed by the song suddenly seeming to swell into even brighter colour and set a thousand flowers to spontaneously blossom before we move on.
That magical moment later finds an echo in this heart inside’s bursting with pride, in both cases giving the impression she literally can’t contain the love she feels, that it’s so powerful she has to let some of it out for public consumption lest it consume her instead. But that makes it sound angsty and angular and complicated, when in fact there’s nothing complicated about this at all: the entire song is summed up in its title, and for those who haven’t got the message, there are sequences like this:
Together, just you and me
Just living on pure ecstasy
‘Cos everything’s good about ya…
– we’re not doing forensic relationship breakdown dissections here. This is a cartoon relationship, a pick-me-up for lovers everywhere to keep the faith after the relentless emotional pummelling of My World Is Empty Without You, a riposte where for these three minutes, nothing can ever, will ever go wrong, and on with the kissing. Tomorrow can wait.
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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“My World Is Empty
“Do I Love You (Indeed I Do)”
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