B-side of This Old Heart Of Mine (Is Weak For You)
B-side of This Old Heart Of Mine (Is Weak For You)
(Released in the UK under license through EMI / Tamla Motown)
[*creak*… *clatter*… *THUD*]
Ow. It’s dark in here. Let me get the lights…
[*fumble*… BZZZT… *cough, cough cough*]
Wow, it’s gotten dusty in here whilst I’ve been away. Not good for a guy who’s not long recovered from pneumonia.
Hi. I’m back. Missed me?
Yeah, I could start giving a woefully-inadequate explanation as to why this blog has lain fallow for so long – a blog, incidentally, which still gets hundreds and hundreds of hits a day even though I haven’t written anything new for two and a half years – but, honestly, who has time to read that nonsense? Let’s just crack on with this record, which is excellent, and its place in Motown history, which is complicated.
I’ve been away too long, and in the intervening year and a half, we’ve lost too many Motown alumni, both legends and the undeservedly forgotten. It’s the latter which really twist the knife; one of the main joys of doing this blog was always the chance to give some long-overdue plaudits to some of the unsung heroes of the Motown story. Each time I have to refer to someone in the past tense, I can’t help but feel guilty that I somehow let them down, missed my chance to honour them.
And, of course, there’s you lot – the people who read and comment, the people I really need to apologise to for the lengthy wait. It’s been over two years since I was regularly able to post, and while the viewing figures have actually held up pretty well (we’ve had almost as many readers in 2017 as we did back in 2014, stats fans) and there have been a lot of really good and interesting comments made on lots of old threads, well, I’m sorry you haven’t all had anything new to read from me for a while.
But, hey, it’s less than two months until Christmas… 2017. Who asked Santa for entry 689, then? Well, whoever you are, your wish is my command.
Parallels are often drawn between Motown’s revolutionary modular-parts approach to making records, and Detroit’s other world-famous export, the car assembly line. It’s not usually meant as a compliment; the implication (when it’s only implied, rather than flat out spoken!) is to unfavourably contrast the hits being pumped out from the Hitsville conveyor belt with the good old-fashioned rock and roll hand-crafted by white boys, to reduce Motown’s output to a product, a mechanized commodity, manufactured, inauthentic, ephemeral, disposable.
The mistake there is to confuse efficient speed with a lack of care, a lack of soul. Pretty much everyone involved in a Motown production – writers, producers, band, artists, marketers, publishers, distributors, even the people who ran the massively complex ITMI operation which sent artists and musicians out on tour and booked them precious windows of studio time (no easy feat when musicians of any stripe are concerned, never mind teenagers)… pretty much everyone involved put in the hard hours, and most of them put in the love too, all with the goal of making the best possible (and best selling) record they could make. If that meant setting those building blocks in motion weeks or months in advance, so be it, but the end result was scarcely ever less riveting than something that had developed “organically” out of a post-pub skiffle jam session.
But there’s one way in which the intricate chaos of Motown’s internal processes did mirror the great auto plants of the Motor City: easy interchangeability for greater productivity. Put simply, great new songs – with great new band tracks – rolled off Motown’s metaphorical production line at a steady rate, and Motown saw to it that someone would always be around to sing them. It didn’t always matter exactly who that might be; we’ve already seen just how keen Jobete, the company’s in-house publishing arm, were to have the same song recorded multiple times by multiple artists, wringing out every last possible cent in royalties, a practice which would only accelerate in the late Sixties and early Seventies as the supply of killer original material began to dry up ever so slightly.
Sometimes this raft of multiple cover versions would be intentional, producers looking to fill albums and B-sides or push out new singles, writers lobbying to have their work included on as many discs as possible. Other times, there was no real rhyme or reason to it; we’ve already seen a couple of occasions where someone got to sing a song simply because they happened to be in the studio when the track was ready, while there were also times a track was cut without any particular artist in mind, or cut speculatively for one artist only to end up in the hands of someone entirely different. And that leads us neatly back to the Isley Brothers and There’s No Love Left.
During my lengthy time away (which I won’t keep banging on about, I promise), I’ve had plenty of time to consider the case of the Isley Brothers’ strangely-unfulfilled at Motown. I say “unfulfilled” rather than “unsatisfying”, because they cut a whole lot of great records during their time at Hitsville – not least their first single, the awesome A-side here, This Old Heart Of Mine (Is Weak for You). Also, at fifty-plus years’ remove the commercial successes and failures become less and less relevant. But following the thunderclap of their label début, a début it’s since occurred to me would have been a tall order for anyone to subsequently match or top, there surely can be no denying the Isleys never quite lived up to their potential while on Motown’s books.
Listening to this record again, it becomes pretty clear – Motown didn’t need the Isley Brothers. However much of a prized feather in Berry Gordy’s cap their signing might have been, however giddy the starstruck Holland brothers might have been to work with their idols, Motown simply didn’t have room at the very top tier to push the Isleys as a star act. That lack of room is the single biggest explanation for a number of mid-to-late Sixties Motown controversies, the company in a perverse way becoming a victim of its own astonishing success rate in uncovering new superstars for America to clutch to their hearts. Once you reach saturation point, it doesn’t matter if your next discovery is Mozart and James Brown rolled into one; if you want them to be a mega-star too, then the only realistic way in is dead man’s boots, pushing down someone else to make space, on the release schedules, in the studios, on the airwaves. Something’s got to give. And however great the Isleys were, they simply weren’t as good as the most obvious candidates whose territory at Motown they were unwittingly invading.
That this song sounds so much like the Four Tops is scarcely a surprise. Even before I’d ever heard the Tops’ original version (on the otherwise-plodding On Top album, where it sits cheek-by-jowl with a bunch of misguided attempts to play up the boys’ MOR credentials), just on first listens I had this one pegged as a respray job, and so it turns out to be. What did surprise me was that the backing track had apparently been intended for the Supremes, who were eagerly hoovering up as much precious new material as Holland-Dozier-Holland could provide for their numerous album projects during their quite remarkably prolific 1965; a surprise, because while it’s easy to imagine Diana Ross singing it (a recording, if it ever existed, of which to the best of my knowledge no surviving copy has yet surfaced anywhere), this song sounds as though it was crafted specifically for Levi Stubbs. Nonetheless, for whatever reason, the Supremes never released their version, and the Four Tops had laid down a complete vocal more than six months before the Isley Brothers were also invited to have a crack at the song.
Now, playing the two back to back, I think I definitely prefer the Isleys’ version; the Tops cut seems a little too restrained, almost as though Levi is keeping himself in check, rather in keeping with the whitebread feel of much of the On Top LP. Not that it’s bad, particularly, but given it was the Isleys’ version I heard first, the Tops’ original seems lacking by comparison. Certainly, this version’s most defining and audience-grabbing feature, Ronald Isley’s soaring, wounded falsetto over each bridge as his emotions seem to overwhelm him, is missing entirely from the Tops’ cut.
The backing track, with the immortal Andantes present, remains the same, and so really the lead vocals are the only discernible difference between the two. Accounting for the usual thin film of scuzz and grime the Isley Brothers brought from their chitlin-circuit past to their slicker Motown cuts, barely – just barely – detectable here, this still ends up sounding more like the Four Tops than the actual Four Tops had managed. I’m a sucker for breakup songs full of finger-pointing and recriminations, and this is a prime example, but while it’s rather pretty and quite good fun to listen to, the thought keeps cropping up that Motown already had someone else already doing this better, individual examples notwithstanding. On the On Top album, this song still stands out as a beacon amid a lot of forgettable sludge; here, as Motown charge into 1966, and coming as it does right on the heels of one of the company’s most enduring and exciting A-sides, it’s just another really solid Motown cut. By now, Motown could afford to be blasé about such things.
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.
(Or maybe you’re only interested in The Isley Brothers? Click for more.)
|The Isley Brothers
“This Old Heart Of Mine (Is Weak For You)”
“One More Heartache”