B-side of One More Heartache
B-side of One More Heartache
(Released in the UK under license through EMI / Tamla Motown)
Smokey Robinson had a lot on his plate in the mid-Sixties. With the all-conquering Holland-Dozier-Holland team increasingly preoccupied (not least with providing more hits for the Supremes), and with Berry Gordy himself long since absent from the songwriting coalface, it often fell to Smokey to write and produce hits to order for Motown’s ever-burgeoning roster of star names. The Temptations had already reaped the chart rewards, and so, for the best part of a year and a half, had Marvin Gaye. With Motown seemingly finally having won the battle to turn Marvin away from his life’s ambition of (basically) being the next Nat King Cole, it fell to Smokey and his Miracles bandmates to handle the permanent transition from processed crooner to hip-shaking pop star, and they’d acquitted themselves with aplomb; if Marvin’s mid-Sixties singles are always a little more “out there” than some of his contemporaries, within Motown and without, then over the past year we’ve seen a definite template emerging nonetheless. Not necessarily musically – one of the things I’ve seen writing this blog is that each Marvin Gaye single not only sounds different from the last, but that we often see each B-side trying to catch up with that last one when the topside has already moved on – but rather, the idea of what a Marvin Gaye record should feel like. He was already one of the most charismatic, enigmatic guys on the roster and on the radio, but Smokey Robinson maybe deserves more credit than anyone else (save Marvin himself) for taking those raw materials and uniting them into something the public could readily recognise. Wow, that’s Marvin Gaye!
This one is as endearingly off-centre as anything else Smokey and his pals had served up during their tenure looking after Marvin’s singles output. For a start, there’s a definite link (explicitly drawn by the compilers of The Complete Motown Singles: Volume 6) to the A-side in that it takes up an unspecified “Eastern” feel – the weird, eerie, wonderful minor chord that twisted One More Heartache‘s quasi-chorus into new and exciting shapes. It’s not necessarily a surprise to discover this flip was written and recorded six months before the A-side, making it a dress rehearsal of sorts.
But where that “Eastern” idea was vague and exciting on One More Heartache, here it’s much clunkier, and more blatant – the intro, which kicks in with a beautiful bassy drum fill, quickly becomes (again, as The Complete Singles liner notes flag up) a plinky-plonky caricature Chinese piano riff. The plinky-plonky Chinese piano riff, in fact, a sequence of notes which would have been used on Sixties TV shows to instantly signify we were meant to be somewhere in Asia, or in an American Chinatown setting. It’s slightly cringey to me, because the context for that riff nowadays can’t help but carry a very faintly racist edge it wouldn’t have intended at the time, or at least herald the start of some kung-fu action sequence or something… but to be honest it’s just so weird to encounter it here, smothered in drums on a Marvin Gaye B-side, that it just adds to the overall strangeness of the track.
What’s more, the track isn’t even built around it, not obviously so – it’s more like Smokey simply appropriates it and weaves it into this oddly slinky groove, like a sampled loop. With that riff locked into place, the record sails along, slow and steady and cool, all centred around one of Marvin’s smoothest, silkiest vocal deliveries since his MOR days came to a close. He sings this *so* beautifully, even by his standards; there are a few moments where he cuts loose with the beginnings of a throaty soul roar, just for a second or so – now you’re GONE!, my smile is just a frown – and then that groove with its ticking drumbeat and that inexplicable piano riff just sweeps him back up again, like a big soft pillowy cloud somehow rolling down a mountain.
It’s a tale of remorse, the narrator singing to his ex-girlfriend; there’s a vague plea for her to come back to him in there, but for the most part this is a man full of regret, possibly tanked up, just setting out his thoughts in no particular order. Lyrically, it has Smokey Robinson stamped all over it – You were my diamonds, and you were my pearls / Well, I bragged to the guys ’bout my beautiful girl, he morosely recalls at one point – and the central idea just veers back and forth between Marvin’s character beating himself up for being overconfident and boastful, and just reflecting on how much worse his life is without her in it.
And it is spectacular.
Man, I know I’ve been away for a(nother) year, but I can’t recall Marvin sounding as lovely as this. Each verse reads more like a stanza, a scribbled Smokey poem where the first and last lines are the same, always starting “When I had your love…” and completed differently each time; but what comes between those opening and closing lines is a heady emotional soup full of sweet, cooing backing vocals, and big gaps for them to fill. And through it all, there’s Marvin Gaye, perhaps the one man on Motown’s books who could make a self-pitying stream of consciousness screed convincingly sound like a plea, perhaps even a prayer, for everything to just somehow be… better. Better than this. Not sure how. Not sure what he actually wants to happen, or what he’d do if the girl did actually agree to take him back. But, y’know, better. Please.
When I had your love I was a king, he sings, and however much he might regret boasting back then, he’s surely not boasting now. When I had your love, I used to smile… When I had your love, I was content. But he’s not making a cheap bid to pull on her heartstrings, he’s just beating himself up because he had things good, and now his life has spun out of control. Even when he directly addresses his ex, it’s barely coherent – honey? Baby?… Baby, come on back! –
– the call-and-response backing singers taking up his chant while he just falls apart and can’t finish the line, “Come right on back!”, is one of my favourite Motown backing vocal moments in years –
– and finally, he just loses his grip on things altogether, and the song briefly collapses into just anguish, Marvin just making vague word-sounds. In someone else’s hands, this might have sounded melodramatic or even crassly manipulative; indeed, Marvin himself has been guilty of peddling that sort of schlock before, especially while off on his standards LPs. But because Smokey and Marvin have both clearly put some work into this, and thought about how to do it properly, it never once comes across that way; it just falls into place, with that lolloping groove and that bizarre piano riff. As we vamp out, he’s still calling out to her, but oddly half-heartedly, like she’s already left and he’s about to just ask the barman to pour him another. Screw it, leave the bottle. When I had her love, I was a king.
Marvin Gaye’s time with Smokey Robinson is drawing to a close here on Motown Junkies, but this absolutely has to go down as one of their best team-ups. It’s weird and it’s thought-provoking and it’s utterly beautiful, and it will stay on your mind for months on end (trust me on that last one). I love it.
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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“One More Heartache”
|The Four Tops
“Shake Me, Wake Me (When It’s Over)”