NOTE: This is a pre-production transcript and may not match the final show precisely.
Hey, Cuz! Welcome to the next episode of How Good It Is, and today we’re going to look at a Number One song from a band that didn’t think it should be a single.
Hi there! I’m Claude Call, and I’ve got some Beatles trivia for ye today. And this one I got from the folks at SiriusXM’s Beatles channel. What do the Beatles songs “Can’t Buy Me Love,” “Don’t Bother Me,” and “Give Peace a Chance” have in common? There are probably other songs that fit into this bucket, but these three are known for sure. At any rate, I’ll have the answer for you near the end of the show.
In 1966, the powerhouse writing team at Motown of Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and Eddie Holland were writing songs for the Four Tops’ fourth album. By this point they’d written a ton of hits for the Four Tops and other artists, and were starting to flex their writing muscles a little bit. But thematically, the team had long discussions about what women want. Lamont Dozier once said, (quote) “We all three agreed that they wanted someone to be there for them, through thick or thin, and be there at their beck and call” (unquote).
In the book Anatomy of a Song, Dozier explains that he wanted to write an emotional journey with sustained tension, like a bolero. To do this, he had the song switch keys from one section to another. Now, a lot of songs will do that, but in this case what Dozier did was to put the verses in a minor key, to give it a sad-sack, almost Russian feel. I should note here that writing and performing a song in a minor key doesn’t automatically make it a sad song; Van Morrison’s “Moondance,” for instance, is in a minor key. But if you take a song you know that’s kind of happy and upbeat, and change it into a minor key, often by playing everything one note over, you get a very different kind of sound.
At any rate, Dozier put the verses in minor keys, but then he wrote the chorus to be in a major key, so that it would burst out and, with the backup singers participating, it would have what he described as almost a Gospel feel to it. He and Eddie Holland worked on the lyrics together, trying to get them to sound like they’d been thrown down, vocally. Dozier said that they were strongly influenced by Bob Dylan at the time, saying it was always their intention to have Levi Stubbs shouting the lyrics as much as singing them, as a kind of shout-out to Dylan.
Four Tops singer Duke Fakir said in a 2013 interview that Eddie Holland realized that when Stubbs hit the top of his vocal range, it sounded like someone hurting, so he purposely had Stubbs singing way up there. You can hear him doing that in “I Can’t Help Myself” as well. According to Fakir, (quote) “Levi complained, but we knew he loved it. Every time they thought he was at the top, he would reach a little further until you could hear the tears in his voice.” (unquote) What’s more, the line “Just look over your shoulder” was something he threw in spontaneously. And while it’s not documented, I’d be willing to believe that when Stubbs does that “HAH!” right before the chorus, that was his idea too. It’s a great way of releasing the tension from the vocals having disappeared for a few beats.
The production was managed by Paul Riser, who did a couple of unusual things to give the song its unique sound, especially in the intro. Let’s listen in for a few seconds:
What you’re hearing is both a flute AND a piccolo. That flute, by the way, is played by a young lady named Dayna Hartwick. And I don’t say “young lady” to be condescending, but to be factual, because Hartwick was only 13 at the time. But the other thing worth noticing is that drumbeat that sounds a little bit like horses’ hooves. Riser achieved that sound by using timpani mallets to strike a tambourine whose bells had been removed. Because a tambourine has a very stiff head, kind of like a bongo, the sound you get is very hard, rather than the ringing boom you get from a typical drum. And while some people swear they’re hearing wood blocks being struck together, they’d be wrong. What they’re hearing is hands slapping the back of a wooden chair. Overall it was a very different sound from anything that Motown had done to that point, and some say it’s the bridge between their earlier pop sound and the later, psychedelic, socially-conscious music of the later half of the decade.
Oddly enough, when the Tops heard the finished product, they didn’t think much of it. In fact, they asked Motown head Berry Gordy not to release it as a single, arguing that they were just experimenting. But Gordy not only released it, he made it the title track for their fourth album AND the opening track for that album. For what it’s worth, Duke Fakir said he was driving when he heard the song on the radio for the first time, and he drove back to Motown to tell Gordy not to listen to them about what to release.
Reach Out the album also had “7 Rooms of Gloom,” “Standing in the Shadows of Love,” “Bernadette” and “I’ll Turn to Stone” on it as Holland-Dozier-Holland tracks, along with the Tops’ covers of “If I Were a Carpenter” and “Walk Away Renée”, plus a couple of songs by the Monkees. Despite this slightly weird attempt at crossover for the group, it’s practically a greatest hits album, and it’s the last one that Brian Holland and Lamont Dozier produced for the Four Tops, although they did collaborate on a couple of singles the following year before the writing trio got into their royalty dispute with Berry Gordy and left the label to form Invictus Records. For what it’s worth, Duke Fakir said he was driving when he heard the song on the radio for the first time, and he drove back to Motown to tell Gordy not to listen to them about what to release.
The single did quite well worldwide, going to Number One on the Billboard Hot 100 for two weeks in October of 1966, AND the R&B chart, and it was Top 10 in the Netherlands, Ireland, Canada and Belgium. It also went to Number One in the UK but only made it to Number 62 in Australia. 62! Get it together, Australia.
Of course there are numerous covers of the song. Diana Ross covered it in 1971 on her album Surrender, and it made it to Number 29 on the Billboard chart. Gloria Gaynor recorded it in 1975 and it was the third single off her Never Can Say Goodbye album. That one became an international hit, though it only reached Number 60 in the US.
There are many, many other covers of the song, but two that stuck out for me was this one, one by the Jackson Five, which was recorded in 1969…
…and this one, by The Hollies, which was recorded in 1966.
These versions aren’t notable because they’re especially good or bad, but because both of those recordings were released many years after they were first recorded. The Jackson Five version was recorded in 1969 but it wasn’t released until 1995, as part of a Jackson Five retrospective collection. And the Hollies’ version was finally released in 2005 as a bonus track to the CD called For Certain Because… If it sounds a little bit rough, well that’s because it’s a recording of a concert performance they were doing in Stockholm, Sweden.
And now it’s time to answer the trivia question. Back on Page Two I asked you what the Beatles songs “Can’t Buy Me Love,” “Don’t Bother Me” and “Give Peace a Chance” have in common. I’m thinking that third one was the giveaway, because all three songs were written in a hotel room. “Can’t Buy Me Love” was written at the George V Hotel in Paris by Paul McCartney, because “I Want to Hold Your Hand” had just reached Number One in the US and they were under pressure to come up with a new single.
“Don’t Bother Me” was written by George Harrison at the Palace Court Hotel while he was sick and on bed rest. There’s a recording he made in the hotel which has him working on the bridge and whistling as a scratch lyric, because he hadn’t quite worked that part out yet.
And, of course, “Give Peace a Chance” was written and recorded by John Lennon at the Queen Elizabeth Hotel in Montreal, while he and Yoko were doing the “bed-in” for peace in 1969.
Now, because the hotel room had crummy acoustics, André Perry, the owner of a local recording studio who brought in the tape recorder to capture the performance, brought the tape back to his studio and cleaned it up a little bit, then overdubbed some of the original voices on top of themselves to fill it out a little bit. So any rumors you may have heard about overdubs being done in London are flat out wrong.
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