David Fleming
It's All Academic   www.davidflemingsite.com   
Day 291: Four Tops (It's The Same Old Song)

October 15, 2023

When I was a little boy in the 1960s, I never appreciated the joys of Motown, primarily because in my own little world of G.I. Joes, whiffle balls, and stuffed animals, all those songs on the radio sounded like the same old songs. And it really wasn't just Motown. All Beach Boys' songs sounded the same (not helped by endless references to surfing). All Mamas and Papas' songs sounded the same with their California harmonizing.

Even as I got a little older, those Motown songs seemed too easily interchangeable, The Four Tops' "It's The Same Old Song" sounding like their previous hit "I Can't Help Myself," which sounded much like The Supremes' "Where Did Our Love Go." It didn't help that if I caught clips of Motown groups on t.v., people playing guitars, drums, saxophones, were backstage, if not outright off stage. In my prepubescent years, I probably barely distinguished the gender of all these well-dressed, well-coordinated singers and dancers. All I knew is that one stood out a little more in front as the other ones repeated key phrases while in choreographed harmony.

I wouldn't have known it at the time, since a 6-year generally has no idea the differences between singles and albums, but the Four Tops (or Barry Gordy, maybe) didn't help matters by putting this same old song on Four Tops' Second Album. Woooo, way to show the creativity, everybody. The oft-used description of Motown producing records factory-like may have extended beyond the obvious connection to Detroit's other big commercial influence; if, as legend and lore suggests, Gordy gauged every new song within the context of what were the top 5-10 hits of the week, then we would get little variety.

So, is it any wonder that Lamont Dozier is reputed to have come up with the idea for "It's The Same Old Song" by observing, while changing the radio stations, that all he would hear was the same old song?Dude, look in the mirror. You wrote about 99% of those Motown classics. The songwriting team of Holland-Dozier-Holland wrote all three of the similar-sounding songs I listed above: "It's The Same Old Song," 'I Can't Help Myself," and "Where Did Our Love Go.

In retrospect, I now realize the great crime I committed by seeing all of these songs as the "same old songs." Especially as I factor in a long list of experimental, heavy songs that came out of the late 1960s and early 1970s, these same old songs are a breath of fresh air. Even the instrumental break for "It's The Same Old Song," dominated by Mike Terry's saxophone, everything says we should be rolling our eyes, going "it's the same old song." After all, Terry's saxophone fills "I Can't Help Myself" and "Where Did Our Love Go," let alone "Come See About Me," "Baby Love," "Heat Wave," and pretty much dozens of other hits played over and over on the radio in the mid 1960s. However, so what?

You see, "It's The Same Old Song" is not the same old song, it just isn't the same old song. I just wasn't going to understand that until I recognized that the girls from my grade school were no longer the same girls in junior high school. Rock and roll, especially the pop side of it, taps so deeply into the insecurities and frailties of love and romance, which is what "It's The Same Old Song" does so well. From the outset, spurned lovers identify with Levi Strauss's pleading vocals: "You're sweet like a honeybee/but like a honeybee stings/you've gone and left my heart in pain/all you left is our favorite song/the one we danced to all night long." Boom! Stage set, exit right.

Then the chorus hits us with the notion that the song may be the same, but the meaning and impact is not: "Now it's the same old song/but with a different meaning since you been gone." Where once the song represented happiness, now it represents sadness, which the additional verses continue to exploit: "the melody keeps haunting me," and later "now you've gone and left this emptiness."

Honestly, how can this song not devastate the average listener? We can find a great clip of the Four Tops performing this song, happy as can be in their delivery, all the way to a rather goofy dance sequence during the Terry saxophone break. Do you want me to recognize this as not the same old song, but as not the same old song. Because after all, these emotions are still the same old emotions. "Where Did Our Love Go" and "I Can't Help Myself" are clearly about unequal relationships and singers baring their souls to lost lovers. Heck, try and find anything out of Motown that wasn't some version of the jilted lover narrative. Damn, it is either the same old song or it ain't. I do believe I have twisted myself into a pretzel.

Let's not forget, also, that The Rolling Stones clearly stole the marimba bit for "Under Your Thumb." Now, that ain't the same old song, no matter where I place the emphasis.

Four Tops. "It's The Same Old Song." Four Tops' Second Album. Motown, 1965. Link here.

Day 290: The Smithereens "Behind The Wall Of Sleep"

Day 292: Pretenders "Jealous Dogs"

See complete list here.