Five Star Songs: The Beginning and the End — Sugar Pie Honey Bunch & Dress Sexy For My Funeral

In my work as a school teacher I occasionally overhear students talking about their crushes when they think I am just a statue in a room. A statue in the room that is walking past them, trying not to listen. I try to immersively think about something else because there are parts of their lives that I don’t want to intrude on. But in those brief moments I see the flush of excitable youth and the embarrassment of losing control, followed by the relief of telling someone about it. I sometimes smile and think “I remember” about that quickening of the heartbeat, the rise in temperature that comes with someone dancing in your head. That still happens.

“I Can’t Help Myself (Sugar Pie Honey Bunch)” by The Four Tops is the embarrassment and the thrill of first love encased in the exuberant gospel shout of Levi Stubbs and the rest of the Tops. “Sugar Pie” is almost the exact same chords of the Supremes “Where Did Our Love Go” also written/produced by Motown team Holland/Dozier/Holland. But hey, if you are going to plagiarise, it might as well be yourself you are plagiarising.

As beautifully melancholic as the Supremes’ song was, Levi Stubbs’ brings something else to the sad belle vocals of Supreme supremo Diana Ross’ version. Billy Bragg once sang about Levi Stubbs’ tears, they always hung around at the back of his throat. However, Stubbs’ singing is equal part exultation. He feels strung around by the lusty “you” of the song: “When you snap your finger, or wink your eye/I come a-running to you… there’s nothing that I can do.” But that doesn’t stop him from getting swept up in the flush of love. A chemical reaction perhaps, but something he doesn’t feel he can control.

Along with the Four Tops harmonies “Sugar Pie” is driven by a repetitive piano line doubled by bass guitar that begins the song. Motown knew you had to get the kids dancing, so the 4/4 pulse is insistent. The strings then echo that piano/bass riff before the signature Motown snare roll kicks in, followed by the familiar guitar chank and some lovely glockenspiel. I am often critical of strings in soul music, as I feel makes the songs overly saccharine. In Sugar Pie they are subtle, entering and leaving unobtrusively like a mother witnessing the furious poetry of the love-struck teenager but leaving the room for the piano/bass riff to be front and centre in her child’s joy/pain. The every-beat snare known to the Motown listener is there but that riff is what does it — it embraces Levi in his symphony of immature love. Just as that heartbeat raises when he or she walks past you, it is continual, pulsing and the vocals at once joyous and plaintive.

* * *

In contrast is Smog’s “Dress Sexy At My Funeral” which has less immediate impact but like Smogman Bill Callahan’s best songs, it is a complex, layered lyric that gradually unravels something quite beautiful.

Framed by simple band accompaniment, an indie-rock shuffle in the first part of the verses that springs to life part way through each, the tambourine adding joy in much the same way it works for Motown, and a repeated chiming acoustic lick before the return to the refrain. The only change to this basic formula are two B sections where he outlines the various places they made love and gave to charity and a beautiful outro with hushed falsetto harmonies and a droning keyboard over the tambourine, bass and guitar.

Simplicity in melody, production and repeated phrases is a Callahan trademark but this is pop for him. Major key, almost joyous and ecstatic harmonies and an unambiguous outpouring of love for a woman in which he doesn’t reflect on his mistakes. It just happens to dive more deeply into the intimacy of the relationship, and somehow walks a fine line between revealing the sexual nature of their lives in a playful way that neglects boastful or lewd description.

“Wink at the minister

Blow kisses to my grieving brothers”

And later:

“Tell them about the time we did it

On the beach with fireworks above us”

It recognises other things not normally recognised in songs. His wife is still a sexual being, even when her husband is not there. How many songs would even consider this a possibility? He is saying to her “it is okay to let people know that we knew each other in ways they never did, never could and never will”. It suggests an intimacy and shared knowledge of each other that is normally impossible in the limited space of songs.

The love that comes at the beginning and that is there in the end are both important. One would not happen without the other. And if the fire of lust can begin something intimate and lasting that you can take to your death, well then you have truly loved and lived in a way that we all wish for. At least while listening to these two songs, I can imagine it happening.

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