Feb 06

THE FOUR TOPS – “Reach Out I’ll Be There”

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#225, 29th October 1966

Marvel Comics of the mid-60s had several innovative competitive advantages over their competition. A small company, they ran a tight and unified creative ship, which allowed for competition and crossover between titles and gave everything they did a distinctive identity. This identity flowed partly out of plotting and writing that focussed obsessively on the heroes’ emotional lives – Marvel characters were dogged by tragedy and hard luck, and would brood on it between their epic fights. And the fights themselves were just as crucial to the Marvel magic – its house art style was forged by the remarkable Jack Kirby, whose action sequences boomed with unmatchable vigour.

Kirby’s main technique was foreshortening – dramatic distortions of perspective that made limbs and figures seem to be blasting off and out of the page. It created a visual language that matched the melodrama of comics dialogue – flying bodies and punches given unreal emphases to match the urgent splatter of bold-type words in the speech bubbles. Read back over this description and parallels between Marvel and Motown – that other great 60s small business success – are there to be forced. But when I hear “Reach Out I’ll Be There” – and especially Levi Stubbs’ vocal performance – Jack Kirby’s newsprint epics are what springs to mind.

Stubbs’ own stabbing emphases – “When you FEEL that you cant go ON” – sound comicbook to me but they actually come from Dylan (when I read someone, maybe Frank Kogan, point this out it was one of the great “well DUH” rock critic revelations). But Dylan’s songs are mostly more languid, his phrasing a calculated sneer designed to imbalance you, lead you in, or both. Stubbs sings this like he’s in the teeth of a storm, reaching out one desperate foreshortened arm for his lover to catch hold of.

His urgency is enough to convince me, every time I’m not listening to it, that the song is faster and harder than it is: I remember the brisk, nervy bass figures and forget the gentle backing vox; I fix on the shouts and growls that accompany Stubbs and imagine an instrumental attack to match. Like a dimly remembered comic-book battle, “Reach Out” grows in my mind, becomes huger and more momentous.

This is what Stubbs wants – this kind of Good Samaritan pop is always partly a hustle. Reach out to me, I can help, I can fix you, I’m the only one – “I know what you’re thinking! You’re a loner! No love of your own!”. (Recent bestseller The Game calls this “negging”, apparently.) The girl has to reach now, quickly, before the song finishes – this is, Levi’s frenzy suggests, her last chance. For this one Kirbyfied cliffhanger moment everything in the world is at stake – until next week, next month, next song when the action can start all over again.



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  1. 26
    Frank Kogan on 10 Feb 2006 #

    Oh, and also, this is the total polar opposite of Dylan’s “Like a Rolling Stone.”

    Well, Holland-Dozier-Holland certainly didn’t “get” Dylan, or if they did they made the conscious decision to do something different, but not the polar opposite, exactly. For one thing, “happiness is just an illusion” is a Dylan touch right there – not your happiness, but happiness itself; something’s rotten in the state of happiness; though of course the line can and probably should be understood in a different way – “happiness seems unattainable,” for instance, and that’s probably how most listeners would have understood it. But the other reading is there for those who want it.

    “Like A Rolling Stone” itself was understand in a lot of ways, which is one reason for its popularity. Mouse & the Traps thought that Dylan was just putting down some bitch, and gleefully did the same; the Young Rascals sing their cover version as if they’re also putting down some bitch. But I heard the song as absolutely and totally drenched in sentiment, way more than “Reach Out I’ll Be There,” and about 100 times more romantic to boot. I mean, I was surrounded by Miss Lonelys and aching for them. At the end Dylan, just like Levi, does tell Miss Lonely to reach out to him.

    Of course, Dylan’s not telling Miss Lonely that happiness is an illusion, he’s telling her that she’s an illusion; and he’s not offering to rescue her from confusion, since it’s the confusion that rescues her from herself. And he’s not offering to take her home, he’s demanding that she hit the highway. But he’s sure offering to go with her, or at least offering her some Dylan lookalikes: the Mystery Tramp and Napoleon In Rags. So Napoleon Tramp and Miss Lonely can go off arm-in-arm in the moonlight, now that she’s had her false identity blasted from her. La di da.

    (Of course then there’s “Memphis Blues Again,” but that’s later.)

    “Reach Out” is just a strong man helping damsel in distress; “Like A Rolling Stone” is gamblers embracing the distress as a means to shed the bullshit and share the love on the wild highway.

  2. 27
    Frank Kogan on 10 Feb 2006 #

    “Like A Rolling Stone” itself was understand in a lot of ways

    Once upon a time/I proofread so fine/but damn/I don’t now understood/what happened to my grammar.

    I was surrounded by Miss Lonelys and aching for them.

    But that was in 1970 at age 16, when I went back and discovered Dylan. Wasn’t listening to pop radio back in 1965.

  3. 28
    Lena on 11 Feb 2006 #

    You used to be so amused
    At Napoleon in rags and the language that he used
    Go to him now, he calls you, you can’t refuse
    When you got nothing, you got nothing to lose
    You’re invisible now, you got no secrets to conceal.

    I think the main difference between these songs for me is the strong sense that Miss Lonely once had something and that the person being sung to in “Reach Out” never had anything to begin with; she is already invisible and probably has things to conceal, although who knows? Maybe she’s beyond caring.

  4. 29
    Anonymous on 14 Feb 2006 #

    I like the Marvel analogy. Works for me , too.

    BUT, it seems to me that this Motown v.s Dylan thing has really gotten out of hand.

    I can’t really see any R ‘n’ B or ” Soul ” singer looking to Bob Dylan to help his delivery or phrasing.

    Motown , Stax, Atlantic artists were more in tune with Gospel and Blues than folkie Dylan. They don’t have to borrow from Bob wehne they had Sam Cooke , Lou Rawls, Jackie Wilson and a host of Black voices that punch and bawl their way through a song.

    Dylan ? ” AH, come on, now “

    Brian in Canada

  5. 30
    Frank Kogan on 19 Feb 2006 #

    Lena, I’m hearing a very different “Like A Rolling Stone” from yours. In mine, Miss Lonely isn’t the poor girl who had something and then lost it and now needs to be rescued; what she had was stunting her and wrecking her, so she needed to lose it. And she doesn’t need a rescuer and a comforter, she needs a colleague on her new adventure. That she has nothing to lose is the condition of her being able to embark on the adventure and to accept Napoleon In Rags as a companion on her journey. In other words, she herself gets to be a stand-in for Dylan, too. “Like A Rolling Stone” was the latest in a string of songs where he’s saying he’s been stripped of his own certainties and now will go on better off without them, Hero Him. And so in Miss Lonely he’s manufactured a Heroine to keep him company, but he has to put her through hell to make her worthy of the role.

    By the way, the New York Dolls’ “Frankenstein” manages to do “Reach Out I’ll Be There” and “Like A Rolling Stone” simultaneously.

  6. 31
    Lena on 21 Feb 2006 #

    Thanks, Frank! Next time I hear this song I will hear it in a new way – I guess the only real difference between these two songs is the whole lifting up vs. dragging down metaphors. And now I want to hear “Frankenstein.”

  7. 32
    Anonymous on 23 Feb 2006 #

    Interesting take on LARS by Dylan.

    But I think the Miss Lonely is a personification of all that was wrong with American at the time. And as the the “times were a changing” the old guard found themselves invisible with no secrets to conceal.

    Granted it didn’t all come off as planned/hoped but there were many smug comforatable lives that were changed by a new awareness ushered in during this volatile social & political era.

  8. 33
    Anonymous on 23 Feb 2006 #

    Interesting take on LARS by Dylan.

    But I think the Miss Lonely is a personification of all that was wrong with American at the time. And as the the “times were a changing” the old guard found themselves invisible with no secrets to conceal.

    Granted it didn’t all come off as planned/hoped but there were many smug comforatable lives that were changed by a new awareness ushered in during this volatile social & political era.

  9. 34
    Eric Van James on 23 Apr 2007 #

    The Four Tops, I believe, are the greatest vocal group of all time.

    “Reach Out I’ll Be There” is one of the greatest songs ever recorded (in the history of Rhythm and Blues). . . . There is nothing like it in the entire literature!

    Take another listen to the Tops’ backing vocals. Check out how the song builds in intensity and, seemingly, speed with the Tops’ great antiphonal chanting (e.g., “No piece of mind to be found”) against Levi’s tremendous lead vocal.

    The Four Tops also harmonize the ‘Reach out’ choruses slightly different each time. So, the song contains more than just “Dylanesque phrasing.” It contains a level of vocal dynamicism that’s unrivaled.

    – Eric

  10. 35
    Eric Van James on 23 Apr 2007 #

    By the way, it’s “No PEACE of mind to be found.”



  11. 36
    rosie on 17 Oct 2008 #

    So, it’s farewell Levi Stubbs. RIP.

    A great pity that we haven’t seen more of the Four Tops in Popular, but he’s remembered here by one of the very best.

  12. 37
    wichita lineman on 19 Oct 2008 #

    RIP. The Dylan comparison, as far as I know, was first noted in Dave Marsh’s Heart Of Rock & Soul – an almost perfect book, apart from his stumblings over how to describe synth sounds, and his tendency to shun 1) British pop and 2) non hits.

    It was also a “duh!” moment for me. And a revelation which made me laugh out loud and impress people with for the next 17 or 18 years.

    Levi Stubbs could turn flowery prog into apocalyptic soul (Simple Game, which used to scare the hell out of me and was only kept from a Popular post by Maggie May and Redbone’s Witch Queen Of New Orleans). He could take two unimpeachable classics – Tim Hardin’s If I Were A Carpenter and the Left Banke’s Walk Away Renee – and make them new, more intense, doubly emotional. Soul has many screamers who over-emote (I’ll court trouble by citing Aretha Franklin and James Brown) but Levi Stubbs was always entirely beautiful, believable, walking a lonely street, standing in the shadows.

    Beyond Reach Out, The Four Tops’ best records were brumal (the stormy strings on Simple Game) and brittle with frost (the harpsichord on If I Were A Carpenter), the eerie angelic bv’s (see Seven Rooms Of Gloom) sounding like Christmas gone wrong. Their desperation and resignation – exemplified by the “…makes me feel half alive” line on Baby I Need Your Loving – seems somehow Unamerican.

    Add all this up and it makes sense the Four Tops were the biggest Motown act in the UK, bigger even than the Supremes.

  13. 38
    wichita lineman on 20 Oct 2008 #

    Dave Marsh was quoting Phil Spector, who described Reach Out as a black man singing Bob Dylan. But this quote is all Dave’s and spot on:

    “I could never figure out whether Levi was the toughest or the tenderest singer at Motown, so I finally accepted that he was both.”

  14. 39
    Waldo on 18 Nov 2009 #

    A giant of a record all day long. Stubbs’ vocal is astonishing and the song magnificent. Beautiful intro too. Without question one of the greatest of our number ones.

  15. 42
    Billy Smart on 5 Dec 2011 #

    TOTPWatch: The Four Tops performed Reach Out I’ll Be There on Top Of The Pops on 10 November 1966. Also in the studio that week were; Bobby Darin, Sandie Shaw and The Small Faces. Pete Murray was the host. No copy survives.

  16. 43
    lonepilgrim on 13 Mar 2013 #

    this had been number one in the US for a few weeks before it reached the top in the UK, when it was replaced in the American charts by a questionable classic.

  17. 44
    lonepilgrim on 27 Mar 2013 #

    also while the Tops were top in the UK the young generation had something to say at number one in the US concerning trains.

  18. 45
    lonepilgrim on 10 Apr 2013 #

    while the Tops continued at number 1 in the UK, there was yet another US chart topper from the poor side of town.
    this is unfamiliar to me but appealing, perhaps because of that

  19. 46
    mapman132 on 15 Feb 2014 #

    As I’ve been running through the list of UK number ones from the 60’s, I’ve noticed the relative absence of Motown compared to the US charts of the time. Which is why it’s good to see this record here, since for me, it’s Motown’s greatest masterpiece among many. 10/10.

  20. 47
    hectorthebat on 1 May 2014 #

    Critic watch:

    1001 Songs You Must Hear Before You Die, and 10,001 You Must Download (2010)
    Bruce Pollock (USA) – The 7,500 Most Important Songs of 1944-2000 (2005)
    Dave Marsh & Kevin Stein (USA) – The 40 Best of the Top 40 Singles by Year (1981) 1
    Dave Marsh (USA) – The 1001 Greatest Singles Ever Made (1989) 4
    Life (USA) – 40 Years of Rock & Roll, 5 Songs for Each Year 1952-91 (Updated 1995)
    Paul Williams (USA) – Rock and Roll: The 100 Best Singles of All Time (1993)
    Pause & Play (USA) – Songs Inducted into a Time Capsule, One Track at Each Week
    RIAA and NEA (USA) – 365 Songs of the Century (2001) 266
    Rock and Roll Hall of Fame (USA) – 500 Songs That Shaped Rock (1994?)
    Rolling Stone (USA) – The 100 Best Singles of the Last 25 Years (1988) 23
    Rolling Stone (USA) – The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time (2004) 206
    Rolling Stone (USA) – The 500 Greatest Songs of All Time (Updated 2010) 209
    The Recording Academy Grammy Hall of Fame Albums and Songs (USA)
    2FM (Ireland) – Top 100 Singles of All Time (2003) 45
    BBC (UK) – Pop on Trial, Top 50 Songs from the 1960s (2008)
    Colin Larkin (UK) – The All-Time Top 100 Singles (2000) 55
    Mojo (UK) – The 100 Greatest Singles of All Time (1997) 32
    Mojo (UK) – The Ultimate Jukebox: 100 Singles You Must Own (2003) 83
    New Musical Express (UK) – The Top 100 Singles of All Time (1976) 24
    New Musical Express (UK) – The Top 150 Singles of All Time (1987) 45
    Paul Roland (UK) – CD Guide to Pop & Rock, 100 Essential Singles (2001)
    Q (UK) – The Ultimate Music Collection (2005)
    Uncut (UK) – 100 Rock and Movie Icons (2005) 75
    Zig Zag (UK) – Gillett & Frith’s Hot 100 Singles (1975)
    Nils Hansson, Dagens Nyheter (Sweden) – The 48 Best Rock Songs (1998) 36
    Berlin Media (Germany) – The 100 Best Singles of All Time (1998) 16
    Rolling Stone (Germany) – The Best Singles of 5 Decades (1997)
    Gilles Verlant and Thomas Caussé (France) – 3000 Rock Classics (2009)
    Rolling Stone (France) – The 100 Best Singles of the Last 25 Years (1988) 49
    Rock de Lux (Spain) – The Top 150 Songs from the 20th Century (1998) 44
    Mauro Ronconi (Italy) – The Best Song from the 200 Best Albums (1998)
    Giannis Petridis (Greece) – 2004 of the Best Songs of the Century (2003)

  21. 48
    Red Seeker on 3 Dec 2014 #

    One of the greatest records ever made from the stampeding flutes opening the song, the beautiful harmonies, thundering vocals from Levi and the way it builds to a crescendo. I sometimes wonder what it was like being in my early twenties in 1966 having this followed by Good Vibrations at no 1 – probably the greatest consecutive no 1’s ever !

  22. 49
    lonepilgrim on 6 Sep 2015 #

    Levi Stubbs performs like a boxer, making stinging jabs and powerful vocal blows before floating back on the stomping percussion and elastic bass lines to create a knockout hit.

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