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Title: ‘It’s the Same Old Song’
Where to find it: ‘Four Tops’ Second Album’ (1965, Motown)
Performed by: The Four Tops
Words by: song was written by Holland-Dozier-Holland

Happy new year everyone. I haven’t forsaken you. I had every intention to post a goodbye to 2014 styley post but it never happened (I’ve been drowning with last minute / end of year stuff at work). I was never all that good at posting every week on Music in Notes but I promise I’ll try and do better in 2015.

All right, so be honest. Who here remembers the BMG 1-cent CD club promotion? ::raises hand:: Very early on in my music collecting career in the ’80s, my father used to buy a lot of classical CDs from the company, and every once in a while, he’d ask me if I wanted to buy any. I still have kept a lot of them from those days, notably the soundtrack to the film The Bodyguard, Henry Mancini’s Greatest Hits (who doesn’t love the schmaltzy ‘Days of Wine and Roses’ and the irrepressible theme to The Pink Panther?), and the CD that this song appears on. It still works, though I must have played and replayed the whole thing again and again.

In the days leading up to the end of the year, I was marking time thinking about some people who left my life in the 10 years, wondering what they were up to now. Some folks I used to be quite close with are profiled in this school newspaper article I came across and one of them is doing quite well now, and I’m happy for him. I always knew he’d be a success, but it’s always nice to see validation for the talent you saw long before anyone else did. I was reminded me of a conversation he and I had about them visiting Detroit and how they were disappointed to be unable to visit the Motown museum before they came down to DC to do a show for us, as the museum was closed 1 day a week, Monday, which happened to be the only day they were in Motor City.

The reason this song sticks out to me with this random new year’s remembrance: if you’ve ever seen the Four Tops performing this song – whether in a latest incarnation of the group, or from old footage back in the ’60s as I’ve embedded at the bottom of this post – they’re always so dang happy singing what seems lyrically pretty sad stuff! I guess you could argue that with the tempo and the over the top in joy xylophone notes, they don’t really have much choice in the matter. And when I was young and first heard it, I didn’t understand heartbreak because it would be years before I felt it firsthand. All I knew was this song was catchy at all hell and I would remember it forever.

The song is great because it weirdly and eerily can evolve along with your feelings directly after a break-up and beyond. When you’re first hurt, the lyrics act as a soothing pat on the back, a “yes, I understand what you’re going through.” But then as time passes and the pain is less fresh and eventually almost completely goes away, the actual happiness of the song – the vocals and the upbeat melody – allows you to reflect on your past love no longer with hurt but with a fondness. And what better thing do us music lovers have to remind us of our experiences than a song to evoke the memories of someone?

First, the words:

Verse 1
You’re sweet (you’re sweet) as a honeybee
But like a honeybee stings
You’ve gone and left my heart in pain
All you left (all you left) is our favorite song
The one we danced to all night long
It used to bring sweet memories (sweet memories)
Of a tender love that used to be

Now it’s the same old song
But with a different meaning since you been gone
It’s the same, same old song
But with a different meaning (since you been gone)
And it breaks me up to hear it

Verse 2
Ah, oh, ah, sentimental fool am I (sweet memories)
To hear a old love song and want to cry
But the melody keeps haunting me
Reminding me how in love we used to be
Keep hearing the part that used to touch our hearts
Saying (together forever)
Darling (breaking up never)

(Now it’s the same old song) Can’t bear to hear it
(With a different meaning since you been gone) Since you’ve been gone
Oh, it hurts to hear it
It’s the same old song
But with a different meaning since you been gone

Instrumental bridge (with an awesome sax solo, I might add!)

Verse 3
Precious memories keep lingering on
Every time I hear our favorite song
Now you’ve gone (sweet, sweet memories)
Left this emptiness
I only reminisce the happiness we spent
We used to dance to the music (we used to dance to the music)
Make romance to the music (make romance to the music)

Chorus (outro extended)
Now it’s the same old song
But with a different meaning since you been gone
Now it’s the same old song
But with a different meaning since you been gone
I, oh, I can’t bear to hear it
It’s the same old song
But with a different meaning since you been gone
Ooh, it breaks me up to hear it
It’s the same old song
But with a different meaning

Now, the analysis:

When I listen to Motown, and frankly anything from the ’60s, I’m reminded how different music was back then. Turn on the radio now and everything is sex, sex, sex and there’s leaving nothing to the imagination. This song in a nutshell: a man is telling us how he can’t listen to a song because it reminds him of a former love that meant everything to him. He never tells us in lurid detail how physical they got or anything about the relationship: he’s not the type to kiss and tell, and you have to applaud him for that. The only line in here that suggests something more salacious, and in a borderline way, is the line “make romance to the music,” which has to be hands-down the most elegant way to describe being intimate. Pop these days? You’re practically smacked in the face with a waffle iron – oh, excuse me, tablet – and given every disgusting description of how they got it on. This song benefits from the clear lack of such musical sacrilege, describing “sweet memories / of a tender love that used to be”. ::angelic chorus::

In verse 1 he points out, shall we say, his former love’s shortcomings. Like Muhammad “I float like a butterfly and sting like a bee” Ali, a relationship isn’t all sweetness and honey, and when this relationship ended, he felt stung in the heart. He was (and quite possibly still is) in pain. Do you also hear that sad violin line during “it used to be bring sweet memories“, hmm? I’m pretty sure that was done on purpose, as if sympathetic to the singer’s feelings. (The same violin line comes in again during “keep hearing the part that used to touch our hearts” in verse 2, and “we used to dance to the music (we used to dance to the music) / make romance to the music (make romance to the music)” in verse 3. Suspect, eh?)

In verse 2, he admits his own shortcomings, namely calling himself “sentimental fool am I.” To admit you miss a woman is something incredibly difficult for most men. In my experience, most men would rather break something promising off rather than confront their own feelings when those feelings make them feel out of control. Because men “aren’t” supposed to show their feelings. I’m gonna leave that there…

Despite his sentimentality, I think it’s also important to notice that throughout this song, you feel no sense of urgency, desperation, or despondency. He’s sad that she’s no longer in his life, but he makes no effort to get her back, which makes ‘It’s the Same Old Song’ so unique from many other sob story, “I miss her!” type tunes of that era, or even of today. This sentimentality makes him think of his former love every time “their song” gets played on the radio or at the disco. Verse 3 supports this, as he says, “I only reminisce the happiness we spent.” Wow. Even though he was stung by the breakup and her actions, he prefers to remember the good times they had together as a couple.

While we certainly have our fair share of inspirational, you’re better off without him/her songs – Gloria Gaynor’s ‘I Will Survive’ and Kelly Clarkson’s ‘Stronger’ immediately spring to mind – ‘It’s the Same Old Song’ is actually more powerful and life-affirming in its message. The problem with those two songs is that the singer (or sympathiser) has to point out flaws in her former love and their relationship in order to puff herself up, as if to provide appropriate reasons why they’re better off apart. Is that really necessary? No, if you’ve come to terms with the end of the relationship. In contrast, the voice of this Four Tops song never attacks his former love or what went wrong. He’s saying, “you know what? We had a good run and it was great while it lasted. You might be gone from my life, but I don’t have to forget you. I can still hold on to the memories of us that make me happy.” What positive sentiment. Huh, no wonder the Four Tops are so happy singing it!

Lastly, the song, performed live on American tv back in the ’60s by the band themselves. Check out those moves. Killing it.