“We keep clinging to bits and pieces…”
Diana Ross may have been done with Motown by 1982, but Motown wasn’t quite done with her. Miss Ross had, of course, left the label after releasing her 1980 smash LP diana, taking a huge deal at RCA Records for several albums and the promise of creative control. She left Motown while on an incredible hot streak; diana produced the massive hits “Upside Down” and “I’m Coming Out,” which were followed into the top 10 by the theme song to the film It’s My Turn. Miss Ross then followed that with another movie theme, “Endless Love,” a duet with Lionel Richie that perched at the top of the Billboard Hot 100 for nine weeks and became her biggest single (and Motown’s biggest) ever. It’s no surprise that RCA would pony up a reported 20-million dollars for her…and it’s also no surprise that Motown would want to keep the winning streak going.
In July of 1982, the label issued Single M1626 — “We Can Never Light That Old Flame Again” backed with “Old Funky Rolls.” By this time, Diana had already triumphantly returned to the charts with her self-produced RCA debut, Why Do Fools Fall In Love, which featured a pair of strong top 10 hits. “We Can Never…” was obviously not a new recording; in fact, it had been worked up during the sessions for 1978’s Ross LP. The song is notable for it’s writing credits; Edward Holland, Jr. and Brian Holland co-wrote it with Mack David, and they are the same Holland brothers that along with Lamont Dozier wrote and produced just about every #1 hit recorded by the Supremes. Though the Hollands had left Motown after a work shortage in the late 1960s, they cut three songs with Miss Ross in the late 70s (the other two remained in the vaults for years; the Hollands also resumed working with the Scherrie Payne-led Supremes).
It remains unclear why the Holland tracks (as well as some other disco cuts, like the Hal Davis-produced “For Once In My Life”) were shelved; considering half of the Ross LP was made up of previously-released tracks, these songs might as well have been featured instead. In any case, “We Can Never…” was given a chance in ’82, unfortunately having to compete with the buzz sounding Miss Ross’s second RCA LP, Silk Electric. The single really didn’t perform at all; it pretty much stayed under the radar and failed to chart. For fans still agonizing over the Queen’s departure from her home label, it gave one last glimpse at what was; though it’s not an important addition to her discography, it is an interesting look back at Miss Ross’s days of experimenting with disco.
We Can Never Light That Old Flame Again: The era of “We Can Never…” is instantly revealed in the swirling strings, which run up and down major and minor notes in a sort of Wicked-Witch-Of-The-West-meets-disco theme set on top of a ferocious, popping bass. The choir of background voices that open the song don’t help it sound contemporary, either; while the soaring session singers sound terrific, they’re classic 70s-dancefloor. Miss Ross doesn’t even show up until nearly 40 seconds into the song, interesting considering the entire reason Motown finally released it was to capitalize on Diana and her golden voice. Her vocal is interesting here; there’s a sluggish quality to her singing that’s almost at odds with the driving instrumental backing. The kind of youthful spark that Diana had displayed on the songs of 1977’s Baby It’s Me (especially something like “Top Of The World,” marvelous in its crispness and clarity) is missing here; she sounds more morose and a bit taxed during the first verse and chorus. Though her vocal matches the sadness of the lyrics (with lines like “…now when we’re makin’ love, we make love just to be polite…”), it sounds distinctly lethargic against such a spirited musical backdrop. She shows a little more power and force starting around 2:14, with her repetition of “It’s all used up!” and then her reading of the chorus with a few vocal flourishes thrown in for color. The final minute of the song is the most compelling, as the instumental scales back and gives Diana much more of the spotlight; she ad-libs some lines here in an interesting, syncopated manner, which adds a little variation to the piece…although it does nothing to make it feel like a cohesive, single-ready song. When the track would be released with a different mix on the 2003 reissue of diana, it would isolate Diana’s voice much more, toning down the instrumental and eliminating the single’s “breakdown” in the final minute. It results in a slightly less-dated song, but still one that seems a little rough around the edges. Though Diana Ross turned in some spectacular vocals on dance songs over the years — “The Boss” and “I’m Coming Out” for starters — her work here, and the song itself, just aren’t at that level.
Old Funky Rolls: This b-side has shown up on a couple of releases over the years; read my review here.
While Miss Ross’s newly recorded 1982 single, “Muscles,” was a huge seller and helped her second RCA LP go gold, “We Can Never…” pretty much sank without a trace. Though Motown would continue to issue Greatest Hits collections, it didn’t bother lifting any other vault tracks for single release. According to writer J. Randy Taraborrelli, during an interview with Diana, “…I mentioned that Motown was planning to issue some material by her that had previously gone unreleased, possibly to capitalize on her RCA success. She seemed baffled…When the article was finally published, I sent a copy to Gordy’s office. Shortly thereafter, I heard that he had cancelled the release of the Motown, which was to be called Revelations. In the end, it seemed that he didn’t want to do anything to dilute the impact of her RCA recordings” (Diana Ross: A Biography, 342).
In reality, the label probably realized that Diana wasn’t going to help promote this old material, and therefore it had little chance of big success. There’s also no doubt that the late-70s disco material that would have made up Revelations — including “We Can Never…” — sounded quite dated, especially compared to something as different and modern as “Muscles.” The good news, of course, is that those who did love “We Can Never…” and Diana’s disco sound can now listen to this and other 70s tracks on various reissues. And that proves, I suppose, that you really can light that old flame again.