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  • Writer's pictureBenjamin Kassel

"You Keep Me Hangin' On," the pinnacle track from the pinnacle of girl groups

Motown meets wall of sound meets breakup angst meets— wait, this song has an actual ending? Sick!

As a frequent listener and fan of 60s and 70s popular music, today's act is easily one of the most common groups I hear on decades radio stations, and I also seem to hear them a lot in public or in media. In fact, I feel confident in saying they're easily the all-female group from that time I mostly frequently hear.

I am, of course, talking about the Supremes. Between their work as a group and Diana Ross' subsequent solo career, their defining sound permeates the better part of three decades of mainstream pop. While they were undeniably a girl group in the popular sphere, they (as well as Ross in her own right) remained a soul and R&B outfit above all else. The group sticking true to their origins can be credited not only to the singers themselves, but also to their main songwriting and production team, the legendary Holland–Dozier–Holland. In my opinion, the Supremes' best work came from an album entirely written and produced by the acclaimed trio, simply titled The Supremes Sing Holland–Dozier–Holland (1967). Leading the way on that album, and in the band's entire catalog, is "You Keep Me Hangin' On." Today's entry zones in on a 2003 re-release from a compilation, because its greater length than the original release affords it something the original lacks.

"You Keep Me Hangin' On" begins with one of the best intros in all of popular music, propelled by its signature guitar line. The stuttering, syncopated riff was inspired by Morse code that Lamont Dozier heard on a news broadcast. Even for someone like me who knows this song so well, the intro always feels to frenetic because of the guitar line, especially as it alternates between the left and right sides of the mix. Further adding . After a few repetitions with just an organ backing up the guitar, the rest of the main wall of sound-like backing comes in: bass, drums, and a healthy dose of Motown horns. The Spector-like production also means Diana Ross' vocals are double-tracked, giving them an extra fullness and power that goes a long way on this song.

Ross, Florence Ballard, and Mary Wilson sing about a man who just can't let go. The female narrator ended their relationship, but the guy just keeps on coming around. It's safe to say the girl's had enough from the first two lines alone: "Set me free, why don't you babe? / Get out my life, why don't you babe?" The title is evoked twice in the next four lines, in which Ross and company say that the man doesn't love or need the woman, but that he's instead playing with her heart. The verses further this idea, asking the man why he's still here when it only causes the narrator pain.

The verses' sound is a definite departure from the choruses. While the percussion and organ remain, a piano and percussion that sounds like it might be a tabla are added, and the chord progression and key are completely different — it's a shift from A-flat Major to E Major, which is quite bright. As quickly as it switches there, though, the verse ends with an unprepared dominant chord to go directly back to the home key. The second adds something short, but big in accenting the lyrical mood: quickly spoken phrases by Ross, expressing disgust and exasperation at the situation. I can't stop myself from having my inner diva come out when I hear "And there ain't nothin' I can do about it" after lyrics about the narrator's heart always breaking when she sees her ex — it's been years since I haven't said that along with the track.

After a slightly extended third verse, the Supremes sing brand new lyrics for the final chorus: "Why don't you be a man about it and set me free?" they begin. I love this change, because it demonstrates how the track's narrative has been building up and increasing the narrator's frustration, which is now coming out in much more terse lyrics. "Go on, get out, get out of my life," they sing a couple lines later — no mincing words here. It's over, and the man's going to have to accept that, because his old flame has closed every door on him and wants to have a new life.

I chose the 2003 re-release because, rather than fading out, it provides an extra couple lines and a defining conclusion to the song, and it's so much more satisfying to listen to. After the last title statement, the Supremes sing, "You don't really need me, so / Let me be / Set me free," with only the guitar following them all the way to the end and playing a final A-flat Major chord that rings out in full. In general, I'm a kind of person who likes finality in music, so hearing that version last year after only ever hearing the radio edit with its fade-out was a massive breath of fresh air. The track finally felt complete.

I loved "You Keep Me Hangin' On" before I heard that ending; its unforgettable intro, energetic soul production, and increasingly biting lyrics always had me hooked. Once I finally heard the song end as it should, though, my love for the track turned up to 14. That last bit of Holland–Dozier–Holland genius gave reason for the emotion behind the entire track, and in doing so it validated the song's greatest strength.


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