(Written by Brian Holland, Lamont Dozier and Edward Holland Jr.)
There’s a kind of standard trajectory that your average cheap and cheerful showbiz biography should follow, with several well-defined segments each falling into distinct categories. There are the early days – the hints of future greatness, the struggles to get by in an uncaring world, culminating in the satisfying sugar hit of that inevitable valedictory breakthrough to the big time. This bit’s usually the most fun, and if we’re writing a “showbiz biography” of Motown here, then the first three and a half volumes of The Complete Motown Singles have led us thus far.
But then there’s the next standard segment: the heady, famous years. This bit, despite covering all the well-known touchstones, tends to be the least memorable, both because those touchstones are so well-known already, and also because it’s hard to keep the excitement up. When Motown were struggling to keep the lights on, a top 30 R&B hit felt like something to write home about, and we can share vicariously in that success. Here, in Motown’s mid-Sixties Golden Age, when the hits are coming so thick and fast (and good) that the company is only months away from issuing a memo stating they will only release Top Ten product on any artist, that same top 30 R&B hit would be a catastrophic flop. The more money that rolls in, the more Motown becomes a hard-nosed money-making machine; meanwhile, all the perils of fame and fortune in America – egos, tantrums, backstabbing, drugs, dodgy backstage dealings, dodgy hangers-on, people thrown on the scrap heap – start to rear their heads.
And yet more than any other record label, Motown kept the façade of the glory days and happy families up for a remarkably long time, great writers, artists and producers conjuring up so many incredible hits, and following them up with even better hits, and never running out of steam, and never letting the mask slip to show the jaded, grubby side… it really is remarkable. We know, thanks to a combination of investigative research and outright muckraking over the last 40 years, that all was not rosy in the Motown garden. We know there were some distinctly unhappy endings, that some pivotal characters were written out of the Motown story, that almost every single person we’ll talk about here on Motown Junkies ended up getting screwed over in one way or another. And yet somehow, none of it matters, because the music’s so good. We won’t get to the later standard phases – the inevitable decline, the wilderness years, and the heartwarming comeback – for a long, long time yet.
“Yes, fine, but what has any of this got to do with Marvin Gaye?”, you’re probably asking.
Those early days, from Berry Gordy’s first uncertain steps right through to the start of 1964 with so many acts on the cusp of greatness, felt like a kind of voyage of discovery here on Motown Junkies. As time goes by, as we get into the Golden Age, there are so many big records I can’t wait to write about – but there are, by definition, less surprises in store. From here through the end of the Golden Age in 1967 (shut up), and then through to the end of the almost-every-bit-as-good turn-of-the-decade spell I’m calling their “Silver Age” in 1972, there are very, very few singles remaining from big-ticket, big-name Motown acts that I don’t recognise just from their titles.
But this is one of them.
Talking about Marvin Gaye’s first single was a baffling and educational experience; talking about Marvin Gaye’s big breakthrough fifth single was a rush; talking about Marvin Gaye’s stupendous eighth single was almost as much fun as listening to it. Here, on Marvin’s twelfth single, not one of his big hits, not widely known, coming at a point in his career not often covered by the big anthology collections, there’s a real danger of a wheelspinning “placeholder” entry in the catalogue – both in terms of the record itself and my review of it. Far too easy to go “this is alright, not brilliant, not awful… what’s the next one, something we know? 5/10”.
So I can’t tell you how happy it makes me to put this on and for it to turn out to be brilliant, right up there with the best records Marvin has put out so far.
Hearing a great record by an artist you don’t know? Lots of fun. Hearing the new record by an artist you love, and loving it? Great. But hearing a new record strike up, loving it, and then realising it’s by an artist you love? That’s the absolute greatest. Unexpected excellence – the best kind of excellence.
After a couple of underwhelming efforts, Marvin was returned to the care of the Holland-Dozier-Holland team, whose stock had risen substantially since their last pairing. But for the rematch, HDH didn’t turn in another R&B pop jewel. Instead, this is a drilling, one-chord dance rocker, wth no chorus to speak of except the Andantes (making their début on a Marvin Gaye 45) chanting the title phrase. That description probably doesn’t make it sound too promising, but it’s easily Marvin’s best since Can I Get A Witness, a great big twelve-pack of snarling super-cool fun.
More than one critic has noticed the influence of Stax and in particular Otis Redding on Gaye’s delivery here, Marvin positioned for the first time as an unsmiling R&B tough guy (he’d played the role of a total git on his last outing, Try It Baby, but that’s a completely different thing). It suits him to a tee; he gives a performance full of soul, for want of a better word, a perfect blend of sweetness and sandpaper, his vocal style and strength coming on leaps and bounds.
According to the liner notes to The Complete Motown Singles: Volume 4, this was earmarked for the Supremes. Er… what? Leaving aside the fact this absolutely wouldn’t have worked for them (it’s soaked in testosterone – esteemed contributor Dave L referred to an earlier Marvin 7″ as having a metaphorical pair of testicles attached, a description which surely fits here), it’s a perfect fit for Marvin, who revels in digging things out of the song its writers could only have dreamed of. Eddie Holland, who wrote the deceptively simple lyric, is quoted in those liner notes picking Baby Don’t You Do It as one of his favourites from a body of work that belongs in the Smithsonian, and I don’t take that kind of endorsement lightly.
Marvin’s narrator is on the verge of a breakdown; he’s already tried everything to save his relationship, gone further than he thought possible, and now it transpires even that isn’t enough, so he lays out this most desperate of desperate pleas for her not to throw it away or he might end up do something really drastic. But I’ve TRIED to do my best / Girl, I’ve TRIED to do my best…, he keeps repeating, and it’s electrifying. When he gives it both barrels at 1:40, as the instrumentation peels off and he’s left with just the drums and bongos –
Go down to the river, and there I’ll be
I’m gonna jump in, babe, if you don’t see about me
Open up your eyes! Can’t you see I love you?!
Open up your heart, now! Can’t you see I need you?
I’m no good without you!
Can’t go on without you!
Life’s no good without you!
What I gonna do without you?
– he sounds like he’s doing Hamlet. (Which, incidentally – how great would that have been?) It’s just a remarkable performance, Marvin’s best so far and the first of his Motown 45s to hint at the dark seam of Tortured Artist bubbling under the surface which would later catapult him to critical adoration.
The combination of music and vocal is electrifying. It has such a remarkable “live” feel that you’d swear everyone was in the room together, rather than laying down their seperate tracks days apart; Marvin feeds off the music more than any record so far, the ballsy track clearly shaping his gritty, all-in vocal (which is why this talk of the Supremes baffles me!), but equally it sounds as though the band are in turn feeding off Marvin’s megawatt smouldering, because they’re on fire.
This could have been the greatest 12″ mix of the Sixties, if such things had existed back then; it’s taut, stripped-down, stripped back, minimalist, with the bass churning up the speakers in great thudding waves and the drums pounding away and the bongos rippling and the backing vocals chanting and the riveting horns and guitars blaring over the top to create an actual wall of sound that Marvin keeps on climbing even as the musicians trowel on more bricks… I wish it was twice as long, and that doesn’t happen very often. But the point is, it never stops, and you get the feeling it won’t stop until someone physically pulls out the plug.
I don’t know why I’d never heard this before, or why it wasn’t a bigger hit (it grazed the pop Top 30 before disappearing out of sight, and was never released in Britain at all). Apparently it’s well-known in covers by the Who (discerning chaps, clearly), but this was new to me. That thrill of finding something so outstanding buried in an avalanche of other things that I already knew were outstanding… that’s one of the great joys of writing this stuff, and one of the reasons I love doing it, I suppose.
But enough about me, let’s get back to Marvin. This is a quite remarkable record, rough and loud and crackling with energy, out of step with everything Motown was doing at the time and yet pointing a clear path to Marvin’s future. It’s also brilliant.
MOTOWN JUNKIES VERDICT
(Or maybe you’re only interested in Marvin Gaye? Click for more.)
“Mr. Lonely Heart”
“Walk On The Wild Side”
|Motown Junkies presents the finest Motown cuts, big hits and hard to find classics.
Listen to all past episodes here.