(Released in the UK under license through EMI / Tamla Motown)
The spectre of recentism stalks this blog, and with good reason: I wasn’t born until a long time after these records came out, and so it’s nigh-on impossible not to look at a single from a modern perspective. (Not that I’ve made much more than a token effort in that direction anyway; I wasn’t there, and I make no bones about it.)
Every now and again, a single comes along which throws that into stark relief, presenting modern tourists with an unbridgeable cultural gap that can’t easily be crossed. I’ll Be Doggone is a great example of that.
This is a really good record, possibly even a great one. Coming into 1965, Marvin Gaye was already a pop star, but his discography thus far is full of conflicting messages about what sort of pop star he was going to be, with raucous rockers like Baby Don’t You Do It and You’re A Wonderful One, sweaty R&B “secular gospel” freakouts like Stubborn Kind Of Fellow and Can I Get A Witness, and – most recently – jaunty MOR in the shape of How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You). Here, though, for what’s really the first time, Marvin puts it all together, properly grasps the template that would eventually make him a superstar.
With apologies to Stevie Wonder and Valerie Simpson, Marvin Gaye was Motown’s greatest all-rounder, and all of what would come to be seen as his best attributes, his trademark qualities, are here in spades: handsome and intelligent, sensitive and energetic, his brooding personality and beautiful but hard-edged voice matched to a driving beat and catchy tune, while the band excel themselves propelling him up the charts. Lo and behold: awkward preacher’s son and session drummer Marvin Pentz Gay Junior is become Marvin Gaye, brilliant, tortured, hip-shaking sex god. It sounds fantastic.
But I don’t like it.
Alright, saying “I don’t like it” is too strong. But I’ve got a problem with this, a serious, insurmountable problem which means I can’t ever love it, even if I’m inadvertently whistling along, even as I’m moving to the beat. It’s the same problem I have with a lot of otherwise excellent rap and dancehall records: the groove is amazing, the vocals superb, but the lyrics are indefensible.
I’LL BE MISOGYNIST, MORE LIKE
I’ll Be Doggone is, on the face of it, a song about a man who – echoing endless girl group tropes about infidelity – is pleading with his woman not to cheat on him. Or, well, that’s what it’s meant to be about, I guess.
In fact, this is a song about a man letting his woman know how good she’s got it, and how she’d better stay in line or he’s out of there. The narrator, I’m guessing, is probably meant to come across as a hero, a likeable guy we’re meant to sympathise with: he’s not the asshole from Stop! In The Name Of Love, but rather a man who doesn’t cheat on his woman, doesn’t drink, doesn’t gamble. He’s an everyman, a regular Joe who just works hard to earn his pay, buys his woman presents, pays the bills, and expects his woman to keep up her end of the bargain, to be “true” to him.
Did you notice how many times I said “his woman” in that paragraph? His woman. Throughout the entire song, though it’s never directly spoken, it’s there, in the background, on every beat, thudding and inescapable. His woman.
The narrator is the very essence of Fifties American Man, a guy who expects to come home from work and find his dinner on the table and the house spotless; he’s the dad from Pleasantville. I find him a scarier character than any number of shiftless Romeos who can’t keep it in their pants, because under the calm, reasonable exterior, there’s a threat of menace, of sudden and unpredictable violence.
(Especially with Marvin playing the role, someone who absolutely did have that exact same dark current running below the surface. At least his explicit threat here is to just up and leave, rather than to beat the shit out of her for smiling at another man or not ironing his shirt properly or something.)
Oh, I know, I’m overreacting – there’s nothing intentionally sinister meant by this record, I’m sure. Marvin’s character has a right to express his views on his relationship, and thus inadvertently show how insecure and filled with doubt he is – if you’re truly confident, you don’t need to make a chest-beating statement of how confident you are. Indeed, his threat to up and leave comes across as more petulant than serious.
It’s the product of another time – and the result of still another time, decades before it was recorded, really – when men were men, and women sat quietly in the corner. The sole Motown cover of this, which brings an actual woman into the mix (it’s a “duet” between Diana Ross, the Supremes and Temptations, but a duet in the Tom Jones sense, i.e. a song for a single narrator that’s been cack-handedly reworked for two lead singers by simply alternating verses and changing the odd pronoun where necessary) doesn’t make matters any clearer, and still contains lines like this:
“Well, every woman should try to be whatever her man wants her to be”
…It’s a line that, from my cosy liberal 21st Century British bubble, pulls me up short literally every time. What the hell, man?
Ah, you say, but this is just Marvin playing an unpalatable character, right? We’re surely not meant to empathise with the narrator here, right? Because this is Marvin acting the part of a sexist prig. And a well-written part it is too; like all villains, he’s believable because there’s an element of truth in what he says which makes the more outlandish claims and demands feel more reasonable. He does work hard and stay out of trouble, in contrast to a great many men portrayed in Motown songs sung by women. He would be angry to find out his partner is sleeping around, or carelessly wasting money living it up – anyone would be. And there are issues to be debated aplenty here – misogyny in American culture, misogyny in the Sixties, misogyny and the black experience.
But there’s a danger inherent in playing with dark forces in order to highlight, mock or despair: the danger that you’ll be taken at face value – just ask Laibach, or Sarah Silverman. (And anyway, I’m not convinced, at all, that he is playing.) It’s not encouraging that Arthur King saw fit to cover I’ll Be Doggone, straight-faced, on his I’ll Play The Blues For You LP, where it sits comfortably alongside the genuinely unpleasant likes of Return To The Laundromat Blues (sample lyrics: You better take my advice / I’d hate to see ya come up with a leg screwed off or a eye punched out, yeah). Someone who apparently responded well to I’ll Be Doggone, there; judge a man by the company he keeps, and all that.
Whatever Smokey and the Miracles, who wrote this song, thought about it, Marvin’s own comments on the song don’t really do much for the “satire” or “examining the issues” theories, though they are quite revealing in themselves:
“Smokey wrote something in I’ll Be Doggone that knocked me out. He said that a woman ought to be whatever a man wants. I believe that, though it’s a thought that’s caused me powerful grief. But I can’t blame that on Smokey.”
This is a Motown blog, and this is one of Motown’s better singles; I’d never put it right near the top of the pile, but as a musical summation of what Marvin Gaye had done up to this point, it’s superb. But if that means I’m expected to just brush the troubling lyrics for this under the carpet, or else lose scads of readers as a result of ruining a beloved record…?
I love Marvin Gaye. Love him. As you’ll see later, he’s probably my favourite Motown artist, and even his work to date – despite him not really having gotten properly started yet, just like Stevie Wonder – is just buckets of fun. But this – this beautiful, fantastic pop record – is wrong, and I’d be lying to myself – and undoing the entire purpose of this blog – if I didn’t call him and Smokey out for it. Bad show, people. Bad show.
BUT WHAT IF IT WAS IN PORTUGUESE?
With some minor amendments, this would be a great record. Sing a different lyric over the top of the exact same backing track, you’d be looking at a seven out of ten job, at the very least. Easy money. It’s a great performance, vocally and instrumentally, and it’s a ridiculously catchy melody.
If it reminds you of Shop Around, an early hit – the earliest hit, in fact – from Smokey’s repertoire, it’s with good reason; this is related to the old song in structure, tune and tone, born of another, very similar Marv Tarplin guitar riff that inspired Smokey to grab a pen and start writing (albeit with the guitarist actually being credited as a songwriter this time).
It’s a path which, by and large, Robinson and the Miracles had opted not to follow in later years – leaving aside outlying oddities from their canon like Come On Do The Jerk and You’re So Fine And Sweet, we haven’t really heard the Miracles rock out like this. But I’ll Be Doggone is a fair reflection of what life might be like in some alternate universe where they kept it up, and where Marvin Gaye fronted the Miracles.
Oh, elements of it are dated, sure – I’m not just talking about the echoes of Shop Around, but Marvin’s past too, as there’s more than a hint of Can I Get A Witness here – but it feels intentional, like a knowing wink from the band to the audience, a throwback. The band have moved on, and they’re tighter and slicker than ever before, while Smokey the producer throws in freewheeling fiddle parts, honky-tonk piano riffs and complex harmony beds to make sure we all know what year it is.
Marvin, too, is on superb vocal form – he’s both smouldering and energetic, electrifying the record with his sheer presence, a magnificent deployment of the beauty in his voice, the beauty behind even his raspiest, shoutiest vocals, the beauty that always underlined every great record he ever made.
All of which just makes me angry that the lyric ruins what should have been a minor masterpiece in Marvin’s canon. Maybe it’s my problem, as a 21st Century British liberal; maybe I’m overthinking it, as someone who’s been criticised for giving undue weight to lyrics in the past. And certainly I don’t want to stop anyone loving this record; love for music is a magical and fragile thing, and spoiling a favourite record is a mean-spirited thing to do. But calling out one of my heroes, for spouting and espousing what now sounds to me like patent bullshit, seems like the only honest thing to do, even if it opens me up to stinging criticism – and I’d be a liar and a hypocrite if I glossed right over it here.
MOTOWN JUNKIES VERDICT
(I’ve had MY say, now it’s your turn. Agree? Disagree? Leave a comment, or click the thumbs at the bottom there. Dissent is encouraged!)
You’re reading Motown Junkies, an attempt to review every Motown A- and B-side ever released. Click on the “previous” and “next” buttons below to go back and forth through the catalogue, or visit the Master Index for a full list of reviews so far.
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