(Released in the UK under license through EMI / Tamla Motown)
1965 is the year Marvin Gaye became Marvin Gaye, or at least the Marvin Gaye we now know. He’d had success before, commercially and artistically, but it’s here in ’65 that he really begins to explore, try out new things, new ideas, taking steps that we can identify with hindsight as being steps towards his future; in ’65, we finally get to meet the finished article hip-shaking superstar sex symbol, as well as being able to see the path from here to the “tortured genius” social and sexual conscience of the 1970s. Not bad for a session drummer and Nat King Cole wannabe.
Marvin’s last two singles for Motown in 1965 have showed us two divergent paths; the radio-blasting R&B-pop of I’ll Be Doggone had seemed to lay out a clear set of directions for him to follow, mapping out his career as the guy who jumps around the stage and whips the crowd into an ecstatic frenzy. But then, the strange, beautiful follow-up Pretty Little Baby – with lyrics by Gaye himself – saw him in reflective, serious mode.
As much as I adore Pretty Little Baby, there’s little argument that it represented a break in what seemed like a well-worked plan, a juddering change of tack rather than a consolidation of Marvin’s newfound stardom. Not surprisingly, the record had baffled the fans, and Motown took quick action to put him back on course again. As with every other act on the label’s books, Motown did what they always did whenever an artist needed material and guidance: they called in Smokey Robinson.
Smokey and his Miracles bandmates had penned I’ll Be Doggone, and so it’s no surprise when Ain’t That Peculiar immediately sounds like a continuation of the work they’d started there; Robinson must have relished the chance to carry on what they’d begun, and Marvin seems to have been grateful to see where they wanted to take him. Which, as it turned out, was straight back to the top of the R&B charts, a second Number One (and a Top 10 pop hit) to go with I’ll Be Doggone. Easy when you know how.
It helps that it’s another very good song, of course, and Marvin has a blast with it, back in the groove as though he’d never deliberately stepped out of it in the first place. This time, though, there’s no dubious lyrical content to trouble the listener, no sense of clouded purpose; it not only sounds better and sharper than I’ll Be Doggone, it’s also catchier and livelier.
Most importantly, though, Marvin’s more comfortable in his pop star skin than ever before; I don’t know if seeing Motown approve a less overtly pop-friendly (and partly self-penned!) single like Pretty Little Baby had reassured him that making interesting records wasn’t incompatible with his swaggering new role, but he sounds happier to be doing an upbeat rocker than we’ve ever heard him before, more than Stubborn Kind Of Fellow, more than Baby Don’t You Do It. I don’t mean he sounds incongruously chirpy given Smokey’s intriguing lyrics, I just mean he comes across as though there’s no hint of him finding this demeaning in some way, and that’s a delicious relief.
It’s a fine record, this. Much has been made of Smokey’s wordplay and rhymes, but those are almost second nature to Robinson now, and Marvin navigates them with gusto (other than the slightly clunky and confusing phrase which I’d been hearing as A peculiar allergy – but consensus in the comments section has Marvin adding a syllable to the word “peculiarity”, which makes slightly more sense!)
Rather, it’s the structure of the song which really allows Gaye to come into his own. As with so many of his best hits to date, the rolling, chiming repeated riffs that underpin the song allow Marvin to float over the top, giving him room to extemporise with his his vocal as and when he feels the need without it coming across as self-indulgent. It’s a recipe that later comes to the boil in One More Heartache, but this is the best example of it so far, and Smokey and the Miracles stock the cupboards with hooks and tricks to boost the signal: a riveting pre-chorus break, a series of infectious call and response Ah-ah-ah!s, a backing vocal-led chorus that must rank among Smokey’s catchiest efforts. Even the band are having a blast, James Jamerson’s wandering bass used sparingly before cutting out altogether, piano pounded and pounded to within an inch of its life.
Not for the first time, Marvin Gaye sounds every inch the pop superstar, and once again here he’s made an excellent pop record. The difference, now, is that he’s making excellent records that sound like Marvin Gaye records, and everyone else is hereby put on notice.
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!)
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