(Released in the UK under license through EMI / Tamla Motown)
MANY things about Marvin Gaye are endlessly fascinating to me; I’m talking about both his life story and his work. (Obviously, on this blog I mostly discuss the latter, which from here on in is pretty much universally excellent, rather than the former, which is also uniformly interesting but not always relevant to what’s in the grooves.) Anyway, this single is maybe his most interesting to date, and for a number of reasons.
Looking at where Marvin stood in relation to the rest of Motown in 1966, it’s also a stark reminder of just how many threads there are to keep track of (especially when I’m trying to corral them together for a blog!). By the mid-Sixties, Berry Gordy’s scruffy little indie label had become a national and global phenomenon; for all the amazing, enduring hits that came out of that little building on West Grand, it occurs to me that Gordy’s biggest achievement might just have been to keep the whole thing together, to hold the centre while all these different Motown stories spun around in their various orbits.
Any one of the narrative threads on this blog over the coming months could be considered, in isolation, to be the story of Motown 1966. You’ve got the continuing domination of the Supremes, the rise of the Four Tops to match them, the glory days of the Temptations, the unstoppable ascent of Stevie Wonder, the beauty and genius of Smokey Robinson and the Miracles, the traffic-stopping brilliance of Martha and the Vandellas… and, yes, the swagger and soul of Marvin Gaye. All of them define Motown in 1966, which means, alone, none of them do; for a period of about a year and a half, Motown somehow managed to defy the music biz truism that a label’s attention spread wide is a label’s attention spread thin. And if there are losers in this Motown Golden Age, the likes of the Marvelettes, Velvelettes, even Martha herself – it’s still remarkable how much of a unified front Motown put forward. Instead of disintegrating, somehow, it all hangs together – just barely! – as one glorious whole.
One of those things about Marvin Gaye that I find endlessly fascinating is watching him reconcile the various parts of his personality in the same way Motown were trying to reconcile the various acts that defined the Motown Sound. I know I’ve talked before about the battle for Marvin’s creative soul, and for me, this is a key stage in that battle, as well as being a flat-out great single. Just as there are many Motown stories as we begin 1966, there are many Marvins to consider too whenever one of his records comes up for review: there’s the sensitive old-school crooner, the hip-shaking pop star, the radical social poet, the smouldering sex symbol. And, yes, the drugged-out husk of his later years, which (thankfully) are still quite a way away here on Motown Junkies, but whose roots can still be seen even from this distance.
So. On the face of it, One More Heartache falls squarely into the pattern set by Marvin’s previous 45 effort, the startling Ain’t That Peculiar, another sinuous groove, another finger-snapping uptempo beat, another showcase for Marvin’s remarkable vocal range, including his undervalued falsetto.
And, yeah, it is all of those things; Motown, as we’ve already discussed many times, were never averse to following up one big hit with something that sounded ostensibly similar. Here, the same writers – Smokey Robinson and several of his Miracles bandmates – come up with the goods once again. Motown in 1966 must have been like a Tin Pan Alley hit factory, genii writing to order, with not only Smokey but also Holland-Dozier-Holland coming up with more great ideas than they could use, pumping out enduring classics in a seemingly endless stream. Marvin Gaye, himself no slouch with a pen, was nonetheless lucky to have writers like this providing such good material to let him be, well, Marvin, whatever that meant on that particular day of the week.
But Smokey being Smokey, and Marvin being Marvin, this one takes the basic blueprint and gives it a twist. And I mean that in a literal sense – One More Heartache sounds as though someone took hold of Ain’t That Peculiar and somehow physically twisted it, wringing the very music itself into an odd new shape, a bit scrunched up but also more interesting.
Where Ain’t That Peculiar was as much of a rollercoaster ride as this one, it still had a readily-identifiable chorus to grab onto, which no doubt helped propel it to the top of the R&B charts. But One More Heartache doesn’t really have a chorus. Instead, it just builds up and up until the listener expects one, a net of incredible vocal harmonies climbing towards the sky, ready to swoop back down and deliver the coup de grace with some pop magic… and then sends Marvin off on his own to explore whatever weird musical landscape they’ve just stumbled upon.
(Also, in truth, the three-year gap between me writing these things has made it really hard to ignore that you could theoretically cut and paste the chorus from Ain’t That Peculiar right in there and the song would still work, musically if not lyrically; try it for yourself, pause the song after those heavenly aaaaahs and see how easy it is to slip into singing …”Ain’t that peculiar!” right after. But that’s hardly a crime, not around these parts, and especially since Ain’t That Peculiar is such a great tune in the first place. But I digress.)
All of that brings me back to what I was talking about earlier. Both this and Ain’t That Peculiar are great records – in fact, if pushed, I’d probably plump for this one over that one (it may be groovier, and for sure the lyrics are less specific) – but they’re also odd, in a way that doesn’t quite match up to either Marvin’s own conservative tastes or the sexy swagger of his crafted public image.
These aren’t songs for a teen pop icon. If anything, they’re anti-pop songs, in the sense of “pop” as Marvin spent much of 1964 bristling against, the idea that he was to be presented as some sort of manufactured empty-headed poster-child. (And bear in mind, these two singles were co-written by one of the greatest tunesmiths in the history of popcraft, so I find it hard to believe that Motown couldn’t have given him something prettier and more conventional if that had really been their plan.)
I know this sounds as though I’m dissing the record, when really I’m not; rather, I’m very impressed that Motown either encouraged or at least tolerated Marvin Gaye, surely a contender for the role of Face of Motown in its biggest year, taking risks like this. One More Heartache is such a weird hit single – and it was indeed a hit, albeit not scaling the heights of its predecessor – but it rewards adventurous listening, especially when on The Complete Motown Singles Volume 6 it’s nestled next to two straight-up pop smashes from Motown’s top two male vocal groups (of which more in the coming weeks).
So let’s talk for a moment about how awesome this record is. It’s really quite remarkable; I’m not sure Marvin has given a better vocal performance than this in all our encounters with him here on Motown Junkies so far, one minute a growling complaint, next an angelic plea. I don’t just mean “performance” in that he sings beautifully – which he does – but also in that he inhabits his part so well, always in perfect sync with the lyrics to the extent that I have to remind myself he’s playing a role, that he didn’t even write them.
The lyrics, presenting Marvin’s paranoid narrator as a frustrated man (in many senses) so unsure in his current relationship that he either fears, or warns, that it’s about to collapse if just one more thing goes wrong. (And how great is that use of “more”, Smokey telling us the entire story of this couple in just one word, implying a whole litany of past screw-ups that we never even get to hear about?)
It’s all deliberately non-specific, to the point that while Marvin’s narrator is on the verge of actual physical pain over all of this, he never really describes what’s wrong, what kind of “heartache” it is he’s warning us about in any detail, instead just listing off a bunch of things that are similarly close to spectacular collapse; it’s impossible to listen to this and not remember some of the imagery, so strikingly unlikely in a pop song:
Like the house that’s built from toothpicks
Stacked upon the kitchen table
One last toothpick tore it down
The foundation was not able…
(Not “stable”, which might make more sense written down, but “able”, which sounds as if he’s about to continue the explanation – was not able to what, hold it together? – and instead he just tails off into frustrated mumbling – oh, baby, oh I can’t take it, babe I can’t stand it – again, there’s an undeniably sexual edge to all this, a kind of frisson that lacks an outlet for release. A glorious chorus might have done the trick, but instead, like I said, there isn’t really a chorus, more a repeating riff, a groove in a loop that heaps frustration upon frustration.)
1966, pound for pound, is probably Motown’s greatest year in terms of classic hit singles. If this isn’t really one of them – it’s too weird and too obscure to truly stand with the label’s best – well, it’s still fantastic. And weird. Don’t forget weird. Marvin’s life story was a fascinating patchwork of weird, unbelievable things; here, his musical story treads the same odd pathways, and the results are a strange, groovy trip, but a trip which still compels you to get up and dance. I love it.
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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|The Isley Brothers
“There’s No Love Left”
“When I Had Your Love”