Today marks the 30th anniversary of Marvin Gaye’s murder in Los Angeles. Ronan Burtenshaw gives us a run down of his best tracks.
What can we say about the music of Marvin Gaye? First, forget the clichés. Marvin’s music was not some caricature meant to make white people less awkward in bed. Nor was he reducible to dulcet tones.
Marvin Gaye led one of the great musical lives – from doo wop innocence through soul, funk, electronica and beyond. His early years as the “prince” of Motown Records included some of the best soul ever recorded. But that was apéritif.
What really made him as an artist were the years of creativity and critique that followed his break from popular soul’s strictures in 1971.
What’s Going On, with its layered vocals, delivered emotional pleas against poverty, war and environmental destruction. A smooth but serious album that placed Marvin Gaye at the musical forefront of the black prophetic tradition. Trouble Man (1972), funky and experimental, returned to his jazz roots while simultaneously breaking ground in electronica. An ode to street life in ‘70s America. And then the erotic turn: Let’s Get it On (1973); I Want You (1976); Midnight Love (1983). Proselytising for the sensual. Beginning with his soul ‘divided’ between the spiritual and the sexual but ending by seeking a sexuality that could offer redemption from depression and self-destruction.
There are lots of brilliant tracks that didn’t make it – some of which you’ll find here.
But these are my top ten. Let’s get it on.
10. Got To Give It Up (1977) Live at the Palladium
Marvin’s foray into disco came as the genre peaked in popularity in the late 1970s and this track was cited by Michael Jackson as the leading influence for his 1979 hit Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough. (Also lifted recently by Robin Thicke for the infinitely-lamer Blurred Lines.)
9. Trouble Man (1972)
Title-track of Gaye’s contribution to the blaxploitation soundtrack scene, where his effort joins greats like Curtis Mayfield’s Superfly and Isaac Hayes’ Shaft. Trouble Man would later become a nickname of Gaye’s – referring both to his life’s troubles and his reputation as a bad boy.
8. You Can Leave (But It’s Going to Cost You) (1978) Here, My Dear
The stand-out song of Here, My Dear – the cheekily-named, ruthlessly honest album Gaye made as a financial contribution to his divorce settlement with Anna Gordy. One of his best funk tracks it weaves from the couple’s furious sex life to the court case, ending with Anna on the stand.
7. Let’s Get It On (1973)
His most famous. Carnal and unashamed, the track opened his album by the same name. Beginning with four iconic wah-wah notes before dipping into sensual melody it was so good that Gaye reprised it later in the LP with Keep Gettin’ It On. A landmark musical contribution to the sexual revolution which swept the western world between the 1960s and ‘80s.
6. What’s Going On (1971)
Considered one of the great anti-war anthems, giving expression to the pacifism of the Vietnam war era dissidents, the track was actually inspired by police brutality against the African-American community in Chicago – whose gospel music provides a constant echo in Marvin Gaye’s magnum opus. Recorded in a haze of marijuana and bourbon, the whole album was rejected at first by Gaye’s label as “the worst thing they’d ever heard”.
5. T Plays It Cool (1972) Trouble Man
Marvin Gaye was the drummer in three 1960s number one hits – Please, Mr. Postman by the Marvelettes, Dancing in the Street by Martha and the Vandellas and Stevie Wonder’s first hit Fingertips. Nine years later Stevie gave Marvin the Moog he mixed with drums to produce this early nu jazz classic.
4. I Heard It Through the Grapevine (1968) In The Groove
Motown’s greatest-selling single – and the one that shot Marvin Gaye to the top of the music world. The track’s recording came as he grew disillusioned with the candy-floss love songs that had been his staple after his long-time duet partner Tammi Terrell collapsed into his arms onstage in 1967. Her death in 1970 from a brain tumour was a key motivator in his renaissance. Marvin’s emotions found expression in the jealous frustration of the song’s protagonist.
3. I Want You (1976)
Title-track of Marvin’s second sensual masterpiece, it opened an LP Marvin said was written as a release – to “reclaim the night” for those tired from days of toil. Seemlessly blending the strings of soul, jazz conga and funk bass guitar I Want You traverses the breadth of Gaye’s musical range. Quincy Jones was to remark many years later that the song was Marvin “putting music to the sunset”.
2. Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler) (1971) What’s Going On
Marvin Gaye’s greatest political work. A proletarian lament – written to give voice to the urban working-class, robbed of power over their lives and living through the decline of the post-war glory years. Marvin’s finest hour on the piano, Blues made history for Marvin Gaye when it joined What’s Going On and Mercy, Mercy Me in the Billboard top ten. Deserving of resurrection in these years of austerity.
1. Sexual Healing (1982) Midnight Love
The only track for which he received a grammy in his career, Sexual Healing’s meaning is missed by most. Rather than simple embrace of erotica Sexual Healing was written as an anti-depression anthem by Marvin Gaye when he was suicidal in Oostende, Belgium. Just before his death Marvin was to find synthesis in the two great themes of his career, and parts of his “divided soul” – spirituality and sexuality. Sexual Healing was his attempt at articulating a healing, redemptive sexuality that could overcome the pain he had felt through years of struggle with his humanity.
“Baby I got sick this morning, a sea was storming inside of me; Baby I think I’m capsizing, the waves are rising and rising; And when I get that feeling I want sexual healing.”