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Monday, January 15, 2018

Marvin Gaye: That Stubborn Kinda' Fellow


1) Stubborn Kind Of Fellow; 2) Pride And Joy; 3) Hitch Hike; 4) Got To Get My Hands On Some Lovin'; 5) Wherever I Lay My Hat; 6) Soldier's Plea; 7) It Hurt Me Too; 8) Taking My Time; 9) Hello There Angel; 10) I'm Yours, You're Mine.

General verdict: Three great singles in a pool of personal charisma, with delicious Vandella coating on top.

Perhaps not so stubborn after all: dismayed by his failure as an attractive modern day interpreter of Irving Berlin and Cole Porter, Marvin Gaye had no choice but to give up and start writing and singing «simplistic» love songs for teenage audiences — the right choice, as it turned out. Most of the songs on this LP, coming fresh on the heels of his two big chart successes (title track and ʽHitch Hikeʼ), are co-written by Marvin himself and one or two different Motown professionals (most commonly Mickey Stevenson and/or George Gordy), and although it is impossible to tell who contributes what, I would guess that Marvin is responsible for the «soul» of the songs, whereas the professionals get busy packing them into catchy formats — a damn good balance that, if we are allowed to run a bit ahead, would be somewhat shattered in the future, once Marvin had wrestled complete creative freedom from his superiors.

It is difficult to explain — difficult to understand, even — what exactly makes Gaye's early successes fundamentally, or even superficially, different from the «average goodness» of contem­porary Motown product. Marvin was certainly far from the only great singer on the label (Smokie Robinson? Eddie Holland?), though arguably the most passionately energetic; and catchy or not, the tunes are hardly free from the general shackles of the pop-meets-R&B formula. Yet there is an urban legend about Phil Spector losing control of his car in excitement when he first heard ʽStubborn Kind Of Fellowʼ over the radio — and he'd already been quite an established figure in the production business at the time. Perhaps he was just jealous that somebody else had finally managed to satisfy his gold standard for aural excitement. But how?

One major circumstance, if I am getting this right, is that somehow, in those early days at least, Marvin's singing style worked much better as part of a call-and-response session than directly on its own: small wonder that in the upcoming years, he'd be having some of his biggest successes with duet albums (Mary Wells, Kim Weston, and particularly Tammi Terrell). On ʽStubborn Kind Of Fellowʼ, he is backed by the earliest and freshest incarnation of Martha & The Vandellas (still known as The Del-Phis) — and «backed» is an understatement, since their participation on the song is every bit as strongly emphasized, even if it is largely restricted to ooh-wows, yeah-yeah-yeahs, and parrot-echoing some of Gaye's lines. Their interaction creates an atmosphere of playful seductiveness — neither a polite, gallant, sentimental romance, nor a showcase of cocky sexual bravado, but rather something in between: the best type of love song for those who wish to avoid excessive sugar-sweetness, yet do not want to limit themselves to pure animal lust, either. From a certain point view, those "say yeah yeah yeah, say yeah yeah yeah"'s do precisely the same thing for the American (or African-American, whatever) pop market as "she loves you yeah yeah yeah" did for the British one — in a slightly less frenzied, more relaxed manner, but still far more vivacious than the honey-mouthed Smokey Robinson's.

It does not hurt, either, that occasionally these songs were equipped with unforgettable musical moves — like that knock-on-the-door rousing pattern that opens and guides ʽHitch Hikeʼ, whose excitement would penetrate all the way to New York's underground five years later (when Lou Reed nabbed it for the purposes of his own sexual provocations with ʽThere She Goes Againʼ). Message-wise, it repeats the intentions of ʽStubborn Kind Of Fellowʼ all over again ("I've got to find that girl if I have to hitch hike 'round the world"), but music-wise, it builds up even higher upon that playful vibe, and now The Vandellas are all but teasing the lead singer, always on the horizon but steadily out of immediate reach with their parrot-echoing. (One reason why, in this particular case, The Rolling Stones could not outdo the original: they had to supply the backing vocals themselves, and, well, let's just put it mildly that they weren't... umm, girly enough to nail it. For that matter, Martha and The Vandellas' own version was fatally flawed as well, because... well, goddammit it, it's a 100% heterosexual song anyway).

Completing the holy trinity of «Marvin and The Vandellas» is ʽPride And Joyʼ, an even bigger commercial success on which the lead singer's stubborn hitch-hike is finally rewarded, as symbo­lized by the song's forceful blues-rock stomp (is it a coincidence that pretty much the same stomp would later also be selected by Stevie Ray Vaughan for his own ʽPride And Joyʼ, or is it just something that goes naturally and predictably with feelings of pride and joy?). It's fun, but the stomp itself is not nearly as impressive as the main melodic hook of Marvin's fourth great single, one that, unfortunately, came out a little too late to be included on the album, and somehow fell through the LP cracks in the process — but for every possible reason, ʽCan I Get A Witnessʼ should necessarily be a bonus track on every reasonable edition on this album. Earl Van Dyke's twin-chord-based piano riff is the perfect minimalist setting, and Marvin's obsessed, broken-up, yet interminable rant where it is barely possible to distinguish between verse, bridge, and chorus still remains one of the most brilliantly constructed melodic monologues in the history of R&B. On this song, he is backed by Holland-Dozier-Holland and The Supremes instead of The Vandellas, but here what matters is the rapid-fire monologue delivery, not so much the interplay (which makes perfect sense: this is one rant that should be delivered outside the immediate presence of your partner), and this is also why The Stones had their own field day with the song, whose spirit was perfectly re-conveyed by the young Mick Jagger in his own way.

It should not be surprising that most of the other songs do not rise to the level of the big singles, since, at best, they recycle the style of the singles with weaker hooks (ʽGet My Hands On Some Lovin'ʼ), and at worst, put Marvin into smooth and sentimental Miracles territory, which happens to be more questionable in general and somewhat redundant for us listeners in particular — we already have one Smokey Robinson, why should we need another one on songs like ʽHello There Angelʼ? Occasional experiments like ʽSoldier's Pleaʼ, set to the somber melody of a slow military march, are nice, but you could have such stuff from Elvis without bothering to recapture it from Motown. Yet this is precisely what is to be expected from the era: throughout the Sixties, Marvin Gaye would largely remain a «singles artist» like most of his brothers and sisters in Motown arms, and most of these LPs may only be judged by the quality and quantity of the guiding missiles. Personally, I'd say that three out of ten — considering the fairly pleasant and generally tasteful nature of the remaining filler — is fairly impressive.

1 comment:

  1. This is a vast improvement over Soulful Moods. Torch ballads were never his strength. There needs to be an element of silent danger and smoldering anger for his true soul to come out in the music. I like to think of him as the James Bond of soul, slick and cool but deadly.

    As far as this record, I love the arrangements, they are more engaging that the "classic" Motown sound of the mid to late 60s. I love the horns, especially on Wherever I Lay My Hat, a road dog song in the Wanderer/Gentle on My Mind tradition. This is contrast to Soldier's Plea, which begs the girl to be faithful when Hat does the opposite. It's an illustration of Marvin's best quality: inhabiting his songs with strong and often morally ambiguous characters.