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Monday, March 26, 2018

Marvin Gaye: In The Groove


1) You; 2) Tear It On Down; 3) Chained; 4) I Heard It Through The Grapevine; 5) At Last; 6) Some Kind Of Wonderful; 7) Loving You Is Sweeter Than Ever; 8) Change What You Can; 9) It's Love I Need; 10) Every Now And Then; 11) You're What's Happening (In The World Today); 12) There Goes My Baby.

General verdict: Three cool singles against a bunch of filler. But the cool singles have the upper hand.

To be perfectly honest, this record is really all about the three hit singles — but the three hit singles are way more than just three more hit singles this time around. In The Groove, later re-released as I Heard It Through The Grapevine (for fairly obvious reasons), was released at the dawn of a new era for R&B — one that took it to more somber depths and added all sorts of heavy, acid, and psychological elements to the mix, spurred on by the Jimi Hendrix revolution and numerous other factors. And while the LP as such is clearly transitional — the second side in particular contains plenty of soft covers that already seem antiquated next to the biggies — it is still a watermark, allowing us to observe Marvin Gaye's evolution from artistic adolescence to musical maturity. A big part of this is personal: Tammi Terrell's onstage collapse in October '67 left Marvin a deeply changed man, and I could swear I actually hear some of that pain on many of the songs here. But there is also no getting away from the fact that the changes coincided with a lot of general changes in the overall Motown / Atlantic / black R&B sound around 1968-69 — a magnificent epoch for that label, before the soft-rock turnaround came along and ate it all away.

The change should have been announced with ʽI Heard It Through The Grapevineʼ, of course, but that song has a very strange history — it was recorded first by The Miracles, as early as August '66, but vetoed by Berry Gordy and shelved until late 1968. Then it was recorded by Marvin, in April '67, but again vetoed by Berry Gordy and also shelved until the release of the album in late 1968. Then it was recorded by Gladys Knight & The Pips, but in an entirely different arrange­ment that lacked the distinctive organ riff and generally sounded happier and livelier — the first version to actually get an official release. Then it was finally approved by Gordy for Marvin, and became one of his biggest selling records of all time. And, of course, to complete the saga, then it was appropriated by Creedence Clearwater Revival in 1970 and became the basis for their most fabulous jam session of all time. One hell of a journey.

Anyway, Fogerty and company chose to model their sound after Marvin's rather than Gladys', and for a good reason. The organ riff, played by Earl Van Dyke of The Funk Brothers, is one of the grumbliest, most subtly menacing organ riffs of all time — it gives the song a sharp, scary angle that seriously hints that the protagonist got madness in his soul and murder on his mind (whereas Gladys Knight only had agitated indignation). This is also the first time that Marvin sang in a much higher vocal register than usual, occasionally rising to falsetto, spurred on by the song's author Norman Whitfield, and the effect is radical — it's as if he'd finally agreed to open up the cage where all those proverbial «inner demons» had been tranquilised up till now. Throw in the marvelous orchestrating job (Gordon Staples directing the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and telling Tchaikovsky the news), and you get a completely new set of feels here — not just for Marvin, whose heartbreakers had been relatively inoffensive before (even ʽBaby Don't You Do Itʼ was a whine, not a menace), but for Motown  in general. Me being such a sucker for juicy electric guitar and powerful drumming, I'll generally stick with the CCR version anyway, but for the shorter, vocally-dominated approach, Marvin's take here has no equal.

As it happened, though, ʽGrapevineʼ was denied the chance to become the first single; that honor went to ʽYouʼ, written by Ivy Jo Hunter and a couple other guys. While that song does not have such a distinctive hook as ʽGrapevineʼ, it is subject to the same shift in mood anyway — the frantically pumping bass, the tense strings, the harpsichords, glockenspiels, and recorders creating an agitated symphonic effect, and, on top of that, another high-pitched, falsetto-happy perfor­mance that may well have been influenced by Marvin's feelings about Tammi ("you, you I see in my mirror in the mornin' / Instead of seein' me / I see you, I see your face / And inside me is a growing need for your embrace" — even if they never really had a romantic involvement, it is hard to picture him singing that into the microphone and not thinking back on his own situation). The other single, ʽChainedʼ, largely repeats the same approach, although here the big badass brass arrangement takes precedence over «baroque» elements, and the bass groove has much more freedom to roam, taking your attention away from the vocals and directing it more towards the instrumental track.

As I already said, though, the LP itself is clearly transitional. Some of the non-single tracks are in the same vein (ʽIt's Love I Needʼ also establishes a ʽChainedʼ-like heavy groove), but others are happy-dippy soulful pop concoctions without a single trouble in the world — Goffin & King's ʽSome Kind Of Wonderfulʼ, the Four Tops' ʽLoving You Is Sweeter Than Everʼ, the Drifters' ʽThere Goes My Babyʼ, all these nice songs just sound fluffy in the company of ʽI Heard It Through The Grapevineʼ, and there is hardly any reason to treasure Marvin's take on them when you have the superior originals available.

Therefore, as an album, In The Groove still suffers from the same old inconsistency, and it would still take a bit of time before Marvin Gaye learned — and/or was allowed to — profit from the LP form for bona fide artistic purposes. But at least there are no obvious gaffes: the filler might seem uncomfortable next to the kick-ass singles, sure, yet they kept him away from bland Boradway schlock, and there is nothing morally wrong to hear ʽThere Goes My Babyʼ one more time, if only just to remind you how good that song is. So, perhaps there are no good reasons to keep the album in your collection if you have all the good stuff on an anthology, but I'd rate it pretty high anyway — the high points are awesome, and the low points do not succeed in making the high ones seem any slighter. After all, we get to hear a new, improved Marvin Gaye here, so what's the problem if the old one has not quite finished moving out yet?..


  1. AfaIc Marvin Gaye's Live at Montreux version annihilates every other recording, especially including CCR's overrated ones.

  2. Typo in the last paragraph: "Boradway".