Monday, 15 August 2011

Marvin Gaye: The art of perseverence

It's interesting what happens when you randomly roll the radio dial whilst driving. On Saturday I hopped into my car and for some reason it was tuned to ABC Radio National not totally unusual as I have it on for the news sometimes. What was unusual was hearing a documentary about Marvin Gaye, fortunately I had a reasonably long drive to get to my destination. For most people Marvin Gaye represents the smooth, suave soul singer, Motown idol, for others it's his sad demise shot my his father in his parents home in L.A.

What I found fascinating was to hear Marvin in his own words discussing what drove him, his battles with Motown and Berry Gordy in particular over his creative direction, his personal demons, and his vision for his music. In 1968 Marvin scored one of his biggest hit singles of that period with I Heard it Through the Grapevine, but he was deeply unhappy at what he saw as the restrictions placed on him by Berry Gordy over why type of material he recorded, his image and his ability to write and produce his own material. He was also deeply traumatised by the illness of fellow vocalist Tammi Terrell whom with Marvin had enjoyed a successful musical partnership. Marvin began to find himself systematically pulling away from the demands of the Motown machine, he was determined to find his own voice, and write songs with more depth and meaning. I think this change really began when he started working with Motown group The Originals, Marvin now had the opportunity to experiment with a new sound. If you listen to some of the early Originals songs there is a denseness to the music, like an enveloping cloud. But never does the music become mawkish or sentimental. Marvin continually refined his approach, stripping the sound back for a more sparse approach when required.

Around this time Marvin was deeply trouble by the societal ills affecting the U.S, growing poverty, the Vietnam War where his brother Frankie was serving, a sense of spiritual dislocation, and the growing environmental impact of human activity. He started to work with musicians and writers who shared his vision moving away from the standard production crew used on all Motown sessions. What started to take shape was his magnum opus What's Going On. When Marvin presented the single What's Going On to Berry Gordy, he was less than enamoured with the song and pointedly refused to release, saying it would damage Marvin's' image, that what his fans really wanted was Marvin in a lounge suit, martini in hand crooning out love ballads. Marvin dug in his heels threatening to never record again, Gordy buckled and the song was released to great acclaim and became a number one hit. Now Marvin had the support he needed to finish the album, which he duly did taking a listeners on an amazing sonic journey. The funkiness and despair on Inner City Blues with that pounding bass line from Bob Babbitt, the uplifting Wholy holly, the bleakness and stark sound of Flying High in the Friendly Sky and Mercy Mercy Me.

Marvin never recorded a completely coherent structured album again, personal difficulties and drug addiction would dog him for more than a decade until his untimely death.

No comments:

Post a Comment