The Daunting Task of Covering Marvin Gaye or the Songs Marvin Gaye Covered
Marvin Gaye was an integral, one might say crucial, member of the Motown team, a brand that certainly lent itself to the cover version; even within its stable, one song might be tried out multiple times by ensemble or solo Motown artists as well as whoever, outside of Motown, could put their shoulders to the wheel.
One Motown production that might seem off limits for the cover version is, of course, Gaye’s iconic “What’s Going On”, a collection of songs that was wholly a Marvin Gaye vehicle, a career-changing concept album produced by a company that previously was all about the hit-single.
There are Motown songs that have been covered to death and brought back to life again, which stands for Motown’s original and ongoing genius, so, I was willing to give credence to Cyndi Lauper’s 1987 cover version of “What’s Going On”, the first person I knew who was brave enough to make a go at that untouchable product. (The song was also covered by another Motown band, The Undisputed Truth, in 1972, but I wasn’t aware of that version until much later).
It’s Lauper’s voice, which simply and unaccountably (beyond DNA) comes out of her mouth which had me accept, if indeed buy, her version of “What’s Going On”. It wasn’t an easy sell, even if Lauper’s version made it to #12 on the US charts. In my own anecdotal accounting, when Lauper’s version came on one of my mixtapes, two friends, who usually went with anything that came out of my boombox, said (more or less), “You’ve got to be kidding”.
Cover versions are one of two things: something that is true to the original, if nuanced, or, something that is entirely remade (made up again), an original cover version so to speak. That’s not easy (that’s originality!), though, as we shall see, some Motown songs effectively lend themselves to interpretation. Cyndi Lauper’s version of “What’s Going On” settles directly into the original, which is the burden of covering “What’s Going On”: we are never going to forget, get away from, or even allow another artist to touch Marvin Gaye’s version. That’s when the descriptive iconic becomes apt.
To take it in another direction (altogether), the interpretation is so true to the original that the interpreter actually works with the original. The Mad Professor, owner/operator of the well-established British-based reggae label, Ariwa, knows the ins and outs of the reggae sub-genre known as dub, also known as “version”, transposed to the verb or action, “versioning”. This is not “covering” a tune per se (though that does happen) but a process that remakes (or turns inside out) any given song via the better-known term: “remixing”, a post-production manipulation of multi-track studio tapes, a process that was more or less already known and utilized (see Brian Eno’s essay: The Studio as Compositional Tool), but taken in a wholly innovative and original direction by Jamaican dub-masters (King Tubby et al).
When I became cognizant of what dub did or could do, I let myself fantasize about “versioning” The Temptations (for example). In 1975, that seemed a long-time-coming, and indeed, The Mad Professor finally “dubbed” “What’s Going On” in 2013.
Given the depth and breadth of the Motown songbook and its various cover-versions, one could go for a book-length investigation, but for whatever reason, what got me going, beyond an abiding love for all things Marvin, were some select cover versions of Marvin Gaye as performed by women (though I did feel obliged to include The Mad Professor). This is coincidental yet significant. Marvin Gaye was a big man, heterosexual even, if simply sexy, but he also projected a kind of feminine sensitivity, a vulnerability epitomized in some of his lyrics, as well as the way he occasionally voiced falsetto.
Another key player in early Motown, Smokey Robinson, who is a songbook on his own, provided Gaye with his second hit single, “Ain’t That Peculiar” (co-written with the other members of The Miracles, Bobby Rogers, Pete Moore, and Marv Tarplin). The lyrics display the vulnerability I speak of, veering into a bizarre display of dependency if not willing abuse, succinctly put when the singer admits, “But each hurt makes my love stronger than before”.
The song as covered by the all-female rock band, Fanny, in 1972, moves the song far beyond Gaye’s interpretation, most especially through June Millington’s ferocious slide guitar chorus-line break. That kind of interjection makes you realize how deeply The Blues have permeated America’s pop music, taking note that that influence was obscured in Gaye’s version. Other elements that make for a Fanny’s original (it’s all in the arrangement!) are the song’s percussive intro and the all-in background vocals.
Ironically, that other iconic Marvin Gaye song, “I Heard It Through the Grapevine”, was first handled by another Motown act, Gladys Knight and the Pips, whose 1967 version was its own smash hit, reaching #1 on the R&B charts, #2 on the Pop charts. The Gaye version wasn’t released as a single until radio DJs started playing it off of Gaye’s 1968 album “In the Groove”. When Berry Gordy finally released the song as a single, it surpassed the Pips version, becoming the best-selling Motown single to date, spending seven weeks at the top of the Pop charts.
That’s extraordinary in itself, that two versions of the same song, as released by the same recording label, could chart that high within one year of each other. But also consider that the song was covered by three other Motown acts, The Miracles (who were actually the first to record the song in 1966, although it wasn’t released until 1968), The Temptations (whose 1969 version I will get to shortly), and the aforementioned The Undisputed Truth (in 1971).
Outside of Motown, Creedence Clearwater Revival, hit it big in 1970 with their unique version of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine”, in an arrangement permeated with Swamp Rock, to such a degree that many people might have thought they originated the song, just as I thought, when I first heard Gladys Knight’s version, that she and the Pips were covering Marvin Gaye. By the time I heard The Slits version in 1979, I was well aware of all those versions, which is what impressed me about the punk/funk/reggae ensemble’s cover of the song, seeing as they were previously involved in an anarchic yet sincere, almost No Wave take on all those listed genres. As might be imagined, with those outré ambitions, The Slits version of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” was their only single that scratched its way onto the bottom tiers of the British charts, landing at #60 in the Top 100 for three weeks in 1979.
The Slits, when it comes to icons, might be regarded iconoclasts, even if, as I implied, they obviously had a sincere regard for songs like “I Heard It Through the Grapevine”. The driving influence, or organizing method, behind their 1979 album “Cut” was reggae (coming after their punk pedigree). For one thing, British reggae/dub-master Dennis Bovell was recruited as the album’s producer. If one can hear the underlying yet obscured influence of The Blues in certain Motown songs, Motown itself, or generally American R&B, was a major influence on reggae. The Slits flip all those equations on their head, but I was struck by how The Temptations 1969 version of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” has a distinct reggae vibe. Their version starts out with that standard Motown drum and cymbal intro, but the vocals then shift to a stop and go reggae-like shuffle, the kind of vocal spacing that engendered Dubwise.
While dub was prescient to what we now call “remix”, there is now a YouTube genre where the guitar, drums, or vocals of any given track are isolated, so you hear the song in a different way, but we don’t call that version. It’s something that occurred to the people who are now able to “digital dub”, most likely in a bedroom studio (whereas before I could only fanatasize about dubbing The Temptations). What’s instructive, via a YouTube video with the isolated vocals of Marvin Gaye’s “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” is how one can reimagine its instrumental background, which could indeed (for one thing) amount to the plaintive pickings of an acoustic Blues guitar.
The Slits don’t exactly turn “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” into reggae, but one would hope that’s the point: to assert their own style as referenced by all that came before. In the meantime, the two obvious reggae touchstones are Tessa Politt’s hearty bassline, which I assume was pushed up front by producer Dennis Bovell (I also believe you hear Bovell’s voice at the end of the recording, saying, “yeah . . .”) and Budgie’s (Peter Clarke) Sly Dunbar-style drum rolls. I also assume (what do I know?) that The Slits’ initial outing with the song started off in the way it begins: the bassline as hummed, impromptu, in the back of a tour van. If it’s not exactly roots reggae, these elements give it the de rigueur ominous vibe of that genre. What makes it clearly a Slits’ song is, of course, Ari Up’s breathless yet emphatic vocals and Viv Albertine’s scratchy post-punk take on rhythm guitar.
In an attempt to balance it all out, and to demonstrate just how far recorded music and its modes of production have come since the days when Marvin Gaye trod this very earth, my final example cites that other branch of The Art of the Remix, where we don’t strictly “cover” or “dub” but “sample” and “loop”. Here’s Hip-Hopper Jean Grae citing a Marvin Gaye title (“Trouble Man”) but actually inserting an entirely different lyric while yet looping a sample from an alternate track off of that soundtrack album.