268. ‘I Heard It Through the Grapevine’, by Marvin Gaye

Attention. Attention. We have a stone-cold classic coming right up. Marvin Gaye is here, and he has been hearing things, through the grapevine…

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I Heard It Through the Grapevine, by Marvin Gaye (his 1st and only #1)

3 weeks, from 26th March – 16th April 1969

Has there been a cooler intro so far? A sexy, slinkingly slow build up, with a tickle of cymbal and a subtle riff: doo-do-do-doo… It’s dripping with attitude. And then Gaye’s voice, a husky falsetto. Ooh, I bet you’re wond’rin how I knew, Bout your plans to make me blue…

The singer has heard second-hand that his girlfriend is about to do the dirty on him. I heard it through the grapevine, Not much longer would you be mine… the backing singers chant, like the gossiping whisperers that have brought the news to him. The premise of the song is kind of flawed – surely the gossip would be that she is cheating on him, not that she’s just planning to – but shhh! Who cares? We’re in Greatest Pop Songs of all time territory here.

What I especially like about this song is that we are unsure how the singer really feels about the situation. Is he sad? (I know a man ain’t supposed to cry, But these tears I can’t keep inside…) Or angry? (It took me by surprise, I must say…) Or just disappointed? (You could have told me yourself, That you love someone else…) Or is he all of these things?

‘I Heard It Through the Grapevine’ is a Motown record, only the 3rd to hit the top of the UK charts, after ‘Baby Love’ and ‘Reach Out I’ll Be There’, and the last one of the 1960s, the decade synonymous with the label’s sound. But, at the same time, it’s a lot subtler than earlier Motown hits – far less bubble-gum. There’s an edge to it. It’s instant, but it’s also layered. I know I write this fairly often, about other huge hits, but it still rings true… This would have been a hit at any time. It transcends time and place.

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Or if you want to distil it down to a simple, one-word description: it’s cool. You want to know what cool sounds like? You put ‘I Heard it Through the Grapevine’ on. Marvin Gaye had been a recording artist since the start of the sixties, and a big star in the US for years before this became his biggest hit. In the UK, though, he hadn’t been higher than #16. Following this, he would become a routine visitor to the Top 10, throughout the seventies and early eighties, solo or with either of his favoured duetting partners, Diana Ross and Tammi Terrell. It all culminated in his huge ‘Sexual Healing’ comeback in 1982…

Until he was shot, dead, a year later. By his dad. We’ve met some pretty tragic characters in our journey through the charts so far, but this is up there with the worst of them. His father was a disciplinarian, a Christian minister, and yet a cross-dresser, with a very complicated relationship with his artistic, world famous, and possibly gay, son. Marvin stepped in to break up a confrontation between his parents, and was killed by a shot from the gun he had given his father a few months earlier.

Tragic stuff. And also tragic in its own way is the fact that this is Gaye’s one and only chart-topping single. No ‘It Takes Two’, or ‘What’s Goin’ On’, or the aforementioned ‘Sexual Healing’… Just this. But what a chart-topper it is. If you’re only going to do it once, then do it in style. Meanwhile, ‘Marvin Gaye’ will hit #1 many years from now, as the title of a song. Which I just realised answers a question I posed in my post on ‘Lady Madonna’, about #1s which reference chart-topping artists in their titles… Till then, then…

10 thoughts on “268. ‘I Heard It Through the Grapevine’, by Marvin Gaye

  1. badfinger20

    It gets no more classic than this one. By this time Marvin was just getting started.
    What a messed up family. Just a tragic life.

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