Remixed and repackaged collection finds a troubled artist caught between the socially conscious What’s Going On and the Motown machine
In early 1972, Marvin Gaye should have been on top of the world. The previous year, he had wrested control of his career from Motown’s draconian hit-making system, winning a bitter battle to get What’s Going On released as a single: the song Motown boss Berry Gordy claimed was “the worst piece of crap I ever heard” spent five weeks at No 1 in the US R&B chart. The album of the same name had sold a million copies, been nominated for two Grammys and redefined perceptions of Motown both externally and internally. A label previously dominated by singles had released a critically acclaimed, wildly successful concept album. An emboldened Stevie Wonder was now making it clear that he too was sick of the label’s insistence on total control. In the wake of What’s Going On, Gaye had been named trendsetter of the year by Billboard magazine, and re-signed with Motown in what was, at the time, the most lucrative deal ever struck by a black artist.
But, as was invariably the case in Gaye’s complex and troubled life, all was not as it seemed. Just as the 1968 success of I Heard It Through the Grapevine had left him oddly resentful and insecure – he hadn’t written the song, so he “felt like a puppet” – and he found the acclaim afforded What’s Going On “heavy”. As he told biographer David Ritz: “When you’re at the top there’s nowhere to go but down.” And his battle with Motown wasn’t over. When Gordy heard Gaye’s next single, You’re the Man – a bleak, distrustful assessment of the 1972 US presidential campaign, intended as the title track of a forthcoming album but lacking the kind of luscious melodies that had flowed through What’s Going On – he either panicked or coolly enacted revenge for Gaye’s earlier revolt: Motown pulled promotion and pressured radio stations to drop it from their playlists, ensuring it flopped.
This 17-track collection named after that song tries to make sense of what happened next. Grandly billed as a great lost album, it’s really a compilation of cancelled singles and studio outtakes, some of them polished up for release by Amy Winehouse producer Salaam Remi. They capture the sound of an artist who clearly doesn’t know what to do. At some sessions, Gaye forged ahead with the idea of another album in the socially conscious vein of What’s Going On. He reworked You’re the Man in the hazy, shimmering style of that album, and recorded Woman of the World – an ostensibly breezy ode to feminism that on closer inspection seems to be grousing that women’s lib is interfering with the more important business of Marvin Gaye getting his leg over. The fantastic The World Is Rated X similarly suggests that his attitude had become more cynical than that of the saintly figure pleading we Save the Children a year previously.