When Marvin Gaye released ‘What’s Going On’ in 1971, it shifted music almost immediately. Spawning three chart-topping singles (‘What’s Going On’, ‘Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)’ and ‘Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)’), the album, which boldly embraced the perspective of a Vietnam veteran returning to a broken America, showed a whole generation of black artists that their art could touch on dark social themes without losing any of its joy. In a hits driven business, ‘What’s Going On’, a cinematic concept album, set a different path entirely, marking a shift to an era where our pop stars weren’t just making radio hits, but also becoming powerful political voices. A lot less is known, however, about its proposed 1972 follow-up album, ‘You’re The Man’.
The album’s title track and lead single, which was released to tap into the Presidential Elections and is a withering takedown of then-President Richard Nixon, was deemed a step too far by Motown boss Berry Gordy, whose own politics leaned a lot more to the right than Gaye’s. Aware that Gaye was planning to release an album with much more overt political messaging than ‘What’s Going On’ and bemused by the lead single’s antagonist nature, Gordy persuaded Gaye to cancel ‘You’re The Man’ altogether.
Although many of the songs from these 1972 sessions have made it out in various forms over the years, this new release of the album, which includes fresh mixes by Amy Winehouse and Nas producer Salaam Remi, marks the first time they’ve appeared together in one set like Gaye had intended. The good news is that ‘You’re The Man’ isn’t one of those fabled unreleased records that ultimately disappoints but rather astounds, leaving you baffled as to why it was never released like this in the first place.
Listening to the sardonic title track in 2019 makes Marvin still feel so alive, with prescient lyrics such as “We don’t want to hear more lies / About how you plan to economise” sounding like he’s addressing Trump from beyond the grave. On this track he powerfully stretches his voice, sometimes screaming in a primal rage, a trick that has often been imitated – but never bettered – by the likes of Prince and Frank Ocean. The screeching guitar and mournful organ that combine to open ‘Piece of Clay’ are particularly beautiful, as Gaye’s conversational lyrics delicately consider the ways in which people are moulded like clay by dictatorial leaders.
If this all sounds heavy thematically – well, it isn’t. Gaye’s vocal delivery is so delicate he sounds like he’s gently opening up over his fears. These 17 tracks are a calm, considered reflection on the pressures of being black in Nixon’s unbalanced America, and how these injustices might be overcome. On songs such as ‘We Can Make It Baby’, a heavenly meditation on women’s rights, Gaye sounds optimistic and a million miles away from the more bitter vocalist who got lost in a haze of cocaine six years later with sarcastic break-up LP ‘Here, My Dear’. Tracks such as ‘Try It You’ll Like It’ and ‘Checking Out (Double Clutch)’, meanwhile, show a far funkier, rawer edge to Gaye, who, in 1972, clearly had his ear more tuned in to Blaxploitation movies than gospel music. On ‘You’re The Man’, he’s perhaps at his most playful.
There are many parallels between 1972 and 2019, with Nixon and Trump both sharing a disdain for liberal values and an authoritarian approach to dealing with their enemies – and this makes the release of ‘You’re The Man’ feel especially important. On ‘Where Are We Going’, Gaye delicately croons, “Lies and hate fuel the fire” – lyrics that eerily foreshadow the reactionary nature of the internet age. The fact this record sounds like the singer could somehow be questioning today’s political discourse shows just how much foresight Marvin Gaye had as a songwriter.
Sure, not all of Remi’s crisp mixes work: ‘My Last Chance’, in particular, sounds far too modern. And there isn’t a moment here as big sonically as any of the songs on ‘What’s Going On’, but that doesn’t stop ‘You’re The Man’ from being an absolute pleasure to listen to. On this timeless record, Gaye consistently sparks joy even though he’s scared about the future, and its 2019 release is chance for a whole new generation of listeners to connect with the legendary singer. It’s a reminder of an era in which our pop stars spoke from the heart, unafraid of losing a million-dollar endorsement, more concerned with uplifting their people.