Marvin Gaye

Troubled Man

by Martin Smith

MARVIN GAYE was radicalised by the revolts of the 1960s

TV AND radio stations all over the world celebrated the life of one of soul music's greatest singers, Marvin Gaye, last weekend. Marvin was born in 1939 in the US and brought up in a poor black working class family in Washington. In the 1950s music was one of the few career avenues open to blacks in the US. Marvin joined a band called the Moonglows and was drawn to Detroit, home of Motown Records.

Berry Gordy, Motown's founder, started his working life on Detroit's car assembly lines. Gordy copied the car plant production methods to create a mechanised music factory in Motown. He brought together the best musicians to create the "Motown sound". Teams of writers wrote and produced music for singers like Smokey Robinson, the Temptations and the Supremes. Gordy toned down the rawness of soul music, enabling it to cross over into the huge white teenage market. Motown churned out hit after hit, and grew to become the biggest black owned industry in US history.

By the mid-1960s white pop stars like the Beatles, Dusty Springfield and the Kinks were all massively influenced by the Motown sound. Singles like "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" and "It Takes Two" made Marvin Gaye a household name. But while the Motown singers were singing about teenage love, US society was being shaken to the core by the anti Vietnam War movement, student protests and the civil rights movement fighting against racism.

Gordy, however, steered his artists away from any involvement in the struggle. This created massive tension, with some of the artists becoming radicalised by the events happening around them. Marvin Gaye was especially sickened by the assassination of civil rights leader Martin Luther King and the shooting by the National Guard of four students protesting against the Vietnam War at Kent State University. Marvin told the NME music paper, "Have you read about the kids killed at Kent State University? It made me sick. I couldn't sleep. I cried all night. The notion of singing three minute songs about the moon and June doesn't interest me any more."

When a number of massive riots rocked US cities in 1967 and 1968, with the biggest in Detroit, Marvin backed the call for change. "I wondered what I was doing singing rock and roll in some dive instead of leading marches," he said. "I wanted to throw the radio down and burn all them bullshit songs I'd been singing about and get out there and kick ass with the rest of the brothers." Berry Gordy had a different response. He freaked, packed his bags and moved Motown to Hollywood.

Marvin stayed in Detroit and set about writing one of the greatest albums of all time—What's Going On. The album laments war, pollution and the miseries of ghetto life, and praises peace, children and the poor. Today it is easy to forget how radical the album was. The music owed as much to jazz as it did to pop and soul and it influenced a whole generation of artists. Berry Gordy called the title song "the worst I've ever heard" and refused to release the album. Marvin threatened to leave Motown, and Gordy was forced to back down. What's Going On went on to be one of Motown's most successful albums. It was followed by the album Trouble Man, a film soundtrack about ghetto life.

Under commercial pressure from Motown, Marvin later returned to singing love ballads. Tormented by the failure of the protest movements of the 60s and angry with the music industry stamping on creativity, Marvin then retreated into a world of drugs and sexual fantasies. He became a depressed drug addict and lived in self exile in Belgium. He told the press, "I can't go back. Not to a country that just elected Ronald Reagan." He left Motown and made one more album, the glorious Midnight Love.

But now Marvin's life was spiralling out of control. Finally drugs and family tensions led to his death, when on 1 April 1984 he was shot by his father in a fit of rage. It was a tragic end to the life of one of the most talented musicians of the post-war years. Today Marvin Gaye's music is more popular than in his lifetime. A whole new generation of rap artists and soul singers have drawn inspiration from it, and are addressing many of the same questions that at its best Marvin Gaye's music does so powerfully.


History X gives wrong message

by Judy Cox

THE CENTRAL idea of the movie American History X is that racist violence is a bad thing. This is not a controversial message, but the film fails to make it effectively. Fascism is shown to be the result of bad individual ideas plus "frustration", which means that the development of the main characters is unconvincing. Through flashbacks we learn how Derek was an idealist teenager, inspired by black literature and his black teacher. But when his dad was killed by black druggies Derek became a leading Nazi overnight.

While in prison for killing two black thieves, Derek meets a nice black guy and some nasty racists and so rejects Nazism. But can he then save his sweet neo-Nazi kid brother from the brainwashing fascists, or from the murderous black gangs? This is a bad film, which the director disowned. It risks glamorising Nazism, and it encourages the idea that there are just white gangs and black gangs and all are equally bad.


CORRESPONDENT (Sat, 7.15pm, BBC2) sounds like a harrowing look at the death penalty in the US.

THE WHITE HOUSE TAPES (Sat, 8pm, C4) could be good, depending on the editors' selection from juicy original material. It's a selection of the taped phone calls made in the 1960s by US president Lyndon Johnson.

COLD WAR (Sun, 7.15pm, BBC2) could be an interesting episode of this occasionally excellent series. This one looks at US involvement in the 1980s Iran-Iraq War and in funding and arming Islamist fighters in Russian occupied Afghanistan.

JU DOU (Sun, 3.20am, C4) is a film worth setting the video for. It's a powerful tragedy of a woman trapped in a brutal and rigid family life in rural China earlier this century.

HILLSBOROUGH: THE LEGACY (Mon, 11.15pm, BBC1) retells the scandal of the football disaster in which 96 people died on its tenth anniversary, and at the still unresolved issues behind it.

SIKHS (Mon, 7pm, BBC2) sounds like an interesting and serious history of the Sikh religion and its social context.

DEADLY METAL (Mon, 8pm, BBC2) examines one of the world's worst, and least known, nuclear disasters, when in the US in 1983 lethal radioactive material found its way into metal tables across Mexico and the US.

THE GREAT BALLOON RACE (Tues, 9.30pm, BBC1) may be worth watching if only for gloating at Richard Branson losing!

DEATH TO THE MONARCHY (Tues, 7.30pm, BBC2) is a half hour programme allowing the case for abolishing the royal family to be put.