Live at the London Palladium (Tamla Records)
Robin Thicke and Pharrell’s “Blurred Lines” was the biggest hit single of 2013. You may remember the music video, the one that caused a media firestorm for its potentially offensive depiction of topless women prancing around the fully clothed artists. Despite the condemnation of the video—or perhaps because of it—the song broke records for radio listenership and international popularity. Amidst a media furor, the actual music seems to have dipped under the radar. The thing is, “Blurred Lines” doesn’t even belong entirely to Robin Thicke or Pharrell.
Earlier this year, a court ordered them to pay Marvin Gaye’s family $7.4 million for ripping off his disco hit from 1976, “Got To Give It Up.” The roots of the family’s lawsuit, and of countless offshoots of pop music that have branched off since the ’70s, reach directly back to an overlooked record released almost forty years ago, called Live at the London Palladium.
It is arguably Marvin Gaye’s best live recording. One of the most striking things about Live is the incredible way it captures the live experience. Right from the first notes, you can feel what it’s like to be at the venue with Gaye and his formidable band. In fact, maybe this is what it’s like to be in the same room with him… or the same bed. Love it or hate it, if you listen to Live at the London Palladium, you’re going to get intimate with Marvin Gaye.
“That’s the groove right there,” he whispers, breathily of course, in the quiet before the explosive blues of “Come Get To This.” Then the horns blare, reminding us of the toolbox of influences that Gaye brought to this record, both as a performer and songwriter. After a few short minutes of this song—one that many casual fans in the audience would have been excited to hear, since it was a top five R&B single from ’73—he segues seamlessly into that legendary soul ballad, “Let’s Get It On.” The guitar’s first four crooning notes are so well-loved that they’ve become a cultural touchstone, a cliché-in-sound that, today, for better or worse, are often mistaken for the opening credits to a porn. Perhaps the clichéd nature of “Let’s Get It On” is a testament to its staying power. In any event, the live version is refreshing. Near the end, Gaye brings the band down lower. Then lower. His singing voice becomes conversational. “It’s a little warm in here, baby,” he murmurs, “I’m gonna get comfortable.” We—the ladies and, hell, the guys too—can picture him removing his silk blazer and loosening his collar. “I been a gentleman a long time. No, baby don’t get nervous.” This gets a warm laugh from the audience. Even in the midst of this somewhat ear-burning section, Gaye signals the band, demonstrating an effortless control over the whole ensemble.
The technical skill of Gaye and his orchestra are on display throughout the record, but perhaps most obviously in the interstices. Songs flow naturally into one another with hardly a pause. This is no easy feat. The interconnected nature of the performance reminds us of another album of his, released six years earlier, called What’s Going On—one of the first ever so-called “concept albums.” What’s Going On was original in many ways, but not least of all due to the blending of tracks, the same sort of smooth continuum that’s reproduced at the Palladium. Gaye pushes this approach to its limit on three epic “Medleys” that guide listeners through his hit singles of years past, from “Ain’t That Peculiar” to “Save the Children.”
However, while the “concepts” that mattered in What’s Going On were war, poverty, and suffering, Palladium focuses on love, sex, and relationships. Though Marvin Gaye had more than his fair share of love and sex, he struggled throughout his life to build stable relationships with people of either gender. The tragedy of this fact lends Live a kind of dramatic irony that would not have been apparent to his audience in 1976, before the public gained perspective on his troubled personal life.
Maybe the most interesting aspect of the album is the singer’s fleeting vulnerability that breaks through at surprising moments. At the end of the first medley, his performance of “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You)” morphs into a love song to us, his audience. But for once it’s an innocent love song, one lacking the sexual overtones of the others. He thanks us, and the pathos is palpable. With the introduction of the third medley, his tone softens at the mention of Tami Terrell, his famous partner from “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” who perished from a brain tumor in 1970 when she was only twenty-four years old. Gaye mourned her by abstaining from recording for three years. Some sources suggest he never really recovered. In fact, the performance at the Palladium marks the tail end of a creative and physical rejuvenation that lasted most of the decade, but after ’76, cocaine addiction and tax problems gradually sapped his vitality. Those problems, along with the deterioration of his second marriage, would plague him for the short remainder of his life. In many ways, the show at the Palladium was a high point for him.
The conversational sections of Live at the London Palladium are a mixed blessing. At times he overdoes it. Then again, I could be speaking from my lofty perch here in 2015, many years after Al Green, Barry White, Isaac Hayes, and others took the art of the musician’s monologue to its logical endpoint. It’s perhaps an unfortunate reality of the modern cultural landscape that you can no longer conduct a little pillow talk with your audience during the bridge of a good love song. Successive waves of music in the years since 1976 have made us all a little suspicious of amorous asides. Think Bill Murray’s classic SNL satire of lounge acts. At any rate, if Marvin Gaye unwittingly offends prudish ears with his silky mumbling, can we really blame him? He, along with the others mentioned above, basically invented it. I say we cut him some slack.
The funny thing is that people bought the album—in droves—not because it’s a fantastic synthesis of live shows (though it most certainly is), but because of the lone studio track that appears at the end of the record. This song, the most infectious disco single of Gaye’s career, would become the driving force that made Live at the London Palladium successful. But “Got To Give It Up” is an afterthought. It’s tacked on at the end, like the baby camel at the caboose of the desert caravan. Besides, what’s a studio track doing on a live album anyway? Though Gaye is not around to answer this question, the good news is “Got To Give It Up”—all twelve minutes of it—is funky as hell. No wonder Robin Thicke and Pharrell wanted to borrow it.
Thicke and Pharrell’s true offense was not jealousy, but a lack of originality. And originality was something that Marvin Gaye had in spades. I don’t know of anyone else who would tack a top-selling disco sensation—honestly, one of the only disco songs worth listening to—onto a perfectly coherent live record. “Got To Give It Up” doesn’t really fit on Live at the London Palladium. But then again, though Gaye himself was a perfect fit for his time, he might not have been a great fit with the people whom he chose to consort with. The impulsiveness and sexual bravado that characterized him were also the things that attracted the most criticism. “Got To Give It Up” expresses all of the above. In that case, the anomaly of it is exactly what the moment called for. The instinct to include it is what makes this album, and Marvin Gaye himself, unique.