In February 1981 Marvin Gaye moved to the seaside town of Ostend in Belgium, as a guest of the concert promoter Freddy Cousaert. This was a rescue mission for Cousaert, as well as an unmissable opportunity: a fan of Gaye, he had found him holed up in the Britannia Hotel in London, depressed, physically ill, freebasing cocaine, surrounded by prostitutes and drug dealers. Running from one acrimonious divorce, a second collapsing marriage, record company conflict and enormous IRS debts, Gaye’s global route took him from L.A. to Hawaii to London and finally the cold shore of Belgium. Here, immersed in North Sea air and coastal tranquility, he got comparatively healthy: he liked the old world of Europe, so far from his family and Motown, the federal authorities and tax collectors, and in this unlikely haven took up physical exercise again, cycling along the seafront and running along the beaches. He also started to play and produce new music at European gigs arranged by Cousaert and recording sessions with Odell Brown and Gordon Banks at Katy Recording Studios in Ohain. What eventually came out of this was a hit record for CBS that was trashy and banal but also struggled to hide the scars of deeper conflict and unhealthy impulses.
Midnight Love is in a lot of ways a bad record and is considered a sad (if lucrative) coda to the Motown run. But it is also a fascinating album that documents the closing stages of emotional and physical dissolution even as it aims for uncomplicated mainstream appeal. All of this conflict and contradiction is distilled on ‘Sexual Healing’ — the global, immortal smash hit that barely conceals the wreckage beneath its shining, fragile surface. Forty years later the disconnect between this song and the reality of its creation is complete, which was maybe the intention: the overall effect is like a disguise or a cover-up, smothering anguish between the sheets. So symbolic and ubiquitous, it is difficult to remember a world in which this song didn’t exist to talk about sex in the most obvious way possible: it created a cliche. But the poison and anguish underlying it was only partially obscured by the exquisite exterior: if you listen carefully to the details and the context of its composition then you get something different altogether.
There is some debate about the origin of the lyric. In April 1982, Rolling Stone sent David Ritz to Ostend to interview Gaye and, as Ritz later wrote in his biography A Divided Soul, “the song was born out of our conversation concerning pornography. Gaye’s apartment was filled with sadomasochistic magazines and books by George Pichard, a European cartoonist in whose drawings women were sexually brutalised. I suggested that Marvin needed sexual healing, a concept which broke his creative block.” Ritz claimed a lot for this conversation and sued for royalties, eventually receiving credit after settling out of court with the Gaye family, but a lot of other people who were there (including all the musicians involved) disputed the extent and details of his contribution. Whatever the case, the story makes as much sense as anything else because ‘Sexual Healing’ does not truly drag Gaye out of the dirt even though it superficially aspires to.
One of the interesting things about Gaye as a singer, writer and producer is his interest in sex. This side of his work is sometimes considered to be a decline from the socially committed peak of What’s Going On, but the personal drama of his 1970s opened up vast psychological and sexual terrain for Gaye to explore and resulted in his greatest records. Let’s Get It On (1973) was an uncomplicated carnal statement compared to the sumptuous, symphonic masterpiece I Want You. On this later album — recorded in 1976 in Gaye’s newly built recording studio that was partly modeled on Hugh Hefner’s Playboy pad — the ego was fractured in layers of multi-tracked vocals and overdubbed strings, horns, ARP synthesizer and percussion assembled by Leon Ware and Gaye. It was a lush, expansive sound that existed on the edge of desire: dissolving agency in erotic reverie, seeking spiritual transcendence, yet racked with self-loathing and insecurity. On the other side stood Here, My Dear, the 1978 album that formed part of his divorce settlement to Anna Gordy. This financial arrangement provided Gaye with unexpected artistic inspiration, driven by a combination of resentment and regret: he composed an elongated address to Gordy that was part paean and part assault and would leave her threatening to sue for invasion of privacy. It was a massive monument to spite and petulance, but also an exceptionally beautiful album about the painful knot of love, sex and money. Gaye relished the idea of Gordy listening to the likes of ‘Anna’s Song’, ‘You Can Leave, But It’s Going to Cost You’ and ‘When Did You Stop Loving Me, When Did I Stop Loving You’ but didn’t particularly want to be in the room when she did. Gordy later said, “I think he did it deliberately for the joy of seeing how hurt I could become.” Gaye replied, “all’s fair in love and war.”
Covering the same sort of territory as Let’s Get It On, I Want You and Here, My Dear, Midnight Love had a lot to live up to lyrically and sonically, and in the circumstances and on those terms it never stood a chance. But, unless you are a rock critic, that doesn’t matter at all: the album did different things, some successfully and some with real aesthetic aftershocks and thematic shadows in the unfolding decade. The creative core of the project was Gaye and the multi-instrumentalist and producer Gordon Banks, who recalled that “it was basically him and I in the studio. Columbia Records gave him some new toys to play with. They gave him two drum machines, a synthesizer called a Roland TR-808 and a Jupiter 8. Marvin didn’t know too much about technology so it was my job to figure out how to get the stuff working. He kind of liked the sounds that came from it and he went from there.” The album sounds just like this, too: a weird mix of casual lo-fi synthesizer experiments and complex guitar and vocal overdubs, with additional expenses such as the horn sections added by Harvey Fuqua back in L.A. The sound that Gaye and Banks got out of the Jupiter and the 808 had its own place in the world of New York Boogie, post-disco, Rick James and Prince; CBS executive producer Larkin Arnold also recalled that Gaye had been listening to a lot of reggae and Kraftwerk since his extended stay in London. Unlike his ARP-inflected 1970s work, Midnight Love was almost entirely synthetic and would help to ignite the era of electronic soul: Mtume’s 1983 smash ‘Juicy Fruit’, for example, was a direct descendant of ‘Sexual Healing’ (and another Arnold executive production).
There is no doubt that ‘Sexual Healing’ is the outstanding product of this phase – nothing else Gaye did in what remained of his 1980s comes close. Strip away the years of radio rotation and descent into parody, strip away the lyrics, and you are left with beautifully layered, reggae-inflected synth-pop: there is a detailed poignancy to the track, with an undertow of pure melancholy, a sound texture that creates switches of tone and shards of melody, an effect verging on Pointillism. Add the lyrics back onto this and it becomes something else again: something much weirder than the lingerie and flowers clichés we now respond to or recoil from. The song is born out of sickness and despair, that much is clear (“I think I’m capsizing, the waves are rising and rising”) and the immediate remedy is to pick up the phone for “sexual healing” from a girlfriend — or even, the song suggests, a prostitute (“if you don’t know the thing you’re dealing…”). I’m “sick” Gaye declares (down the phone) and you are “my medicine”: “open up and let me in” he implores, “I can’t wait for you to operate.” He extends the medical metaphor and it’s just off, unpleasant: the sexuality is diseased but can be cured by sex as medication or a surgical operation, basically reducing to his default treatments of the time: drugs, pornography, prostitutes.
This kind of clinical and damaged approach to sensuality and seduction is the undertone of the entire album. ‘Til Tomorrow’ is a good example of this, a ballad made out of analogue synths and a saxophone worn like a rented tuxedo. Gaye somehow makes this combination sound as flat and queasy as possible, thereby capturing a certain congealed romantic ideal: rose petals scattered over black satin sheets; red lace underwear over taut, toned skin; champagne in crystal flutes and lines of coke chopped out on glass table tops in rooms decorated with pastel stucco and Art Deco panels. It sounds horrible, sleazy, ill, creepy, like something out of The New York Ripper. It’s a conceptualization of sex that matches the most obvious ideals and routines of the time, but exposes their corrupt instincts and damaged impulses. ‘Midnight Lady’ is a rushed ‘Super Freak’ rerun that simply exists to evoke the crepuscular underworld of nightclubbing: “They tell me something’s going on in the backroom,” Marvin sings, “did you save a line for the ladies?” The multilayered vocal on ‘Rockin’ After Midnight’ tries to revive the carnal reveries of I Want You but sounds thin, flat and empty over the fizzing electro-funk track, terribly brittle in comparison to its luxurious predecessor. Midnight Love was conceived as a cynical party record, a stab at commercial rather than spiritual resurrection, but the psychological ill-health and physical fatigue could not be concealed: it is evident in the sound and the edges of the words, not only on the skeletal synth experiments but also the exquisitely detailed hit single. In one way, it worked: CBS got their hit and Gaye returned in triumph to America, but the record also triggered the final unraveling of his entire life.
After Midnight Love things got even worse: hard to look at and to listen to, but still fascinating. Forced back on the type of tour he hated, Gaye resorted to tawdry stripteases at the end of his show: backing dancers ripped silk gowns off his back to reveal the former prince of Motown standing defeated in black underpants. He had been obsessed with two apocalyptic scenarios since the conception of his final Motown album In Our Lifetime?: nuclear war and the rise of Teddy Pendergrass. The former, at least, was not exactly far-fetched around the time of Able Archer and KAL007, but it led to drug-fueled Messianic delusions: his mission, he informed a stupefied music journalist who interviewed him in London, was to “tell the world and the people about the upcoming holocaust and to find all those of higher consciousness who can be saved.” In the meantime, he remained surrounded by drug dealers, prostitutes, guns and thugs, arranged in a ring of steel to protect him from the assassination attempts he was convinced were coming. Living in this febrile, feverish atmosphere and still addicted to cocaine and porn, the relative health and stability of Ostend was a quickly receding memory by 1983. Locked in his sister’s apartment with Banks and a 4-track recorder, he continued further down the path set by Midnight Love but with added doses of paranoia, despair and disillusionment. ‘Masochistic Beauty’ was more low-voltage synthetic funk over which Gaye took the role of a sexual dominatrix, rapping in a mannered and slightly fey English accent, thereby uniting two things he loved: the British aristocracy and sadomasochistic pornography. ‘Sanctified Lady’ — originally titled ‘Sanctified Pussy’ — was Gaye’s final, obscene attempt to combine the carnal with the spiritual: the song, inevitably, communicated fatigue, sickness and contempt for the world, a vocoder-led provocation. He told Ritz: “It says: boyfriend here, girlfriend there. Herpes germs everywhere. Some girls do, some girls don’t. Some girls will, some girls won’t. I want a sanctified pussy.”
Hanging over Midnight Love and ‘Sexual Healing’ is the future, then, and this is where the poignancy and excess becomes unbearable: not just in terms of what happened next to Gaye, but what happened to everyone. In 1991, in ‘Junk Bonds and Corporate Raiders’, Camille Paglia wrote: “Everyone of my generation who preached free love is responsible for AIDS. The Sixties revolution in America collapsed because of its own excesses. It followed and fulfilled its own inner historical pattern, a fall from Romanticism into Decadence.” What Paglia directly addressed and what was often missing in Gaye’s own life was responsibility: for ideas and actions, their implications and outcomes. The ideals he sought in love and sex were purity, sweetness, monogamy and spiritual transcendence, but what he often courted or collapsed into was promiscuity, decadence, physical dissolution, emotional torment. From the healthy shag pile of Let’s Get It On to the sensual deluge of I Want You to the corrupt seduction of Midnight Love, Gaye’s aesthetic of sexual freedom — complex and conflicted in his case but essentially acting on and exploiting the libertarian impulse of the 1960s — would be damaged irreparably by HIV and AIDS. When Gaye released Midnight Love in 1982, the epidemic was only beginning to spread in San Francisco, New York and L.A., but its shadow falls back over the album and makes the sexual statements on it even bleaker. Through a retrospective lens and in this context, the medical metaphor of ‘Sexual Healing’ suddenly sounds darkly ironic and gruesomely articulate.