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The Marvin Gaye song that inspired alternative rock


Marvin Gaye was a phenomenally forward-thinking figure in music. Starting out as a traditional R&B crooner, Gaye cut his teeth as a studio drummer for the Motown machine before he was allowed to stand up and try to get some hits with his own name. At the same time, Gaye was writing hits for others, including Martha and the Vandellas’ ‘Dancing in the Street and The Marvelettes ‘Beechwood 4-5789’. 

By the time the early 1970s rolled around, Gaye was pioneering quiet storm and neo-soul thanks to his legendary albums like What’s Going On and Let’s Get It On, two giant LPs that propelled Gaye from spirited duet stalwart to all-time legend. But back in the early Motown days, Gaye would do just about anything for hits, including turning into a Jackie Wilson clone on occasion.

That’s what happened when Gaye recorded ‘Hitch Hike’, the spirited R&B song that became one of his earliest hits. Supported by a distinctive syncopated rhythm, ‘Hitch Hike’ was indicative of both the early 1960s sound of R&B and more specifically the kind of music that Berry Gordy wished to pump out in quick succession at Motown. Gaye had only just recently had the moratorium lifted on his singing career, and he was willing to stick to the Motown formula in order to get his feet under his solo career once again.

Not that ‘Hitch Hike’ is a bad song: it’s infectious and catchy with some bluesy Chicago undertones that gave it a broad appeal. Indeed, it didn’t take long for ‘Hitch Hike’ to catch on with other acts, specifically British bands that were eager to cull from black American artists. No band were more thoughtful appropriators than The Rolling Stones, who were still in the pre-stages of the Mick Jagger-Keith Richards songwriting partnership.

For the 1965 album Out of Our Heads, the Stones opted to cover ‘Hitch Hike’, retaining the signature opening beat. More straightforward and rock-infused than the original, the Stones’ version of ‘Hitch Hike’ came as the band were beginning to hit their peak of popularity. Out of Our Heads also featured the band’s first number one single, ‘(I Can’t Get No) Satisfaction’, and scores of young listeners first heard ‘Hitch Hike’ as a Rolling Stones song.

That included Lou Reed, who had managed to hear both the original Gaye version and the later Stones version. Recognising the power of the song’s central rhythm, Reed decided to swipe it for The Velvet Underground’s ‘There She Goes Again’. Both tracks open in identical fashion, making ‘There She Goes Again’ a more-or-less direct nod to ‘Hitch Hike’.

As the song’s parent album The Velvet Underground and Nico began to take on a mythical reputation among underground musicians, covers of the album’s tracks began to proliferate among up-and-coming alternative rock artists. R.E.M. played ‘There She Goes at some of their earliest live shows, and their version of the song can be heard on their compilation album Dead Letter Office.

But the Stones’ version of ‘Hitch Hike’ was still embedding itself in the memories of young musicians. One of those young musicians was an English guitarist named Johnny Marr, who wrote The Smiths’ ‘There Is A Light That Never Goes Out’ to utilise the same rhythm as ‘Hitch Hike’. Marr was a fan of the Stones’ version of the song, and included the figure to see if writers would knock him for ripping off The Velvet Underground. Marr knew the origin of the rhythm, even if he didn’t trace it back as far as Marvin Gaye.