Tied for First: 'Head Title aka Distant Lover' by Marvin Gaye

The first installment of unearthing a musical masterclass

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Marvin Gaye owns the title of greatest song of all time with his enchanting track "Head Title aka Distant Lover."

Angela Chen | Cavalier Daily

I don’t buy all too much into astrology. The stars can be wishy-washy. Sometimes they make incorrect assumptions, sometimes they make me genuinely disbelieve in the self-fulfilling prophecy. But one personality trait that the hardy solar system really pinned me down on was my indecisiveness. Gemini reporting. Lordy, lordy me, making decisions is hard. 

But one decision I was able to make was to get started with this column. A column where I debate with myself about my favorite subject — music. It’s where I’ll shout into my own void, where I’ll change my mind every other week — at my editors’ request — and where I’ll drive my psyche up a wall, but enthusiastically so. Good morning, afternoon and evening, folks. Welcome to Tied for First — an extravagant, over-the-top search to find the one song we — I — can collectively — individually — claim to be the single-greatest musical achievement since the dawn of clicking rocks in-tune. Hopefully for the readers, this column will serve as a space to find new music, a space to gingerly nod along my audacious claims or even a space to write those really crude comments down below that I know The Cavalier Daily is no stranger to. I’d be honored, honestly. 

My internal monologue has been nagging at me to pick the perfect song since my fingers hit keyboard. The first song in this series has to be something really, really spectacular. Shut up, monologue. I decided to do what I do best when making difficult decisions — I closed my eyes in a stimulus-deficient room. And when I shut my eyes in my lukewarm dorm, it came to me. I knew almost instantly what I needed to share with the world — Marvin Gaye’s “Head Title aka Distant Lover” from the 40th anniversary re-issue of his classic album “What’s Going On” is definitively the greatest song of all time. 

You couldn’t count all the versions of this song on your fingers. Toes, even. Gaye made so many, re-recording the song about 20 times. They all exist with their own aroma, defining features and even shortcomings. But one rendition in particular is perfect. In my tedious yet blissful raking through of all its different forms, I’ve decided that the 40th anniversary cut is not only the best of its own bunch, but also the best song of all time. Let me explain.

When Gaye was recording early versions of this song, he was struggling to find the right lyrics and vocal performances for the backing track. While he eventually came up with the lyrics that ended up being “Distant Lover,” I argue that “Head Title” — the improvised, raw version — is far superior. At the very beginning of “Head Title,” you can taste the sour sting in Gaye’s voice as he admits his writer’s block, stating, “I’ve been trying to find a good lyric to go with this melody … so I’m gonna be honest with you, I’m gonna sing what comes right off the top of my head … right from my soul.” Thank the heavens for writer's block.

This is Marvin Gaye’s best studio-recorded vocal performance. Ever. It’s even more awe-inspiring than that one time when he was literally lying down on a couch belting falsettos. From the very beginning of “Head Title,” Gaye’s freight-train emotions grab listeners firmly by the shoulders and give them a little shake, but the physical jolt they experience lies deep in the soul. This song defines ‘70s soul music — Marvin Gaye’s naked spirit is transparent and vulnerable, his warbling words make his scarlet soul shimmer in a blinding light, as if he’d found just the right message to convey on the surface of the sun. 

The words Gaye chooses, honestly, don’t matter too much — he sings of a distant lover, loving said lover and various other love tropes. What matters is the raw emotion locked inside their vehicles of delivery. Gaye moans, he croons, he yearns and he pleads with stern words that blaze and burn like black coals enveloped in an incandescent ember. 

And that’s just the performance. Whoever edited this song, spliced together all the flavors in a Marvin Gaye baked ziti — my life’s fortune to you. One of the most prevalent flavors in the song lies with the background vocals. In most songs, background vocals provide a pretty standard, recognizable and reliable taste to a song, like cherry tomatoes in a house salad. But here, it’s a different seasoning. Here, it sounds like 20 Marvin Gayes stacked on top of one another, reverberating and adding serious depth. Here, the backing vocals are more like pickled onions or balsamic.

The final product — this charred-coal, tart-vinaigrette, soul-infused, made-with-love concoction — is in fact the greatest human achievement of all time. I’ll say it. The zenith of sound production. Maybe my Gemini-tendencies are inflating my emotions right now, who knows? Right now, the stars point me in Marvin Gaye’s direction. Right now, I hope your horoscope points you in the same direction. Wake up, Co-Star. It’s time to listen to perfection.

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