I Heard It Through the Grapevine”‘s high note is a definitive test for pop singers. Just three lines in, you have to leap up an octave in the middle of a phrase and nail a crucial word of the lyric “some other guy.” Interestingly, the melody as Norman Whitfield and Barrett Strong wrote it doesn’t seem to go that high: on the earliest recording, not released until last year’s Motown Sings Motown Treasures, Smokey Robinson just sidles up the scale a little, and Gladys Knight’s 1967 hit version is still simmering in the low end until the end of her first verse. Marvin Gaye’s reading of “Grapevine,” recorded before Knight’s but released in ’68, introduced the note and set the bar for it: an effortless backflip up to an agonized accusation, a thrilling little shock of sexual jealousy.
After that, the high “guy” couldn’t be avoided: as Basil Bunting wrote of Pound’s Cantos, there are the Alps, fools! Singing “Grapevine” with CCR in 1970, John Fogerty dispatches his “guy” with a raw holler, slurring the words around it (“shumutha GAH”) to make it pop out a little more. The Slits’ Ari Up, in their dubbed-up 1979 version, wraps the note up in a cocky victory trill. Even poor Buddy Miles, in his 1987 nadir as a California Raisin, wrenches himself into an exasperated long jump for it. On his new Gravelands, Elvis-impersonating necrophile The King spins it with the old King’s churchy vibrato, but comes off as smirkingly technical. The new “Grapevine” hero, though, is Pavement’s Steve Malkmus. Backed by Silkworm (as the Crust Brothers) on Marquee Mark, he can’t get anywhere near the note, so he reinterprets the lyric as an explosion of terror. Quaking with embarrassed rage, his voice cracks and squeals when he gets to “guy.” It’s brilliant singing, honoring his own voice’s limitations, the song’s depth, and Gaye’s mastery.