It starts ominously, with a single drum shot followed by a dangerous-sounding electric-piano riff and a portentous tambourine rattle. The song creeps up on us, and its instrumentation — from the swirling, stabbing strings to the jittery piano on the fade-out — tells us all we need to know about the situation. The world is not to be trusted. This man has found out that he’s being played by his woman, and he is totally messed up about it.
One of the most successful songs ever put out by Motown, “Grapevine” was initially rejected several times by CEO Berry Gordy, who disliked it for some unfathomable reason. And when he did finally allow the tune through, he gave it to Gladys Knight and the Pips, who delivered a fun, upbeat hit. But it was Gaye’s lovelorn version, taped one year before, that became the all-timer, allowing the singer to start his drift away from the hemmed-in Motown hit machine toward the type of songwriting freedom that characterized What’s Going On. Here, he simply delivers one of the coolest songs ever about getting cheated on.
(Browse the All-TIME 100 Songs and more than 100 other pop culture lists on TIME’s Populist iPad app)