[Classic Album]: Marvin Gaye – ‘What’s Going On’ 40th Anniversary

‘War is not the answer, For only love can conquer hate’

I should probably preface this article with a disclaimer that I may be biased since ‘What’s Going On’ happens to be my favourite album of all time. However, the reason for this stems further than the artistic merit of the work, which is widely accepted to be beyond dispute, but also the rebellious context of its release and its undeniable effect on music since.

The story of ‘What’s Going On’ is not just one of Marvin Gaye, but of Motown and America in general at the beginning of the 1970s. In the late 60’s, student demonstrations against racism and the Vietnam war were being met with increasing violence from government forces, and so in turn the demonstrations themselves were escalating into violent minded affairs. Furthermore, following the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968, black rage and militancy were on the rise. Three particular riots would be the inception of ‘What’s Going On’.

On 11th August 1965, a racially motivated D.U.I. arrest in the Watts neighbourhood of Los Angeles, CA sparked a powder keg of racial tension into a large scale, six day riot which would leave over a thousand people injured and thirty four people dead. When Gaye heard of the riots on the radio, it would sow the seeds of disillusion with his corporate styled image as a sex symbol that would manifest itself in ‘What’s Going On’. He told biographer David Ritz: ‘My stomach got real tight and my heart started beating like crazy. I wanted to throw down the radio and burn all the bullshit songs I’d been singing … I wondered to myself, “With the world exploding around me, how am I supposed to keep on writing love songs?”’

On 23rd July 1967 Detroit, MI, the home of Motown Records, was burning. What began in the previous evening as a routine police raid of an after-hours bar on 12th Street had escalated into a full scale riot by the afternoon, after Mayor Cavanagh requested federal help when local law enforcements were overpowered. Drugstores were firebombed, machine guns rattled and tanks rumbled past Motown’s offices on West Grand Boulevard. The label’s founder, Berry Gordy, was a strict businessman who saw music as a lucrative commodity and whose systematic approach had made Motown a major label force. Politically and socially conscious music loaded with messages were not, strictly speaking, commercially viable products. However, with the Motor City in flames and tanks rolling past his offices, Gordy had to accept that politics was in the air whether he liked it or not.

In May 1969 the Four Tops pulled into Berkeley, CA to witness the violent police taking of People’s Park, where police mercilessly evicted students protesting the fencing off of said park with nightsticks, tear gas and buckshot. The band’s Obie Benson told Ben Edmonds, “I saw this and started wondering what the fuck was going on … Why are they sending kids so far away from their families oversea? Why are they attacking their own children in the streets here?” Alongside lyricist Al Cleveland, Benson wrote a song capturing this sentiment that would become ‘What’s Going On’.

By March 1970 Gaye was completely disillusioned with his career and the world. He had withdrawn into depression and refused to record or perform after his long time singing partner Tammi Terell had died of a brain tumour. Furthermore, his marriage to Anna Gordy, Berry’s sister, was crumbling and he was having continual arguments with Motown over the frustratingly safe material they wanted him to record. In this period he was particularly affected by conversations with his brother Frankie, who had returned from a three year tour of Vietnam in 1967 to a string of menial labour jobs and disrespect. When Benson and Cleveland came round to pitch the song to him, though he was still hesitant about returning to music, he was bursting at the seams with ideas and an urge to do something that meant something. According to Benson, “[Gaye] added some things which were more ghetto, more natural, which made it seem more like a story than a song.” Gaye took over production and personnel recruitment, determined on creating a peaceful atmosphere in the studio that would reflect the music being made. The alto sax solo that opens ‘What’s Going On’ for example was just saxophonist Eli Fountain’s warm up which Gaye deemed perfect, while the conversational hubbub in the background is merely recorded conversations from the studio. Alongside new recruits the Funk Brothers and Motown arranger David Van DePitte, Gaye produced the single ‘What’s Going On’ with B-Side ‘God Is Love’ and plans for an album to follow.

When Gaye approached Berry Gordy with the song, Gordy balked at the idea and declared the song to be “the worst thing I’ve ever heard.” Gaye responded by going on strike until his demands were met and soon enough ‘What’s Going On’ was rushed out by the company in January 1971 without Gordy’s knowledge, only to become Motown’s fastest selling single to date reaching number one in the American R&B charts and staying there for five weeks. Upon this success, Gordy reluctantly requested an entire album. There were counter-culture singles released previously under the Motown label like Edwin Starr’s roaring ‘War’ and Martha Reeves & The Vandellas’ accusing ‘I Should Be Proud’ that cracked the label’s strictly commercial profiteering mould, but What’s Going On burst it wide open. ‘What’s Going On’ was released in May 1971 to immediate commercial and critical success, selling over two million copies by the end of 1972 and declared ‘Album of the Year’ by several publications.

The album’s cover features a brooding Gaye staring into the distance as rain clings to his hair, beard and the collar of his coat which he has turned up against the elements. It is a serene picture of contemplation which mirrors the albums reflective nature and next to Gaye is the simple title ‘What’s Going On’. The lack of a question in the album’s title, which on the face of it may seem to be merely a grammatical issue, speaks volumes about the album’s intent. ‘What’s Going On?’ implies a vagueness, a lack of understanding and a child like feeling of being utterly lost. However, ‘What’s Going On’ explicitly asserts a total understanding of reality. In short Gaye isn’t asking, he’s telling: THIS is what is going on in America NOW. The album follows the narrative of a Vietnam soldier who returns home to find things are not quite the same as he left them and addresses the social issues of ghetto life he witnesses, from war and environmental dangers to drug addiction and unemployment. This narrative approach is enhanced by each of the tracks thematically segueing one into another seamlessly thanks to Van DePitte’s flawless arrangements. So integral were Van De Pitte’s contributions that he was credited on the album’s cover.

The album begins with the title track, awakening to the hubbub of conversation and Fountain’s smooth sax solo before Gaye declares: ‘Mother, mother, / There’s too many of you crying.’ The song rides along on smooth strings and gospel influenced vocals as Gaye preaches exuberantly ‘War is not the answer, for only love can conquer hate.’ The hopeful optimism of ‘What’s Going On’ leads seamlessly into the conversational scepticism of ‘What’s Happening Brother?’ where jobs are tight and Gaye asks ‘Are things really getting better like the newspapers say?’  ‘Flyin’ High (In The Friendly Sky)’ depicts the protagonist falling into drug addiction, ambivalently professing ‘So stupid minded, / But I go crazy when I can’t find it’. The lyrics are complemented perfectly by the soporifically swaying atmosphere evoked by the orchestra, where the drums and guitar leave space for the strings and Gaye’s voice to soar. ‘Save The Children’s’ environmental plea for the future brings things back to ground level, where Gaye performs a spoken monologue asking ‘Who is willing to save a world which is destined to die?’ while an overdubbed Gaye echoes these words with gospel inspired fervour.  ‘God Is Love’ returns to the joyful atmosphere of the title track with dynamic piano and upbeat bongos, where Gaye preaches his spiritual beliefs. Throughout though Gaye does not seem to be patronisingly proselytising, but rather giving a matter of fact account of the world he sees.

‘Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)’ begins with a repeat of ‘What’s Going On’s’ thematic motif before launching into a more lively ecological prayer as Gaye asks ‘What about this overcrowded land? / How much more abuse from Man can she stand?’ Right On incorporates influences of jazz and beat music for a seven minute funk interlude before leading into a prayer for all mankind: ‘Wholy Holy’. Consisting almost solely of a mellow saxophone, sweeping strings and, as ever, Gaye’s impassioned crooning, the song floats majestically and calls to all to ‘Holler love across the nation’. As the saxophone and Gaye’s falsetto intertwine into a joyful climax, ‘Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)’ kicks in with an ominously repeating piano chord, meditative bongos and Gaye scatting. There is a definite influence of beat poets such as the late Gil Scott Heron (who would himself cover this song) in the beat influenced bongos and the cadence of Gaye’s delivery, however Gaye infuses this with his gospel soul sensibilities to give urgency and desperation to his howls and grunts. The track is positively apocalyptic with its stark illustration of ghetto life, political corruption and unemployment and would be an incredibly pessimistic note to end the album on. However, after Gaye is done hollering that ‘This ain’t livin’ baby’, the track links into ‘What’s Going On’s’ hopeful saxophone refrain and Gaye’s soaring voice echoing ‘Who are they to judge us, / Simply ‘cause we wear our hair long?’, before both fade away. In this way the album ends where it started and brings the album to an appropriate close. You could essentially put this album on repeat and it would seamlessly flow for eternity.

The album on its own is worth every penny, but the added material included in the upcoming 40th Anniversary Edition is also of incredible quality and interest. Bar the mono and single mixes of album songs which remain for audiophiles only, the previously unavailable tracks are an unbridled joy and provide a great insight into the relaxed atmosphere of the album sessions and Gaye’s musical direction. It was clear that the 60’s were over and the 70’s loomed ominously over America, and Gaye was determined to move with the times. Gaye’s next studio album ‘Let’s Get It On’, which would prove to be his best selling, would serve as a benchmark for funk and sexual balladry that pervaded the 70’s. ‘Head Title’ on the first disc would make its way onto ‘Let’s Get It On’ under the name Distant Lover, while the largely instrumental tracks on the second disc show Gaye’s increasing interest in the funk sound. The rhythmic hooks and compelling melodies of ‘Help The People’ and ‘Struttin’ The Blues’ hint at ‘Let’s Get It On’, while the bluesy ‘”T” Stands For Time’ and The Kinks riffage of ‘Daybreak’ point to his soundtrack work on blaxploitation film ‘Trouble Man’. In addition, superb songs that didn’t make the cut for ‘What’s Going On’ such as ‘I’m Going Home’ and the subsequently released single ‘You’re The Man’ only go to prove that Gaye was in an astoundingly prolific stage in his career. Very few reissues give you the feeling of being able to peek behind the wizard’s curtains and see what’s going on, but this reissue definitely achieves this intimacy.

The influence and resonance of ‘What’s Going On’ is hard to understate. Gaye’s record not only brought social consciousness into the Motown realm, but also afforded its acts far more creative freedom. Albums were not a collection of singles anymore, but rather a coherent piece of work unto themselves. Stevie Wonder had left Motown after they refused him the creative freedom he wanted. After ‘What’s Going On’ changed the game, Motown raced to resign Wonder with promises for as much creative freedom as he desired. The following year Wonder would release the instantly successful ‘Talking Book’, followed shortly in 1973 by arguably his greatest album ‘Innervisions’ which tackled similar issues to ‘What’s Going On’. Sly & The Family Stone’s album ‘There’s A Riot Going On’, concerned with Tricky Dicky and dark politics, was named in direct response to Gaye’s album. The fact that artists from varying genres from Aretha Franklin and Gil Scott Heron, to more contemporary artists such as John Legend & The Roots and The Strokes have covered songs from the album and cited it as an influence only go to illustrate ‘What’s Going On’s transcendent appeal which continues to resonate today.

In fact if there were a contest for ‘Most Significant Album of All Time’, I would nominate ‘What’s Going On’ without a second’s thought.

 

The 40th Anniversary Edition of ‘What’s Going On’ is in record stores now.

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[Album Review]: Savage Nomads – ‘Coloured Clutter’

‘There were no prior circumstances or meditated answers, / I made it by thinking fast and on my feet’

As Savage Nomads would be the first to claim, the influences evident in their work are too innumerable to mention. The more prominent influences of indie, dub, prog and shoegaze don’t even skim the surface of the influences Savage Nomads have absorbed and forged into their own sound. Singer Cole Salecwicz explains: “Music is very liberating, and in it you can find all of life’s truths. When we realised that, we decided we never wanted to play anything that sounded the same as other people”.  It is clear from their debut album ‘Coloured Clutter’ that the band have stayed true to this ethic since not only do they possess a unique sound, a difficult feat in itself to pull off on your debut, but there are also moments where the band remain surprising and undeniably brave.

From first listen it is clear that as a band Savage Nomads operate as a unit, intuitively in sync with one another in their pursuit of musical freedom. Cole’s gobby, syncopated motor-mouthed vocal delivery immediately grabs your attention and refuses to let you go. Switching effortlessly between spitting out rhymes to flamboyantly crooning for his soul, Cole comes from a re-emerging breed of singer that unapologetically explore their vocal capabilities that has sadly been missing in recent decades. This unconventional vocal approach is complemented by Joe Gillick’s equally idiosyncratic guitar playing who has a knack of choosing the note in a progression that you weren’t thinking of, but needed to hear. In this way his hooks lodge themselves firmly in your consciousness. Holding up the rhythm section bassist Josh Miles and drummer Billy Boone keep the music firmly grounded and on course while adding vitality and a cohesive dynamic that ties the Savage Nomads’ sound together.

The songs that kick off ‘Coloured Clutter’ act as a perfect introduction to the band’s varied sound. The album begins with the gently melodic instrumental ‘A Statement’ before launching the schizophrenic ‘The Shamanic Verses’ which swings between ska rhythmic verses before delving into dream-like choruses, like breaking the surface of the sea and grabbing short gasps of air before diving into the depths again. The scope of their sound then expands in the delay laden guitars and tribal chanting of ‘The Magic Eye’. Divided by the experimentalist ‘A Dire Dub’, the album gets a second Frankenstein-like jolt of life in ‘What the Angel Said‘. Riding along on a jazz influenced syncopated riff, the song jerks you back into vivid clarity just as you were starting to get all hazy. It is these unpredictable moments that make Coloured Clutter’ such an invigorating listen. Tracks ‘Pineapple’ and ‘Part 1.’ act as unexpected spoken word interludes against soporific backgrounds that echo The Doors’ ‘Horse Latitudes‘, while Eternal Elizabeth’ drifts on an ocean of sparse melodies before An Empty Seat’ builds from this murky territory into an urgent chorus that has its sights firmly set on the stratosphere.

The apparent element that distinguishes ‘Coloured Clutter’ as such a gem is the thread of continuity that Savage Nomads weave throughout. Whereas many contemporary artists regard the album as merely a vessel to deliver a collection of songs, Savage Nomads fully utilise the form to its full potential as a unique and coherent body of work. All the songs, though markedly individual, work together to create something grander and more than merely the sum of its parts.

In short, ‘Coloured Clutter’ is a nomadic journey from wave to wave and star to star: Never resting, always moving and always interesting.

‘Coloured Clutter’ is available from record stores on Alaska Sounds now.

[Cover Me]: Idiot Glee and She & Him

There is no denying that some cover versions of songs are awful (think the busker on Belmont st. who plays ‘Wonderwall’ exclusively. Badly) and in some cases just plain redundant. However, when an artist brings their own personality and in some cases completely transforms the original song, the artist adds something to that song and can bring their influences to a much wider audience. ‘Cover Me’ is a feature I hope to make a weekly affair where I will upload tracks for your pleasure, which I feel belong in the latter category of cover versions. So, away we go…

Idiot Glee – ‘Ain’t No Sunshine’ (Originally by Bill Withers)

Kentucky native James Friley recently released an ace debut Paddywhack under the moniker Idiot Glee which I urge you to check out, but before this he came to my attention with this ethereal cover of Bill Withers’ mournful howl of desire. Idiot Glee takes Withers’ sparse arrangement and transposes it to a more contemporary, electronic influenced musical territory. The cavernous echo and ghostly choir of Friley’s voice puts you directly in the shoes of the guy walking the empty rooms of his house where his lover once was, where the only sound to be heard are his own footsteps and voice reverberating back at him. This is soul, but not as you’d know it.

She & Him – ‘Lotta Love’ (Originally by Neil Young)

I am a big fan of the vocal dynamics of a male/female duo and in recent years She & Him, consisting of folk musician M. Ward and actress Zooey Deschanel, have been filling that hunger with their brand of sugar-sweet folk pop goodness. This cover of a fairly obscure Neil Young track was released as a B-side accompanying their debut single ‘Why Do You Let Me Stay Here’, and on hearing it for the first time it took my breath away. It’s a beautiful, melancholic ditty and She & Him’s simple arrangement of intertwining vocal harmonies centring around mellow acoustic guitar really brings out the earnest sentiment behind the song: ‘My heart needs protection, so do I’

[Artist Spotlight]: Anna Calvi

‘Time stands still, but I feel you by my side / But this, this moment is running out of time.’

Beguiling to hear, bewitching to see; Anna Calvi is an artist I’ve been interested in writing about since before I started this blog. There have been many comparisons to Jeff Buckley which I can certainly recognise. Her guitar sound is definitely reminiscent of Jeff (clean, yet biting, courtesy of Leo Fender’s finest creation) and in certain areas there are touches of the deceased wonder e.g. The harmonium tinged ‘Morning Light’ echoes ‘Lover, You Should Have Come Over’. The ghosts of Roy Orbison and Duane Eddy also linger around Calvi’s lacerating guitar tone. However, despite what some critics will say Calvi’s debut is no Grace and is certainly not a ‘This-is-what-they-would-be-doing-if-they-were-still-alive’ moment. And that is a good thing. It is clear that Anna is incredibly serious about her music and I’m sure she would agree when I say that such declarations do her music a disservice. Comparisons are flattering; declarations of Second Coming are not.

Instead, Calvi’s music seems to have more in common with the music of Bat for Lashes, Leonard Cohen, Nick Cave (who personally invited her to support Grinderman on tour) and Ennio Morricone. What I love in her music, along with the aforementioned artists, is her ability to create entire worlds with her music. Calvi’s songs play out like a movie scene lifted from Byronic poetry. The teasing tango in the fleeting glances stolen between two lovers. The shadowy fumbling while the door key refuses to enter the lock. The midnight confessions in the candle light. The hearts left shattered like glass in the streets, while mourned love flows into the gutters. Calvi’s songs invoke crepuscular worlds of passionate trysts and broken vows, where living with your heart on the edge of a knife is the only true meaning of existence. These are worlds we have glimpsed in those rare instances in which we have briefly surrendered ourselves to purely living in the moment. In Calvi’s self titled debut, these moments are eternal.

From the opening instrumental ‘Rider to the Sea’, echoing the haunted deserts invoked in Morricone’s spaghetti western soundtracks, to the wailing denouement of ‘Love Won’t Be Leaving’, Calvi’s eponymous debut crackles with electricity and seductive drama. ‘I’ll Be Your Man’ is a perfect example of her dynamically fierce approach. Informed by her varying influences from blues to opera, Calvi’s voice soars on the chorus while the predatory guitar prowls during the verses like a sole lioness in the desert, before heading for the kill in the outro. Calvi is backed by multi-instrumentalist Mally Harpez and drummer Daniel Maiden-Wood who perfectly support and complement Anna’s bombastic vision and together the trio form an intimate, but sinister sounding live set-up.

Calvi was recently listed in The Guardian’s festival guide as an essential experience for festival goers and I for one am ambivalently glad of this recognition. When chancing upon a precious stone of breathtaking beauty, the initial reaction is always to quickly conceal it from all others and hide it away for your sole fascination. The same is true when coming across such a wondrous talent as Anna Calvi. However, you soon realise that the true pleasure lies in sharing such a mind imprinting experience. So if you are heading to any festival Calvi is performing at, I strongly urge you to seek her out and allow yourself to be awe struck. If not then buy her album, for having listened to it since its release I can strongly predict that it will be album of the year on many a critic’s list, especially The Sun Also Rises’.

Anna Calvi’s debut is available from record stores on Domino now.