[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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