After some several days of reflecting and pondering and general thought (which is very unusual), I still can’t think of non-complimentary things to write about myself.
- Marvin Gaye in the liner notes of What's Going On
What's Going On was a landmark album, both for Marvin Gaye himself and also for the whole of black popular music. Not only was it the very first concept album from a soul artist, but it also broke away from the hit-making love songs that had dominated Motown1 throughout the 1960s. Gaye helped to write and produce all the tracks on the album, which was another first for Motown and it spurred on his fellow artists, such as Stevie Wonder, to get control over the writing and production of their own records.
When Marvin Gaye's singing partner, Tammi Terrell, died of a brain tumour in March 1970, he went into seclusion and didn’t perform live for the following two years. He tried to find other things, besides singing, that would lift his spirits, including a failed attempt to join The Detroit Lions.
After these efforts to change careers he met Al Cleveland and The Four Tops' Reneldo 'Obie' Benson who were working on a song, that confronted the wrongs in America, entitled 'What's Going On'. When Gaye helped to complete the song Cleveland and Benson persuaded him to record it by himself, so on 1 June, 1970 he entered the studio and recorded it along with his own compositions; 'God Is Love' and 'Sad Tomorrows'2.
Gaye submitted 'What's Going On' as a single (with 'God Is Love' as the B-side) to Motown head Berry Gordy. Gordy didn't want to release it, saying it wouldn't be popular enough to be financially viable. Gaye, who by now was feeling more and more constricted by the hit-making machine of Motown, refused to record anything else until it was released.
Gaye was too much of a star for Gordy to ignore, so on 20 January, 1971 'What's Going On' was finally released, it became an instant hit (#1 R&B, #2 US Pop). Gordy, seeing what a hit it was and wanting to exploit this new area, asked Gaye to record a whole album with similar tracks. So in March Gaye re-entered the studio and over ten days recorded his great album: What's Going On.
Gaye's brother, Frankie, had arrived back in 1967 after three years in Vietnam; his reports of the horrific ordeal gave Marvin the inspiration for What’s Going On. It was written as if from the viewpoint of a veteran returning home to find that everything had changed, the soldier was asking 'what's happening?', 'what's going on?'. However, the titles of the songs deliberately didn't have question marks, Gaye was letting people know what was taking place rather than leaving open questions.
Previously Gaye's songs had offered escapism to the listeners, but he thought that they were getting more and more irrelevant next to the world concerns of that time. What’s Going On reflected the situation in America and the world in the early 1970s, with themes ranging from the Vietnam War to racism, drug abuse, poverty, police brutality and unemployment it certainly wasn’t anything like Gaye, or Motown, had recorded in the past.
What's Going On has a dark, jazzy and relaxed feel to it, with heavy bass lines, bongos, conga and other percussion providing the background. By allowing The Funk Brothers to play in an open and unrestricted atmosphere it meant they created the best music of their whole careers with Motown3.
But Gaye kept the album completely soulful and it brims with emotion and passion. For the first time Gaye overdubbed his voice several times which adds extra dimensions and levels to the songs. He used this technique in many of his recordings after this including 'Let’s Get It On' and 'Sexual Healing'.
What's Going On was originally mixed in Detroit without Gaye around, although this was the usual practice at this time Gaye wanted to produce the music himself to make exactly the sound that he wanted. This meant the previous mixes were scrapped4 and Gaye re-mixed the music.
Consisting of six tracks that run seamlessly into one another.
'What's Going On'
This is a protest song that describes how America was torn apart by the Vietnam War, civil unrest, poverty and racism in the early 1970s. But in contrast to other protest songs of his contemporaries, such as James Brown or Sly And The Family Stone, it has a laid back; warm and even compassionate feel to it with jazz influenced rhythms and soulful saxophone breaks.
The song uses the family both literally and metaphorically i.e. the lyrics 'Father, father / We don't need to escalate' could be a reference to Gaye's strained relationship with his own father, or equally a plea to God. And likewise, 'Brother, brother, brother / There's far too many of you dying' could be a message to his own brother Frankie or the brotherhood of all humankind. However, Gaye also gives an answer to his own pleas that reoccurs throughout the album; that 'only love can conquer hate'.
'What's Happening Brother'
Almost 'What's Going On Pt. II', this is about a confused war veteran who returns home from one hell to find that home isn’t much different; there is unemployment, depression and poverty. Using lush strings and vocals with congas and relaxed bass lines this is a song full of emotion.
'Flying High (In A Friendly Sky)'
Taking us to even darker depths than the previous two tracks, this is about heroin addiction and the pain and suffering it brings5. Starting with cymbals, drums, bass and Gaye's own falsetto it strikes a very ominous tone.
'Save The Children'
This track has a simple message; 'live life for the children', i.e. make a world worth living in for the next generations. The song is the best example of Gaye’s overdubbing technique on this album. Starting simply with Gaye speaking the lyrics over strings, percussion and bass, he then adds a pained vocal repeating the lyrics after his speaking. Gradually, as the vocal gets filled with emotion, and as the percussion and bass build up, it takes over from the speaking until the song reaches an emotional frenzy. It then returns to a melancholy mid-tempo that closes the track.
'God Is Love'
Originally recorded as the B-side to the single, 'What's Going On', the album version is much shorter6, it also has a much heavier and more relaxed feel, that fits in well with the rest of the album. Taking us out of the depths of near hopelessness in 'Save The Children', this song reassures us that God will forgive sinners and that 'all he asks of us is that we give each other love'.
'Mercy, Mercy Me (The Ecology)'
Another single from this album (with 'Sad Tomorrows' as it’s B-side) it brings us back down to tell of another human wrong; the destruction of the environment. At the end he asks; ‘What about this overcrowded land / How much more abuse from man can she stand’, it then gives way to a saxophone solo, the horns and finally to the backing vocals which ends side A.
With only three tracks, side B has lengthier, jazz influenced pieces.
This song is about a man trying to find his place in the world and about love. With jazzy interludes between the laid back vocals and saxophone and flute solos, the track flows effortlessly over the 7 minutes.
An almost unearthly track that links the end of 'Right On', about love and peace, onto the emphasis of 'People got to come together'.
'Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)'
After the almost upbeat themes of 'Right On' and 'Wholy Holy' the final track brings us sharply back down to earth with a jerk. The track conveys Gaye’s rage and despair about poverty and corruption in the inner city areas. At the end there is a short reprise of What's Going On that brings us full circle, back to the start of the record.
The front cover of the record shows a close up of a distressed and bearded Gaye7 standing in the rain gazing upwards, as if to heaven. The sleeve gave a hint as to the change in Gaye's career from a Motown singer to an artist in his own right, it also hinted as to the subject matter of the album; the image on the back shows Gaye standing in a deserted and decaying inner city garden.
Inside were the lyrics listed alongside the personnel8, a message from Gaye and a spread of family photographs, it gives the impression of a very personal project.
What’s Going On immediately received critical and commercial success on its release in May 1971 (#1 R&B Albums (for 9 weeks), #6 US Pop Albums), by the end of 1972 it had sold over two million copies. In the following years many artists covered songs from this album including Aretha Franklin, Gil Scott Heron, Donny Hathaway and in 2001 a cover of 'What’s Going On' featured an all-star line-up of artists from a range of genres, all the proceeds went to the Artists Against AIDS Worldwide campaign.
Perhaps the saddest thing about What's Going On is that none of the tracks have dated at all over the last 30 years, the issues that Gaye wrote about are still as relevant today as they were in the early 1970s. Gaye's expression of his frustration and concern over these problems still leaves an amazing impression today and the tracks still sound extremely fresh.