MVD presents The Albums, a whole new section which we are launching with a look at Marvin Gaye’s classic ‘What’s Going On’ lp.
So, we here at MVD have been doing ‘The Singles’ for a while now, a category that basically allows us to cover the good, the bad, the ugly, the old, the new, the borrowed, the blue etc… in a completely random manner that looks like some kind of agenda or plan. Now we love singles, 3 or 4 minutes of pure musical nirvana, but we are also both of an age where as we were growing up it was albums, not singles that were really important and for ages now we’ve chewed over the idea of a whole strand dedicated to our favourite long players. Not only that but over on our Facebook page we’re going to be starting an “Album Of The Week” feature giving us a chance to highlight our favourite tracks.
To kick things off we knew we needed a classic record, one that in it’s own field represents some kind of high water-mark, an album that resonates because the artistry and content still resonate. Given the crazy, unsettled times we’re living in What’s Going On seemed like a pertinent choice. The messages it contains about war, drug addiction, the environment, inner city life, and the need for more love in the world are as relevant now as they were in the time they were created, when Vietnam, the cold war, civil rights, and racial disharmony were big parts of the social fabric in the Western world at the turn of the 1970’s.
The album’s genesis is the title track, which was written in its original form by Motown songwriter Al Cleveland and was inspired by conversations he had with Four Tops singer Renaldo “Obie” Benson who had witnessed police brutality towards anti-war protesters in Berkeley, California. Benson was outraged by his experience, and conversations with Cleveland produced a song that was initially offered to Benson’s band who turned it down for being too much of a protest song. It was only after a chance meeting with Gaye at a golf course a little while later that they offered it to the singer who took the song and completely reshaped it, writing new lyrics and changing the melody to the point where he insisted on a co-writing credit for the song, which he was duly granted.
The song appealed to Gaye, who had himself been incensed by much of what he saw going on in the world, and had been particularly affected by his brother Frank’s tour of duty in Vietnam. Frank survived but came back with tales of unimaginable horror and violence which troubled Gaye deeply. He no longer wanted to sing the love songs for which he had become so famous, but rather now felt the need to use his music to talk about more serious issues. He contacted Motown boss Berry Gordy about making a protest album who let him know in no uncertain terms how bad an idea he thought it was.
Undeterred Gaye assembled members of Motown’s crack squad of session musicians, known as the Funk Brothers, and began recording the title track. Upon completion he took it to Gordy who called it “the worst thing I ever heard in my life” and refused to release it. In retaliation Gaye went oin strike refusing to record again until it was released. In the end the song was released behind Gordy’s back with the help of Motown executives who loved the song. They sold 200,000 copies before they went to Gordy and told him what they had done. Gordy was happy to be proved wrong it seems and immediately gave Gaye the freedom to make the album he wanted.
Produced by Gaye himself, the result was a record that comes across like a suite or song cycle. Tracks flow seamlessly from one to the next, with Gaye’s multi-tracked vocals weaving around each other to dazzling effect. Kicking off with the title track it then moves effortlessly in to ‘What’s Happing Brother?’ a song which looks at the world through they eyes of a Vietman vet returning home. ‘Flying High In The Friendly Sky’ follows, its lush uplifting arrangement sweetening the lyric about heroin addiction. ‘Save The Children’ and ‘God Is Love’ almost work as one track, and the pleading spiritual content contained here has a gospel like fervour, Gaye’s intensity matched by the sweeping strings and outstanding performances from the band. ‘Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)’ is maybe the most prescient song on the album, a despairing attack on man’s destructive disregard for the environment. ‘Right On’ is the most upbeat track on the record, it’s pulsing latin-funk groove propelled, as so much of the album is, by bass player James Jamerson. ‘Wholly Holy’ is the album’s most overtly religious song, hymnal and full of light. The album closes with ‘Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)’ a dark, brooding lament for the perils of modern city life.
What’s Going On is the record that more than any other moved soul music away from three minute love songs and in to altogether more exciting and adventurous territory. Label mate Stevie Wonder would soon take cues from Gaye and start producing himself, making a string of landmark albums, and elsewhere the likes of Curtis Mayfield, Gil Scott Heron, Isaac Hayes and others would all make records that showed that soul had grown up, and was now capable of a much richer range of expression and could truly reflect the troubled times they existed in.
Records like this are few and far between. Gaye would go on to produce much great work himself in the following decade but would never again produce an artistic vision so complete and perfectly formed. What’s Going On isn’t so much an album as an experience, a journey that is at once both deeply personal and wholly universal. It has a profound elegance and beauty that rewards years of repeated listening. It left me pretty dumbfounded when I discovered it and all these years later it can still have that effect. It’s life-affirming and uncompromising, like all great art should be.