Happy 45th Anniversary to Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, originally released May 20, 1971. [Stream album and watch videos below]
OK, let's just get this out of the way. Marvin Gaye's What's Going On LP is a masterpiece. If it’s not in your top five or at least within the realm of your top 10 albums of all-time, then I seriously think you need to reevaluate your list. Not many albums give you a snapshot of the world at the time of its release and still remain very relevant decades later. What’s Going On most certainly does.
Toward the end of the late 1960s, Marvin Gaye had fallen into a deep depression. His singing partner Tammi Terrell was diagnosed with a malignant brain tumor and his marriage to Anna Gordy, sister of Motown founder Berry Gordy, was falling apart rapidly. Gaye’s self-medicating through his increasing dependency on cocaine sent his depression into overdrive. Despite the success of "I Heard It Through the Grapevine,” he did not believe his success was real. He often said he was just a puppet of Berry & Anna Gordy and he didn't deserve the praise he received. He began to feel the need to be independent. Stevie Wonder began to do it, so why couldn’t he?
Things became worse for Gaye on March 16, 1970. Tammi Terrell finally succumbed to her tumor just five weeks before her 25th birthday. Gaye went into a prolonged seclusion. Besides producing the hit songs “Baby, I’m For Real” and “The Bells” for the Motown vocal group The Originals, Gaye begin to change his looks and his attitude. The clean-cut, nice guy image was gone. His sleek, formfitting suit and tie were replaced by sweatsuits, a pierced ear, and a beard. There was even an ill-advised pursuit of a tryout with the NFL’s Detroit Lions. Gaye told Rolling Stone magazine that it was time for him to "re-evaluate my whole concept of what I wanted my music to say.”
The original seeds of the song “What's Going On" were planted by Four Tops member Renaldo "Obie" Benson, who originally began writing the track after witnessing an incident of police brutality against anti-war protesters in Berkeley, California’s People's Park. Benson began working on the song and sent a rough version to his other Four Tops bandmates. They turned it down because it was a protest song. He eventually played the song for Gaye and he immediately fell in love with it. Initially, Gaye was going to give it to The Originals, but as time went on, he kept tinkering with the song. The war in Vietnam had a very profound and personal affect on Gaye. He would often get letters from his brother Frankie, who was in the Army. Frankie’s letters described the violence there in great detail. Gaye subsequently incorporated this theme into the song.
On June 1, 1971, Gaye began recording the single “What’s Going On” with some of the members of Motown’s house band, Funk Brothers. The song’s opening saxophone riff was a complete accident. Saxophonist Eli Fontaine began experimenting with his part and did not realize they were recording actual takes. Marvin played it back for Fontaine and he told him that he was just goofing around. Gaye replied, "well, you goof off exquisitely. Thank you." He dismissed him for the day. Gaye also put his signature four octave range to great use. He recorded two different lead vocals for the song and layered them. The engineers accidentally mixed the two versions together. Gaye loved the sound so much that he decided to keep it and leverage the technique for the entire album.
Upon completion of the song, Gaye took it to Berry Gordy. Gordy hated the song, calling it the worst thing he ever heard in his life. He didn’t understand why Gaye was scatting in the song. The Motown Quality Control department also turned down the song. Gordy said it was too political for the radio. Gaye responded by going on strike from recording anything for Motown unless the label brass changed their minds and let him finish the record. Smokey Robinson, who was a Vice President at Motown at the time, was dispatched by Gordy to talk some sense into Gaye. Robinson returned to Gordy saying "it's like a bear shitting in the woods. Marvin ain't budging."
Unbeknownst to Gordy, Motown sales executive Barney Ales sent 200,000 copies out to record stores. In a matter of weeks “What’s Going On” became Motown’s fastest selling single. Acknowledging his previous oversight, Gordy reached out to Gaye to discuss finishing the album. Gordy acquiesced and gave Gaye complete autonomy to do whatever he wanted with the music just as long as he finished recording within 30 days. Between March 1 and March 10, Gaye finished recording the album.
During the final mix that April, Gordy gave it one last shot to convince Gaye that he was making a mistake with this record. Gaye stood his ground and did not agree, and with good reason. If the Temptations were allowed to record “Cloud Nine" and Edwin Starr to record “War", then why was it such a horrible idea for Marvin Gaye to stretch out creatively with a substantive message in his music? Gordy has never said why. Another sticking point with Gordy was the fact that the songs on side one did not fade out from one song to the next. It ran continuously and played like a harmonious suite.
After the title track, we smoothly move into “What's Happening Brother", the song Gaye dedicated to his brother Frankie. It was a tribute to the war veterans who came home and found themselves disconnected from civilian life. The tempo moves a little slower with “Flying High (In the Friendly Sky).” This track is a deep meditation that uses the tagline “Fly the friendly skies" from a United Airlines commercial as a metaphor for someone dealing with a dependency on heroin. The next song is the poignant “Save the Children.” Gaye’s emotional plea to "save the babies" gives the song great depth and he’s clearly in his wheelhouse.
"God is Love" and "Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)” round out side one. The latter track is a personal favorite of mine. Whenever I hear it I think of this one day in first grade when we all brought in 45 RPM records to play in class. My classmate Jill brought in "Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology).” For the record, I brought in Rufus Thomas’ “Funky Chicken.” For years before I even knew what the song meant, it always brought me back to this particular day in first grade. As I’ve listened to the song over the years with adult ears and sensibilities, I constantly marvel at Gaye’s brilliance. Whenever the song comes up in conversation now, I always offer the refrain "Marvin warned us.”
"Right On,” "Wholy Holy," and "Inner City Blues (Make Me Want to Holler)" comprise side two. "Right On" is a Latin soul influenced, seven-minute jam that makes you want to move and by the end it slowly lures you into the heavily spiritual “Wholy Holy.” The combination of these two songs reminds me of a Saturday night long ago that I spent partying until daybreak. The first track was the party I attended and the second track was that slow walk home from the party in which I passed by members of a congregation going into church for Sunday services. My mind, in its semi-drunken state, kept saying, “Don't make eye contact with the holy rollers. They may try to save you.”
Gaye’s post 1970’s music often touched on the themes of sin and salvation. The final song “Inner City Blues" is an epic track that, sadly, can be played over any newscast today if you mute the sound on your television. Once again, Marvin warned us.
The entire album is a brilliant and beautiful opus that gives the listener a clear definition of what was going on in America in 1971. “What’s Going On” has been universally loved and highly praised in all circles. This album began a new chapter in Marvin Gaye's career. There was no turning back. There were no saccharine sweet love songs. From here on in, it was just straight-up, unembellished truth seen from the eyes of a sensitive, tortured genius.