Time for another edition of Rick’s Picks, this time examining an album that I always have to listen to from beginning to end. With just about every album ever made, there’s at least one track that I could do without. But this one is a masterpiece from beginning to end, and it’s so moving that it can sometimes bring tears to my eyes.
The year was 1971, and Marvin Gaye was at a turning point in his life. He had been with Motown for about ten years, and had given the label plenty of hits. But by this point in time, he knew that music was changing because of all the unrest in the country. There was war and poverty, and the outlook was bleak. His marriage to his boss’s sister, Anna Gordy, was over, and he seemed lost. When his brother, Frankie, came back from Viet Nam, he told him of all the atrocities happening overseas. When Marvin told him about all the turmoil in the U.S., Frankie just kept saying, “Man, what’s going on?”, kind of like “How could all of this be happening?”
So Marvin immersed himself into writing an album that didn’t fit the usual Motown formula of love and loss. That being said, he didn’t want to write a protest album, either. He simply wanted to show the world that he knew what was really happening around him, and that if we don’t start making things right, he held little hope for the future. As soon as the writing was finished, Marvin worked day and night in the studio to put together what he was hearing in his head…harmonizing with himself through the most meaningful lyrics he had ever written, combined with beautiful, sweeping melodies from Motown’s finest studio musicians. He named the finished product after the song that sets the mood for the entire listening experience… “What’s Going On.”
When he first presented it to Motown president Barry Gordy, he was reluctant to release it. After all, Marvin was known for songs that talked of love, sex and happiness. Why would he want to release such a downer? Marvin flexed his muscle and told Gordy that if the album wasn’t released by Motown, it would be the last record he would ever make for the label. Gordy relented, but only if Marvin agreed to “smooth out” some of the grittiness of the album, making it a little more accessible. Marvin agreed, and the album was released on May 21st.
As I stated earlier, “What’s Going On” sets the mood for the whole album, talking about the problems that America was facing. The second track, “What’s Happening Brother”, picks up with the same groove, and directly addresses his brother Frankie returning from the war and wondering how things are at home. The next four cuts roll right into one another, with subject matter that ranges from drug abuse (“Flyin’ High in the Friendly Sky”) to saving the children of the world, to his love of God…and finally into his concern for the ecology, “Mercy Mercy Me”.
Side Two is almost pure gospel, all the way through to the gritty “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)”, his final word on the state of affairs in the world. He addresses the cold, hard facts of ghetto living, and wonders if there is any hope for mankind. The album wraps up like most epics, by revisiting the overall theme of the masterwork, “What’s Going On”.
Much to Marvin’s delight, people noticed…and Gaye was able to prove to his former brother-in-law that he was right. “What’s Going On” struck a nerve with the record buying public, and it became the biggest selling album in the history of Motown. Listening to it today, you can’t help but notice the obvious…could this 40-year-old production be as relevant now as it was then? There’s still war, poverty and unrest, not to mention mishandling of our natural resources.
Unfortunately, the only thing that’s not of this earth anymore is Marvin Gaye. He was responsible for some of the greatest music of the late 20th Century, but “What’s Going On” was his masterpiece, and he knew that he could never again capture that feeling and put it onto vinyl. It truly is a masterpiece. I turned a friend of mine onto it a couple of years ago, and she was knocked out by it…she said it made her “feel”.
I can’t think of a better way to describe it.