ON THIS DATE (May 21) Marvin Gaye: What’s Going On is released.

May 21, 1971 – Marvin Gaye: What’s Going On is released.

RF Rating 5/5 stars
# Allmusic 5/5 stars
# Billboard (favorable)
# Chicago Tribune 4/4 stars
# Robert Christgau (B+)
# The Observer 5/5 stars
# Q 5/5 stars
# Rolling Stone 5/5 stars
# Slant Magazine 4/5 stars
# Uncut 5/5 stars

What’s Going On is the eleventh studio album by Marvin Gaye, released May 21, 1971 on the Motown-subsidiary label Tamla Records. Recording sessions for the album took place in June 1970 and March–May 1971 at Hitsville U.S.A., Golden World and United Sound Studios in Detroit, Michigan and at The Sound Factory in West Hollywood, California.

The first Marvin Gaye album credited as produced solely by the artist himself, What’s Going On is a unified concept album consisting of nine songs, most of which lead into the next. It has also been categorized as a song cycle, since the album ends on a reprise to the album’s opening theme. The album is told from the point of view of a Vietnam War veteran returning to the country he had been fighting for, and seeing nothing but injustice, suffering and hatred.

What’s Going On was the first album on which Motown Records’ main studio band, the group of session musicians known as the Funk Brothers, received an official credit. Featuring introspective lyrics about drug abuse, poverty and the Vietnam War, the album was also the first to reflect the beginning of a new socially conscious trend in soul music. What’s Going On was both an immediate commercial and critical success and has endured as a classic of early-1970s soul. A deluxe edition set of the album was released on February 27, 1972, and featured a rare live concert shot at Washington, D.C.’s Kennedy Center where the singer was given the key to the city.

In worldwide critics/artists and public surveys, it has been voted as one of the landmark recordings in pop music history and is considered to be one of the greatest albums ever made. In 2003, the album was ranked number 6 on Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 greatest albums of all time.

In late March 1970, Marvin Gaye had fallen into a deep depression following the death of his singing partner and fellow Motown artist Tammi Terrell, who died of a brain tumor earlier that month. Gaye refused to record or perform, going as far as to attempt an athletic career in football with the Detroit Lions of the NFL. After an unsuccessful tryout for the team, Gaye came in contact with musician Al Cleveland and the Four Tops’ Renaldo “Obie” Benson, who were working on a politically conscious song called “What’s Going On”. Gaye assisted Cleveland and Benson in completing the composition, and planned to produce the song as a recording for the Motown act The Originals. However, Cleveland and Benson persuaded Gaye to record the song himself.

In June 1970, Gaye recorded “What’s Going On” and his own composition, “God Is Love”, which further expanded Gaye’s inclusion of his spirituality in his music. Recording such material was a different direction for Gaye, who had previously performed and recorded radio-formatted and contemporary songs that were more representative of the Gordy-produced Motown Sound rather than politically or socially-conscious music. When Gaye delivered the songs as the sides for his next 45 RPM single his brother-in-law, Motown Records CEO Berry Gordy, Jr., objected to the material and refused to release the recordings. After already permitting other Motown artists to record and release material that hinted social and political themes – Edwin Starr’s “War”, The Temptations’ “Ball of Confusion”, both released earlier in 1970, and Stevie Wonder’s “Heaven Help Us All”, released later in the year – Gordy considered “What’s Going On” far too political to be released on radio and also too unfamiliar for the popular music and sound of that time to be commercially successful. Gaye, however, stood his ground and continued to lobby his case to label executives and to Gordy, as he did not want to be bound by Gordy’s or Motown’s version of music.

In an interview for Rolling Stone magazine, Marvin Gaye discussed what had shaped his view on more socially conscious themes in music and the conception of his eleventh full-length, non-duets studio album:

In 1969 or 1970, I began to re-evaluate my whole concept of what I wanted my music to say… I was very much affected by letters my brother was sending me from Vietnam, as well as the social situation here at home. I realized that I had to put my own fantasies behind me if I wanted to write songs that would reach the souls of people. I wanted them to take a look at what was happening in the world.
—Marvin Gaye

Gordy eventually gave in, certain that the record would flop. Upon its release in January 1971, “What’s Going On” became Motown’s fastest selling single at that point, going to the number-one spot on the R&B charts for five weeks and number-two for three weeks on the Pop listings, with “Joy to the World” by Three Dog Night retaining the top spot.

After this success, Berry Gordy requested an entire accompanying album. Gaye began recording the tracks that would eventually comprise his best-known work, the What’s Going On album, handling all of his own production and some of his own songwriting. The entire album was originally mixed in Detroit, with Marvin Gaye out of town and not present. This mix, dubbed “The Detroit Mix”, was scrapped and redone, with Gaye present, in Los Angeles.

The content of What’s Going On was that of a politically charged and deeply personal Motown album, and was notable for including elements of jazz and classical music instrumentation and arrangements. The record was among the first soul albums to place heavy emphasis on political and social concerns such as environmentalism, political corruption, drug abuse, and the Vietnam War, in which Gaye’s brother, Frankie Gaye, had served for three years for the U.S. Army. However, after hearing a preliminary mix of the record, Berry Gordy was not offended by Gaye’s embrace of countercultural politics, but was bothered by the album’s format, which had each song leading to the next. This flow of sound was unconventional and not suited for radio airplay, conflicting with Gordy’s main focus – the commercial aspect. The album’s stylistic use of a song cycle gave it a cohesive feel and led What’s Going On to become known as the first soul music concept album.

The critical and commercial success of the album was immediate and significant. What’s Going On remained on the Billboard Pop Album Charts for over a year and sold over two million copies until the end of 1972, making it Marvin Gaye’s best-selling album to that date until he released Let’s Get It On in 1973. In addition, What’s Going On received the highest ratings from several leading American publications, including Time, Rolling Stone (who named it “Album of the Year”), The New York Times, and Billboard, who gave it the Billboard Trend setter Award of 1971. Upon release, Rolling Stone magazine music critic Vince Aletti praised What’s Going On for its thematic approach towards social and political concerns, while also mentioning the surprise of Motown releasing such an album. In a review of the album and Stevie Wonder’s Where I’m Coming From, Aletti wrote:

Ambitious, personal albums may be a glut on the market elsewhere, but at Motown they’re something new… the album as a whole takes precedence, absorbing its own flaws. There are very few performers who could carry a project like this off. I’ve always admired Marvin Gaye, but I didn’t expect that he would be one of them. Guess I seriously underestimated him. It won’t happen again.
—Vince Aletti

Later on, many artists from different musical genres covered songs from the album, most notably live recordings by Aretha Franklin (“Wholy Holy” on Amazing Grace) and Donny Hathaway (“What’s Going On” on Donny Hathaway Live), as well as Robert Palmer’s medley of “Mercy Mercy Me/I Want You”, among others. “Mercy Mercy Me” was featured as the b-side to The Strokes’ single “You Only Live Once”.

What’s Going On has been reissued on cassette tape and compact disc as well. In 2001, a “Deluxe Edition” 2-CD version of the album was released by Motown, which included the original LP as released, the discarded “Detroit Mix” of the album, and the mono 45 RPM mixes of the singles. Also included was a recording of Gaye’s first live concert performance after two years away from the stage following Tammi Terrell’s illness and death, performed at The Kennedy Center Auditorium in his native Washington, D.C., on June 1, 1972.

In 1985, writers on British music weekly the NME voted it best album of all time. In 2004, the album’s title track was ranked number 4 on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 greatest songs of all time. A 1999 critics poll conducted by British newspaper Guardian/Observer named it the “Greatest Album of the 20th Century”. In 1997, What’s Going On was named the 17th greatest album of all time in a Music of the Millennium poll conducted in the United Kingdom by HMV Group, Channel 4, The Guardian and Classic FM. In 1998 Q magazine readers placed it at number 97, while in 2001 the TV network VH1 placed it at number 4. In 2003, it was one of 50 recordings chosen that year by the Library of Congress to be added to the National Recording Registry. What’s Going On was ranked #6 on Rolling Stone magazine’s 2003 list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, one of three Gaye albums to be included, preceded by 1973’s Let’s Get It On (#165) and 1978’s Here My Dear (#462). The album is Gaye’s highest-ranking entry on the list, as well as several other publications’ lists.

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