Marvin Gaye: What’s Going On

ON THIS DATE (41 YEARS AGO)
May 21, 1971 – Marvin Gaye: What’s Going On is released.
# ALL THINGS MUSIC PLUS+ 5/5
# Allmusic 5/5 stars
# Rolling Stone (see original review below)
What’s Going On is the eleventh studio album by Marvin Gaye, released on this date in May, 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. 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.
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.
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’ 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.
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.
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.
ORIGINAL ROLLING STONE REVIEW
Ambitious, personal albums may be a glut on the market elsewhere, but at Motown they’re something new. These, from two of the Corporation’s Finest, represent a subversive concept, allowed only to producers the overseerstars of Motown’s corporate plantation as long as they didn’t get too uppity. Both Gaye and Wonder have been relatively independent at Motown, their careers following their own fluctuations outside the mainstream studio trends, but these latest albums are departures even for them.
Both are self-produced and largely self-composed (Wonder working with his wife Syreeta, Gaye with six others including his wife Anna) personal “statements.” For the first time on the label, both albums contain printed lyrics. Another unexpected precedent: after all these years. Motown has begun to give credit to its studio musicians, listing 39 of them on Gaye’s album and acknowledging for the first time that such people really exist.
Unfortunately, awkwardness easily slipped over in the flow of a song is painfully evident when that song is reduced to printed lines. Although both albums suffer from this over-exposure of lyric stiffness, Gaye’s work is much more supple and conversational ultimately smoothing itself out on what is a very fine record while Wonder’s is too self-conscious and edges into pretentiousness (“Suffocate the new high Ride the thorny mule that cries ‘Dig your grave and step right in'”) the recently-developed Curtis Mayfield Syndrome becoming nearly incomprehensible when sung.
This is not Stevie Wonder’s first self-produced album he did his last, Signed. Sealed and Delivered. as tight and soul-satisfying as any to have come out of Motown but clearly Where I’m Coming From is an attempt to establish a more completely personal, idiosyncratic style and project it on his own terms. Already one of the most inventive, expressive singers performing today, Stevie apparently wanted an opportunity to loosen up outside the confines of the typical Motown single. But he blew it. Not only are the lyrics sadly undistinguished, but much of the production and arrangement is unusually self-indulgent and cluttered with effects that too often obscure the utter virtuosity of Wonder’s singing.
At its worst, in “Do Yourself A Favor” and “I Wanna Talk to You,” both more than five minutes, Wonder gets so hung up on exploring this virtuosity that he runs it into the ground. Failing to realize that an extravagant vocal style draws a great deal of its strength from a contrasting, coolly-controlled arrangement which will set it off to greatest effect, Wonder tends to sink everything in thick studio veneer; the use of doubletracking for vocal self-accompaniment is especially overused.
The most successful cuts, “Think of Me as Your Soldier” and “If You Really Love Me,” are short, unassuming love songs, pleasant vehicles for the Wonder charm. Here his off-hand intensity, his intimate heavy breathing, his joyous yelps stand out clearly as exciting elements of a warm, sensuous style. In the end, though, even vibrant vocals fail to carry the album beyond its own excesses. Quite a disappointment.
Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On is an even more ambitious effort. Where Stevié was content to deliver his messages–however blurred–in three or four songs, Gaye has designed his album as one many-faceted statement on conditions in the world today, made nearly seamless by careful transitions between the cuts. A simple, subdued tone is held throughout, pillowed by a densely-textured instrumental and vocal backing.
At first this sameness in sound persisting from one song to the next is boring, but gradually the concept of the album takes shape and its wholeness becomes very affecting. The style is set in the first cut, “What’s Going On,” with its sweet horn opening line; Gaye’s soft, simmering voice reflecting in on itself beautifully from two or three tracks; the contrast of congas and strings; the breaks an exciting jumble of street-corner jive and scatting. As they are throughout, the lyrics here are hardly brilliant, but without overreaching they capture a certain aching dissatisfaction that is part of the album’s mood.
“What’s Happening Brother” picks up from “What’s Going On,” strengthening its impact by making its situation more specific: a brother returning from Vietnam and trying to get his bearings on the block again, shifting between questions about old hang-outs and fears that there’s no work anywhere: “Say man, I just don’t understand/What’s going on across this land.” “Mercy, Mercy Me” is one of the most bearable ecology songs, a genre that doesn’t seem to inspire especially subtle or intelligent lyrics; Gaye’s are inoffensive and the song itself is lovely. Considerably changed from the version that had backed the 45 of “What’s Going On,” “God Is Love” still has a strange attraction. It begins, “Don’t go and talk about my father/God is my friend,” and kinda grows on you.
“Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)” ends the album and is one of its finest cuts. Again, an effective combination of latin drumming and strings with multitracked vocals make the most of direct lyrics: “Make me wanna holler/The way they do my life/This ain’t livin’, this ain’t livin’/No, no baby, this ain’! livin’.” Taking the album full circle, “Inner City Blues” blends back into “What’s Going On,” confirming itself nicely.
One or two other cuts don’t hold together quite as well (“Right On,” the longest number, misses) but 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. (RS 88)
~ VINCE ALETTI (August 5, 1971)
TRACKS:
All songs produced by Marvin Gaye.
Side one
“What’s Going On” (Al Cleveland, Marvin Gaye, Renaldo “Obie” Benson) – 3:53
“What’s Happening Brother” (James Nyx, M. Gaye) – 2:43
“Flyin’ High (In the Friendly Sky)” (M. Gaye, Anna Gordy Gaye, Elgie Stover) – 3:49
“Save the Children” (Cleveland, M. Gaye, Benson) – 4:03
“God Is Love” (M. Gaye, A. Gaye, Stover, Nyx) – 1:41
“Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)” (M. Gaye) – 3:16
Side two
“Right On” (Earl DeRouen, M. Gaye) – 7:31
“Wholy Holy” (Benson, Cleveland, M. Gaye) – 3:08
“Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)” (M. Gaye, Nyx) – 5:26
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.
What’s Going On was reissued and remastered in a deluxe edition with 28 additional tracks. It was released on May 31, 2011 and received general acclaim from music critics. At Metacritic, which assigns a normalized rating out of 100 to reviews from mainstream critics, the album received an average score of 100, based on nine reviews, which indicates “universal acclaim”

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