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Retro Rewind: “What’s Going On” by Marvin Gaye

Marvin Gaye | Photo Courtesy of Wikipedia Commons

The artist

Marvin Gaye (born Marvin Pentz Gay Jr.) started his music career as a vocalist with The Marquees. After the group disbanded, he worked as a session musician and songwriter before becoming a successful solo artist and doing duets with several prominent Motown artists (including Mary Wells, Kim Weston and Tammi Terrell).

“I Heard It Through The Grapevine” became his first song to reach the top of the Billboard Hot 100 chart in late 1968. After splitting with Motown in 1982, he signed with CBS Records. In total, Gaye recorded 17 studio albums as a solo artist and six collaborative albums with other musicians.

On April 1, 1984, Gaye became involved in a fight with his father, Marvin Gay Sr. and was fatally shot in the chest. He has been nominated for 12 Grammy Awards, winning two of them, as well as a Grammy Lifetime Achievement Award in 1996.

In addition, Gaye was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 1987, and the Songwriters Hall of Fame in 2016. During his career, Gaye earned the nicknames “Prince of Motown” and “Prince of Soul.”

The tracklist

The opening track, “What’s Going On,” has a mournful tone in response to the faded counterculture movement of the 1960s along with multiple tracks of crowds singing in the background, emphasizing the goodness of humanity and wondering “what is going on in this society?”

This leads into the next track, “What’s Happening Brother,” which was dedicated to Gaye’s brother Frankie. This track discusses how war veterans feel a disconnect when they return to their homes and attempt to integrate back into society.

“Flyin’ High (In The Friendly Sky)” deals with its subject being addicted to heroin, and takes its name from a United Airlines slogan. Following this is “Save the Children,” a track that acts as a call to action to help struggling children.

“God Is Love” is a song dealing with the aspect of Christianity and how God and Jesus have become friends to Gaye. Next is “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology),” which focuses on environmental issues and contains a killer tenor saxophone riff from Wild Bill Moore.

“Right On” is a seven minute jam containing elements of funk rock and Latin soul, and it shows off Gaye’s falsetto quite well. “Wholy Holy” is another religion-inspired song that pleads for its audience to band together and support the idea of love instead of hate as their salvation.

The closing track of this album is “Inner City Blues (Makes Me Wanna Holler),” which addresses poverty in urban areas, with its final moments containing a reprise of the album’s opening track.

The production

The creation of the album and its title track occurred when Renaldo Benson, a member of the Four Tops, was traveling with the band on their tour bus. Benson witnessed Bloody Thursday, an instance of violence between protestors and police that took place at People’s Park in Berkeley, Calif.

Benson, Gaye and songwriter Al Cleveland wrote the tune together in 1969. Crediting the 1965 Watts Riots as a pivotal experience in his life, Gaye asked himself at the time “with the world exploding around me, how am I supposed to keep singing love songs?”

“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,” Gaye said in an interview with Rolling Stone. “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.”

Recording sessions for the song “What’s Going On” began on June 1, 1970 at the Hitsville U.S.A. studio in Detroit. Instrumentation for the song was provided by Motown’s backing band The Funk Brothers. The recording sessions for the single were very laid-back due to “marijuana smoke and rounds of Scotch.”

The layered vocals on the track were an accident; Gaye had wanted engineer Kenneth Sands to show him the two lead vocal takes to help decide which to use on the track’s final mix. However, Sands and fellow engineer Steve Smith put both tracks into one mix, which created a sound that Gaye adored.

When Gaye showed Motown founder Berry Gordy the finished track, Gordy was not amused by it, calling “What’s Going On” “the worst thing I ever heard in my life.” However, the track was released to record shops by Motown executive Harry Balk and sales executive Barney Ales, selling over 200,000 copies. Gordy was shocked by the song’s success and discussed making the complete album with Gaye at the latter’s home.

The remainder of the album was recorded in 1971 between March 1 and March 10 at Hitsville U.S.A. and the Golden World studio (also located in Detroit). A mix of the album was finished on April 5, while a more integrated mix was created at West

Hollywood’s Sound Factory at the beginning of May by Gaye and his engineers. The latter version of the album became its finished product.

What critics thought of “What’s Going On”

When “What’s Going On” was released, it became Gaye’s first album to chart in the top ten of the Billboard 200 chart, reaching the sixth position. It also received positive reviews from critics at the time.

Reviewing both “What’s Going On” and Stevie Wonder’s album “Where I’m Coming From,” Rolling Stone’s Vince Aletti mentioned that “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.” Meanwhile, Time magazine lauded the album as a “vast, melodically deft symphonic pop suite”.

Later reviews have stayed in a similar vein of positivity. Gary Graff, writing for the guidebook MusicHound R&B, stated that “What’s Going On” was “not just a great Gaye album but is one of the great pop albums of all time.”

David Katz for BBC Music wrote that the record is “one of the greatest albums of all time, and nothing short of a masterpiece” and mentioned that “its non-standard musical arrangements, which heralded a new sound at the time, gives it a chilling edge that ultimately underscores its gravity, with subtle orchestral enhancements offset by percolating congas, expertly layered above James Jamerson’s bubbling bass”.

In 1985, writers for the music magazine NME called “What’s Going On” the greatest album ever made. A poll by British newspaper the Guardian (unrelated to Wright State’s) in 1997 ranked the album at the top spot regarding the 100 best albums. The album was added to the National Recording Registry in 2003.

What I think about the album

Personally, I am a huge fan of concept albums as well as records addressing social issues, especially when they’re done right and communicate their subject matter without sounding overly preachy.

“What’s Going On” tackles its subjects head-on with plenty of flair, and the result is a groovy masterpiece. This is a great entry point for anyone wanting to listen to Marvin Gaye’s music outside of hits like “Let’s Get It On” or “Sexual Healing.”

With what is currently happening in the world right now, I feel that everyone should listen to “What’s Going On” to see humanity’s issues tackled with soul, passion, and grace after the counterculture movement, Woodstock and the Vietnam War, and I hope that hearing this album will inspire others to take charge and handle the issues we face today in a similar manner.