“What’s Going On”, Marvin Gaye, 1971
I remember it being super hot in the car, back in the days with no air conditioning. I rolled down the window with the funky handles in the door of the “Country Squire” station wagon my Mom drove us to the park for the day in. You know the car – they had fake wood panels on the side. We had our towels for the pool and my Mom always packed a picnic basket with egg salad, or cucumber or macaroni loaf sandwiches, a few cans of soda, and maybe a plastic bag of “Old Dutch” potato chips if we were lucky. It was good - my Mom loved us. From the radio played Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On”. I did not really get what the song was about at the time, but I knew I loved the beat, the sound, and the smooth singing.
Marvin Gaye always wanted to be seen as a serious singer. He had submitted to the Motown “pop hit’ machinery, but really came into his own on 1971’s “What’s Going On”.
He had the brilliant “I Heard it Through the Grapevine” in 1968, but he had trouble acknowledging the greatness of this. To this point he had done gospel, swing, soul, and duets – arguably one of the most famous duets being that with Tammi Terrell with the hit “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough”. The emotional bond he felt with Tammi shattered him when she died an untimely death of a brain tumour in 1970, and he fell into a deep depression.
“What’s Going On” was different from all the stuff he had done before. Yes it was a collaboration with fellow ‘Motowners’ Al Cleveland and Obie Benson (Four Tops), but there was a difference - they wanted him to do it - it was his swan song and they knew it. It was soulful, spiritual, and a way for Marvin to gain that independence he always yearned for. It also feels like an outpouring of the emotional pain he had been feeling since Terrell’s death. He clearly gave it all his might and we feel it to this day.
Some say this was the album that set the trend for socially conscious soul music. For Motown this was a move away from pop singles to producing a flowing album. Certainly it was the first album where the session musicians known as the ‘Funk Brothers’ received credit.
As smooth as the individual songs are, this album flows very well from start to finish. Ecology, poverty, and the disappointment the Vietnam vets felt upon their return to the U.S. are themes throughout. The other hits on the album “Mercy, Mercy, Me” and “The Inner City Blues” continued the trend of beautiful orchestration and amazing percussion.
Gaye followed this up with the overtly sexual “Let’s Get it On”, and in 1978 he produced “Here My Dear”, which spawned no hits but is an interesting album in its own right. At this point, he left Motown.
Marvin Gaye was shot dead on April 1, 1984 (one day shy of his 45th birthday) by his father, when he purportedly tried to intervene in an argument between his father and mother. The legacy he left behind lives on.