In the mid noughties I began to delve deeper into soul music, the latest genre to grab my attention in an ongoing bid to expand my musical horizons. Like most of these adventures the results proved revelatory.
I fell for The Temptations, learned that Otis Redding really was as good as everyone claimed. I was blown away by Aretha, marveled at the discovery of Sly and the Family Stone. Came to the shocking realization that Stevie Wonder wasn’t crap after all.
I’d grown up listening to Marvin Gaye in the house so was already familiar with his early output, particularly his poppy love duets with Diana Ross and Tammi Terrell. But I hadn’t heard much of his later work. And so having seen it pop up in a Top 100 albums list for the zillionth time, I finally took the plunge and purchased a copy of his landmark recording What’s Going On.
Released in May 1971 the album marked a dramatic change of style for Marvin, who’d become deeply disillusioned with the social ills plaguing The United States. Told from the perspective of a war veteran returning home from Vietnam (his brother Frankie) What’s Going On casts a sad eye over a broken country, touching on issues of war, police brutality, civil rights, poverty and the environment.
The first time I listened to it I was stunned by what is essentially an exquisite vocal performance. With its sublime melodies and lush arrangements the opening title track sets the mood, Marvin’s angelic vocals echoing and interweaving in a direct plea to the police. ‘‘Picket lines and picket signs, don’t punish me with brutality. Talk to me… so you can see… what’s going on’’.
Although a record seeped in politics Gaye was never much of a political animal himself and here he stakes no claim to fully comprehend the issues at hand. ‘‘Say man, I just don’t understand what’s going on across this land’’ he cries on the tender What’s Happening Brother.
On Flyin’ High (In The Friendly Sky) meanwhile he merely opts to tune out of the whole mess by slipping into a heroin-induced daze. ‘‘And I go to the place where the good feeling awaits me, self-destruction’s in my hand’’. Lyrically it’s a harrowing window into his own demons. Musically, getting ***** up never sounded so idyllic.
With a lack of insightful social commentary and zero solutions on the table the need for empathy, understanding and mutual respect is Gaye’s unchangeable message. It’s a sentiment often channelled through his love for God. Whether the listener is religious or not this can be sweet and genuinely affecting, as on God Is Love (‘‘…and all he asks of us is that we give each other love’’). But elsewhere it’s grating and insipid, as on the lyrically naïve Save the Children, a track so sickly and trite it has you pining for Michael Jackson’s Earth Song.
Thankfully the outstanding Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology) more than makes up for it. ‘‘Where did all the blue skies go? Poison is the wind that blows from the north and south and east’’. An ode to environmental decay, vocally this is Gaye at his most plaintive on an anthem of regret and sorrow.
Things get decidedly funkier with the head-nodding grooves of Right On, a look at the various divisions of humanity. Encompassing race, class, good and evil Gaye is virtually swaggering as he sings ‘‘Some of us were born with money to spend. Some of us were born for races to win’’. With its looser arrangement, wondrous flute solo and jazz-styled piano it’s a welcome change of mood for an album which can at times feel a bit samey.
Seguing into the solemn and preachy Wholy Holy, Marvin urges ‘‘Everybody together, together and holy will holler love across the nation’’ amid slick orchestrations and a sleepy saxophone. The album’s slowest track by some distance, it sets us up nicely for the grand finale.
And what a finale it is! Album closer Inner City Blues (Make me Wanna Holler) is the record’s jewel in the crown. ‘‘Crime is increasing, trigger happy policing, panic is spreading, god knows where we’re heading’’. With its bongo-driven rhythm and menacing undercurrent it’s the closest Gaye comes to showing any kind of anger.
In addition to being one of the most beautiful records I’ve ever heard, What’s Going On also stands as among the most cohesive. With a seamless transition between tracks the whole affair flows effortlessly like one continuous song. It’s fair to say that modern audiences often find it a way-too-shiny and overproduced experience. It can also be argued that lyrically it’s nowhere near as profound as music history dictates. Then there’s his Christianity-trumpeting, another alienating factor for newcomers.
I like to think that each of my top 20 selections offer me something different. With What’s Going On it’s all about that voice, so pure and heartfelt that everything else is secondary, and that to grumble about a lacklustre lyric or begrudge Marvin his love for Jesus seems a little churlish.
Choice Quote: ‘‘With the world exploding around me, how am I supposed to keep singing love songs?’’. – Marvin Gaye.
Choice Lyric: ‘‘Rockets, moon shots, spend it on the have-nots. Money, we make it, ‘fore we see it you’ll take it’’. – From Inner City Blues.
Like this? Marvin Gaye was a deeply complex and troubled man. Anyone with even a passing interest in his music will find an amazing story through Divided Soul, a biography by David Ritz.