The Album List: #67 Marvin Gaye “What’s Going On?”

Soul. A music with its roots in gospel and the blues, a rich tapestry of takin’ it to church and deep grooves.

And on top of it all was Marvin Gaye, smooth voiced and charming. The man who followed Sam Cooke was a troubled man, but he could sing. Man. Could. He. Sing.

Through out the sixties, as a Motown solo artist and as a famed duo with Tammi Terrell, Gaye was a superstar singer, and the prize in Berry Gordy’s stable. But after Terrell’s death from a brain tumour at the age of 24, and his younger brother Frankie’s reports of action in Vietnam, where he was serving, a depressed and morose Gaye began to write a song cycle that would cause problems for him at his label, but would be one of the definitive protest records of the time.

Gaye’s exquisite voice would sing about things Gordy had been avoiding- drugs, war, poverty, environmental disasters. An honest and compelling album, What’s Going On remains the apex of R&B- I really think no one has topped it musically or thematically.  Nine songs that are so achingly perfect, coming on the heels of tragedy and produced by a man who would soon lose control himself.

The title track is one of the few songs that can be ascribed as “flawless”. Co-written by Obie Benson, a Four Top, and Al Cleveland, the song is essentially a letter pleading for love and forgiveness, and an end to the brutal police action against peaceful protest. The bass driven melody lifts Gaye’s magnificent, expansive voice and creates a modern-day hymn, as orchestral touches give the song a gravitas. The song becomes timeless, and it’s as powerful an anti-war statement in 2011 as it was forty years ago.

“Mercy, Mercy Me (The Ecology)” was the first time I had heard an adamant plea for people to be responsible with the planet on which we live. There is an air of resignation in Gaye’s lyrics. It’s a peaen to the past, with visuals of the blue skies and green grass of youth, but it’s not a firebrand song, and it’s more a feeling of “Well, it’s not like it was when I was a kid, but I don’t really have a solution.” It’s a lovely song, with a great sax solo two minutes in, and the gospel flavour of the breakdown. I actually believe it’s Marvin’s finest moment.

Then there is the deep spiritual funk of “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)”, a song about the ghettoization of the American inner city, once the place of vibrant communities of entrepreneurs and artists. The bleak subject matter and rich music leads into a thematic reprise of the title track, but the song stands as a bitter reflection of modern America. Things haven’t really changed since 1971, Marvin.

The other six songs make this richly textured album a master piece, whether it’s the personal and moving “What’s Happening Brother”, the travails of returning vets being addicts in “Flyin’ High (In The Friendly Sky)”, the gentleness of “Save The Children”, the big church love that fills “God Is Love”, the latin tinged jazz and class warfare  that make up “Right On”, and the spiritual richness of “Wholy Holy”. Even a hardened, bitter atheist like me loves these songs, not because of God or any other abstract, but because I know Marvin does believe and he makes it compelling.  His faith was a pure one, and it seeps into his music with an honesty and a true Christian spirit.

I love this album for its political desires and its spiritual comforts.  It remains the greatest Motown album. And I wish Marvin lived to see just what his music inspired, as I sit with a collection of soul (Maxwell) and hip hop (Common) that clearly followed his lead.


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