Legendary Soul/R&B artist, singer, songwriter and activist Marvin Gaye is known worldwide and is highly respected throughout all musical circles and genres. Marvin’s music always was a step ahead of other R&B acts of his time, lyrically and sonically, but his 1971 masterpiece What’s Going On is arguably his most important work.
Prior to the release of the classic album, Gaye’s music had some moments of philosophical lyricism but the sensual, groovy and soulful standard of R&B Soul music at the time is what his music was based around. Growing up in Washington DC, Marvin had a very rough and rebellious upbringing. Marvin Gaye Sr., the father of Gaye and his other five siblings, was very abusive towards the singer. Marvin would describe the living condition in interviews as “cruel” and “like living around a king”. After a brief and defiant time in the United States Air Force at 17, Gaye was released from service and he began his pursuit of becoming a successful musician.
Influenced by Frank Sinatra and Nat King Cole, especially the latter, Gaye sang in high school with friends in Doo Wop groups such as the Dippers and the D.C. Tones. He would later go on to do session drumming for artists on the label Tri-Phi, and while doing so he met Berry Gordy. Famed and very successful Motown Records CEO. Berry Gordy was very instrumental in spearheading the Motown movement era, empire etc and he also played a great role in Marvin’s success in the business as well. In 1961, Gordy signed Marvin to Tamla Records (Motown Records original name) and released Gaye’s debut The Soulful Moods of Marvin Gaye. It was also around this time that Gaye met and fell in love with songwriter and sister of Berry Gordy, Anna Gordy. The couple would later marry within a year of dating. The music on the debut release was full of influence from Nat King Cole and Ray Charles Jr. Tracks such as Let Your Conscience Be Your Guide, Love For Sale, Always and Never Let You Go were all jazzy and pop influenced tunes. Over the years since the release of the debut, the albums leading up to the release of What’s Going On were filled with jazz and soul styles. That Stubborn Kinda Fellow was more of bluesy and rock and roll influenced album than it’s predecessor but the R&B/Soul was sill intact. Albums such as When I’m Alone I Cry, Together (a duet album with famous Motown singer Mary Wells) and even a tribute album to his hero Nat King Cole all went on to be very successful.
In the late 60s sometime around 1968, Gaye was very successful but many personal struggles caused the singer to fall into a deep depression. After afallout with Anna Gordy and a very unfortunate passing of fellow Motown singing partner Tammi Terrell, the singer was very suicidal and his drug use became very dangerous. It was around this time that he withdrew from the music business for a while. In 1970, Marvin began to seriously pursue a career in the NFL, trying out for the Detroit Lions. He would soon shift his focus towards the upcoming What’s Going On, after realizing the intense consequences of injury due to the football training. In June of that year Marvin and the band the Four Tops entered famous Motown recording studio, Hitsville USA to record What’s Going On.
Inspired by the societal conditions post-Vietnam, the lyrical approach to the album and title track was very socio-political and full of personal commentary. Marvin in interviews and his music before touched on personal themes a bit, but this time it was upped a few notable notches. A concept album, What’s Going On consisted of nine tracks that addressed societal ills such as poverty, war, drug abuse and depression. Upon the album’s release What’s Going On received several rave and glowing reviews from music critics and publications. Rolling Stone even named it as “The Album Of The Year in 1975. Motown producer and CEO Berry Gordy was initially a little worried about the approach the singer was taking, fearing it would diminish his mainstream appeal, but the track was of course, released by Marvin anyway. And it didn’t stop any appeal. In fact, it only heightened Gaye’s success. From a personal standpoint this album had an impact on me when I first listened to it many years ago as I felt it was so relevant even to this day. When I revisited the album for this assignment, I still feel the same way. It’s relevance remains intact. These current times in America and across the world are still filled with political strife, war, poverty and other ills. That is why Marvin and other people such as myself still sadly ask what’s going on?
The political nature of the album later on influenced several other musicians to make music that was based around social awareness. Acts such as Rage Against The Machine and the band’s lead guitarist Tom Morello have made music that was aimed to strike a nerve within listeners to take a look at the world around them. Bob Dylan, Gil Scott Heron, Immortal Technique, Otep, System of A Down and A Perfect Circle or just a handful of bands and rappers that have created songs in the vein of the material recorded on the album. A Perfect Circle even covered the title track on their 2004 politically charged Emotive album with a somber and haunting tribute of the song.
The sound of the album, from a production standpoint, is very upclose and personal along with having a somber, melancholy feel overall. The tracks Mercy Mercy Me and Inner City Blues are personal highlights for me on the album. Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On will remain in the conversations of what’s the greatest album of all time because it simply is not only one of the greatest, but one of the most important.