Most musical artists create music that will be appealing to as many listeners as possible. This was the case for most musicians writing in the genre called Motown. For years places like Hitsville U.S.A. in Detroit turned out hit records faster than GM or Ford could roll cars off the assembly lines in the same city. Groups like the Temptations, the Contours, and the Supremes released hit after hit at break-neck pace. The somewhat cookie-cutter songs were usually about love, relationships, and other familiar pop themes.
By the late 60’s and early 70’s many rock groups began experimenting with more introspective and political topics on their records. People like Bob Dylan and John Lennon were writing music with a message about the world around them, and they were not afraid to get political. Meanwhile, Motown artists had resisted this change in favor of keeping records more pop focused.
This all changed thanks to Marvin Gaye. In 1971, Gaye released one of the most important albums in Motown history, and music history in general, “What’s Going On.” Gaye designed the album as an experience, immersing the listener into the issues of the day and delivering a commentary that is just as poignant today as it was at the time of its release. It was a huge undertaking and the work Gaye left for us speaks for itself how successful he was.
Like many great, forward thinking albums, recording was hard at the beginning. Gaye was going through a time of personal turmoil. His marriage was falling apart, his girlfriend had been diagnosed with a brain tumor, he had developed a cocaine issue, and he owed a small fortune in back taxed to the IRS, These are what many would refer to as trying times and at one point in the late 60’s Gaye attempted suicide, only to be saved by his producer’s father.
On top of Gaye’s personal issues, America at large in the early 70’s had its own set of obstacles. Many were left disillusioned after the end of the hope and promise of the late 60’s. The war in Vietnam still raged, there was civil unrest, and police brutality were everyday issues for African Americans. Gaye decided that he wanted to channel all this personal and external turmoil into his work and produce something that could have a valuable social impact under the label of Motown. His result is one of the most important albums one can have in their record collection.
The album begins with one of Gaye’s most recognizable songs, “What’s Going On.” The idea of the song is simple, yet intimate, Marvin Gaye asks the listener what is going on in the world for there to be so much suffering. The song was inspired by an incident of police brutality on a young African American man, and Gaye’s conversations with his brother, who was a veteran of the Vietnam War. About the song, Gaye said, “With the world exploding around me, how am I supposed to keep writing love songs?”
Gaye wanted this album to be a cohesive work, with all the songs depending on each other to make a full statement. To do this, Gaye has the songs blend from one to the other. From “What’s Going On” we transition to “What’s Happening Brother” which is a continuation from the first song’s theme. From there the albums blends into “Flyin’ High (In the Friendly Sky)” where Gays sings “I go to the place where danger awaits me.” He could be talking about the war zone in Vietnam or the one on the streets of America at this time, either way the song is about Gaye’s hope of a more peaceful world.
From there the album moves to “God is Love” a song that stands out for its funky drums and James Jamerson bass lines. Jamerson, an often-used studio bass player at the time, is at his best throughout the album, laying down roaring bass lines for the entirety of the album. The first side of the album ends with “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology).” Gaye ends side one with what may be the best song ever written about environmental protection. With lines like “Oil wasted on the oceans and upon our seas” make this song just as relevant today as it was when it was written.
Side two of the album opens with “Right On” where once again Jamerson’s bass playing is on point. This leads into “Wholy Holy,” and then the album ends with “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler).” A fantastic song that depicts the bleak economic situation that affects predominately African Americans in the country’s inner cities. There is also a reprise of “What’s Going On” bringing the theme of the album together for a perfect ending.
Gaye’s work here is the passion of a lifetime. It’s the most important Motown album ever released, this alone makes it an essential part of any serious album collector’s library. But besides all that, there is quite literally nothing cooler than coming home with a date, pouring a couple glasses of wine, and putting the needle to Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On.