Motown Records didn’t want Marvin Gaye to make What’s Going On, a socially conscious record, but in 1971 the world needed a record like that. (Gaye threatened to never record for Motown again if they didn’t release it.) It’s a record that still feels relevant even in this current socio politically-charged crisis confronting black communities across America and around the world. But if I am right, and I am happy to stand corrected, Gaye didn’t want What’s Going On to be simply a Motown album. He hoped for it to have universal appeal that extended across all races. “That’s a fine black album”, somebody once said to Gaye upon the release of What’s Going On. He rebutted, “Wait a minute. The word ‘black’ is not in my album from A side to the B side. I was very careful not to do any of those things.”
There is a unique appeal to Marvin Gaye and his eleventh studio album What’s Going On, released on May 21, 1971, that is twofold. Firstly, there is his innate understanding of the world around him, taking a sobering look at the political and social issues that plagued America during the 60s and 70s, particularly his brothers experiences having served his tour of duty during the Vietnam war. Then there is Gaye’s remarkable voice, more often than not, piercing with soulful charm and humour that was unrivalled during his heyday.
When we look back Marvin Gaye’s career to just prior to the release of What’s Going On, Gaye was supposedly in a bad place. Sick of towing the Motown line and together with the devastating news of the death of his duets singing partner, Tammi Terrell, Gaye retreated from public life at the end of the 1960s. Moreover, with his marriage in trouble with rumours that Anna Gordy-Gaye was having an affair, things were somewhat unpleasant for Gaye. But to his credit Gaye stopped worrying about his ‘erotic fantasies’ and started concerning himself with the (Vietnam) war.
“In 1969 or 1970, I began to re-evaluate my whole concept of what I wanted my music to say …” Gaye said in an interview with Rolling Stone. “I was very much affected by letters my brother was sending me from Vietnam, as well as the social situation here at home. I realized that I had to put my own fantasies behind me if I wanted to write songs that would reach the souls of people. I wanted them to take a look at what was happening in the world.”
With three massive hit singles, What’s Going On, Mercy, Mercy Me (The Ecology) and the unnerving end track Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler), and even other songs like What’s Happening Brother, Marvin Gaye’s conceptual album manages to capture not only the spirit of a man in the mood to please, but also a man whose conviction to ‘reach the souls of people’ is done with biting lyricism.
But if we are to remember anything at all about this incredible album, it has to be hands down the title track. When once asked in an interview in 1972 for Rolling Stone how the ironically uplifting What’s Going On came about, Gaye replied, “Just through trial and error – and experimentation.” Of course there was more to it than just that. Gaye would turn the rough version of the song, written by Renaldo Benson of the Four Tops, almost on its head and make it his own. Gaye would also ultimately go on to produce the track and put important finishing touches to it, adding lyrics about the Vietnam war and his brother, and even lines referring to the social unrest in America that brought him so much pain and unease, turning What’s Going On into a protest and spiritual anthem of the ages.