We shall overcome? Why Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On is more relevant than ever

Racism, police brutality, riots, war, unemployment, disasters, environmental crisis: you could be forgiven for thinking What’s Going On is a record of our times in the 2020s, but no, it’s a Motown musical masterpiece created in the first year of the 1970s — a landmark album that had a huge impact on many of us, changed the way we experienced music, expanded our horizons, and maybe moved us to tears — it certainly does me. If music was Marvin Gaye’s pulpit, then this record was his ultimate sermon.

Fifty years on and Gaye’s classic work is once again an all too pertinent soundtrack after a year or so of pandemic, George Floyd, the dying days of maniac Trump in the White House and a bunch of feckless Eton-educated Tory conmen in Downing Street. It’s as if somehow somewhere Marvin Gaye knew what we would be up against. This is the story of arguably the most important lyrical statement of our generation.

The years running up to the release of What’s Going On were full of political upheaval and of personal turmoil for Marvin Gaye. Only three years earlier Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis, as calls for civil rights turned into chants of Black Power. The social unrest of the late 1960s had a huge impact on Detroit — home of the Motown label Marvin was signed with. The war in Vietnam was raging, anti-war and civil rights protests were polarising the country, and a crooked pre-Watergate Republican president Richard Nixon was in the White House. 

With all that turmoil and upheaval as a backdrop, What’s Going On was a deeply personal album for Gaye, and represented something of a turning point for the singer, who, despite his repertoire of hit singles in the 1960s, was in a dark place as he sought to break free from both the assembly-line chug at Motown that had grown increasingly stifling. The relationship between the singer and his label was contentious yet fruitful; gritty uptempo songs like Can I Get A Witness and I Heard It Through The Grapevine were hits, but they undermined Gaye’s original dream to be a balladeer in the mould of Nat King Cole. At loggerheads with the company’s sales execs, not only did he crave artistic independence but he was struggling emotionally and financially.

Gaye was mourning the loss of Tammi Terrell — his close friend and collaborator on such classics as Ain’t No Mountain High Enough and You’re All I Need To Get By, who had died of a brain tumour at 24 — but in his depressive state, there were a number of other struggles even closer to home: his burgeoning cocaine addition, being hounded by the IRS over his tax affairs, and a fractious, failing marriage to Anna Gordy — daughter of his label boss Berry — which would soon end. 

At that moment in time, Marvin Gaye’s life embodied the title of a song he would go on to record and what it meant in all senses of the word: Trouble Man. A troubled soul throughout his career, in fact.

With no light and the end of that long tunnel, Marvin attempted suicide; only a timely intervention prevented it. He considered trying out for the Detroit Lions; players he knew advised him against it. Gaye seemed spent, despondent. He took all that frustration, sorrow, and brokenness, and transformed them into one of the most beautiful, soulful and deeply human albums of all time.

Musically, Gaye’s tenth studio album is a stunning tour de force, and the undoubted peak of his artistry. The music is elegiac and evocative, filled with lush, sweeping string arrangements but also packed with a gorgeous groove courtesy of the Funk Brothers, with basslines that are funky without being trashy, and subtle, enveloping guitar licks. 

But the real star is Marvin. His lyrics are poignant, reflective and introspective, as he pours his heart and soul into every word, with those soaring angelic vocals that are both transcendent and luminescent. Gaye puts his incredible vocal range to work in each song, switching from sultry and smooth to pure anguish as needed. It’s obviously an album that builds on everything that came before.

Strangely, What’s Going On is a record whose opening “notes” aren’t notes at all: the first sounds you hear are a busy array of speaking voices. But they aren’t of uprisings or demonstrations, but rather a happening social festivity (“This is a groovy party, man!”), making the listener feel like he’s just walked into someone’s home. Marvin’s choice to emphasise humanity at its most charitable rather than paint a bleaker picture of destruction and disillusionment is characteristic of the album that follows. Gaye’s observer role is bemused rather than indignant, grounded instead of judgmental. And so, befitting a social ethnographer, the titles of the first couplet of songs sound like questions, even if they aren’t used as such in the chorus. 

And once the music begins, with its soaring strings carrying along Gaye’s smooth-or-straining singing, you hear another strange touch: the vocal is double-tracked, but one track lags behind the other. You hear his voice twice, either for emphasis — or to introduce a sense of discord, a tension, into a song that remains highly pleasurable listening thanks to Gaye’s God-given talent, convincingly conveyed through his sweeping sentimentality and velvety falsetto.

The titular opening track, What’s Going On sees Gaye suggesting to “father” and “mother” (not so much literal parental figures, but rather symbols of authority and the status quo) that “war is not the answer, ‘cause only love can conquer hate.” Its powerful yet amorphous debate with the powers that be segues directly into the camaraderie sob-song of What’s Happening Brother, in which Gaye assumes the role of a Vietnam veteran — loosely based on the return from service of Gaye’s own brother, Frankie – who’s come home only to discover his city and country riven with segregation and urban decay. He asks an old friend where the scene is as he tries to make sense of all of the chaos and corruption surrounding him. The man’s disconnect from American pop culture has left him feeling disturbed, displaced and discombobulated: poverty, pollution, pickets, protests, you name it and he’ll articulate it. Gaye would later say that

“I felt that I had to write about Vietnam, because the brutality was so extreme. I knew that this record could in no way be light-hearted. It had to be a concept album. At first I fought against that notion because the concept I had of America back then was so dark. The concept was depressing and, to be honest, I was seriously depressed.” 

Poignantly, there’s a sad irony to “Father, father, we don’t need to escalate,” given that Marvin would eventually die at the hands of his own father after an argument. And there’s that deliciously defiant line — “Who are they to judge us/Simply ’cause our hair is long” — a reference to the hippie peace movement that’s a small example of the sort of universal humanity that fills these songs. The insurgent subject matter was reflected in a change in Gaye’s appearance: he stopped wearing ties and grew a beard. “Black men weren’t supposed to look overtly masculine,” he told his biographer David Ritz: “I’d spent my entire career looking harmless, and the look no longer fit. I wasn’t harmless. I was pissed at America.”

With its plaintive cries for help, Save The Children sees the singer at his most horrified (“Think of the children”), which makes the gorgeous awakening of God Is Love all the more convincing. Literally, it’s about as rapturous as music gets, as Gaye sings, in that haunting, angelic voice of his, “When we call on Him for mercy, mercy Father/He’ll be merciful, my friend” with the presence of a dozen gospel choir that listening to it becomes well nigh a religious experience that’s as poignant now as then without ever stooping to preachiness.

As a concept album that is best consumed as a whole, What’s Going On was a tremendous shift for Gaye as he turned away from the tried-and-true topic of love and went on a songwriting binge as he focused his pen on social issues that occupied the headlines of the day, writing or co-writing every track on the record. And decades before the environment would become a hot topic for Hollywood heavyweights, he wrote arguably the most beautiful R&B song ever created on the subject of Mother Nature.

Listening to Mercy, Mercy Me (The Ecology) today, you realise that Gaye was prophetically asking many of the questions that are finally preoccupying the thoughts of so many across the globe. What would become the album’s second single, Mercy is a sorrowful requiem to a planet in disarray and on the verge of environmental destruction. Upon its release it was the LP’s second R&B million-selling chart-topping hit. The song found a new audience again in the early nineties when Motown Records released a newly created music video for the song’s 20th anniversary that featured a whole host of celebrities including Bobby Brown, Smokey Robinson, Diana Ross and David Bowie. The latter — almost the “token whitey” in the clip — would go on to reference What’s Going On two years later on his Black Tie White Noise duet with new jack swinger Al B. Sure!.

Mind you, Gaye’s album almost didn’t happen at all. Originally scheduled for release in 1970, the record made it to the pressing plant only after a long and acrimonious battle with Tamla Motown’s CEO and founder Berry Gordy and his marketing minions, who were struggling to adapt and concede that the label’s “Sound of Young America” was in need of a change.

After hearing a preliminary mix of What’s Going On (which stayed locked in the vaults until a 40th anniversary box set in 2011), Gordy refused to release the record. He had always emphasised mainstream entertainment values when deciding what to release, and the famed Quality Control Department at Motown examined lyrics for anything that might be controversial. As the airwaves filled with songs that reflected the mixed-up state of the world (White Rabbit, Taxman, Street Fighting Man), the company only allowed a few politically conscious “protest songs” on the label, such as Stevie Wonder’s decidedly polite take on Bob Dylan’s Blowin’ In the Wind (1966), or the bleeding-heart impassioning of Heaven Help Us All (1970).

With its unabashedly passive advocacy for peace and love, Gordy wasn’t necessarily offended by Gaye’s embrace of countercultural politics. No, what really offended his sensibilities (and caused him to infamously tell Motown’s VP of sales, Barney Ales, “This is the worst record I’ve ever heard!”) was, bizarrely, its absolute cohesiveness as an album. With a conveyor belt philosophy, he was the honcho who ran the hit factory as if it lived and died by the 45, With What’s Going On, its star performer presented to Motown what might be considered the label’s first concept album. At the very least, it was a groundbreaking experiment in collating a pseudo-classical suite of seamlessly segued free-flowing songs, with the first half-dozen about as perfect a run of songs as it’s possible to get.

Of course, when all was said and done, Gordy ended up eating crow with his caviar, as What’s Going On gained rave reviews and after ten years of trying, Gaye finally scored his first ever top ten album on the Billboard pop charts, spawning a trio of massive hit singles, with third 45, the anguished bawl of Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler), marking an unprecedented three R&B chart-toppers from the same album. With its all too relevant diatribe at “Rockets, moonshots/Spend it on the have nots”, the song closes out the record and, hammering the point home, melts into a final, funereal reprise of the title track.

Inner City Shoes: MG‘s DC birthplace, 10 July 2014 ©SD Pafford

Gaye’s social consciousness should not be downplayed; it should, in fact, be celebrated, for its relative novelty at the time and for the musical skill with which he advanced it. What’s Going On was the first album after Sly And The Family Stone’s Stand! to attempt to illuminate the political mood of the era. And a heartbreaking update on the state of things it was. The challenging blend of sorrow and awareness of injustice gave the album an invigorating sense of immediacy. But coming as it did a few long, hard years after the love movement had peaked and deflated in the face of ongoing indifference and hostility, it has an understandably mournful tone. 

One gets the heartbreaking sense that a spirit as seemingly resilient as Marvin Gaye’s can crumble in the face of encroaching urban despair. But it would be a mistake to interpret What’s Going On as simply an angry cry from the inner city. It is that, yes, but also much more: a truly heartfelt cry for compassion, for sympathy, for common understanding, and, above all, for love. Indeed, it’s all over the album, starting on the title track, where Gaye practically begs, “We have got to find a way/to bring some loving here today.” 

The soldier, struggling to find work for himself, nonetheless finds time to look at the chaos around him and ask, “When will people start getting together again?” As the world has weathered isolation, inequality and endless political protest, it’s a question that feels enormously resonant right now.

What’s Going On has only gained in stature since its release, and remains immortal and untouched in the canon of great pop landmarks. When Rolling Stone asked “271 artists, producers, industry executives and journalists to pick the greatest albums of all time” in 2003, What’s Going On landed at number six, making it the only entry by an African American artist to crack the top ten. Then in 2020 the same magazine declared What’s Going On was actually the best album of all time. Of course, rankings are entirely subjective, but it’s hard to deny its immense lyrical and musical merit, not to mention its political and cultural relevance.

Half a century on, everything has changed but nothing has changed. America is in a hard place, as is the world. It can often seem crass, cruel and pitiless, and much of our struggles seem to have arisen from the feeling that too few of Marvin Gaye’s concerns have been addressed in 50 years. We could use some of the things he called for today. With a little luck, and a little love, maybe he could still help us get through to better things to come. 

We shall overcome? We’ve got to find a way.

Steve Pafford

Sources: National Review, Slant Magazine, Opuszine

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