Marvin Gaye at 85: Revisiting <i>What's Going On</i>

by 24britishtvApril 2, 2024, noon 21
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With today marking what would've been Marvin Gaye's 85th birthday – and yesterday marking the 40th anniversary of his death – we're looking back at Eamon Carr's reflections on the iconic 1971 album, What's Going On...

Even divorced from the poignant circumstances of his death, a Greek tragedy for our time, the essential wonder of Marvin Gaye’s troubled mysticism ensures that What’s Going On, an album first released in 1971, will remain both relevant and thrilling for generations to come. Conceived, recorded and mixed under an inordinate variety of pressures, this collection was a harbinger for change at the great Detroit assembly-line pop music factory that was Tamla Motown. It also helped restructure the aural architecture of soul music. And, eerily, it offered listeners an echo of a Cassandra-like spirit and a blighted Banshee’s foreboding.

But I’m moving ahead of the game here. Let’s just begin with a couple of photographs. Shots of a man standing in the chill rain. Icy droplets of sleet on his natty hair, his eyebrows, his geometric beard. Here is a man alone, intent on confronting the elements, and, perhaps, his nemesis. A man apparently anxious to be cleansed. Anxious for the world to be born anew. This man is Marvin Gaye, one-time member of ‘50s Washington vocal group The Rainbows with Don Covay and Billy Stewart. The Motown pin-up who hit with ‘Hitch Hike’ in the early ’60s.

In 1970, Marvin Gaye was experiencing something of a personal crisis. His stage partner Tammi Terrell had died after a protracted illness. His marriage to Motown boss Berry Gordy’s sister Anna was fractious. He was being hounded by the Inland Revenue. Despite his repertoire of hit singles, Marvin was at loggerheads with the company’s sales execs. He craved artistic independence. The song that gave it to him was ‘What’s Going On’ and that was released only after a long and acrimonious battle with Gordy and his marketing minions.

By the time he got to record What’s Going On, Marvin was set to explode. Bored, impatient, ambitious and stoned, he went about nailing the tune with all the passion and determination of a heavyweight boxer who’s been starved of sex and fed on red meat for a month. Luckily, Marvin was primarily a lover. Kinda streetwise, he took his message of protest and smothered it with compassion.

Historians and music business insiders tell us stories of a series of happy accidents, a cosmic control-room serendipity, that resulted in this wheeling, unfolding circle of yearning, pleading and proselytising that is soul music, gospel, jazz, pop and baroque. Marvin Gaye pulled them all together. Had a hit. And then had to fight with his bosses to complete an album.

I think it was neo-Mod Paolo Hewitt who once described What’s Going On as a soul opera. While I cherish the work of James, Curtis, Sly, Stevie and Bobby, it was in this Marvin album that I encountered something of such spiritual grandeur, emotional conceit and lofty ambition that I can only term it funk’s Sistine Chapel. Sanctified and secular, What’s Going On is a triumph of the spirit. Marvin looks into the future and witnesses a vision of dread, yet through his unique artistic alchemy he transmutes these apocalyptic premonitions into the sweetest, most heartfelt paeans of tolerance and hope.

How did he do it? The nuts and bolts of his crazy flying machine are readily traced. Multi-tracked lead vocals, dizzying choral effects, stratospheric strings sailing high over a rumbling bass cavern of funky percussion. James Jamerson’s basslines still defy gravity and there is some glorious saxophone snaking through a forest of odd musical juxtapositions. And, of course, the melodies. Throughout, melody that soothes and inspires.

The songs have lived on. ‘Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)’, ‘Save The Children’, ‘Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)’ and ‘Wholy Holy’ are ones you know. But stitched into the overall plan, they can be read as part of a more disturbing, more provocative narrative. Marvin could have sung the assembly instructions for an Armalite and made them sound seductive. But this is something else, an urgent prayer for salvation by a desperate man undoubtedly beginning to feel blessed and cursed with a Sisyphean talent. Through time folk in every land will hear, and perhaps respond, when he calls out, "Don’t punish me with brutality/Come on talk to me/So you can see/What’s going on."

ODD FACT: The title track originated with lyricist Al Cleveland and Renaldo Benson of the Four Tops who cut Marvin in on the action. "He added lyrics and some spice to the melody," according to Benson.

WHAT HE DID NEXT: Smart man, he didn’t try to better or repeat it. Marvin released the predominantly instrumental Trouble Man soundtrack album and also delivered what some claim is his finest work, Let’s Get It On, an album of sonic seduction and carnal delight.

ACE LYRIC LINE: "For those of us who simply like to socialise/For those of us who tend the sick."

MAGIC MOMENT: For starters, there’s Eli Fountain’s haunting alto riffs at the beginning of ‘What’s Going On’...

RELATED ALBUMS BY OTHER ARTISTS: Where I’m Coming From and Talking Book (Stevie Wonder), Superfly (Curtis Mayfield), Fresh (Sly Stone).

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