I love this album, even if it’s perhaps partly out of jest with my wife who can’t stand anything Marvin Gaye (she associates him with kitschy ‘love-makin music’). While I’ll agree, the opening sax riff immediately draws the curtains and dims the lights; the mood this album creates is not a sexy one. This is an album born out of concern; this album is more of a conversation.
Marvin Gaye was a Motown super-star; Gaye tunes such as “Heard it through the Grapevine” had been essential in establishing Motown’s producing outfit as industry powerhouses in the early years of the label. Marvin Gaye’s image up to the release of What’s Going On was one synonymous with the image of Motown itself and its imposing founder Berry Gordy. Ben Edmonds describes Motown before What’s Going On as “still serenading teenagers in a maltshop America that no longer existed”.
What’s Going On didn’t resemble one of its routine “teenage serenades”; Gordy was afraid it was a protest song. Because of this Gordy hated the song; perhaps Motown, and its founder, were simply out of touch with the times. In 1969 ‘Obie’ Benson had penned the song after witnessing police brutality in San Francisco. Benson had been a member of the Four Tops, who also turned the song down because it resembled a protest song. Benson had replied, “No, man, it’s a love song, about love and understanding. I’m not protesting, I want to know what’s going on”. This heartfelt question must have resonated with Gaye, who agreed to take the song and made it his very own project. Part of the inspiration behind Marvin Gaye’s ambition as he began to craft an entire concept album around this concept comes from his brother, Francis: a Vietnam veteran that related his war stories to Marvin.
Even with all the emotion wrapped up in this track, Gordy was not convinced that What’s Going On was a safe release. He’s attributed to calling it “The worst thing I’ve ever heard” after hearing it the first time. Gordy refused to release the single. Marvin Gaye famously quit Motown for the Detroit Lions while he played the waiting game with Gordy over What’s Going On’s release. The single was finally released without Gordy’s approval in 1971. It sold like crazy.
What’s Going On was a great success for Motown and for Gaye as an artist. It shows a maturation of what pop music could accomplish, much like the Beach Boy’s Pet Sounds album did in 1966. Like Pet Sounds, there is an orchestral quality to the instrumentation of the album—albeit a much funkier one. It was the product of legendary smoke-filled sessions in the Snake Pit (Motown’s primary studio). Marvin Gaye worked with arranger Van DePitte to create something that “wanted to stay away from anything resembling a standard Motown beat”: a parade of studio musicians was ushered into the Snake Pit to ensure this goal. You can hear Gaye really explore the music. The most defining features of the track were reportedly accidents: such as Gaye’s layered, harmonizing lead vocal that he would use for albums to come or the legendary saxophone riff that starts the album (a warm-up). The musical maturation matched the riskier subject matter beautifully. And Motown’s production muscle was on display like never before. Just the adventurous opening ‘soundscape’ of voices pulls you in immediately.
As a professional this album is a great benchmark of production values and techniques in the early 70s. It serves as my favorite example of Motown’s ‘music machine’: hundreds of producers and songwriters hammering out songs together with an old piano. It’s a good example of artists butting heads with Q&A departments, and a nice anecdote for when the artist turned out to be right. But most importantly, it’s an example of when music can legitimately turn attention towards the state of the world and make people think, What’s Going On?