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Monday, May 14, 2018

Marvin Gaye: What's Going On


1) What's Going On; 2) What's Happening Brother; 3) Flyin' High; 4) Save The Children; 5) God Is Love; 6) Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology); 7) Right On; 8) Wholy Holy; 9) Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler).

General verdict: The "born again" / "coming out" record for Marvin, a triumph of soul over formula, groove over melody, spirit over shape, question over answer.

Of the two superheroes that managed to throw off Motown's shackles of formulaic oppression in the early Seventies and go on to become legends in their own rights — Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder — Stevie was, fairly inarguably, the musical genius. Marvin was never much of a player, had relatively limited interest in composing throughout the 1960s, and put just about everything he had in his singing. If you are looking for rich, innovative, pattern-rupturing melodies that took R&B to unprecedented (and still unsurpassed) heights, Stevie is your man. If you want Marvin to be your man, well... you have to be looking for something different.

This little preamble is necessary in order to understand why I have never been such an ardent fan of What's Going On as is usually prescribed by, uh, the «musical establishment». If you view this record outside of its historical context, and if you stay away from its lyrical content, it just doesn't really look that magnificent. Its sound is very typical of lush 1970s soul — gentle, soft grooves with soothing brass and luxurious strings, not very much unlike something you might encounter on even, say, a Barry White record. (Robert Christgau, in his original review, shot out a particularly vicious putdown of those strings, and, for once, I'd have to admit that he had his mind more or less in the right place). In all honesty, it does not even seem to me as if Marvin put that much thought and care into the preparation of the instrumental basis for this album: the sessions were fairly loose and spontaneous, with a lot of different people coming and going — something that is subtly reflected in the free-flowing atmosphere of the songs, but does not hint at a whole lot of compositional skill.

Then there is that other side of the story — or, rather, there is the story as such, which, in itself, is so awesome that many people probably fall in love with What's Going On before hearing the first note of this album. The story that tells about a spiritual and creative rebirth of a very much broken down man, depressed by his disintegrating family life, by feeling trapped within a suffo­cating and restrictive musical machine, and, on top of that, by having one of his best friends just die a horrible death at an unbelievably young age. How that broken down man, sick and tired of having to perform formulaic and insincere commercial tunes written for him by other people, found a new meaning in life by completely rejecting those conventions and coming up with a conceptual suite that actually addressed some real issues — war, racism, poverty, inequality, pollution, God, Love, you name it — at a time when hit-oriented factories like Motown still looked largely impermeable to such artistic tendencies. How, eventually, especially after that man's own tragic demise a decade later, the suite came to be regarded as one of the highest achievements in the history of popular African-American music, or even popular music as a whole, and has provided inspiration for several generations of musicians and music listeners.

It's a wonderful story, indeed, and one with which even Stevie Wonder would find a hard time to compete — not even Songs In The Key Of Life, his sprawling encyclopaedia of human emo­tions, can boast such an intense spiritual glow. But, like all such stories, it also begs the question: what really matters? The intention or the realisation? The context or the substance? Our biases and expectations, or our pure, unconditioned gut reaction? How are all these things linked? What's really going on, brother?

If you feel like there's a sacred cow slaughter coming up here, don't: What's Going On has enough spirit in it to withstand any criticism of its melodic content. If anything, Berry Gordy must have felt much like I did upon first hearing the title song and telling Marvin it was a bunch of nonsense — not because he was scared of its political content, but because he did not perceive any serious musical value. It was just a groove, really, with James Jamerson's bassline starting and ending its melodic potential, while Marvin's vocalizing never gelled into a proper hook, instead preferring to dissolve into little pools of falsetto scatting. Yet there was something there to cause its immediate popularity: not the message itself, but probably the soft, peaceful, and very intense feel of sincere pain behind the vocals. Far from being the first R&B protest song, ʽWhat's Going Onʼ still hit some nerve that many previous songs did not, and this can only be blamed on the unexplainable magic of the vocalist.

The fact that songs mostly segue into one another without any breaks, and the fact that mid-tempo syncopated R&B grooves are at the core of almost everything here makes most of What's Going On look like one steady flow of a vast musical river — interrupted and realigned only once, with the Latin-bluesy seven-minute chug of ʽRight Onʼ warily throwing in a different style that is just a tad bit more aggressive (accentuated by some very lively jazzy flute parts). Marvin himself sounds like he is being gently carried by the current, laying all his troubles on you like one huge confession — singing, usually, although he also likes to have fun here by experimenting with his vocals, overdubbing several different Marvins across the board, one time even having them parrot the same lyrics off each other, one set sung, one set recited (ʽSave The Childrenʼ). There is no other way in which the record would speak to me: even if it did yield several formally disjointed hit singles, I can only make peace with it if I take it as a single, prolonged musical oratorio, much more of a single-piece than, say, Jethro Tull's Thick As A Brick.

And, of course, it is precisely that move from a gifted hitmaker to the free spirit behind the musical oratorio that matters most here. What's Going On clicks best if you keep remembering that this is a musical awakening — even the lyrics, very naïve and simplistic on the whole, are those of a man-child who finally got around to shaking off the slumber and looking at this strange world we are living in with brand new eyes. The title of the album, after all, is a question, and the entire suite is an endless series of questions (and in art, as we all know, it usually pays off to ask questions rather than give answers): what's going on? what's happening brother? who's willing to try to save a world? where did all the blue skies go? who are they to judge us? It is not really required, after all, that a naïve musical awakening like that should be filled to the brim with intelligent and complex musical innovation. Just keep on rolling, and asking those questions in that sweet, innocent, amicable manner.

The way-too-overtly religious moments on the record (ʽGod Is Loveʼ, ʽWholy Holyʼ) have be­come the most dated — those intervals where Marvin slips from troubled questioning into zealous preaching feel cheap next to the burning issues — but it is a spiritual record made by an R&B performer, and that pretty much guarantees that some prayers are inevitable. They are short and few, though, and it is interesting that Marvin preferred to end the record not with one of them, but with ʽInner City Bluesʼ, easily the most scared-sounding tune on the album, where the vocals are delivered in little punctuated outbursts, fluttering and panicking: the inner child becoming more and more terrified with reality as questions remain unanswered and the blues begins to set in. Not a «depressing» or «apocalyptic» ending per se, but one that is supposed to leave you perturbed and agitated at the long journey's end.

In the end, I have a nagging suspicion that What's Going On remains one of those albums that everyone admires, but probably rarely listens to — a sort of Pet Sounds for the R&B genre, except that Pet Sounds, the coming-of-age masterpiece for Brian Wilson, actually features uniquely innovative musical textures, whereas for Marvin, the coming-of-age thing was played out in an entirely different dimension; and people do listen to Pet Sounds quite a bit for that reason, while What's Going On must find you in a very special state of mind — like, worrying about the world's problems, yet wanting to remain fairly mellow about it. Most importantly, though, you have to be sure that you appreciate What's Going On not because of some cheap politically correct reason (Important Milestone In Black Music History, etc.), but because of the real reason — because behind it there is a deeply hurting soul that finally, after years of re­pression, has earned the right to let some of that hurt out in public. Real soul, real hurt, real music; not particularly adventurous, but real soul and real hurt do not always have to be adventurous.


  1. Great review as always. But - the vocal hook in "What's Going On" is where he sings, "What's going on? What's going on? What's going on?" That's a sharp hook. Single buyers and radio audiences don't care about spiritual awakenings. They loved the hook, and they were right to.

  2. Same can be said of the vocal hook - sharp - in Mercy Mercy Me. But otherwise, as George said, this was much more about the groove, atmosphere, and lyrics.

  3. Awesome review! I hope you one day review Sly Stone's answer to the question this album asks...

  4. This is an interesting one. I absolutely love this album and probably the greatest reason for that is the very thing you write off in the first couple of paragraphs: the overall sound of the album. Some melodies are stronger than others here, though none are great; the lyrics are important but I seldom pay them much attention, and the big three number do overshadow everything else but this is an album that still manages to move me almost purely through the sheer feel of the thing, all of which emanates from that sound that is 90% soothing and luxurious and 10% edgy with personal and political anguish cutting in to even its most plainly beautiful moments. Much like Pet Sounds, by the way, I have actually listened to this one a whole lot.

    1. I'm with Iian on this one. The "quiet storm" music... I consider this "the album" that thrust that whole genre of music into the limelight... juxtaposes to the painful earnest political lyrics and sells it all on a black gold platter.
      It's a Teflon classic.

  5. I've always thought this album would be infinitely more profound if the listener is high, much like Marvin was during the recording.

  6. A few thoughts:

    The Pet Sounds comparison is valid, and it never occurred to me. The truth is, when I was a young CD buyer (back when such things were novel) these two albums were among my first purchases, and it was indeed because of their reputation. I mean, I'd heard What's Going On the single AND God Only Knows, but I never knew they were part of these big monolithic monuments of melodrama (alliteration). I agree, as far as Marvin's compositional skill, it's nothing compared to Brian. But as far his as vocal expression, well, that's another story.

    -Marvin had a lot of help from Obie Robinson of the Four Tops (among others) in the hands-on writing of this album, which is interesting since the Tops were a vocal group, and also were very smoooth and cover-heavy in their Motown days.

    -Mercy Mercy Me ends with the scariest vocal/wind coda I have ever heard. Black Sabbath, Bloodrock, Alice Cooper, even Vincent Price and MJ--none can give me skin-crawling chills like those doom-laden notes in the middle of the night.

  7. Outstanding review. I think I like these old soul reviews best, George... Always so surprising and thoughtful. I agree that you cannot really "get" this record without appreciating its context, and that its context is pretty moving. But it's never been a personal favorite of mine. The singles simply tower over the rest of the material here (unlike, say, "Pet Sounds"). But what great singles! And what a great sound! I'll take just about any 70's Stevie record over "What's Going On," but none of them have quite the sense of purpose (of soul?) that this one has.