As someone who spends a lot of my time absorbed in everything related to music, I’ve recently noticed the proliferation of albums that are being repackaged and given the “deluxe” box set treatment and sold as classic albums. To say it’s stretching the truth somewhat calling these albums “classic,” is being kind to the marketing departments of record companies. Often, there’s nothing classic about the albums at all, and are the result of burnt out sixties and seventies icons with very little creativity left in their tanks. Personally, the term classic in relation to most things, not just music, is banded about to loosely. Sometimes, we allow nostalgia and emotions to cloud our judgement, looking through the proverbial “rose tinted spectacles,” when adjudging something classic. Cars that were unreliable and uncomfortable are now perceived as classics. Food that was unhealthy and often almost inedible, is now regarded by nostalgic forty-somethings is seen as classic cuisine. Buildings that previous generations inhabited and were damp, drafty and dangerous to the inhabitants health, are now seen as national treasures, classic architecture that must be cherished and saved for future generations. The same can be said of music. Average albums, albums that were commercial car crashes and music from musicians who could hardly play three chords, never mind come up with a meaningful lyric is now regarded as a classic album. Sometimes you feel the critics and tastemakers have been subjected to mass hypnosis, allowing them to be fooled into giving an unworthy album the classic tag. However, if the truth be known, very few albums actually deserve to be called classics. Many of these will be obvious to many people, and will form part of your record collection, some will be less obvious and others will provoke fierce debate. One album that truly deserves the classic album tag, and whose choice will be undisputed is Marvin Gaye’s seminal concept album What’s Going On, from one of the vintage years for music, 1971.

After the death of his singing partner, Tammi Terrell, from a brain tumor, Marvin Gaye became really depressed. Tammi’s death really affected Marvin, and he was neither willing to record any new music or perform live. He became inconsolable, even considered giving up music for a career in the National Football League. This went as far as Marvin having an unsuccessful trial for the Detroit Lions, his local football team. This however, was always doomed to failure, but not long after, Marvin would have a chance meeting that would help him out of the deep depression he was in.

This meeting in March 1970 was with two familiar faces, musician Al Cleveland and Renaldo “Obie” Benson of The Four Tops. They’d been working on a track called What’s Going On, which was a socially conscious slice of soul, with a political theme. Marvin started working on the song, which was originally meant for another Motown act The Originals. Once the song was finished, Al and Renaldo managed to convince Marvin to record the song.

Recording of What’s Going On and another song Marvin had written God Is Love, was in in June 1970. The recording of What’s Going On and God Is Love saw Marvin’s music move in a very different direction. There was a spiritual side to Marvin’s music, very different from his usual radio friendly Motown sound. This departure and change in sound didn’t please Berry Gordy Jr. the Motown CEO and also, Marvin’s brother-in-law. Not only did he object to the music, but refused to release the tracks. However, realising that there were several precedents where other Motown artists had release music with either a political or socially conscious theme. Marvin cited as precedents Edwin Starr’s War, Stevie Wonder’s Heaven Help Us All and The Temptations Ball of Confusion, Berry Gordy Jr. refused to reconsider his decision, with Marvin airing his grievance in Rolling Stone magazine. Eventually,  Berry conceded defeat, deciding to release What’s Going On as a single, thinking the single would sink without trace. However, he was wrong, very wrong.

When What’s Going On was released as a single, it became the fastest selling single in Motown’s history reaching number one in the US R&B Charts and number two in the US Billboard 100. It spent five weeks at number one in the US R&B Charts, and was just a taster of what would happen when future singles and the album was released.

After the success of the single What’s Going On, Berry Gordy Jr. completed a u-turn, asking Marvin to record a whole album. Having won his battle with Berry, Marvin headed into the studio, recording the album at two studios, the United Sound Studios in Detroit, and the Sound Factory in Los Angeles. Using the Funk Brothers as his backing group, with full string, woodwind and brass sections used throughout What’s Going On, nine tracks were recorded. The recording sessions took place in June 1970, when What’s Going On and God Is Love were recorded, while the other seven tracks were recorded between March and May 1971. Having used what was a huge amount of musicians and backing singers during the recording sessions, Marvin had managed to achieve the sound he wanted. The final hurdle would be mixing the album. This took place in Detroit, without Marvin being present. However, when he heard the mix, it was scrapped, with another mix done in Los Angeles. This was the mix that can be heard on the album. Now that What’s Going On had been recorded and mixed, all that was left was for the album to be released. 

On What’s Going On’s release, the critics loved Marvin Gaye’s concept album, with Rolling Stone naming it “Album of the Year,” while Billboard gave it their prestigious “Trend Setter” award. Every other critic praised Marvin Gaye’s new sound, loving the sound and the album’s theme. This was soul with a social conscience, exploring a wide range of social and political issues, some of which were personal for Marvin. The album is seen through the eyes of a Vietnam veteran, returning home from the war. All around him, all he can see the bedfellows of unfairness and injustice, while  pain and suffering and conflict and hatred haunted his country, the country he’d risked his life for. This leads him to wonder what has happened, and was his sacrifice worthwhile. Bewildered, he wonders “What’s Going On?” Each of the nine songs are like a song cycle, one leading into another, with the various social and political issues explored. Having won over the critics, could Marvin win over his fans?

Released on 21 June 1971, What’s Going On was a huge success, reaching number six in the US Billboard 200 and number one in the US R&B Charts, where it spend nine weeks. Following this success, the second single from the album was released. This was Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology), released in June 1971, which reached number four in the US Billboard 100 and number one in the US R&B Charts, spending two weeks at number one. The final single from What’s Going On was Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler), released in September 1971. Like the two previous singles, it reached number one in the US R&B Charts, where it spent two weeks, as well as reaching number nine in the US Billboard 100. With three number one US R&B singles and a number one US R&B album that was certified platinum by the end of 1972, having sold over two million copies, Marvin Gaye was about to enter one of the most successful periods of his career, which would see Trouble Man, Let’s Get It On, I Want You and Here, My Dear all recorded between 1973 and 1978. However, that was still to come, and now I’ll tell you what What’s Going On sounds like and explore the themes of this concept album.

What’s Going On opens with the title track What’s Going On, which was written after Renaldo “Obie” Benson witnessed a group of anti-war protesters being brutalized by the police. Disgusted and disturbed by the police’s actions, Renaldo was spurred to write a song dealing with police brutality and as the song says “picket lines, picket signs.” When the song was completed by Renaldo, Al Cleveland and Marvin, it was a hugely powerful and moving piece of music. With that familiar combination of background conversation and wailing, protesting saxophone that gives way to Marvin’s gentle, thoughtful vocal, the song unfolds. With the lushest of strings, combining with backing vocals, James Jamerson’s masterful bass line, prominent, punchy drums and horns, this beautiful yet powerful song sees Marvin combine passion, frustration and emotion as he asks What’s Going On. The arrangement just meanders and sweeps along, with so many subtleties and nuances revealing themselves, and the combination of instruments seemingly combining brilliantly to make what bassist James Jamerson described as a masterpiece. This was a personal song for Marvin, as his brother had fought in Vietnam, and witnessed horrific events. Seen through the eyes of a returning soldier, the scenes witnessed by Renaldo, he must have questioned what kind of freedom had he been fighting for when in his own country, free speech and peaceful protest wasn’t being allowed.

After What’s Going On, the album segues effortlessly to What’s Happening Brother, a song that deals with a soldier returning home after a three year tour of duty to discover that the world is a very different place, and the his life is very different. Marvin who cowrote the song with James Nyx based the song on his brother’s experience. With soaring backing vocals and a wandering bass line, horns briefly blaze as Marvin sings “war is hell,” and goes on to describe the problems encountered by the returning soldiers. No job, no money and traumatized, they struggle to adapt to their new life. With the rhythm section, sweeping strings and backing vocalists key to the song’s success, a bewildered sounding Marvin gives a heartfelt rendition of the lyrics, against a smooth, almost lush sounding arrangement. He uses the song and his vocal, to speak for those who having returned home, were betrayed by their country, abandoned and left to fend for themselves. Marvin acts as their voice leaves you feeling sad, angry and frustrated.

Flying High (in the Friendly Sky) deals with heroin addiction, with Marvin giving a lazy, dreamy falsetto vocal that sounds sympathetic to the subject matter. Behind him, the arrangement is quite different, lacking some of the smooth, polished sound of the preceding tracks.There’s darkness to the broody arrangement, confusion not far away. The rhythm section play an important part in the arrangement, drums adding drama, while the meandering bass combines with percussion and sad sounding strings. Horns punctuate the arrangement as cymbals crash in crescendos, while Marvin sings of the temporary escape from reality heroin brings. He sings of the pain of being hooked and without the drug, while describing the heroin high in an almost stoned sounding, lazy falsetto. You always feel the arrangement will veer towards the discordant, when the high wears off. This is what the song sounds like, a stoned Marvin on a heroin high, while behind the arrangement is dark, broody and confusing like the world itself. Sadly, whilst in Vietnam, many soldiers became addicted to the drug, and continued to become addicted once they returned home, desperate to seek an escape to the horrors they witnessed. This song tells their story, and what would become their next battle, the battle with heroin. Marvin again, tells their story, but although he graphically describes the high, he tells of the pitfalls, warns of the addiction and cravings that the addict goes through. In doing so, it becomes almost an anti-drugs song. Not for Marvin irresponsible glorification, instead graphically telling the truth, during a compelling track.

Save the Children was one of the singles released from the album, and features a moving spoken word vocal from Marvin. The song follows up the theme of What’s Going On, which was about love, whilst here, he sings about loving children. Two versions of the song were recorded, one with Marvin singing, the other with a spoken word vocal. Against a dramatic backdrop where backing vocals, strings and the rhythm section combine, Marvin speaks one line, but sings the next. This is hugely effective and beautiful, with the lyrics thoughtful and intelligent. The arrangement grows, with percussion, drums, horns and backing vocals joining piano and swirling strings to provide a fittingly beautiful, yet dramatic backdrop for Marvin’s hugely emotive and passionate vocal.  

God Is Love is one of the first songs recorded for the album, being the B-side of the single What’s Going On. It was rerecorded for the album, and transformed into something very different from the string drenched original. Instead, it was turned into a joyous, uptempo track, with piano, lush strings and the rhythm section accompanying a thankful Marvin, while he’s accompanied by backing vocalists. They help Marvin transform the track into a celebratory, song of thanksgiving for God and his love. Although not even two minutes long, it’s a beautiful, joyous track that reveals Marvin’s spiritual side.

The final song on side one of What’s Going On is one of the album’s highlights Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology), another of the singles released from the album. This became one of Marvin’s most popular songs, with the melancholy lyrics about the damage to the environment. Here, Marvin’s vocals are multi-tracked, while he plays piano and is accompanied by the lushest strings, conducted by Paul Riser. With Wild Bill Moore’s saxophone solo drifting above the gorgeous, smooth arrangement it’s easily one of the album’s highlights. Adding to the song’s beauty are flourishes of subtle chord changes on the piano, while Marvin’s whispered backing vocals accompany his lead vocal which is full of pain and hurt at the devastation and destruction he’s witnessed. Those lush, wistful, melancholy strings combining with saxophone and soprano backing vocalist add just the final touch to this hauntingly beautiful, sad song.

Side two of What’s Going On opens with Right On, a very different song to the previous one. A flute, jazz tinged piano and drama laden funky rhythm section combine to give the track a Latin flavor. With Martin’s pained vocal sitting atop the arrangement, as he almost preaches how “love can conquer hate anytime,” this percussive heavy track gradually reveals itself. As the track mixes lush strings, jazz piano and Latin flavors, Marvin goes on to advise his friend “to live where love is King.” By now the track has built and built, but quickly the momentum that’s built up gives way to a slow, sweeping break, before a blazing saxophone breaks loose. This development is hugely impressive, as swathes of sumptuous smooth, then catchy driving rhythms reveal their charms and beauty, before the track closes, giving way to the next brilliant track.

That is Wholly, Holy a slow, string laden lush track, with Marvin singing about love and Jesus, revealing Marvin’s spiritual side. As he gives a heartachingly beautiful vocal, horns howl above the arrangement, while strings sweep and the bass wanders along. Taken together, this is a beautiful and really effective combination, especially the sincerity in Marvin’s pained vocal.

What’s Going On closes with Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler), the third of the three singles released from the album, all of which made number one in the US R&B Charts. The song paints a bleak picture of the poverty and economic chaos of the American ghettos, where many former Vietnam veterans ended up living. During the song, Marvin tells us how bleak and desperate the situation was, and how it should make everyone want to “holler” at the horror and desperation faced by everyone. On this laid back funky track, Marvin plays piano, while members of the Funk Brothers collaborate. A piano opens the track, repeating the same refrain, while rhythm section and percussion accompany Marvin’s haunting vocal, as he despairingly paints a bleak picture of poverty and suffering. Swirling, grand strings enter, adding to the haunting sound. Quickly, Marvin and his band settle into a laid back, funk tinged groove, as the song wanders along, with Marvin hollering in despair. The arrangement grows to an almost imposing sound and feel, with horns rasping. You almost expect them to howl sympathetically in pain, but they never do. Just before the end of the track, the familiar yet slightly haunting strains of What’s Going On can be heard, as this powerful, yet bleak song comes to its sad conclusion. How the returning soldier at the heart of this concept album feels returning to a poverty stricken ghetto, after three years risking his life, fighting someone else’s war, remains unsaid, but I’m sure we can guess how he feels. Sad, angry and betrayed probably wouldn’t even begin to describe it.

Having spent some time listening intently to the nine hugely powerful songs on What’s Going On, I come away adoring this album even more. Since I first heard this album, I was deeply moved, with music provoking a number of emotions and reactions. One of them is the futility of war, and how ordinary men and women suffer and make the ultimate sacrifice, fighting someone else’s war. Often, they neither agree nor understand what they’re fighting for. Other emotions are anger and frustration at how badly we treat people after they’ve risked their lives for our freedom. That one album, What’s Going On, can provoke these emotions and thoughts is testament to Marvin Gaye, and everyone who there at the genesis of what became What’s Going On. This is not only a deeply sophisticated and thoughtful album, but also one that’s very beautiful. The music not only sounds stunning and has a timeless quality that you only find in classic music. Although, What’s Going On is nearly forty-one, it still sounds as fresh, and is just as relevant in 2012 than 1971. Sadly, the world suffers from the same problems war, poverty, economic problems and drug abuse. Each of these are a blight on society today, like they were in 1971. What’s Going On has aged so well, is still as relevant today, and to me, is one of only a small number of albums that truly deserve the accolade “classic album.” The album has received many awards and much praise over the years, but these plaudits are richly deserved. What’s Going On is one of the greatest albums and most powerful albums ever recorded. Little did Marvin Gaye know it, but he was just about to enter the best and most prolific period of his career. After What’s Going On, Trouble Man, Let’s Get It On, I Want You and Here, My Dear all followed, with each of these albums including some of Marvin’s greatest work. Although it was a long way from the music of his partnership with Tammi Terrell, it forms part of one of the greatest legacies any musician has left behind. That music is there for us all to enjoy and cherish. If you’ve never heard What’s Going On, then this album deserves its place in any record collection, along with the rest of the brilliant music he recorded between 1972 and 1978. Standout Tracks: What’s Going On, lying High (in the Friendly Sky), Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology) and Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler).



  1. My initial thought was oh no, another cliched review of Marvin’s Opus. How refreshing to be proven wrong, again. Your comments reminded me why I dig this site. Each review examines not only recorded material but it also offers perspective and background, the type of stuff that adds that little extra. Good Job.

    p.s I’ve been wondering do you take requests? 🙂

    • Hi Harold, Thanks for the kind comments, I do try and look at things from a different perspective. If you’ve any requests let me know and I’ll see what I can do. No promises but I’ll do my best. Thanks again.

      Best Wishes,
      Derek Anderson

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: