What's Going On

Marvin Gaye

Motown, 1971

REVIEW BY: Benjamin Ray

ORIGINALLY PUBLISHED: 12/02/2006

What's Going On is not only the finest record to come out of Motown, it could be the greatest protest record of all time.

Written in a time when real events were causing real protests, when a war was raging and cultures were clashing, when riots and inequality were savaging the streets of Detroit, Marvin Gaye's masterpiece immediately touched a nerve. That it also was Gaye's rebellion against Motown - this was, after all, the label's first album statement instead of one single and 11 filler tunes, and he fought like hell to get it - is a sweet kind of justice.

The music works so well because the protests are human and intensely personal. Instead of the oblique imagery of a Bob Dylan or the rural optimism of a Woody Guthrie, Gaye brought an urban experience that related to black and white alike. We all need faith, we all experience hardships, many of us are discriminated against for something or another at some point in life. Using the Vietnam war and the social tenor of the times, Gaye then imbued his music with his personal experiences: dislike of the Motown hit factory that robbed artists of creativity, a struggling marriage, ongoing struggles with his father and God, the death of his duet partner Tammi Terrell

It's easy to rail against society and then go about your way - witness the punk movement - but one runs the risk of coming off as a whiny victim with no solutions for bettering themselves. Where Marvin Gaye gets it right is the sense of hope and faith that must exist during troubled times. In the classic title track, Gaye uses the experience of his brother Frankie, who had just returned from the war, to address what is going on (there is no question mark for a reason). The song uses a sensual sax beat and sparse production, putting the emphasis strongly on Gaye's lyrics, which are simple but direct: "Picket lines and picket signs / Don't punish me with brutality / Come on talk to me / So you can see what's going on." Gaye's smooth voice addresses this with peace instead of stridency; when he sings "only love can conquer hate," it rings more true than any political posturing. bim_ad_daily_vault_print_250

Motown owner Berry Gordy initially would not release the song as a single and Gaye refused to make any more music until Gordy relented. He did, and Gaye finished this disc in a week. But you wouldn't know it by the quality of the performances.

Using jazzy beats with dark basslines and a variety of percussion, Gaye drives home his anger, hope and compassion in these nine songs. "Right On" is a seven-minute tune about the gap between rich and poor, but so lucid and smooth is Gaye's musical vision that it flies by in half that time. The upbeat Latin-tinged music is a counterpoint to the somewhat bitter lyrics: "Some of us were born for races to win / Some of us are aware that it's good for us to care / Some of us feel the icy wind of poverty blowing in the air," he croons.

A strong faith in God can be an inspiration, even if it is a quiet fire that burns instead of a loud polemic. Most of the songs have this undercurrent of faith, although they are not outright preachy; "Wholly Holy" and "God Is Love" are the closest we get to a sermon. But even here, Gaye shows restraint; the short "God Is Love" contains the words "He made this world for us to live in / and gave us everything / and all He asks of us is we give each other love." How can you argue?

The album's centerpiece, "Mercy, Mercy Me (The Ecology)," encompasses everything right about soul music in three minutes, proving that the Funk Brothers (the Motown studio band) and Gaye should have had free rein over their careers long before this. Using the same languid, conversation style as the title track, Gaye sings "Oh mercy mercy me / Oh, things ain't what they used to be, no, no / Where did all the blue sky go? / Poison is the wind that blows." The song uses four stacked verses and then goes into a free-form jazz instrumental before ending on a dissonant series of notes that leave an eerie feeling.

The closing masterpiece "Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)" is the most direct and angry song here - though it's a righteous, tempered anger - with lines like "Rockets, moon shots / Spend it on the have nots / Money, we make it / 'Fore we see it, you take it / Oh make you wanna holler / The way they do my life." It's as if Gaye realizes that fighting violence and injustice with more of the same will not accomplish anything. Cool down. Let your head and heart and God prevail. It doesn't have to be this way.

The outpouring of emotion here is leagues away from Gaye's previous R&B anthems and what would come in a few years ("Let's Get It On,") making it like little else in his catalog (or Motown's, or all of soul music, for that matter). What's Going On is the sound of an artist baring his soul, an intense and beautiful work of art that still has something to say.

Rating: A

User Rating: A

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Comments

by pick on November 10, 2011 12:24:38 PM
what is the minus for? THis is an absolute timeless masterpiece.

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© 2006 Benjamin Ray and The Daily Vault. All rights reserved. Review or any portion may not be reproduced without written permission. Cover art is the intellectual property of Motown, and is used for informational purposes only.