Marvin Gaye – What’s Going On
Released May 21st, 1971 on Tamla Records
Produced by Marvin Gaye
Peaked at #6 U.S., #56 U.K.
“What’s Going On” (#2 U.S., #80 U.K.)
“Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)” (#4 U.S.)
“Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)” (#9 U.S.)
“Save The Children” (#41 U.K.)
Like America, Marvin Gaye was in a desperate place by 1971. He had hit the big time in the mid-60s, culminating in his first #1 single with 1968’s “I Heard It Through The Grapevine.” Behind the facade of success, however, he was deeply unhappy. His partner, Tammi Terrell, died of a brain tumor in 1970. Her death put him into a state of depression for a while, at least long enough to request a try-out with the Detroit Lions (they turned him down, not wanting to be responsible for injuring a star). He was also put out with his marriage and his contract with Motown, which amounted to one and the same; he was, after all, married to his label boss’ sister. There was also the cocaine habit, which was becoming a big problem and would only get worse.
At the same time, America itself was coming apart at the seams. You could make the argument that they’ve only ever papered over the cracks since the Civil War, but in the late Sixties it came as close as it ever would to going up in flames (okay, so the Pandemic might overtake it, but…). Beginning with the Watts riots in 1965, Marvin Gaye would express concern with the racial tension in the United States, and the subsequent years only made him more concerned. The impetus for What’s Going On came from a 1969 incident at Berkley’s People’s Park, when then-Governor Ronald Reagan sent California Highway Patrol and Berkley Police in to disperse a crowd that had originally gathered to discuss the Arab-Israeli conflict. The police came in swinging and brutalized the crowd; one died and 128 others were injured. Renaldo Benson of the Four Tops witnessed it and was moved to write “What’s Going On?” in response. After being told it was too political for the group to release, he offered it to Marvin Gaye. Gaye, for his part, took the song and combined its sentiments with conversations he’d been having with his brother about the Vietnam War and the treatment that Vietnam vets faced when they came back home. The result was an album that tackled the issues of the day in a way that felt coherent and conceptual. A vet comes back from his tour overseas and looks around the country, wondering what the hell went wrong. It wouldn’t have worked if it wasn’t put together by a collection of some of the best musicians and producers to ever work in popular music.
Motown quality control people were worried about the record, claiming that the structure – how the songs all tend to flow into each other – would prevent it from having any actual hit singles. Barry Gordy, to his credit, overruled them; of course, Gaye and Co. had already re-recorded or edited parts of the album to his specification because he’d also worried about a potential lack of hits beyond just “What’s Going On.” In a sense, the album is one long song, but the genius of the people who put the whole thing together lies in their ability to make it seem like it isn’t at key moments. It’s all one song, but you can lift out parts and have them stand separately on their own. Writers of short fiction, pay attention.
Marvin Gaye had big hits before and after, but in a century when the bloody history of the times is buried and forgotten, What’s Going On? will remain the album he’s known for. It marks the moment when the man ceased being just a hitmaker in a stable of hitmakers and became an artist in his own right.