David Gately

What’s Going On: 40 years on

In David Gately, Marvin Gaye, Motown, Uncategorized, What's Going On on June 3, 2011 at 12:01 pm
The album cover

Forty years ago, in early June 1971, Marvin Gaye released the title track from his seminal masterpiece album, What’s Going On. Next Tuesday, June 7, Motown will release a special 2 CD and vinyl box set containing a remastered version of the album plus 28 bonus tracks, 16 of them never released. It’s on Amazon for $47.23.

The story behind the making of the album and song is transformative, both for Marvin and contemporary music. It catapulted the artist into an iconic stratosphere and sealed his legendary footprint in modern music. Together with the Rolling Stones and Beatles’ music at the time, Marvin’s brilliantly visionary concept album continues to influence everything about music today: how we listen, make, consume, sell and interpret it.  

Marvin had been with Motown since the early 1960s. After a few solo hits – How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved by You), Ain’t That Peculiar, and I Heard It Through the Grapevine – he was restless and in a funk in early 1970 over the death of his singing partner and fellow Motown artist (and maybe lover) Tammi Terrel. He wanted to create a more gospel, soulful sound, unlike anything being played on contemporary AM/FM radio. He wanted to write about real social ills, like poverty, crime and the Vietnam War. But Motown founder Berry Gordy (who also happened to be his brother-in-law at the time) kept muffling Marvin’s inspirations.

So, mopping around the Hitsville U.S.A. headquarters in Detroit, aimless and disheartened, Marvin stumbled on songwriters Al Cleveland and Renaldo “Obie” Benson (of the Four Tops), who were writing a socially and politically conscious song called, What’s Going On. After Marvin contributed lyrics, Cleveland and Benson persuaded Marvin to record the song. He did. And when Gordy resisted again, feeling the song too radical and unmarketable because it lacked that popish Motown Sound formula, Marvin stood his ground and…the rest is history.

About the creation of What’s Going On, Marvin once told Rolling Stone, “In 1969 or 1970, I began to re-evaluate my whole concept of what I wanted my music to say. I was very much affected by letters my brother was sending me fromVietnam, as well as the social situation here at home. I realized that I had to put my own fantasies behind me if I wanted to write songs that would reach the souls of people. I wanted them to take a look at what was happening in the world.”

Contrary to Gordy’s fears, critics and fans immediately embraced the album. It remained on Billboards charts for more than a year and sold more than 2 million copies by the end of 1972. Rolling Stone ranks What’s Going On #6 on its list of 500 greatest albums of all time, and ranks the title track #4 on its list of greatest songs of all time.

The first time I heard What’s Going OnI fell in love. The groundbreaking lyrics, bathed in a rarely heard-before soulful, smooth-groove orchestration, exploded from my 1971 Realistic AM/FM transistor radio, grabbed hold of the bootstraps on my Sears Toughskins jeans and shouted: Boy! You ain’t never heard nothin’ like this before. And, with a few exceptions, I ain’t never have.

For a suburban Boston white boy, barely 10 hears old, with zilch personal testimony in urban strife or war, Marvin Gaye and What’s Going On deeply affected me. It was the start of a lifelong yearning for “the different,” a longing to relate to what’s on the other side as a way of understanding, maybe finding myself. The journey never ends.

What’s going on? Please tell me.

Picket lines (brother), and picket signs (brother)
Don’t punish me (brother), with brutality (brother)
Talk to me (brother)
So you can see (brother)
What’s going on?
Yah, what’s going on?
Tell me, what’s going on?
Ah, yeah, yeah, yeah, yeah….

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