What’s Going On is the eleventh studio album by soul musician Marvin Gaye, released May 21, 1971, on the Motown-subsidiary label Tamla Records.
Recording sessions for the album took place in June 1970 and March–May 1971 at Hitsville U.S.A., Golden World and United Sound Studios in Detroit and at The Sound Factory in West Hollywood, California. What’s Going On was the first album on which Motown Records’ main studio band, the group of session musicians known as the Funk Brothers, received an official credit.
The first Marvin Gaye album credited as being produced by the artist himself, What’s Going On is a unified concept album consisting of nine songs, most of which lead into the next. It has also been categorized as a song cycle; the album ends on a reprise of the album’s opening theme. The album is told from the point of view of a Vietnam War veteran returning to the country he had been fighting for, and seeing only hatred, suffering, and injustice. Gaye’s introspective lyrics discuss themes of drug abuse, poverty, and the Vietnam War. He has also been credited with criticizing global warming before the public outcry against it had become prominent.
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What’s Going On was an immediate success upon release, both commercially and critically. Having endured as a classic of 1970s soul, a deluxe edition set was released on February 27, 2001, and featured a rare recording of a May 1972 concert shot at Washington, D.C.’s Kennedy Center. Worldwide surveys of critics, musicians, and the general public have shown that What’s Going On is regarded as one of the landmark recordings in pop music history, and one of the greatest albums of the 20th century. The album was ranked number six both on Rolling Stone’s 2003 list of the “500 Greatest Albums of All Time”, and in the magazine’s update nine years later.
During this time, Gaye was able to prove his worth as a producer, producing several songs for Motown vocal group The Originals. The songs, “Baby, I’m for Real” and “The Bells”, became hits as a result. On March 16, 1970, Terrell succumbed from her illness, roughly five weeks before her 25th birthday. Gaye dealt with Terrell’s death by going on a prolonged seclusion from the music business. After his success with the Originals, Gaye changed his look, ditching his clean-cut, college boy image to grow a beard and dressing more casually, wearing sweatsuits. Gaye also pierced his ear in defiance and stood up to Motown executives who felt he should have been touring. He also began working on fixing his personal issues, re-embracing his spirituality and also attended several concerts held by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, which had been used for several Motown recordings in the 1960s. Around the spring of 1970, Gaye also began seriously pursuing a career in football with the professional football team the Detroit Lions of the NFL, even working out with the Eastern Michigan Eagles football team. However, Gaye’s pursuit of a tryout with the Lions was stopped after being advised that an injury would derail his music career, leaving him upset. Despite this, Gaye would befriend three of the Lions teammates, Mel Farr, Charlie Sanders and Lem Barney, as well as the Detroit Pistons star and future Detroit mayor Dave Bing.
While traveling on his tour bus with the Four Tops on May 15, 1969, Four Tops member Renaldo “Obie” Benson witnessed an act of police brutality and violence committed on anti-war protesters who had been protesting at Berkeley’s People’s Park in what was later termed as “Bloody Thursday”. A disgusted Benson later told author Ben Edmonds, “I saw this and started wondering ‘what was going on, what is happening here?’ One question led to another. Why are they sending kids far away from their families overseas? Why are they attacking their own kids in the street? Returning to Detroit, Motown songwriter Al Cleveland wrote and composed a song based on his conversations with Benson of what he had seen in Berkeley. Benson sent the unfinished song to his band mates but the other Four Tops turned the song down. Benson said, “My partners told me it was a protest song. I said ‘no man it’s a love song, about love and understanding. I’m not protesting. I want to know what’s going on.'”
Benson and Cleveland offered the song to Marvin Gaye when they met him at a golf game. Returning to Gaye’s home in Outer Drive, Benson played the song to Gaye on his guitar. Gaye felt the song’s moody flow would be perfect for The Originals. Benson, however, felt Gaye could sing it himself. Gaye responded to that suggestion by asking Benson for songwriting credit of the song. Benson and Cleveland allowed it and Gaye edited the song, adding a new melody, revising the song to his own liking, and changing some of the lyrics, reflective of Gaye’s own disgust. Gaye finished the song by adding its title, “What’s Going On”. Benson said later that Gaye tweaked and enriched the song, “added some things that were more ghetto, more natural, which made it seem like a story and not a song… we measured him for the suit and he tailored the hell out of it.” During this time, Gaye had been deeply affected by letters shared between him and his brother after he had returned from service over the treatment of Vietnam veterans.
Gaye had also been deeply affected by the social ills that were then plaguing the United States at the time, even covering the track, “Abraham, Martin & John”, in 1969, which became a UK hit for Gaye in 1970. Gaye cited the 1965 Watts riots as a pivotal moment in his life in which he asked himself, “with the world exploding around me, how am I supposed to keep singing love songs?” One night, Gaye called Berry Gordy about doing a protest record while Gordy vacationed at the Bahamas, to which Gordy chastised him, “Marvin, don’t be ridiculous. That’s taking things too far.”
Reuniting at their parents’ suburban D.C. home, Marvin’s brother Frankie discussed the events of his tenure at Vietnam, detailing experiences that sometimes left the two brothers consoling each other in tears. Then after Frankie explained witnessing violence and murder before he was to depart back to the states, he recalled Marvin sitting propped up in a bed with his hands in his face. Afterwards Marvin told his brother, “I didn’t know how to fight before, but now I think I do. I just have to do it my way. I’m not a painter. I’m not a poet. But I can do it with music.”
In an interview for Rolling Stone magazine, Marvin Gaye discussed what had shaped his view on more socially conscious themes in music and the conception of his eleventh studio album:
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 from Vietnam, 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.— Marvin Gaye
On June 1, 1970, Gaye entered Motown’s Hitsville U.S.A. studios to record “What’s Going On”. Immediately after learning about the song, many of Motown’s musicians, known as The Funk Brothers noted that there was a different approach with Gaye’s record from that used on other Motown recordings, and Gaye complicated matters by only bringing in a few of the members while bringing his own recruits, including drummer Chet Forest. Longtime Funk Brothers members Jack Ashford, James Jamerson and Eddie Brown participated in the recording. Jamerson was pulled into the recording studio by Gaye after he located Jamerson playing with a local band at a blues bar and Eli Fontaine, the saxophonist behind “Baby, I’m For Real”, also participated in the recording. Jamerson, who couldn’t sit properly on his seat after arriving to the session drunk, performed his bass riffs, written for him by the album’s arranger David Van De Pitte, on the floor. Fontaine’s open alto saxophone riff on the song was not originally intended. When Gaye heard the playback to what Fontaine thought was simply a demo, Gaye let him go. When Fontaine said he was “just goofing around”, Gaye replied, “well, you goof off exquisitely. Thank you.”
The laid-back sessions of the single was credited to lots of “marijuana smoke and rounds of Scotch”. Gaye’s trademark multi-layering vocal approach came off initially as an accident by engineers Steve Smith and Kenneth Sands. Sands later explained that Gaye had wanted him to bring him the two lead vocal takes for “What’s Going On” for advice on which one he should use for the final song. Smith and Sands accidentally mixed the two lead vocal takes together. Gaye loved the sound and decided to keep it and use it for the duration of the album.
That September, Gaye approached Gordy with the “What’s Going On” song while in California where Gordy had relocated. Gordy took a profound dislike to the song, calling it “the worst thing I ever heard in my life”. Gaye, who had also begun recording some songs that would later be featured on his later album, Let’s Get It On, responded by going on strike from recording anything else for the label unless Gordy relented. Motown executive Harry Balk later recalled that he had tried to get Gordy to release the song to which Gordy replied to Balk, “that Dizzy Gillespie stuff in the middle, that scatting, it’s old.” Most of Motown’s Quality Control Department team also turned the song down, with Balk later stating that “they were used to the ‘baby baby’ stuff, and this was a little hard for them to grasp.” Gordy also felt the song was too political to be a hit on radio and too unusual compared with what was considered a part of the popular music sound of that time to be commercially successful.
With the help of Motown sales executive Barney Ales, Harry Balk got the song released to record stores, sending 100,000 copies of the song without Gordy’s knowledge, on January 17, 1971, with another 100,000 copies sent after that success. Upon its release, the song became a hit and was Motown’s fastest-selling single at the time, peaking at number 1 on the Hot Soul Singles Chart, and peaking at number 2 on the Billboard Hot 100. Gordy was stunned by the news and drove to Gaye’s home to discuss him making a complete album, stating Gaye could do what he wanted with his music if he finished the record within 30 days before the end of March and thus effectively giving him the right to produce his own albums. Gaye returned to Hitsville to record the rest of What’s Going On, which took a mere ten business days between March 1 and March 10. The album’s rhythm tracks and sound overdubs were recorded at Hitsville, or Studio A, while the strings, horns, lead and background vocals were recorded at Golden World, or Studio B.
The album’s original mix, recorded in Detroit at both Hitsville and Golden World as well as United Sound Studios, was finalized on April 5, 1971. When Gordy listened to the mix, he cautioned Gaye of the album’s potential of possibly alienating Gaye’s core fan base, which was mostly women; however, Gaye refused to budge. Gaye and his engineers did a new sound mix of the album at The Sound Factory in West Hollywood in early May, integrating the orchestra somewhat closer with the rhythm tracks. Though Motown’s Quality Control department team feared no other hit released from the album due to its concurrent style with each song leading to the next, Gordy surprisingly allowed this mix to be released that month.
“What’s Going On” features soulful, passionate vocals and multi-tracked background singing, both by Gaye. The song had strong jazz, gospel, classical music orchestration and arrangements. The song also featured major seventh and minor seventh chords, which was then unusual for pop music at the time. Reviewer Eric Henderson of Slant stated the song had an “understandably mournful tone” in response to the fallout of the late 1960s counterculture movements. Henderson also wrote that “Gaye’s choice to emphasize humanity at its most charitable rather than paint bleak pictures of destruction and disillusionment is characteristic of the album that follows.”
This is immediately followed in segue flow by the second track, “What’s Happening Brother”, a song Gaye dedicated to his brother Frankie, in which Gaye wrote to explain the disillusionment of war veterans who returned to civilian life and their disconnect from pop culture. “Flyin’ High (In the Friendly Sky)”, which took its title from a United Airlines tag, “fly the friendly skies”, dealt with dependence on heroin. The lyric, “I know, I’m hooked my friend, to the boy, who makes slaves out of men”, references heroin as “boy”, which was slang for the drug. “Save the Children” was an emotional plea to help disadvantaged children, warning, “who really cares/who’s willing to try/to save a world/that is destined to die?”, later crying out, “save the babies”. A truncated version of “God Is Love” follows “Save the Children” and makes references to God.
“Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)” was another emotional plea, this time to the environment. Funk Brother musician Earl Van Dyke once mentioned that Berry Gordy didn’t know of the word “ecology” and had to be told what it was. The song featured a memorable tenor saxophone riff from Detroit music legend Wild Bill Moore. “Right On” was a lengthy seven-minute jam influenced by funk rock and Latin soul rhythms that focused on Gaye’s own divided soul in which Gaye later pleaded in falsetto, “if you let me, I will take you to live where love is King” after complying that “true love can conquer hate every time”. “Wholy Holy” follows “God Is Love” as an emotional gospel plea advising people to “come together” to “proclaim love [as our] salvation”. The final track, “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)”, focuses on urban poverty, backed by a minimalist, dark blues-oriented funk vibe, with its bass riffs composed and performed by Bob Babbitt, who also performed on “Mercy Mercy Me” (Jamerson played on the rest of the album). The entire album’s stylistic use of a song cycle gave it a cohesive feel and was one of R&B’s first concept albums, described as “a groundbreaking experiment in collating a pseudo-classical suite of free-flowing songs.”
Released on May 21, 1971, What’s Going On became Gaye’s first album to reach the Billboard Top LPs top ten, peaking at number six, and staying on the chart for nearly a year, selling over two million copies, by the end of 1972, becoming Motown’s and Gaye’s best-selling album to that date until he released Let’s Get It On in 1973. It also became Gaye’s second number-one album on Billboard′s Soul LPs chart, where it stayed for several weeks. The album’s leading single, “What’s Going On”, sold over 200,000 copies within a week of its release in January 1971, later going on to sell two-and-a-half-million units by the end of the year. It spent several weeks at number-two on the Billboard Hot 100 behind Three Dog Night’s “Joy to the World”, and spent five weeks at number one on the Soul Singles chart between March 27 and April 24, 1971.
The follow-up single, “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)”, peaked at number-four on the Hot 100, and also went number-one on the R&B chart. The third, and final, single, “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)”, peaked at number-nine on the Hot 100, while also rising to number-one on the R&B chart, thus making Gaye the first male solo artist to place three top ten singles on the Hot 100 off one album, as well as the first artist to place three singles at number-one on any Billboard chart (in this case, R&B), off one single album. The album had a modest commercial reception in countries such as Canada and the United Kingdom; “Save the Children” reached number 41 on the latter country’s singles chart, while the album reached number 56 twenty-five years after its original release. In 1984, the album re-entered the Billboard 200 following Gaye’s untimely death. In 1994, the album was certified gold by the Recording Industry Association of America in the United States for sales of half a million copies after it was issued on CD. On July 22, 2013, the album was certified platinum by the British Phonographic Industry for shipments of 300,000 albums.
In addition, What’s Going On received the highest ratings from several leading American publications, including Time, Rolling Stone (who named it “Album of the Year”),The New York Times, and Billboard, who rewarded Gaye with the Billboard Trendsetter Award of 1971. Upon release, Rolling Stone magazine music critic Vince Aletti praised What’s Going On for its thematic approach towards social and political concerns, while also mentioning the surprise of Motown releasing such an album. In a review of the album and Stevie Wonder’s Where I’m Coming From, Aletti wrote:
Ambitious, personal albums may be a glut on the market elsewhere, but at Motown they’re something new… the album as a whole takes precedence, absorbing its own flaws. There are very few performers who could carry a project like this off. I’ve always admired Marvin Gaye, but I didn’t expect that he would be one of them. Guess I seriously underestimated him. It won’t happen again.
Billboard described the album as “a cross between Curtis Mayfield and that old Motown spell and outdoes anything Gaye’s ever done”. In his Consumer Guide review,The Village Voice reviewer Robert Christgau categorized the album’s three singles, “What’s Going On”, “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)” and “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)”, as great singles that were “so original they reveal ordinary Motown-political as the benign market manipulation it is. And Gaye keeps getting more subtle vocally and rhythmically.” However Christgau thought the rest of the album as “pretty murky even when the lyrical ideas are good”. In its 2004 review of the album, Rolling Stone magazine listed the album as having “revolutionized black music”. Time magazine in its review of the album cited it as a “vast, melodically deft symphonic pop suite”.
Reviewer Paul Gambaccini said that Gaye’s death marked a critical re-evaluation of the album, with most reviewers now regarding it as a major masterpiece in popular music. BBC Music’s David Katz described the album as “one of the greatest albums of all time, and nothing short of a masterpiece” and compared it to Miles Davis’ Kind of Blue by saying “its non-standard musical arrangements, which heralded a new sound at the time, gives it a chilling edge that ultimately underscores its gravity, with subtle orchestral enhancements offset by percolating congas, expertly layered above James Jamerson’s bubbling bass”. In his 1994 review of Gaye’s re-issues, Chicago Tribune reviewer Greg Kot described the album as “soul music’s first ‘art’ album, an inner-city response to the Celtic mysticism of Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks, the psychedelic pop of The Beatles’ Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band [and] the rewired blues of Bob Dylan’s Highway 61 Revisited.”
Later on, many artists from different musical genres covered songs from the album, most notably live recordings by Aretha Franklin (“Wholy Holy” on Amazing Grace) and Donny Hathaway (“What’s Going On” onDonny Hathaway Live), as well as Robert Palmer’s medley of “Mercy Mercy Me/I Want You”, among others. “Mercy Mercy Me” was featured as the b-side to The Strokes’ single “You Only Live Once”. Brian Auger’s Oblivion Express would record a jazzy and lengthy version of “Inner City Blues (Makes Me Wanna Holler)” on their 1973 album Closer To It.
In 1985, writers on British music weekly the NME voted it best album of all time. In 2004, the album’s title track was ranked number four on Rolling Stone′s list of the “500 Greatest Songs of All Time”. A 1999 critics’ poll conducted by British newspaper The Guardian named it the “Greatest Album of the 20th Century”. In 1997, What’s Going On was named the 17th greatest album of all time in a poll conducted in the United Kingdom by HMV Group, Channel 4, The Guardian and Classic FM. In 1997, The Guardian ranked the album number one on its list of the 100 Best Albums Ever. In 1998 Q magazine readers placed it at number 97, while in 2001 the TV network VH1 placed it at number 4. In 2003, it was one of 50 recordings chosen that year by the Library of Congress to be added to the National Recording Registry. What’s Going On was ranked number 6 on Rolling Stone magazine’s 2003 list of the “500 Greatest Albums of All Time”, one of three Gaye albums to be included, succeeded by 1973’s Let’s Get It On (number 165) and 1978’sHere, My Dear (number 462). The album is Gaye’s highest-ranking entry on the list, as well as several other publications’ lists.
Here’s the live version What’s Going On:
What’s your answer, to what’s going on?
Photo credit: Rex – David Magnus/REX (10378c), Marvin Gaye Various – 1964