Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On: 50 years later, a soundtrack for today

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Start your preferred method of listening to music. Set it up to play the whole of the album. Turn off the phone. Press play. Sit down and listen without doing anything else.

It’s tempting to end this article here as I’m not sure anything that follows will do it justice. If nothing else though, I hope someone who has never heard the entire album will listen to it from beginning to end.

Lots of protest songs are specific to a time and place, but every now and again one transcends this: Sam Cooke’s A Change Is Gonna Come, Public Enemy’s Fight the Power, Aretha Franklin’s Respect. But in 1971 Motown released an album that was a game changer and is as relevant today as it was then.

Police brutality, racism, war, poverty, environmental crisis: What’s Going On is a musical masterpiece created in a time of social unrest.

Half a century later it is once again a soundtrack after a year of pandemic, police murder, the dying days of Trump in the White House and a bunch of feckless Eton-educated Tory criminals in Downing Street. It’s as if Marvin Gaye knew what we would be up against.

The years running up to the release of What’s Going On were full of political upheaval and of personal turmoil for Gaye. Only three years earlier Martin Luther King was assassinated in Memphis, as calls for civil rights turned into chants of Black Power.

Riots in 1967 had a huge impact on Detroit — home of the Motown label Gaye was signed to. The war in Vietnam was raging, the anti-war and civil rights protests were polarising the country, and a pre-Watergate Republican president Richard Nixon was in the White House.

Gaye’s long-time singing partner Tammi Terrell had died at the tragically young age of 24. His brother had served in Vietnam, his marriage had ended, he was in continual dispute with the tax authorities and with Motown, and he was taking far too much cocaine. This was a sharp contrast to the clean-cut Motown image of a successful soul crooner.

All of this was forcing Gaye to think about his musical output. He cited the 1965 Watts riots in Los Angeles as an important event, asking, “with the world exploding around me, how am I supposed to keep singing love songs”?

He told Rolling Stone magazine, “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 realised 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.”

The creation of What’s Going On began with the single of the same title. Obie Benson of The Four Tops, a Motown group, was on tour in California – where the state governor was Ronald Reagan – and witnessed a police attack on protesters. Later known as Bloody Thursday, police had opened fire on the crowd, hitting around 50 people and killing one young man.

The streets of Berkeley became a bloody war zone. Martial law was declared, a curfew imposed and the National Guard with bayonets and live ammunition occupied the town. Helicopters doused the college campus with tear gas.

Members of the sheriff’s department had just come home from Vietnam and some later admitted they treated anti-war students as if they were Viet Cong.

Benson said, “The police was beatin’ on them, but they weren’t bothering anybody. I saw this and started wondering what the fuck 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?”

His own group didn’t want the song, so he and writer Al Cleveland took it to Gaye who added lyrics, composed and produced it. As Benson said, “When you heard that song, you could see the people and feel the hurt and pain. We measured him for the suit and he tailored the hell out of it.”

Motown boss Berry Gordy refused to release the single, believing it wouldn’t sell because the sound was out of date and the lyrics too political. But in January 1971 – without his knowledge – it was released.

It became an instant hit and Motown’s fastest-selling single at the time. When he found out, Gordy struck a deal with Gaye: if he could record the rest of an album in 30 days, he could have control of the production of his music. During a 10-day studio session the album was born.

What’s Going On is 35 minutes of pleasure that encapsulates a world in turmoil, but also somehow offers hope; at times through the lyrics, sometimes through the jazz-influenced soul music.

Although many of the tracks are successful standalone singles, the beauty of What’s Going On comes through when you listen to the whole album: the way one song flows into another, the layering of Gaye’s vocals, the skills of the musicians.

But the album is also important for bringing politically conscious soul to the mainstream. In doing so, it opened the doors for future artists to openly produce music with a message that wasn’t sidelined to a niche audience.

The album’s lyrical content continues to make it so relevant today. It’s not as straightforward as saying that political and social upheavals will always produce great culture.

It’s not surprising, however, that all kinds of people were questioning the fundamental nature of the world they lived in. The preceding had seen one of the most inspiring movements against racism, which had mass opposition to war, and a loss of faith and trust in a government that was increasingly out of touch and hostile to the population.

Artists, writers and singers aren’t immune to that. The same dynamic is why over the past decade we’ve had D’Angelo’s 2014 album Black Messiah and Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp A Butterfly the following year.

It is also why two of the best albums of 2016 were from Beyoncé and Solange Knowles (Lemonade and A Seat At The Table respectively). These were all a reflection of and a response to — and some became the sounds of — the first wave of the Black Lives Matter movement.

But What’s Going On does have a timeless quality that many other albums don’t have, not just because it touches on many different but important issues, but I think because it isn’t a simple call to arms.

As you listen to it you can’t help but think about the world we live in today. The album makes you reflect and think about what’s wrong, about what we need to challenge even if it doesn’t say explicitly how.

So with Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler), the lyrics alone could seem pessimistic: “Crime is increasing/Trigger happy policing/Panic is spreading/God know where we’re heading/Oh, make me wanna holler.” But combined with the music and arrangements, and as part of a total album, you aren’t left just hollering.

Similarly, in the song What’s Going On we know that “We don’t need to escalate/You see, war is not the answer”, but it’s not enough to say “For only love can conquer hate/You know we’ve got to find a way/To bring some lovin’ here today”.

For me, then, Gaye posed all the right questions but didn’t always provide all the answers in the lyrics. But that’s also okay with me, and I hope it is with you.

He wasn’t a political leader, or someone who put himself up as having the answers. He was a talented singer, affected by the troubled but exciting times he lived in, and he wanted to show his anger, frustration and hope in the best way he could.

This resulted in an album that was a response to a war that claimed over three million lives and was a critique of a US in the 1960s and 1970s where drugs, racism and poverty decimated most inner cities.

It’s also truly beautiful from the moment you look at the cover to the closing sounds of the last track, Inner City Blues. And it has stood the test of time.

It’s probably best to end with the words of Gaye to his brother Frankie. “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.”

Now press repeat.

Liz Wheatley has a regular Wednesday night show from 9 to 11pm on urbanjazzradio.net