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Marvin Gaye's Gift To the World.
on May 28, 2017
There's nothing else like it. Marvin Gaye's sublime and transcendent album, What's Going On, had a musical style and depth of feeling that lifted it up into the highest level of pop and soul releases and made it uncopyable even by Gaye himself, who was smart enough not to try. It seems to float, practically luminous in a sea of congas and percussion, talking and strings, saxophone and multi-tracked Gaye and background singers in a constantly changing mix that bursts with energy like life itself. It passes through many moods: hope, anger, desperation, depression, joy and prayer. It offers no glib slogans, no easy answers and mostly calls for a more spiritual existence that might lead mankind to a better place. It's as relevant today as it ever was though sad to say, I believe times are even worse now than they were when the album was made.
The big surprise was that it was Marvin Gaye who made it. Gaye was Motown's superstar solo act who had had a hit filled career since Stubborn Kind of Fella in 1962. His image was that of a suave, smooth, happy-go-lucky guy, always well dressed and somewhat of a ladies man, an image reinforced by his many duets with Mary Welles, Kim Weston and Tammi Terrell. But that was a record label image. The real Marvin Gaye was aware of the time in which he lived, a time that had left the sunny early 60's behind and which had become turbulent and torn by a multitude of problems: the Vietnam War and its protests, the counterculture, life in the ghetto, drugs and the only recent realization that the natural environment was being destroyed in a way no one had suspected. Then came a personal crisis of the worst kind, the death of his singing partner and friend Tammi Terrell from a brain tumor. We all go along in life thinking there's some kind of sense and justice to it all, then something really horrible happens to someone really good and undeserving of such a fate and that shakes you to your foundations. I think that her death, on top of everything else really shook Marvin Gaye and made him realize he couldn't put out another happy, bouncy Motown album as he always had.
The song came from Obie Benson the deep voice of the Four Tops who co-wrote it with Motown house songwriter Al Cleveland. But the other Four Tops didn't want to do what they saw as a protest song and passed on it. But Gaye was interested and cut the single in the Summer of 1970. Then came the resistance to it in the form of Berry Gordy Jr. who called it "The worst thing I have ever heard" and vetoed its release. But Berry Gordy Jr. was very old school. His dream had been to make popular music for the mainstream and get black performers out of the isolation of the R&B charts and onto the pop charts. He succeeded beyond his wildest dreams. But beyond that he only wanted to get his acts into fancy clubs like the Copa and on network TV. He didn't seem to have much of a social consciousness and if he did, it didn't matter because he saw anything controversial as something that could ruin Motown. Norman Whitfield had been able to update the Temptations into edgier songs but nothing as all-encompassing as this.
But Marvin Gaye was fired up by this song, truly inspired. He went on strike, swearing not to record anything until the song was released. Motown was forced to release a Super Hits album instead of a new one and some weak singles that didn't chart very high. In the end Gordy gave in and the single, What's Going On was released in January of 1971. Opening uniquely with a party in full swing then the clarion call of a beautiful alto sax, it commanded the immediate attention of everyone by its sheer originality. It soon was #2 in the country and stayed on the charts for months. Gordy had to give the green light for the album, which was recorded over just ten remarkable days in March. Gaye often called it "God's album" not only because he sought a spiritual answer to mankind's problems but because he, the musicians (Motown's Funk Brothers house band), the producer (David Van De Pitte) and his co-writers all felt a rush of inspiration like they had never felt before.
The result was unique among Motown albums. Songs flowed into each other without breaks. Instead of the usual punchy beat this album seemed to float effortlessly, buoyed by multiple rhythms and jazz sax that continued throughout most of the tracks. Only Right On leaves this sound world and inhabits an earthier kind of jazz that almost brings the album down a bit too much until it ascends again with Wholly Holy. Each song is its own vignette from the puzzlement of the returning soldier of What's Happening Brother who comes home to a decade's worth of change in just a few years (which is how fast things were changing in the 60's) to the addict of Flyin' High (In the Friendly Skies (the United Airlines slogan) who knows he's hooked. Mercy Mercy Me is still practically the only ecology song that isn't cloying and it has one of the eeriest endings ever in a pop song. and direct pleas like Save the Children and God Is Love are sincere pleas for some kind of sanity in this world. It all ends with the album's final hit single, Inner City Blues which ends us where it all began with the beginning of What's Going On.
Universal owns the Motown master tapes and this CD sounds fantastic, with every note clear and full. Many good things have been said of this album. Many claims of greatness have been made. They're all true.