Wednesday, June 24, 2009

What's Going On by Marvin Gaye

When this album was released in May of 1971, it was a radical departure from the usual Motown sound. Typical Motown songs were made for AM radio with great hooks and lyrics about love and loss like Come See About Me, The Tears of a Clown, Reach Out I'll Be There or My Girl. With the release of this album, Marvin Gaye got as far away from that sound as Dylan did from folk music when he released Highway 61 Revisited. 

Many stories have been written about Berry Gordy's resistance to releasing this album. Fortunately, Marvin Gaye was a star and he was ultimately able to get his way. The music world would be a poorer place without this album.

In the fall of 1971, I was listening to a lot of Dylan (a 65 electric bootleg as well as the rest of the early catalogue), The Band (Stage Fright and the first two albums), and various blues albums. We had a fairly limited play list at Floyd's Hotel at that time.

I can remember going up stairs in Carmichael Hall to the room of a girl we called the Queen of Speed. When I got there, she was listening to a copy of What's Going On. I was familiar with Gaye's earlier Motown music because most of what I knew about music in the '60's came out of an AM radio. This album was completely new to me at the time.

What's Going On had a distinctively different sound from anything I had ever heard on a Motown record. I am not sure of my original reaction to this new sound, but I can tell you now that this has been on of my most favorite albums for the last 35 years. It is a record that was ahead of it's time and still sounds great today.

From the opening of What's Going On, which begins with background chatter, a big alto horn riff and then Gaye's soaring vocal, this was obviously a special album. With a sound that mixes soul, jazz and funk, Gaye sings about the Vietnam war, civil unrest, race and poverty which are common themes today, but were not in 1971 Motown song. Have a listen to the opening track:

Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology) is another example of Gaye's forward thinking. Who was thinking about this in 1971, let alone singing about it? It is a beautiful song about a subject that was not common at the time.
Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)

It is a record that is full of great lyrics backed by the excellent playing of The Funk Brothers who were able to stretch out from the usual Motown constraints. From the song cycle that blends from one track to the next, the sound is a unique combination of jazz and soul. Gaye's singing reflects his passion for the material. It is his masterpiece.

If What's Going On isn't on your iPod, it should be. Available on itunes and from Amazon.

Next Post: Let's Get It On.


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