Cult Classics Album Breakdown 28

Van Morrison – Moondance (1970)

In unusual fashion for a largely positive review, I’m going to begin by bashing the artist involved.

Van Morrison is one selfish mother-fucker.

There you go. Now I’ve got you wondering, haven’t I? Well, let me take you back to 1999. I was sixteen years old, heavily into music, and about to venture into booking my first ever gig. There was an advert in my local paper claiming that Van Morrison was coming to town – the genius Irish songwriter who had penned the likes of Brown Eyed Girl, Moondance, and Gloria. I called my friend Sarah, we agreed to go, and I booked the tickets. He came on stage for forty minutes, played none of the above – in fact, played only one recognisable song in the whole gig (Have I Told You Lately That I Love You) – and strutted off without returning for an encore.

At the time, of course, I had no idea that this was unusual practice. Only later did I realise how arrogant, selfish and impersonal this had been. The highlight of the gig had, in fact, been the support act, Lonnie Donnegan, who, with hindsight, blew Van off the stage. He was brilliant, and I got to meet him afterwards – he even signed an album for me. I had no idea at the time how important in the whole scheme of things this man was. A night of no ideas (LOL)! An inspiration for The Beatles, even. He put a smile on my face did Lonnie that night though – that’s how I remember him.

So, wind the clock forward a few years. 2002 to be precise. I decided to give Van Morrison another chance – the venue: Sheffield City Hall. Yet again a horrendously selfish set of obscure stuff that very few in the audience knew or wanted to know. They were looking round in bemusement, like mere-cats. For the first half an hour he hung in the shadows playing saxophone instrumentals. Nobody was there to see that. And, yet again, he kept his hits under lock and key.

The man plays what he wants, when he wants, and how he wants with no consideration for his fans. The man is very self-centered, and has little if no consideration for the audience. You wouldn’t pay for a ticket to watch a dog and feel thrilled when the cat walks on. “Will you shut the fuck up and listen?” Van Morrison famously asked a crowd of over-excited teenyboppers gathered at L.A’s Whisky A Go Go in February 1969. They didn’t respond – just kept on talking. Maybe he’s never recovered from that.

It was essential I got that off my chest. The anecdotes are done for now. Onto the album. There’s better news coming.

Van Morrison is an awesome talent, there’s no questioning that. That’s demonstrated in no better form than his third solo album, and subsequent Grammy Hall Of Fame inductee, Moondance. Astral Weeks, the prequel to Moondance, is often cited as Morrison’s masterpiece. I’ve bought and returned that album three times in an attempt to see what the fuss is all about. In my opinion it doesn’t touch Moondance – an absolute triumph from beginning to end.

And It Stoned Me – the singer’s true recollection of an afternoon in his childhood – is a heartfelt, rural epic. The beginning of Van’s new direction, where his songs were informed by dreams and visions. The title track, Moondance, is one of those timeless jazz intros that never ever gets even a millimetre less thrilling, even on listen ten-thousand. With inspired lyrics, it has become one of the most recognisable brain-worms ever written: “Well it’s a marvellous night for a moondance / With the stars up above in your eyes / A fantabulous night to make romance / ‘Neath the cover of October skies.” Majestic.

Crazy Love, the album highlight, is a sensual, intimate love song that bleeds soul and warmth. Some sort of divine inspiration is surely needed to write a song like this – and it simply can’t be imitated. It’s a command of one’s craft that I don’t think Van has ever topped. Caravan marks the beginning of Morrison’s fascination with Gypsies – a theme that still runs through his work today. The caravan may be “painted red & white“, but the song is painted with the authenticity of Morrison’s spirit.

The ethereal Into The Mystic is the sort of songwriting that operates within new dimensions – musically and lyrically. This is not Brown Eyed Girl territory. It’s far superior, deeper, vast, beautiful. The same beauty filters into the eternal happiness of Come Running, and These Dreams Of You is a Dylan-esque wander through the random thoughts and feelings of a slightly troubled, often melancholy, brilliant mind.

Brand New Day is a gallant, optimistic song, and Everyone a message of hope in a time of unrest (1969 had seen civil war break out in Belfast). Van is absolutely magnetic on this record, and I simply couldn’t imagine life without it on my shelf. Throughout the record his vocal is impeccable, and the horn-soaked Glad Tidings, another tune infused with love and optimism, wraps up one of the most unlikely and strangely uplifting albums you may ever hear. For such a miserable bastard to write such stuff is remarkable. A very soothing record in times of trouble or pain

I’ll never forget Andy Fairweather-Low, during his own magnificent gig in Southport a few years back, running through tunes from the list of artist that he had worked with down the years. I’m talking the likes of Clapton, George Harrison, Roger Waters – when he got to Van, he said:” the less said about him the better.” It tickled me because I just knew. Regardless of the man, Moondance is outstanding, and merits all the plaudits it has accrued over the last 50+ years, and I’m happy to say that we’ve buried the hatchet. I saw him live for a third time a couple of years ago at a jazz festival in Ghent, Belgium, where he finally got the hits out. Any you know what? He seemed happy…so I left happy too.

Thanks for the music, Van.

★★★★★★★★★☆

9/10

Top track trio:

Moondance

Crazy Love

Into The Mystic


Cult Classics Album Breakdown 27

JJ Cale – Shades (1981)

In my hometown of Southport, near Liverpool, there is a wonderful independent record store called Quicksilver Music. It was in there, about ten years ago, that I happened to wander when Shades by JJ Cale was pulsing over the speakers. I knew instantly that I had to have it. It just had something about it that kept me in the shop for well over half an hour. Made Quicksilver Music seem cooler than ever, which is no mean feat. The owner, Dave, a lovely guy with a fountain of music knowledge, often spots me coming to this day and puts something on that he thinks I’ll like (LOL!). Then he leaves the case on the counter – bait, so to speak, for the vulnerable record collector.

Needless to say, Shades got swallowed whole, and praise the Lord.

A lot made sense once I’d got my hands on this record. I started to understand what the likes of Mark Knopfler, Eric Clapton and John Mayer had been listening to whilst homing their own craft. It started to make sense too, having read into it more, why Clapton particularly has always acknowledged and championed this man more than most. And, when reading the sleeve notes, it’s hardly a surprise, all considered, that JJ could call upon such stellar backing musicians for Shades – pianist Bill Payne, drummers Jim Keltner and Russ Kunkel, and legendary former-Elvis guitarist, James Burton, to name a few.

So, to the highlights. If I’m honest there are no low lights. This is a remarkably consistent record. It opens with the groovy Carry On, demonstrating Cale’s insistence on understated vocals left way back in the soup, and limb-tingling shuffle rhythm. It’s a killer hook, leading into the equally hypnotising Deep Dark Dungeon – another characteristically short but captivating novella of a song. JJ Cale doesn’t do the prog thing; he strikes a chord, delivers, then gets the hell out of there within three minutes.

Wish I Had Not Said That is a lighter shuffle with a particularly stripped back sound – it feels like you’re in the studio watching it being recorded, in fact. Pack My Jack is stereotypical JJ – smoky-bar, post-midnight Blues; both simple and sturdy. This is the gift of Cale – his tunes feel like they’ve been around forever. If You Leave Her is somewhat funky – a wah-wah infused jaunt, demonstrating JJ’s ability to slightly alter the goalposts. Friendly and inviting, it’s a sound that reels you in like a greedy Carp.

Mama Don’t, one of the album highlights, is an infectious, mischievous lyric riding over a jilted twelve-bar blues: “Mama don’t allow no guitar playin’ round here / No Mama don’t allow no guitar playin’ round here / I don’t care what Mama don’t allow / Gonna play my guitar anyhow/No Mama don’t allow no guitar playin’ in here.” And quite right – who cares what Mama don’t want, right? Get that amp turned up to 11…

Runaround is Jazz soaked Blues in which Cale’s lyrics, about a woman giving him the ‘runaround’, hark back to traditional blues themes of old. What Do You Expect is lively bop-rock, Love Has Been Gone a nod to Cale’s Country influences, and the album’s final track, Cloudy Day, a moody but adorable instrumental in which guitar and saxophone duel beautifully – similarities could be drawn with Peter Green’s famed Albatross. A staggering end to a great record without a single stray note or unnecessary decorative filigree.

JJ Cale – a lifelong snubber of limelight and conscious avoider of Rock-star ‘celebrity’ – is now a cult hero. Heralded as the creator of the Tulsa Sound, Cale single-handedly pioneered a genre that fused Country, Blues, Rockabilly and Jazz. Clapton is chiefly responsible for Cale’s cult status, having made two of Cale’s songs – Cocaine and After Midnight – huge hits for himself in the 70’s. Admirers of the man also include Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Lynyrd Skynyrd and Brian Ferry – what a collection of references! His laid-back, horizontal sound is compelling, and I feel there is no better example than this stunning album, Shades.

In 2005 JJ Cale released a DVD called To Tulsa And Back – a career spanning documentary that gives a great insight into this reclusive legend and his wonderful musical achievements. He was Leon Russell’s studio technician before being nudged towards making his own records, and never lost that sense of humility. His back catalogue is a must for any guitar lover – and there’s no better way to start than with this album, Shades.

★★★★★★★★★☆

9/10

Top track trio:

Carry On

Mama Don’t

Cloudy Day


Cult Classics Album Breakdown 26

The Verve – Urban Hymns (1997)

When you’re short of a record that you know everybody will like, Urban Hymns is always a great choice – triumphant and upstanding in any company, and spanning a wealth of musical genres.

This now legendary record is a landmark in 90’s popular culture, and in my opinion, shits all over anything Oasis ever did. A genuine British masterpiece. Bitter Sweet Symphony – to this day The Verve’s most successful single – was a seminal release in British music history. Fusing classical chamber music with contemporary indie-rock is no mean feat. Performed by the Andrew Loog Oldham Orchestra, and written by Mick Jagger and Keith Richards, the score to this track stood untouched for years before Richard Ashcroft got his creative mitts on it and wrote a lyric. The finished product is definitely a contender for single of the 90’s.

If that wasn’t enough of a revolutionary opening, the album rolls into Sonnet, another of the four big singles off Urban Hymns, and one of the outstanding examples of Ashcroft’s urban songwriting. It’s also extremely difficult to get melancholy to soar; though Ashcroft seems to find it easy. The Rolling People is Zeppy in its eye-closing heaviness and oblique escapism, perhaps with a splash of U2’s Achtung Baby era. “I just can’t make it alone” sums up the core of the record. And, if U2 meets Zep isn’t enough of a mesh-comparison to wet the lips, I suggest you take up crown green bowls. 

The Drugs Don’t Work is a necessary sombre; utterly sincere and affected from former junkie, Ashcroft. An endearing message to younger people about the perils of addiction. The mass of fans who flocked to buy Urban Hymns (over eight million in the UK alone) were people with kids and problems and real-life worries – these very human songs rang a huge collective bell. It’s the relate-ability of Ashcroft’s craft that makes this so compelling and accessible. Four songs in and you know you’ve definitely got a serious record on your hands.

Catching The Butterfly is, again, reminiscent of the industrial sounds used on U2’s Achtung Baby, and Neon Wilderness an immersing, spacial jam written by guitarist Nick McCabe. Ashcroft was quoted in the early 90’s saying ‘history has a place for us. It may take three albums but we will be there’ – turns out he wasn’t far off the mark. These songs are now fabled – take Space And Time for example – an atmospheric, wistful ballad that marked the hangover of Britpop. Just superb, as one might say on a Sunday afternoon nursing a pint. Suberb.

Weeping Willow is deeply and emotive. Comparisons have been drawn to Radiohead here, and why not. It’s a  groove that leads brilliantly into the album highlight, Lucky Man. I was fifteen years old when I became obsessed with this amazing single. I vividly remember being immersed in some History coursework on Native Americans when I first heard it, and it quite simply opened up another dimension in my mind. That intro is just mesmeric. And so very, very simple. A magical achievement, both from a songwriting and recording perspective. I’ve performed this song myself hundreds, if not thousands of times for live audiences, and it never fails to be one of the best received of all live tracks – simply because of its stature. A song that defined an era, not just in my own life, but the lives of many. A song that, long after The Verve are forgotten, will still be an enduring part of the woodwork. And let’s face it, how many amongst us can consider themselves a lucky man?

Just when you’re wondering where this record can possibly go after that audible hurricanethis band pull out another piece of musical treasure. One Day, a sublime, experimental ballad shows the delicacy and poetics involved in Ashcroft’s craft: “One day baby we will dance again under fiery skies/One day maybe you will love again, love that never dies.” Immense depth of feeling from such a young musician, and justification for their often touted Space Rock / Shoegaze hybrid label.

Ashcroft’s memorable and everlasting tunesmithery bleeds and swoons and crashes and howls. Urban Hymns has far outlived the band, and many of its contemporaries. It’s also worth mentioning that the rest of the band need equal affirmation since Ashcroft often swamps the limelight: Simon Jones (bass), Peter Salisbury (drums), Nick McCabe (lead guitar), and Simon Tong (guitar/keyboards). I hope that Urban Hymns sits snugly on every music lovers’ shelf, and is dusted off occasionally as a reminder that there was something worth caring about in the 1990’s.

It was, of course, Liam that snarled: “Is it my imagination or have we finally found something worth living for?” The answer, back in 1997, was yes: Urban Hymns.

★★★★★★★★★☆

9/10

© Roger Sargent / Shutterstock

Top track trio:

Lucky Man

One Day

Velvet Morning


Cult Classics Album Breakdown 25

Radiohead – A Moon Shaped Pool (2016)

Radiohead, as a concept, is a tectonic plate – constantly shifting, constantly tense, constantly threatening to explode. They are so far out on the edge, still, after all these years, that they’re gripping our reality by a thread. I’ve learned to love that about them.

every time they bring out a new record you literally have no idea what to expect. You’ve got AC/DC, who write the same song over and over again (brilliantly, I might add), and at the other end of the spectrum there’s Radiohead, who you wouldn’t waste a single pound on by making a prediction. They almost intuitively reject their last project in the next one – distance themselves, you could say, like an ex-lover. i’ll never forget the first time I slipped A Moon Shaped Pool into the CD player and heard Burn The Witch. My God. In fact, I think that’s pretty much all I could come up with. It was weeks later, after multiple listens, that I realised how weighty and epochal and downright bloody great it was.

The once slightly weird and maybe even unhinged 90’s indie band aren’t young men anymore. And I’d encourage you to ignore that rather laborious description I’ve just presented of this band since they are so much more than that, and then some. They are the Pink Floyd of their own generation, in fact. Massive statement, I know. I’m not making direct comparisons – just analysing the gravitas of this music and their body of work. Thom Yorke is the paranoid android come to fill our alternative ears with joy. And on this record, Radiohead’s ninth studio outing, he, along with other founder members Colin Greenwood, Jonny greenwood, Ed O’Brien and Phil Segway, certainly do that.

Good luck trying to decode the likes of Decks Dark and Tinker Tailor Soldier Sailor Rich Man Poor Man Beggar Man Thief, but if you’ve got a decent pair of headphones, the swell of ambience pouring into the ears is majestic regardless. I love Desert Island Disk; a moody, art-rock masterpiece that hides much more than it dares to show. Ful Stop is surely a snippet of futurism – neurotic and slippery – it’s almost incomprehensible when wondering how you’d write something like that. Dazzling, and almost pretty, which would possibly make a Radiohead purist puke. Sorry.

Of course, a Radiohead record wouldn’t be complete without some sort of monstrous foreboding or suffocating gloom – and neither would we want it to be. Identikit is an unsettling lyric that employs the influence of classical chamber music. It leaves you wondering if Thom is a closet bubbly bloke or as melancholy as some of his music is. Most. In a good way. This is a band still travelling without moving, and long may they feel the itch if they keep making records like this.

The Numbers is shit-hot, groovy, borrowing-from-early-70’s dimly lit cult Funk and Soul curvature. I’ve read that back, but I’m not changing it. Listen to bass and tell me you’re not enchanted. And so we have a record here that is Art-Rock at its finest. Some mistake Art-Rock for pretentiousness, but I prefer to consider it imagination. This is a band that seem to be as imaginative as ever thirty years into their career, so don’t expect hit singles any time soon.

The charts, are you listening? MEOW.

★★★★★★★★★☆

9/10

Top track trio:

Burn The Witch

Desert Island Disk

The Numbers


Cult Classics Album Breakdown 24

Lauryn Hill – The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill (1998)

It was initially a joke that prompted a mate of mine to give me this album. He was convinced that I was so anti-hip-hop I wouldn’t even take it off him, let alone listen to it. Forever willing to be challenged, I took it and put it straight in the CD player when I got home. After that I never looked back. Hip-hop became a ‘thing’ in my musical dictionary.

I think the thing that grabs me most about this record is the power in which Ms Hill delivers her no bullshit stand against dickhead men who can’t stop hurting the women that adore them. It’s a record that bellows liberation from the rooftops, and bellows it LOUD. It’s a self-serving, self-healing album that just so happens to connect with millions. I’m not at all surprised that, moving into 23 years later, there still hasn’t been a follow-up. I mean, what do you say after this – when, as an artist, you’ve basically exercised your soul in one almighty blast? And, while we’re on the subject, the other thing that grabs me is the fact that I instantly imagined the likes of Roberta Flack, Aretha, Bob Marley, Donny Hathaway, and a whole host of Motown artists. That’s the point; this record has got serious Soul.

The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill won a record five Grammy Awards from 10 nominations – there’s your retirement pot right there. It also reiterates how important this was as a cross-over record. I, for example, had never cared that much for or listened to hip-hop before this album slapped me round the chops. Hip-hop is at the core of Hill’s work, just as it was in her previous incantation, The Fugees, but it’s her ability here to garnish the record with bonafide Soul, elements of Reggae, splashes of Funk and some startlingly powerful Gospel that smashes the doors wide open to a huge audience. Ex-Factor, my favourite song on the album, is one of the great cross-over tracks I’ve ever heard, meandering between genres and blowing your musical mind skywards. Intensely personal, it’s one of those songs that never leaves the brain-worm jukebox.

The album is about the many manifestations of love. The emotions communicated here are complex and varied. I Used To Love Him is drenched in pain, though Nothing Even Matters is quite the opposite – a realisation laced with joy. It’s fascinating that both Superstar and Forgive Them Father could even be interpreted as attacks on Hill’s former bandmates, Wyclef Jean and Pras Michel – relations declined rapidly after they both claimed Hill needed psychiatric help.

The astuteness of To Zion is staggering, and the beautiful optimism in Can’t Take My Eyes Off You really endearing. Having not been a broad consumer of hip-hop, there are a few tracks on here I still find testing, but generally the artistry and sensitivity pervading these songs completely submerge me. Lauryn Hill is a poet, and a damn good one. She’s also got a voice that, at times outspoken, commands your ear.

The Miseducation Of Lauryn Hill is self-indulgent without being self-obsessed – and though that may seem like the biggest oxymoron ever, I know what I mean (LOL!). It’s an incredible skill to bare your soul whilst remaining universal. It’s a profound album that was forward-thinking at the time in its reaching for the new millenium, and displays the songwriting craft of the likes of Carole King, Joni Mitchell and Carly Simon to name a few – yes, Lauryn Hill has climbed the ladder into that bracket of greatness as a result of this one record. I got to see her 20th anniversary performance of this album in Manchester, and though she strolled on stage typically late, it had all the traits of a cultural event, not just a gig.

I never thought I’d be writing this review, but here I am. I’m saying it out loud – hip-hop has made my classic cult album blog. I didn’t think I’d ever go to North Korea or jump off the world’s highest bungee either. Isn’t life strange?!

★★★★★★★★☆☆

8/10

© Anthony Barboza/Getty Images

Top track trio:

Ex-Factor

Doo Wap (That Thing)

Can’t Take My Eyes Off You


Cult Classics Album Breakdown 23

Black Sabbath – Paranoid (1970)

Let us all, for just ten minutes, try to forget what our old friend Ozzy Osborne has become. Let us try to forget that this Hard-Rock music pioneer and cult legend has reduced himself to a reality-TV cartoon character complaining about poodle-poo. Yeah, it’s funny – but it’s not Rock’n’Roll. I couldn’t see the cameras in Robert Plant’s house divulging all his day-today secrets.

Let us forget that Ozzy has shit all over his own career so badly that records such as the one in question, Paranoid, is barely even associated with his past. The kids know Ozzy, for sure – but not for the great music he contributed to back in the late 60’s/early 70’s. What a terrible shame. I want to hark back to a time when Ozzy’s band Black Sabbath were right out on the edge, writing and recording serious and revolutionary Rock music with depth and meaning. In order to do that you have to get your Living With The Osbornes DVD’s series and find the bin, and re-ignite the record player. Paranoid, after all, became the only Black Sabbath album to top the British charts for the next four decades – that’s where Ozzy’s legend lies.

1970 was the year Black Sabbath released Paranoid, their second studio album, during a year of great political and social unrest. It is, to this day, Black Sabbath’s classic album. As I have explained before, I’m not adverse to any genre of music as long as it connects with me in some way. Early Sabbath stuff such as this record is deemed to be heavy – whether that be Metal or Rock, although I would dispute that somewhat. To me this record is an exercise in great guitar playing and great songwriting, not just a thrashing blur of sound. The fact that they recorded the song Paranoid in a 20 minutes – the fulfilment of a legal obligation – is astonishing.

The record opens with the politically fuelled War Pigs – a fantastic, doom-laden rant about those in positions of power. Ok, so we know that Ozzy isn’t the sharpest knife in the drawer, so we’ll forgive him for his opening rhyming couplet: “Generals gather in their masses/Just like witches at black masses.” The record was initially to be called War Pigs until the record company stepped in; would the themes have been understood more had it been that way? Maybe. The critics initially panned Sabbath, with one notable magazine in the US calling them the “worst band in the world.” Not sure what prompted that – they weren’t listening to the same record as me.

Planet Caravan, the album’s highlight, is a dreamy experimental jam with Ozzy’s voice routed through a whirling Leslie speaker. It delivers images of romantic escapism and some sort of apocalyptic foreboding. It could be off a Doves record – it’s still that fresh. My favourite Black Sabbath moment ever, it must be said. Iron Man, the second single off the album, is thumping Sabbath and surely the birth of Metal. Intense, unstoppable, ageless and devastatingly dark.

Electric Funeral is built around a searing, distorted guitar riff as Ozzy gets crushingly sinister; it’s wonderfully, weirdly dark. Hand Of Doom is another bluesy, bass-led groove from Geezer Butler that builds up into a thrilling crescendo. Inspired by the drug-ravaged horror stories of US soldiers returning from the Vietnam war, it’s nightmarish and compelling in equal measure. Rat Salad is a Led Zep-ish, lead guitar masterpiece. It’s songs like this that push guitarist Tony Iommi into the upper leagues of legendary guitar virtuosos. Fiery, spiralling riffage by a largely unsung guitar hero. As for the title – had Ozzy not been involved you’d dismiss it as fiction.

The record closes with the intense Fairies Wear Boots – another anthemic exercise in excellence from a taught-tight 3-piece musical backbone. It’s got something seriously sea-monster about this track, and the production pulverises the ears. “Smokin’ and trippin’ is all that you do!” Ozzy boasts; his finest vocal performance on the record, and one that leaves you smirking whilst melting with the whole metal of it all. The fact that Ozzy is alive to tell the tale is beyond miraculous. He’d have been in a surefire group of rock’n’rollers almost certain NOT to get into their 70’s.

My roots are in the acoustic scene, and always have been. However, I’m so pleased that I got my hands on this record as a teen. It changed my entire perspective, and opened me up to an entire new world of music.

An absolute classic album, Paranoid has its heavy moments, but also wanders through melancholy Blues, Soft Rock, and in some parts even Jazz. But remember: it needs to be played LOUD.

★★★★★★★★★☆

9/10

Top track trio:

Paranoid

Planet Caravan

Rat Salad


Cult Classics Album Breakdown 18

Marvin Gaye – What’s Going On (1971)

Before Marvin Gaye was tragically gunned down by his own father on 1st April 1984, he’d already secured his legacy. This masterful album, What’s Going On, was the primary reason.

Responsible for massive global hits such as How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You), I Heard It Through The Grapevine, and SexualHealing, this multi-instrumentalist and three-octave vocalist was one of the most respected and successful Soul artists ever to grace the stage. His death was a waste – shot dead one day before his 45th birthday – a consequence of many feuds within his parents’ home. Marvin’s tale is a sad one lined with gold. I’m here to tell you that, in my opinion, What’s Going On, Gaye’s seminal 1971 album, is the goldest of all his gold.

What’s Going On is a concept album written from the point of view of a returning Vietnam War veteran, who arrives back home to the country he has been fighting for to see nothing but injustice, suffering and hatred. At the time, music wasn’t used to such subversion, and his label, Motown, had no previous history or experience releasing such profoundly political music. This was no Standing In The Shadows Of Love, though in Marvin’s case, the heartaches had already very much come. The opening title track – a very personal and brave statement – is proof in itself. Motown boss Berry Gordy rejected What’s Going On, reportedly calling it “the worst thing I’ve ever heard in my life.” Thank God he woke up and smelt the coffee.

Whereas the track What’s Going On is the universal declaration of pain, What’s Happening Brother is the personal appeal that peels Gaye’s skin right back. The Funk Brothers are the band bleeding such bitter-sweet sounds all over this – already a landmark recording after just two tracks. Flyin’ High (In The Friendly Sky) is a moody and ominous admission that speaks fearfully of heroin addiction, giving us a glimpse at Gaye’s declining state of mind.

Save The Children is an anthemic, atmospheric plea with a universal message of peace and salvation, and God Is Love a religious dedication, rather ironically, to his eventual murderer, Marvin Pentz Gay Senior. By now in his early 30s, Marvin Gaye would accept nothing but complete control over his music, and you can tell – this is not a man sat in the shadows watching others work the faders. This is the most avant-garde record that Motown ever released; the softest Marvin ever sang with the loudest metaphorical voice.

The album highlight, Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology), is a magnificent, masterpiece of a track. It has been inducted into The Grammy Hall Of Fame, and boy, do the ghosts of these tracks appear all around us today. It’s an album full of songs that probably resonate more with the state of the world now than it ever did then. There’s not just relevance at the time, but a massive foreboding throughout this record. Despite it’s sorrowful message about the mistreatment of the environment, Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology) reached #1 on the Billboard Hot 100, and has been covered by artists as diverse as Robert Palmer, MC Hammer, Todd Rundgren, The Strokes, Pearl Jam, Aswad and Boyz II Men.

Right On changes the landscape of What’s Going On, bringing in a Latin-Soul percussive element that is dominated by a flute – a beautiful change of mood and tempo. Wholy Holy is gospel – a hymn almost. Solemn but sensual. The closing track, Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler), brings the record full circle, ending in the same stunning way that it began. And yes, it makes me wanna holler.

As far as Soul records go, I think it gets no better than this. Soul sensibilities pervading such deep, spiritual subject matter. The man had many personal demons, but he was an incredible musician. One of the finest. Rolling Stone Magazine voted Marvin Gaye #6 on their ‘Greatest Singers Of All Time’ poll, and #18 on their ‘100 Greatest Artists Of All Time’. A legend, and What’s Going On the peak in a glorious career. It’s a must own record for anybody into music. Full stop.

This record set a precedent for change within that genre. The album went on to achieve mass commercial and critical acclaim, being voted ‘Greatest Album Of The 20th Century’ by The Guardian in 1999, and in 2003 voted #6 on Rolling Stone Magazine’s ‘500 Greatest Albums Of All Time’ poll. In 2004 the title track, What’s Going On, was voted #4 on Rolling Stone Magazine’s ‘500 Greatest Songs Of All Time poll’. Huge plaudits for a song that was initially turned down for release.

“Mercy, mercy me,” his voice continues to plead, calmly, desperately, longingly, forever.

★★★★★★★★★☆

9/10

Top track trio:

What’s Going On

Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)

Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)