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)