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)


Cult Classics Album Breakdown 1

Dexys Midnight Runners – Searching For The Young Soul Rebels (1980)

Released in 1980 at the height of the Northern Soul revival, this record by Birmingham’s quirkiest of quirksters draws on a profound Soul sensibility, whilst also experimenting with Funk, Ska, and booming powerhouse Pop melodies.

Searching For The Young Soul Rebels is truly a record of its time; a powerful statement of defiance and fun by Kevin Rowland and his eight-strong army of “boys”. It’s the intense, four-dimensional soundscapes that first grabbed me when I got my hands on a second hand, semi-battered CD copy in the early noughties. New wave meant fresh air; and in a music chart dominated by Punk bands and semi-irrelevant popsters, Dexys were one of the larger waves sweeping over a changing musical landscape.

The album begins with the brilliant, cymbal crashing Burn It Down – full of balls and lifeblood and culture-shifting-angst, it’s a passionate attack on all those who dare demean the Irish and their heritage. Rowland reels off a host of Irish literary giants in defense of this great nation – Oscar Wilde, Brendan Behan, Sean O’Casey, George Bernard Shaw, Samuel Beckett and Lawrence Stern, to name but a few. The horns are exquisite, and the vocals thumping. One of Dexy’s finest ever recordings.

Followed by Tell Me When The Light Turns Green – a rousing shifter, once again brought to life by a brilliant horn section, it’s more The Team That Meets In Caffs that pulls the ear into the speaker and wont let go. A moody, edgy instrumental, it demonstrates the true power of this band, and the voice behind them without needing voice. In fact, I ramble. The true voice of this band are those compelling horns.

I’m Just Looking is a gripping song of longing with yet another stunning brass section, followed by the epic bounce of Geno – one of the band’s staple super hits. The beauty of this band is that their music gets inside you before you realise it has to somehow get out. I’ve had many a night pumping the jukebox with Geno, much to the delight of EVERYONE. Seven Days Too Long, quite simply a Northern Soul institution, is every inch as rousing as the original.

I Couldn’t Help If I Tried is a gorgeous ballad sang with deep, raw emotion by Rowland, who flirts with falsetto throughout. It is bluesy in parts, jazzy in others, but at all times grabs you by the shirt collar. A superb change in tempo on an otherwise lively album. Thankfully Not Living In Yorkshire It Doesn’t Apply – just about the oddest song title of them all – certainly lends an ear to the Punk movement of the time with its machine-gun bass, but the organ, coupled with Rowland’s fascinating flying-falsetto, throws the overall sound back into the Northern Soul scene. There is even a suspicion of Disco influence in this track – and that is never anything short of exciting.

And so, it seems that the only way to review this record is track-by-track. There is a spinal cord throughout the music. Love Part One is a unique, spoken word track complemented by a solo saxophone in the background, with an intrigue and poignancy: “They all dedicate lines to you/Thin lines – easy to see through/Of course they do it to be like others who/All feel something I wont pretend just for you.” Now that is cool.

The closing track on the album, There, There My Dear, is an exuberant and emphatic closing performance featuring dynamic backing vocals and a great lyric. And so comes a shock when the vinyl stops spinning and the needle clicks because your world has been nothing but Dexys indulgence for that space in time. As a complete package there are one or two dips, and it’s not looking to tear your heart out and stitch it straight back in. But, damn, it’s a cool record.

Searching For The Young Soul Rebels is a powerful piece of work that captures its time so well – a time when music called for rowdiness and energy and all-out passion.

★★★★★★★★☆☆

8/10

© Jacob Sweetman

Top track trio:

Burn It Down

Geno

Seven Days Too Long