RETROSPECTIVE: What's Going On, Fifty Years Later
The Magic of an Enduring Classic
What’s Going On was the album that Motown didn’t want to release. A bold soul protest album, the album arrived as a pain stricken 35 minutes of masterful songwriting, crafted by an artist with a great deal on his mind, but before its 1971 release Marvin Gaye was a clean cut star. With his timeless voice landing a role in vocal quartet The Marquees in the early 60s and a commercially successful solo career in a bustling Detroit scene, as Gaye performed the national anthem at the 1968 World Series and landed a number 1 hit on the Billboard 100 with ‘I Heard It Through the Grapevine’ his stardom was established quickly, but Gaye wished to transcend Motown. He wanted to shift beyond a music scene built upon efficient manufacture, inspired by the assembly lines that had defined 20th century American industrial mechanisation. Motown was a conveyor belt chugging out bright melodies and upbeat lyrics so prolifically that they would utterly dominate the landscape of an entire decade of American cultural expression.
What's Going On, however, was an artistic shift, but one sparked from disparate and difficult experiences. There were issues close to home, with 1967 seeing some of the bloodiest riots in the history of the United States in Detroit, but for all of the institutional violence that so clearly informed Gaye's direction, his own life too was one shrouded by turmoil. Tormented by an abusive father that would eventually take Gaye's life in 1984, shooting his son twice in their family house in Los Angeles, Gaye had also suffered from a period of depression following the death of long time collaborator Tammi Terrell, the accompanying voice on ‘Ain’t No Mountain High Enough’, who passed from a brain tumour at the age of 24. It should have been no surprise then that the glitz of Motown, run by recording label owner Berry Gordy, began to run thin for Marvin Gaye.
Gordy’s empire needed to be sleek and appealing; an industry underscored by regularity and an efficiency of production, wedding mechanical and technical brilliance with aesthetic value. The focus here was on the product the artists produced, a formulaic attention to controlling quality that privileged the product itself over artistic autonomy. Gaye had abided by the rules of Motown production, working under Gordy, and though his pre-1970s sound had been compelling, it had been reliant on the same shimmering aesthetic. Gaye recorded ‘What’s Going On’ in 1970, inspired by an idea from Renaldo ‘Obie’ Renson of the Four Tops after witnessing an act of police brutality at an anti-war protest in Berkeley, and Gordy refused to release the track, believing it to be “too political” for radio. Instead, the label released a compilation album, Super Hits, a project that would emblazon Gaye with the very image he wished to dispel, a clean-shaven caped superhero, a gimmick, a product - one that was very much controlled, kept under the guise of a polished exterior.
Gaye responded, going on strike until the track was released, and ‘What’s Going On’ would finally be released in 1971 to instant success, topping the R&B charts with 100,000 sales in the first week. Gaye’s vision finally won over the Motown elite and forced Gordy to reconsider his position - a real achievement. The album it would kick into became a protest anthem for the century. It was a blessing, the sound of an auteur with full autonomy and creative control over their work – offering a handful of roses in an environment determined to oppress. Gaye's face on the cover was transformed from sanguine superhero to bearded and contemplative. A display of determined masculinity: black-jacketed in the rain in an image of indomitable strength, What’s Going On reflected a decade of upheaval with dissatisfaction and a slight brokenness washing through the seamless symphonies of the project like the droplets cascading off the black leather coat on the cover.
The lyrics that spanned the project were far from dense, nor were they particular pointed or angular – but they were never supposed to be. The structural problems were evident, the Vietnam war, the declining state of the natural world, the suffocating enforcement of biopolitical power in the form of selective urban poverty and police violence. In the midst of all this societal pain, the question “what’s going on?” felt achingly small. Wondering, detached, overwhelmed. This was a work of floating melancholy, not one of anger, Gaye's passion feeling somewhat torn yet heavily laden with the battle between hope and hopelessness. For an artist that had been made to sing with his eyes open for commercial value at the start of his career, it’s hard to not to imagine Gaye finally shutting his eyes, allowing pain to unfurl between shifts in pitch and slow intakes of breath. But the ultimate sadness of this record remains the very timeless quality we should be cautious to celebrate, the question Gaye poses remains unanswered 50 years later.
Softness was present from the first note, "Mother, mother, there's too many of you crying," Gaye’s tenor lamented, "Brother, brother, brother, there's far too many of you dying", floats along a gentle horn opening line; his shimmering voice threaded over congas and strings, distilling the sound of a street corner, as voices rattle through the breaks. It's moments like this that we should be mindful of, listening intently for the ringing "Brrrrrrr!" from the first moment, voices layering over each other into a concoction of sound, a question distinguishable in an exchange between one man and another, "what's happening, brother?" that would underline a central thematic quality and become the title of the next track.
The concept was loosely strung together by the experience of a soldier returning from Vietnam and stepping back into the United States, influenced by a series of letters his brother had sent him in the midst of the conflict, most evident on second track ‘What’s Happening Brother’ as the vocalist attempts to integrate back into a home that is suddenly alien to him. The spectral, explicit violence of Vietnam moves aside for a new violence that is undercut by worries of money, loss and unemployment. The question “how in the world have you been?” feels like a double meaning, not simply a question of wellbeing, but how have you been doing, in the midst of all of this?
There are vignettes of sadness, tracks that fall out of the cracks of a broken world – but Gaye never answers his own questions. He simply yearns through the brutality of existence, his anguish soundtracking a world dishevelled by corruption, dehumanisation and decaying urban life. There is a certain quietness to the record, as through every soft overture to his ripped and strangled world, his voice remains soft, floating and cloudlike. It’s the sound of an artist whose pain is so overwhelming he is unable to even address it directly. ‘Save The Children’ and ‘Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)’ hold the same subdued tone, pillowed by densely textured instrumentals and vocals, but the hums and glides are not to accentuate a prophecy or manifesto – they push towards the spiritual, capturing a levity that often builds and falls, with the serrated edges of the tracks making room for voices to murmur at the seams, creating a certain temporality that beckons the listener to reach out towards Gaye's present.
The callousness of a world on ‘Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)’ is underlined by the melancholia of moonshine misery, as the quotidian elements of the inner city rise in lines that function like couplets; “rockets / moon shots”, “inflation / no chance”, “hang ups / let downs”. Gaye reminds us that depression can function like this, shifting between colliding elements and the cries of a downtrodden world as his grief unfurls in real time. His melodies, screams and splitting cry at the end of the track seem to escape from the thin spaces in a world was closing in around him.
Five decades after it’s release, What’s Going On has a presence that feels as close as ever, the crowning moment of an icon and signalling the decline of the reign of Motown. The golden decade that followed his magnum opus would be cut short by his death at the hands of his own father aged just 44 years old, but Gaye left behind a tapestry woven out of his own personal trauma and the pains of war, corruption and injustice. He made ample space for every emotion in a dream that found strength in it’s most titular assertions, and through it all Gaye still breathes into his soul, finding a place to cry, for his belief that “only love can conquer hate”. These hymns threw off fleshliness and pain in the name of peace, love, faith, and sought to breathe warmth into an overwhelming, stultifying life.
Fin Cousins is a postgraduate literature student studying at Kings College London. He loves writing, music and sport and he has now completely given up waiting for Love Island to accept his application. He also made our logo.
Thanks for reading! Slow Motion Panic Masters is a music, arts and culture website created and edited by Ben Wheadon, a literature student and musician based at the University of Oxford. He is also a Fleet Foxes shill.
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