This September marks the 50th Anniversary of the landmark recording of Marvin Gaye’s opus What’s Going On, a truly timeless album made that much more pertinent with societal tensions bubbling over today. The title song and others like “Save The Children,” “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology),” and “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)” retain a certain social commentary that transcends generations and reconstitutes itself when the unrest begins to reach untenable levels. Is it Marvin at his best? That’s debatable, of course, but it’s the beginning of a body of work in the 70s that is unquestionable in its songwriting, production, and overall feel that rivals any artist’s catalog in any genre of music. And it’s here with What’s Going On that Marvin really pivots from the “Motown sound” and develops his own voice in his writing and his production.
Why now? Why wait till 1970 to create a protest record? For starters, the Vietnam War continued to endlessly wage on, Dr. King’s assassination left the Civil Rights movement in a nadir, and the country was well on its way to a growing conservative movement with the Nixon regime in full swing and the Democratic party in flux. So, maybe better asked: Why not?
I think, often times, we look at an artist’s reaction to the outside world as something selfless, giving of their blood, sweat, and tears in the form of a rendering that has less to do with the actually artist than the overarching benefit to that segment of society that most gravitates to the message. But is that really the case? This narrative makes for a better backstory, granted, by assuming the artist gave up the accoutrements of creating something for the charts versus something for the march. However, it doesn’t have to be that way. Often times the inner struggle of the artist can be reflective, or enmeshed with, that of the battle society is experiencing, either from within or without. The two conflicts mirroring each other even if the context is not identical, with the artist grafting those emotions and struggles onto society at large in a relatively seamless fashion. Enter Marvin’s What’s Going On.
In retrospect, it’s easy to look back and see a pivotal year, a true turning point were one’s entire trajectory takes a seismic shift. That year for Marvin Gaye was 1970. This year saw Marvin release That’s The Way Love Is, a departure from his earlier sound at Motown as this album was helmed by Norman Whitfield, one of the creators of the “Psychedelic Soul” sound responsible for monster hits for the Temptations like “I Wish It Would Rain,” “Papa Was A Rolling Stone,” “Cloud Nine,” and many more. Whitfield, at this time, was holding down more and more production responsibilities and many of the Motown roster fell under his influence, with Marvin being no exception.
That’s The Way Love Is sees the beginning of Marvin’s shifting social ideology, at least that represented in his recording of “Abraham, Martin, & John.” The title is indicative of the song’s content as he affectionately remembers three people and their influence on civil and human rights. This song is nowhere near as impactful, almost acting as a cautious precursor before fully immersing himself in the content found on What’s Going On, released about a year later. So, one has to wonder, “Why the change?” What made Marvin’s creative genius become so much more exact and urgent?
To begin with, his most famous collaborator, Tammi Terrell, died on March 16, 1970 as result of complications brought on by brain cancer. This left Marvin reeling, as a woman who was responsible for several of his biggest hits up until moment had passed at the age of 24. The loss of this loving energy, the bond they formed, had to impact Marvin not only personally and psychologically, but creatively, too. Both artists at their zenith, climbing the charts together, and now Gaye forced to go it alone. The world is a scary enough place and only made more glaringly so with the passing of someone so dear to him.
Also, his brother, Frankie Gaye, had returned from Vietnam disillusioned and traumatized by the images he witnessed during his stint in Southeast Asia. The impact on the ones closest to us, more so than the actual event or movement, is what shakes our being and brings the event to our front door. We are effectively bombarded at every turn or “click” with global events, but they can otherwise appear so large that it remains ambiguous and its proximity being equal parts ubiquitous and remote. The emotions that we share as surrogates with our loved ones can affect us as intensely as we experienced it ourselves. Marvin Gaye didn’t have to pick up a gun and head off to Vietnam to understand the anguish and the unspeakable horrors his brother witnessed firsthand.
So here we have an artist, a man, mourning the death of his dear friend, his close contact with his brother in the military during wartime, and a constant struggle with his preacher father as son so vehemently vies to have his dad’s approval of his secular recordings. In other words, the struggles are real, but it’s the conflict Marvin is experiencing that transforms what’s been brewing in him for some time into a meaningful expression of his art.
This intersection is where music and message converge and form something beautiful and lasting. Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On takes his personal pain and projects it so artfully onto tape while simultaneously speaking to millions of listeners feeling the pain of prolonged war, stalled Civil Rights movement, and a growing disillusionment with our government and their agendas. Marvin used his agency and artistry to create something so very personal yet so personalized by his legion of fans who saw an innocence in his early music to the urgency of What’s Going On.
For an album that Barry Gordy expressed a general displeasure in releasing, it represented one of the most successful in the label’s history. Marvin pushed back -and pushed through- and we are forever grateful for him fighting for the release of an album that needed to be heard, that needed to be made. The country craved someone who could articulate the ills of society with a sonic salve as only Marvin can. This album is not screaming at anyone, demanding anything. It’s simply an invitation to see things from a different perspective. Marvin was hurting, but he made others feel that their pain mattered, too. If nothing more it’s a lesson in empathy and understanding. We are not islands separated from our fellow humans despite some impassioned arguments otherwise. We persevere and partake in the shared experience and What’s Going On is a half century old document, not only telling us what was going on but speaking to us now as it continues to go on.