By Jeff McCord
The music is so embedded in our consciousness that it’s hard to imagine there was a time when it didn’t exist. Yet What’s Going On, Marvin Gaye’s 1971 masterpiece that turned fifty years old on May 21st, almost never came to life.
Gaye was already an extraordinarily successful singer, crooning one two-and-a-half-minute hit of love and heartbreak after another. His matinee looks and clean-cut appearance made him the quintessential Motown star. The girls swooned; the boys all wanted to be Marvin.
Despite all this, Gaye was in a dark place. He had married Anna Gordy, a woman seventeen years his senior with no shortage of opinions on how he should manage his career. Anna’s younger brother Berry was lord of the Motown empire, and his dictates held fast. Berry had no patience for a song that didn’t grab his attention in the first few seconds. Motown hits got down to business quickly, and Gordy’s stable of talented artists and songwriters stuck to universal themes. It was a formula that had rewarded him time and again, and Gordy saw no reason to divert just because some artist suddenly wanted to follow their own muse.
And that’s exactly what Gaye yearned to do. He was hounded by self-doubt and insecurity, his string of top ten records – even those he had written himself – so micromanaged that he felt undeserving of all the acclaim.
Gaye had witnessed the slow decline and death of his longtime singing partner Tami Terrell, a victim of brain cancer. He was struggling with tax problems and an increasing dependency on cocaine. His long-strained relationship with his father was as bad as ever. His marriage to Anna was starting to unravel. And unrest and social upheaval were swirling around him. His brother Frankie had returned from Vietnam a changed man. He watched Curtis Mayfield release his powerful “People Get Ready” and longed for such relevance. All he needed was a little inspiration.
It came by way of a song. Everyone has their own story of how finished a song it was, and what form it took, but the basic facts are these: Four Tops member “Obie” Benson witnessed a brutal police beating of anti-war demonstrators while on tour with his band. He relayed his disbelief to songwriter Al Cleveland. Yet the Four Tops wanted no part of Cleveland’s work, which they deemed a protest song. So Benson took the song to Gaye. Initially, Marvin thought the song would be suited for another Motown group, the Originals, but he was persuaded to record it himself when he was given permission to rework it and add his personal touches. That song became “What’s Going On”.
The Hitsville recording session for the song differed from Motown’s usual assembly-line approach. Gaye brought in additional musicians to supplement the Motown regulars, among them saxophonist Eli Fontaine, and rounded up bassist James Jamerson in a bar playing with a local band. Alcohol and pot fueled, or rather, loosened the vibe. Gaye himself, inspired by the subtle and unforced beauty of a Lester Young recording, tried a quieter, more natural vocal approach, double and triple-tracking harmonies to give it depth. The lyrics -more plaintive than indignant- pleaded a message of quiet despair. Nearly four minutes in length, strings, sax, a Spectorish wall of sound mix, prominent percussion, and a relaxed tempo all added to the magic.
Yet when Gordy was presented with the song, he hated it, calling it one of the worst things he had ever heard. (According to Gaye. These days, Berry denies such vehement opposition). Nonetheless, by all accounts, Gaye had to threaten never to record for the label again to get the single released. He had nothing to lose and was determined not to go back to the way things were.
Released in January 1971, the single was an immediate hit, so Berry gave the green light to an album, provided Gaye could complete it in thirty days. It took significantly less. Gaye reassembled the band and captured the same lightning in a bottle, armed with an array of like-minded compositions, touching on everything from environmental ruination (“Mercy Mercy Me”) and urban decay (“Inner City Blues”) to apocalyptic imagery (“Save the Children”) and drug addiction (“Flying High”), all told without preaching or dogma, every song framed by the album’s titular question. It’s doubtful any of this was a happy accident. It’s an album too conceptually designed, beautifully bookended by the title track and “Inner City”, to be the result of anything other than careful conceptual mapping.
Appearing May 21st, 1971, What’s Going On was unlike any Motown release to come before it. Songs flowed into one another, backing musicians were credited, a photo of a serious and bearded Gaye adorned the cover. Yet acclaim was universal and immediate. Critics and fans alike adored the record. Despite the worries of Motown’s ‘quality control’ team, the album spawned three top ten singles (the title track, “Mercy” and “Inner City”), and publications as diverse as UK’s NME and Rolling Stone have named it the best album of all time.
Normally, you’d regard such hyperbole with a healthy degree of cynicism, but in this case, I’m not so sure they’re wrong. Gaye would never return to social commentary, though he’d keep the softer vocal approach and turn up the heat on the sexuality in future releases. What’s Going On was his outlier, a concept album that casts its own spell. I get chills to this day when I hear the downbeat of “Inner City” or the gliding sax intro to the title track. It’s not just that the album captured a near-perfect time snapshot of the times. Fifty years on, it asks questions that still need to be answered.