Discipline Reviews: Marvin Gaye - What's Going On (1971) [CLASSIC ALBUM]

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WHAT'S GOING ON

"Panic is spreading / God know where we're heading"

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Artist: Marvin Gaye
Released in: 1971
Genre: Soul
Label: Tamla
Producer: Marvin Gaye
Length: 35:42
Tracks: 9
Best Track: Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)

TRACKS: 1) What's Going On; 2) What's Happening Brother; 3) Flyin' High (In The Friendly Sky); 4) Save The Children; 5) God Is Love; 6) Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology); 7) Right On; 8) Wholy Holy; 9) Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)

Introduction

[takes out small bucket filled with small scraps of paper with idioms written on them]

[pulls out one paper, reading: "Brevity is the soul of wit."]

[sighs]

A staple of black music canon is protest: even if you don't interpret works by jazz giants like Miles Davis as rebellious due to their improvisational elements, even if you decide not to take in account super-political Afrobeat legend Fela Kuti, even if you take the entire hip-hop genre out of the picture, it won't take awfully long to sift through the discs in your record store, on a day where you decided to diversify your collection, and come up with a record from a black musician that is, predominantly, a protest album.

Now, the following statement is entirely untrue, but it wouldn't be exactly impossible to understand where someone (like a random somebody who isn't really that into music, imagine that) is coming from if they just assumed that albums involving protest are generally "agressive" in execution (I mean, even Stevie Wonder kind of raised his tone and amped up his keyboards on the 8-minute "Black Man"): that is, if they don't know about today's album.

American soul singer Marvin Gaye, prior to What's Going On, wasn't exactly just a nobody; he had a whole slew of successful singles, including the huge "I Heard It Through the Grapevine", which had went up to #1 in the US and in the UK, and successful albums also, like M.P.G., which hit #1 in the US Soul Album Charts and was his first record to hit the Top 40 in that same country. It was with What's Going On, however, that his career went from real to real.

Songwriter Al Cleveland, who worked for the label Motown (an African-American label that helped break large racial boundaries in popular music), wrote a song based on an incident in which Renaldo Benson, of the vocal quartet The Four Tops, saw police brutality enacted on protesters in People's Park, in Berkeley, California (it's a well-reported incident too). The Four Tops turned down the track, but Marvin Gaye sure didn't: in fact, he revised the track and ended up making "What's Going On". With that followed the album of the same name, which was spurred by Marvin's brother, Frankie Gaye, returning from Vietnam, and by the social situation in America.

What's Going On is generally considered Marvin Gaye's best album, and one of the greatest albums ever made. Let's see if that's correct!


The Album

Here's a surprising thing for the uninformed: What's Going On is a concept album, and a very well executed one at that. In fact, the nine songs in there directly follow into each other, and the final track, "Inner City Blues", closes the record out on the main theme of the title tune, which starts off the album. As far as I know, the only group or artist that took the idea of a concept album this far prior to 1971 was The Moody Blues!

The concept is that of a Vietnam veteran who returns to the US, to see that the country he's been fighting for is full of hatred and injustice; the songs, appropriately, reflect on that, with subjects ranging from drug addiction to the distinction between poor and rich, good and evil, etc., including also songs about the environment, devotion to God, and the condition of ghettos in inner-city America. There's also "What's Happening Brother", which is dedicated to Frankie Gaye.

I, for one, agree with the praise this album gets, but it's not just because of the conceptual aspect: the album's greatest quality is the music itself, and it's both unique and godly: I have little experience in the evolution of the Motown sound, but rest assured that if you were to listen to this album with only other canonized soul/funk works as a jumping point (stuff like Songs In The Key Of Life and Stand!), it might take a few listens for you to get into the sound.

Another important thing about the album's sound is how "peaceful" it sounds: neither the instruments nor Marvin's voice raise their tone or gain any sort of aggressiveness through the course of the record, and that plays an important part in the album's uniqueness. The fact of the matter is that the album's performance is so excellent that its themes of protest are actually even easier to notice, since the emphasis on a plaintive and soulful style comes out as a sort of oxymoron in comparison to the politically charged lyrics. I think the one exception would be the 7-minute "Right On", which packs quite a lot of power by the second half.

However, don't be mistaken into believing that the album doesn't pack any energy: Marvin Gaye's voice extrudes soul, but the instrumentation oozes funk. The emphasis is, generally, on the former, which is not a problem at all, but when the two meet, it's impossible to resist. Case in point: the closer, "Inner City Blues", barely beats out the amazing title track as the best cut on the record thanks to the stellar rhythm and harmonies, complimented by a phenomenal plaintive vocal delivery from Marvin, ending the album with an indescribable bang before fading back into the main theme that kicked it off.

Note how I said that track barely beats out the title cut? That's because "What's Going On" is a marvelous number, serving both as a great synopsis and introduction to the album's themes and as a self-contained statement: it's done with such a restrained compared to more full-fledged funk works that the message consequentially becomes more poignant, instantly getting across the concern prevalent in the record. Along with that, the song instantly clears off any doubts as to what the album is going to do. The name What's Going On isn't a question: it's a promise to inform.

[shifts eyes left and right and closes a tab containing the All-Music Guide's review of the record]

The rest is not necessarily as instantly recognizable as the opening and closing tracks, but each song has something to offer: for instance, "What's Happening Brother" more or less follows up on the melody of the title track, with a more intimate spin, as it plays out as a sort of conversation between the Vietnam War veteran the album centers on and his entourage, wondering what's happening. I consider it another highlight thanks to how well the track spawns from its predecessor and how well it manages to fit, if that makes any sense.

"Flyin' High (In The Friendly Sky)" is a slower number; while I don't find it as immediately attention-grabbing as the first two songs, it's still a very solid number, thanks to the performance being much looser and less grounded (fits the name, after all); "Save The Children" is also one of the weaker songs (this one's about giving love to the children), but it's still a very captivating number, as it features two different vocal lines from Marvin, one in which he recites the lyrics and the other in which he sings them, to great effect.

"God Is Love", the shortest track on the album, is one hell of a doozy: it gets right down to business and plays out as a big explosion of emotion dedicated to God and to Marvin's father, Marvin Gay, Sr. (who was, himself, a reverend); "Mercy Mercy Me", one of the most famous songs in Gaye's repertoire, has a cool snare drum effect that sounds like a sonar beep (it might be a sonar, I'm guessing here), and is about the environment (heh, that's pretty funny, The Moody Blues did a concept album on ecology a year before!).

"Right On", which I mentioned earlier, is sort of the centerpiece of the record: lasting a good 7 minutes, it progresses and escalates along with its themes of divisions (good and evil, rich and poor, I mentioned that also), working in a fashion completely opposite to the briefness of "God Is Love" and working just as well. It segues into the breather "Wholy Holy", which is another track about love, although it brings religion in the mix also; this one is particularly beautiful, having little percussion and prominently featuring strings in its instrumentation.

We arrive back at the closer, "Inner City Blues", but I already used about four adjectives to describe it earlier in this review, so there's no point in being redundant there.


Conclusion

To be honest, I highly doubt anyone with a passing interest in soul would pass this album up (unless they're racist, contrarian, or an asshole or something): this has already been established as one of the greatest records of its genre and of all time, and, as this review suggests, it's for a good reason. So, why review it if only just so that I can say the obvious? Well, I could be doing someone a favor somewhere.

Along with that, the hype around the record could cause an averse effect, in the same way that some people don't think Nas' Illmatic is much to write home about, even though it's praised as the greatest hip-hop album ever made. Simply put, What's Going On should, perhaps, not be your first album of the genre; however, it shouldn't be your last either, considering the concept has barely lost any of its relevance through the years.

PERSONAL RATING: *****
RECOMMENDATION RATING: ****½
LETTERED RATING: Epsilon


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