Sunday, September 27, 2009

September 27: Marvin Gaye, "What's Going On"

Artist: Marvin Gaye
Album: What's Going On
Year: 1971
Label: Motown

When it comes to the greatest records of protest, those that call for action against social injustices, many assume that the best come from the likes of Bob Marley or Bob Dylan. However, when one digs deeper into records of this style and caliber, there is one album, that while perhaps a bit more unassuming, is easily one of the most insightful and scathing social critiques in music history. Hidden behind one of the most amazing voices in history, Marvin Gaye's 1971 release, What's Going On is nothing short of stunning and gives one of the most unforgiving views into what can be called the "crumbled American dream." Possessing what is undoubtedly one of the most beautiful and emotive voices in the entire history of music, Gaye's songs are some of the most captivating ever recorded. Having already cemented himself as a legend in R&B due to his work within the "Motown sound," and his hit singles over the first decade of his career, What's Going On is the first album where Marvin Gaye steps away from his "sex symbol" status and focuses more on speaking his mind on what he sees as the problems in the world around him. Keeping the lyrics simple and to the point, every song is amazingly powerful, and the gorgeous orchestrations topped off by Gaye's unparalleled voice makes his 1971 album, What's Going On easily the finest of his career as well as one of the most monumental and pivotal records in the entire history of recorded music.

Among the many factors that led to Marvin Gaye making such a stark switch in sound, one cannot overlook the fact that he had been dealing with major depression in the months leading up to the recording session due to the tragic death of his longtime singing partner, Tammi Terrell. Following her death, Gaye pretty much lost his interest in recording music, and after a failed tryout for the Detroit Lions football team, Gaye found himself assisting writer Al Cleveland in completing a song called "What's Going On." Though the song was originally meant to be recorded by Motown artists, The Originals, Cleveland persuaded Gaye to give the song a shot, and after recording the song, with the b-side "God Is Love," Gaye realized that this less "radio friendly"direction was a recording direction he quite enjoyed. However, Motown CEO, Berry Gordy Jr. refused to let the single be released, claiming it was "too political," and it took nearly a year until Gordy finally agreed to press the single. Upon its release, "What's Going On" almost immediately shot to the top of the charts, making it Motown's fastest selling single, and would lead to Gordy green-lighting an entire album. Yet, the version released on the single differs greatly from the album version, as the single take has far louder backing vocals, as well as a larger and louder presence of percussion. This use of almost conversational backing vocals would run throughout the entire album, and would give What's Going On much of its almost "conversational" feel. The album was produced almost completely by Gaye, and with the backing of the legendary Motown "session band," The Funk Brothers, the music is only rivaled for greatness by the lyrics and vocals of Gaye himself.

However, even with all of the stunning aspects to the songs, the full length album What's Going On was met with nearly as much reluctance from Berry Gordy Jr. as the single. The album is significant in that every song seamlessly flows into the next, and with its tight, focused concept, Gordy felt it was too "radio unfriendly" to be commercially successful. Truth be told, never before had there been a concept-based, soul recording, and the fact that none of the songs had a formal "fade out" ending gave Gordy much support for his argument. However, once again Gordy gave in, and much like the single, and nearly immediately after its release on May 21, 1971, the album was a massive success. What's Going On yielded three top ten singles, as well as gaining "Album Of The Year" accolades from countless music publications. The juxtaposition between the gorgeous musical arrangements, Gaye's phenomenal voice and the grim, bleak lyrics resonated across all social boundaries, and many felt that the album perfectly captured the sentiments and realities of the world at the time. The fact that Gaye was able to mix together elements of classical and jazz music with his soul and R&B roots is a testament to his musical ability, and the sound was truly unlike anything else recorded previously anywhere else in music.

Truth be told, there is not a moment on the album that is anything less than phenomenal, and the voice of Marvin Gaye has rarely sounded better. With his seemingly limitless vocal range, and the smooth, almost relaxed manner with which he sings plays a stunning juxtaposition to the content to the lyrics. Gaye's velvety, captivating voice draws the listener in close, and one cannot help but agree with everything he sings about, and many of the sentiments are still as relevant and powerful to this day. Lyrically, the album follows the tale of a Vietnam veteran (Gaye's brother-in-law) returning home and being stunned and baffled by the state of urban decay across the country. Wondering if his service had been done in vein, he laments on the horrors around him, and calls for change in every area. What's Going On moves beyond the "standard" protest albums of the time, and while it does question the futility of war, it focuses more on the repercussions "back home." Gaye addresses everything from children to poverty, and even makes one of the first environmental rally cries when he sings, "...what about this overcrowded land? How much more abuse from man can she stand?" on "Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)." Gaye focuses on changing the world for future generations when he sings, "...when I look at the world it fills me with sorrow, little children today are really gonna suffer tomorrow..." on "Save The Children." Such a wide range in themes, and the blunt, sorrowful manner with which he sings played in stark contrast to nearly everything else Motown had ever released, yet the honestly and beauty of the songs has made them some of the greatest ever recorded.

While many consider Marvin Gaye as perhaps the greatest soul singer in history, the truth of the matter is, he was also one of the greatest advocates of social change. Making a massive shift from his previous, radio friendly, more upbeat songs, Gaye presents a gritty, yet accurate collection of songs of the shattered American dream throughout his 1971 masterpiece, What's Going On. Infusing elements of jazz and classical music, alongside the signature funky, soulful sound of Motown, the music on the album is as stark a contrast to his previous work as the lyrical content. Obviously, the one constant through all of Marvin Gaye's recordings is his unmatched, unmistakable, and unbelievable voice. Understanding that one need not be overly loud or angry to have impact, Gaye simply "tells it like it is," and the songs found on What's Going On remain some of the most insightful and moving tales of poverty and social degeneration in history. Though it was met with a great deal of hesitancy before its release, What's Going On stands today as one of the most successful and influential albums ever, and tracks from the album have been re-recorded by everyone from Cyndi Lauper to Alicia Keys to Los Lobos. Unquestionably one of the most phenomenal voices in the entire history of music, Marvin Gaye remains one of the most iconic performers ever, and his 1971 musical masterpiece, the politically charged What's Going On, endures as his greatest musical achievement, and is by far one of the most important and influential albums ever recorded.

Standout tracks: "What's Going On," "Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)," and "Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)."

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