What's Going On (LP)
Marvin Gaye's 11th album "What's Going On" has to be without a shadow of a doubt the absolute greatest Soul and R&B album in music history. It's one of those must-have masterpieces that should be in every record collection. Yes, "Sgt. Pepper" was influential, but "What's Going On" was a different kind of influence. Not to open your mind to drugs, and new experiences, but to open your mind to love and peace. Sly & The Family Stone might have psychedelicized soul music, but Marvin Gaye personalized it, and he literally poured out every emotion onto this record.
In early 1970 Marvin had fallen into a deep depression after the death from a brain tumor of fellow Motown artist and Gaye's singing partner Tammi Terrell. Marvin refused to record or perform and seriously considered quitting the music business altogether, even going so far as to try out for the Detroit Lions.
Gaye then came in contact with musician Al Cleveland and the Four Tops' Renaldo "Obie" Benson, who were working on a politically conscious song called "What's Going On". Gaye assisted Cleveland and Benson in completing the composition, and planned to produce the song as a recording for the Motown act The Originals. However, Cleveland and Benson persuaded Gaye to record the song himself.
In June 1970, Gaye recorded "What's Going On" and his own composition, "God Is Love", which further expanded Gaye's inclusion of his spirituality in his music. Recording such material was a different direction for Gaye, who had previously performed and recorded radio-formatted and contemporary songs that were more representative of the Gordy-produced Motown Sound rather than politically or socially-conscious music. When Gaye delivered the songs as the sides for his next 45 RPM single his brother-in-law, Motown Records CEO Berry Gordy, Jr., objected to the material and refused to release the recordings. After already permitting other Motown artists to record and release material that hinted social and political themes – Edwin Starr's "War", The Temptations' "Ball of Confusion", both released earlier in 1970, and Stevie Wonder's "Heaven Help Us All", released later in the year – Gordy considered "What's Going On" far too political to be released on radio and also too unfamiliar for the popular music and sound of that time to be commercially successful.Gaye, however, stood his ground and continued to lobby his case to label executives and to Gordy, as he did not want to be bound by Gordy's or Motown's version of music.
Gordy eventually gave in, certain that the record would flop. Upon its release in January 1971, "What's Going On" became Motown's fastest selling single at that point, going to the number-one spot on the R&B charts for five weeks and number-two for three weeks on the Pop listings, with "Joy to the World" by Three Dog Night retaining the top spot.
Although Motown initially didn't even want to release the record, the unexpected success of What's Going On, issued in 1971, inspired Stevie Wonder, Curtis Mayfield, and just about every other black artist on the planet to take greater responsibility for their music and its meaning. Gaye co-wrote the songs and produced the album, flavouring it with layer upon layer of his own multi-tracked vocals, oceans of hand percussion, strings, flutes, and jazzy horn solos. Spacey and loose as a spliff-fueled Sunday afternoon jam in the park, the nine songs all played like a hit single. There are no pauses between the tracks, the rhythm section just keeps going & flowing and the whole record pushes forward as a real soultrain, weaving songs seamlessly into each other.
The album features three of Gaye's biggest hits [the title track, "Mercy Mercy Me”, and "Inner City Blues"(Make Me Wanna Holler)]. However, after a couple of listens the fact that there are three major hits on here becomes somewhat secondary to the album as a whole. The album is unquestionably an entity in and of itself. Headlines from the early 70’s (the ecology, drug addiction, poverty, the plight of the Vietnam veterans) weave together the backdrop for this album but the album's underlying theme is always one of a hope for a better tomorrow.