It’s unusual that by the 11th album of your career you should suddenly go rogue, but that’s exactly what Marvin Gaye decided to do on What’s Going On?
The poster boy and statesman of Motown records saw the social problems both on the streets of Detroit and in the media, and like many artists at the time decided to make a record of it.
Head Honcho of Motown, Barry Gordy reeeeeeeally was not down with this. Motown had a formula, he sang the formula, the customers bought the formula…why rock the boat? Motown had evolved into a hit-making production factory…songwriters, house musicians, backing singers, the image guys etc – No protest albums here, thank you.
Gaye had been in a deep depression resulting from multiple misfortunes: the discovery that singing partner Tammi Terrell was afflicted with a brain tumour, a failed marriage and general disaffection with the conformist nature of his musical output.
Tired of being a man they put hair spray on and poked with a stick onto the stage, Marvin Gaye turned the tables: he boycotted promotion of his music, grew a beard and [seriously] tried out for a professional NFL team.
Despite Motown’s protestations, Marvin Gaye and a skeleton staff secretly recorded the title track and then presented the song to Gordy. He hated it. The factory ‘Hitsville’ hated it.
It is stories like this which really make you think of what would have happened if someone like Bob Dylan had gone to Simon Cowell – “He sounds weird, he looks weird, he doesn’t dance (I’m guessing) and keeps on singing about weird stuff and issues”.
Anyway, the single was released without Gordy’s approval and sold a boatload; and suddenly Gordy, ears suitably pricked, told him to get the album finished in 30 days. Gaye did, and it went on to be one of the biggest selling soul albums of all time.
This is the 9th paragraph in so I guess I should tell you about the music, I get distracted by the ‘behind the scenes’ stuff – It’s amazing to think of even the great Marvin Gaye having to employ guerrilla tactics to get his music released!
The first impression you get of this album is Gaye’s incredible voice – He is a true thoroughbred singer and uses every ounce of sublime silk from his vocal cords. The exquisite saxophone riff is regal and enchanting but weirdly sinister opening for ‘What’s going on?’. There is still that unmistakable Motown trademark of clicking fingers and backing vocal harmonies. The swooning strings are dream-like with blues walking bass and street conversation samples provide a sinister texture.
It’s a very disorientating sound – It feels like it should be a love song with so many sound associations but with darker lyrics you’d expect of a political folk protest song, sung by a super cool Motown singer. Dizzying.
So, pros – Amazing voice, outstanding musicianship, great opening track
Cons – The rest of the album is a bit……samey. And cheesy – The lyrics sound a bit overly gushy and, in some cases, even lazy. If we compare this to other protest songs of the era and previous years, this has none of the impact, confrontation, fighting spirit and venom of the New York Village or Southern rock.
However, this is may be a little bit harsh – I think Gaye wanted to keep that sound that worked so well for him and it was his style, that’s how he performed, and it does sound glorious.
As a protest album it succeeded in spreading its message to parts of the world other protest albums don’t; through the power of sweet melody, plush orchestral movement, funky bass and a superstar more at home on Soul train than Highway 61 this album.
Song of the album: What’s Going on?