Quite often when writing, I like to play music – usually sticking earphones in my lugholes and cranking up iTunes. However, the other day I stuck this CD on the stereo (…yes, sometimes I still use that archaic bit of equipment in the corner!): Marvin Gaye’s 1971 album ‘What’s Going On’. I hadn’t listened to it in quite some time and, as the tracks progressed, I stopped writing and found myself listening transfixed. It struck me how relevant to today this 40-year-old LP (and its central message of love and peace) still is. It also struck me that, if there were a shortlist of albums to provide the soundtrack for my novel LOVE, GUDRUN ENSSLIN, then this one would be right up there.
What’s Going On? It’s a fair question to ask in today’s world – a world of ideological divisions, warfare, famines, corruption, urban riots, environmental destruction and a widening gap between rich and poor. Not much sign of any real recognition of our common humanity, the strong helping the weak or an all-encompassing love for one another. Gaye’s album addresses all of these things – and in a very prescient manner…not least in the case of the stand-out track Mercy Mercy Me (subtitled ‘The Ecology’)
What’s Going On is a concept album exploring the experience of a Vietnam veteran returning to the USA and finding his home nation in disarray – beset by acute (and needless) poverty, injustice, police brutality and racial hatred. Something is rotten in the state of Denmark (as it were!) and the situation begs the question – What’s Going On?
For Gaye, the album had been prompted by two key events – the tragic death in 1970 of close friend and singing partner, Tammi Terrell, from a brain tumor (at the age of just 24) and the letters his brother sent him from the front line in Vietnam. These things forced Marvin to look anew at what he hoped to say and achieve through his music.
In musical terms, the album fuses soul with jazz – an unusual combo that is extremely difficult to merge convincingly. Gaye, however, does so with ease. Intriguingly, the lack of obvious commercialism in the fusion sound – combined with the perceived political overtones of the themes – caused Motown boss Berry Gordy Jr to initially oppose the record’s release…and Marvin had to battle his own label to get the album out.
Marvin’s judgment was better than Berry’s. What’s Going On (the single) became the Motown label’s fastest selling single on its release in January 1971. What’s Going On (the album) remained in the Billboard album charts for over a year and sold more than 2 million copies. Rolling Stone magazine named it Album Of The Year 1971. It has always been a particularly popular album in the UK too. In 1985 the readers of the British music newspaper NME voted it the best album of all time. In 1997 a poll held throughout the UK led to it being voted 17th best album of all time. The album was also the first time in Motown’s history (at Marvin’s insistence) that session players gained a credit on an album’s sleeve notes – thereafter such credits were de rigeur.
40 years on – it seems ‘What’s Going On?’ is still a fair question to ask…and What’s Going On is still a classic album.