“What’s Going On” by Marvin Gaye
Music that weathers the withering test of time and change in music styles and fads are rare. It takes exceptional artists to create work that remains relevant and even gains relevancy through generations. To do so is pure genius.
Marvin Gaye was a longtime Motown success with an enviable string of hits about love and seduction. Gaye’s “Sexual Healing”* remains one of the best pantie-droppers since the Shirelles’ “Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow.”
But in June of 1970, Gaye departed from the tried and true Motown formula. He recorded his eleventh album. Among many other firsts, “What’s Going On” was the first album on which Motown’s main studio band, the group of session musicians known as the Funk Brothers received an official credit.
Most or all of the group played on the 250 – plus hits (That’s not a misprint) that filled the pop and soul charts for more than a generation, yet Berry Gordy never gave the studio band credit – any credit.
Likely, he feared he might have to pay them a nickel more each. Gordy’s legendary hit producing fame was exceeded only by his infamy as a greedy, flaming a-hole. He “owned” the Funk Brothers by exclusive contracts that forbade them to record for any other label but Motown. He promised to fire any who dared defy him, wanting their distinctive sound to remain his alone. Despite the threat, they often did work for other labels under assumed names. They had bills to pay, food to buy and habits to support.
Recording sessions for the WGO album took place in June 1970 and March–May 1971
When Gaye approached Motown founder Berry Gordy about “What’s Going On” Gordy called it (sic) “One of the worst songs I’ve ever heard in my life.”
He refused to release the song. Gordy considered protest songs something he did not want Motown associated with because it might sully their squeaky-clean image. In those days, when black artists were on top in the music world, particularly the establishment white music world, Gordy wasn’t inclined to rock the boat.
The “What’s Going On” album is told from the point of view of a Vietnam War veteran returning to the country he had been fighting for, and seeing only hatred, suffering, and injustice. Gaye’s introspective lyrics discuss themes of drug abuse, poverty, as well as the Vietnam War. He has also been credited with criticizing global warming before the public outcry against it had become prominent.
The lyric, “Father, Father, there’s no need to escalate” also reflected Gaye’s lifelong war with his minister father who later shot and killed Gaye at the height of his popularity.
But Gordy was the boss and made darned sure everyone in Hitsville knew it, too.
“What’s Going On” was withheld from public release for two years.
While Gordy was vacationing in the Bahamas, the head of the Motown subsidiary label “Tamla” released 100,000 copies of “What’s Going On” to radio stations anyway. It sold so well, so fast that another 100,000 soon followed. Hearing the ring of the cash register, Gordy gave Gaye the green light to make an album of it if he could finish it in 30 days.
He did it in ten, and the album was also credited for paving the way for Stevie Wonder’s political albums of the 70s.
Sly and the Family Stone’s west coast soul infused funk rock, scared Gordy into modernizing Motown’s sound. (The Temptations “Ball of Confusion” and “Papa Was a Rolling Stone” are examples.)
Gordy decided to move Motown studios from Detroit to California. In typical Gordy fashion, he told no one. The Funk Brothers showed up at “Studio A” as usual for a session only to find a note on the padlocked door that read, “Moved to California.”
“What’s Going On” is a timeless, prophetic classic. The music is wonderful and the lyrics better.
*Not on “What’s Going on” album.
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