On Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On

January 20th 2021

Happy 50th anniversary to the song, What’s Going On, gifted to a nation and the world by Marvin Gaye and Renaldo ‘Obie’ Benson of The Four Tops. A timeless artistic statement that begat a song suite that moved the proverbial mountain. If it was a question without the mark in 1971, it is an unmarked question still being asked in 2021. Perhaps Amanda Gorman’s profound and timely words in her presidential inaguration poem, The Hill We Climb, delivered in Marvin’s home state, is an answer to the rhetorical question which will move the conversation forward. Whatever the case may be, What’s Going On is a mirror of the future that was yesterday and might yet be tomorrow. A perfect groove for its and our imperfect time. Prophetic in the slow drag of change for those who want all the smoke and more. How long it has been is easier to ascertain than how far. It has travelled 50 short years of joy and pain in repetition.

On one level, the title song and the majority of the album (5 of the 9 songs) is a duet with James Jamerson’s majestic Bass guitar playing. It is a fitting tribute to Jamerson and The Funk Brothers, the unsung heart of the Motown sound, and a fitting farewell to the Detroit era of the company that Berry Gordy built. Hard to believe that Marvin had to fight for it to get released. Berry, to his credit, has admitted that he (and his much lauded quality control) got this one wrong as history has proven. The great melodies on top of The Funk Brothers’s dynamic rhythm section which Marvin affectionately refered to as the black bottoms were taken to the heavens by David Van De Pitte’s orchestral string arrangements. The strings are not required to soften the sting when Marvin speaks of institutional oppression aka police brutality (“trigger happy policing”) and indifference (“send that boy off to die”) on Inner City Blues. The strings help to paint the soundscape of empathetic pity when he laments ecological apathy on Mercy, Mercy Me (“fish full of mercury”). The strings also heighten the intensity and sense of urgency when he makes a passionate plea for the children to be saved on Save The Children (“Who really cares to save a world that is destined to die”).

There is unselfconscious pride and joy in Marvin’s expression of faith when he exalts the love for and fellowship he has with God on track 5, God Is My Friend (“Don’t go and talk about my father”). It takes on even more poignancy when you factor in Marvin’s death by the hands of his biological father. As one who was and is informed by the Christian faith and doctrine, I felt a kinship with the Artist and the music on spiritual grounds conveyed in both the musical and lyrical sentiments. Right On and Wholy Holy are as elemental as John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme with its mantra, though I’ve since learned that it was actually Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew which was the notable Jazz album influence on Marvin’s venture into this unprecedented music, along with Lester Young’s horn playing. James Taylor’s Sweet Baby James was another album Marvin cited as an influence on What’s Going On.

The album’s universality is revealed in the layers and Marvin’s candid nature didn’t shy away from the autobiographical underbelly that underpins a song like Flying High (In The Friendly Sky), about the boy (old slang for Heroin) “who makes slaves out of men”. The plight of many soldiers who fought and survived an unceremonious war in Vietnam only to be unwelcomed home is given sensitively rendered and compassionate voice. Those letters his brother wrote to him about his experience in ‘Nam marked him deeply. Its also no secret that Marvin had a long battle to the end with demons that poisoned his mind and body. But he felt God was at work during the What’s Going On sessions and was able to find temporary respite from psychosexual battles in his mind that a lot of people who were raised in Church and exposed to both sides of the flipped coin of hypocrisy at home go through (Sexual healing takes on a deeper meaning). A duel of religious fervour and unrighteous idignation which betrays the spiritual integrity of the gospel message. The fall is no respecter of persons. We might not all have experienced the horror of an imperial attempt at conquest that was the Vietnam war but we all have our own internal wars and battles we fight daily and in some seasons of our lives. Our own vices and the devices that wage against our sanity and soul. Marvin put the listener inside the mind of the slave of the ‘boy’. It’s a mini-masterpiece of personification and humanism.

Whenever I listen to What’s Happening Brother, I can’t help but shed a tear in my heart for the love and camaraderie that Marvin had for his brother Frankie, and his community. Three years after the passing of Dr King, It was both a personal message of affinity in acknowledgment of the black struggle in America and one that extended to his ‘brothers’ in a time when it really was about unity and brotherly love cause all you had was faith, hope, and eachother against the tides of the times, the system, and the man. There were so many musical acts, writers and producers in soul music and the Jazz of the time that put out messages of brotherly (and sisterly) love in the black community, less than two decades after integration was passed into law. Curtis Mayfield. Aretha Franklin. The Staple Singers. Stevie Wonder. Donny Hathaway. Earth, Wind & Fire. Gladys Knight & The Pips. The Isley Brothers. The O’Jays. Gamble & Huff. The list is long. It was a golden age for sure.

I had already listened to the song Inner City Blues on a compilation cd that came with an edition of Vibe magazine in 1995 when I was 14. I still have that cd. The title song, and the What’s Going On album came into my life when I was 15 or 16 (depending on the the month). Up to that point, I was predominantly a Rap music fiend. Nas. Jeru The Damaja. The real boom bap kind of lyrical rap and pretty much anything I could get off the radio from DJ 279 on the Friday Nite Flava or Tim Westwood’s show. I also listened to The Lady Of Soul, Jenny Francis’s show on Choice FM. I was in love with her speaking voice. She played all the hot and cool r&b. Midtempo to slow jams. I listened to her show for years with a blank tape in the deck for recording. So many hours of listening pleasure. I watched Top Of The Pops and enjoyed the diverse pop and dance music of the time. But one afternoon What’s Going On would change my world and open me up in a way I had never experienced before through sound.

I remember being magnetically drawn to the What’s Going On album cover when I saw it on display in the record store, Our Price, on Kilburn High Road (coincidentally Marvin was once a Kilburn resident for a very brief time). Our Price has gone the way of a lot of record stores. It only exists now in fading memory. I often stopped by there on the way home from school to check out the latest R&B and Rap music releases. Or just to look at and sometimes listen to records I couldn’t afford to buy. Compact discs were so expensive in the 90s. Most of what little money I had after I tithed for Church, went on cassette and sometimes cd singles so buying a whole album was a big deal for me. I had to be sure. In Our Price, people were allowed to listen to a record they wanted to hear before purchasing and even if one didn’t make a purchase the staff were cool. They supplied the headphones. That afternoon I listened to the whole 35 minutes and 38 seconds of What’s Going On in the store. Fortunately nobody else was waiting to listen at the front, so they just left me alone and I lost or rather found myself in the music. I remember that wave after wave of colours saturated my mind and body. Seeing and feeling colours. I didn’t know anything about Synaesthesia at that time. Purely in terms of colour, the sonic experience was intensely emotional. I was emotionally overwhelmed. I’ve never forgotten the way it made me feel that first time. It was the beginning of a great and enduring love affair with the album and soul music. I went on to immerse myself in everything I could find going back to the Doo Wop era, from music to books and film. It was the chief inspiration for me to want to write songs and music. I didn’t know how but I was compelled to try. It remains the most impactful experience I have had as a music listener and lover.

I was almost born on Marvin’s birthday. I came to learn that I shared some uncanny parallel experiences with him when I read the posthumous biography that he was working on with David Ritz before he passed. Maybe there is something more in the connection that explains the experience I had that afternoon in Our Price. Life is full of mysteries.

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