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.

Paint On The Canvas

The writer, Ben Okri (my favourite living author), gave me some great advice. He said I should finish writing whatever it was I was writing. Whether it be music, a novel, a story, a play. Just finish whatever it was and don’t worry about what you do with it. So in the last few years I’ve worked towards finishing pieces and selecting some of the ones that feel most pertinent to my life experience. 22 years of writing as a musically illiterate synesthete has taught me a few things. Such as how life imitates or is foreshadowed by what is expressed creatively. Even years after the fact.

Whether my compositions are any good or not, is not for me to say, though I am pleased with some things. One can never be completely satisfied if they are as creatively ambitious as I am and have been. And failures are foundation stones for one’s character and growth. Its not fun to fail but its one of life’s greatest teachers. Vincent sold one out of the 900 paintings he poured his heart into. A failure in his own lifetime to some. To others he was beyond it. It doesn’t really matter. What counts isn’t the acclaim. If purpose finds you at work, doing what you are compelled to do and at a great risk of going over the edge of reason, who can say that it was not a victory that you even got the paint onto the canvas?

I have completed writing music that is inside me. Another deeply flawed human being has put some paint on the canvas to say something about life and love, pain and joy, fear and hope, death, desire, passion and things of the eternal. Whimsical and serious. Lofty and lo-fi. Between Heaven and the earth my feet lightly hovers above when I day dream. My music is some kind of dance for existence. A Tango Negro of the heart. A waltz of the soul. All my blood is in there. My laughter. My joy. My tears. A lot of tears are in there. I’ve cried a lot of nights into mornings. Quietly. But mostly my love.

On Terry Callier’s Timepeace

“Some go hand in hand, and some go hand in love. Two by two they build their world of love.
Lion with a Lamb. Falcon with a Dove. Step by step they build a world of love.”

– Terry Callier, Timepeace

Timepeace was birthed many years after Terry Callier, a Chicagoan singer-songwriter, had been established as a Folk Jazz maverick on the indie scene. The unanimously positive critical reaction it recieved in the UK led to a career resurgence and his concerts which I never attended, grew significantly in numbers. He played often at The Jazz Cafe. Regrettably, I always missed his shows.

I spent many nights playing Timepeace on repeat in my late teenage years. Sometimes I wouldn’t get past Lazarus Man. When I did, I might have gotten stuck in the mud of Keep Your Heart Right. And if I did get beyond that one I would be overwhelmed by Java Sparrow. Thats how it would be. Keep Your Heart Right played a role in informing some aspects of my being. I’d hear the song in my head in all kinds of situations, encouraging me to do as it said. I’m grateful for it. It nourished me.

There was a period in my life when I was comfortably numb. It lasted about 5 years. But I never willfully closed my heart. Its a strange and inhuman experience to feel nothing. I became aware of the condition of my numbness when my father died. It didn’t begin there. Something inside me died before he passed. I was just cold. I essentially lost 5 years of my life to a state of numbness. Its notable that I wasn’t playing this album during those years. When my heart opened up again and I found myself, these songs would pop back into my head. They were already in my heart.

Timepeace is a part of me. I return to it every now and then. The title track talks of the things that we may have to contend with if we don’t get it together but it resolves to an idea of possibility and hope, that maybe we can build a world of love. In the 90s many recording artists and songwriters put out songs that were hopeful about resolving the challenges of war, poverty, racial prejudice and other ills. Sometimes the tempo the messages were planted on would throw the rider off the proverbial Horse. The paitient tempo of ‘Timepeace’ with Pharoah Sander’s wailing tenor sax serenading the lilting guitar rhythm on a journey just short of 9 minutes is one of my most satisfying and cathartic I have been on. That world of love is a beautiful dream worth living and hoping for, even in the evergrowing darkness of what is yet to come.

On Smiles & Kisses

Creating the sound world for Smiles & Kisses was a thrilling experience. It goes all the way back to 2007. Playing around with ideas and just exploring colours in counterpoint rather than seeking out a progression or pattern. It began as layered piano and synth melody. Completely different in vibe, aesthetic and tempo to what it would become.

In 2018 I revisited the demo track I had recorded during a period of experimentation. I happened upon the sound very quickly. I don’t remember exactly how. There isn’t a formula. But when I found it, I knew immediately that I had something distinctive to build on. I took it to the studio and Tom and I added some more colours. I asked Tom to play what he felt on top of the soundscape I had painted at home. The tone and feel reference for the guitar part was Jeff Buckley, and is a homage to him. We completed the whole track in one session. There were no lyrics written in advance. What was captured is the first flight of thought and all the yearning that was waiting to be expressed. Longing and desire. Sometimes the heart knows before we do. About a thing called love. Its also about the sensuality and mystery of the familiar strangers we are and the distance between two people who might be right next to each other. I think of the passage in James Baldwin’s Another Country, which describes Vivaldo’s discovery of Ida and their mutual curiousity and suspicion about each other. So near and yet so far. A bridge to cross or a cross to carry.

The expression in Smiles & Kisses is intense and intentional. I only had one person in mind. If I was Dante, she was the Beatrice of this epic sonic poem. I thought I might be able to reach her in the ether of the song. A song is not only defined by what you hear. Its elevated by what you recognise. And what you remember. If it was ever true. I remember the first time I saw her and how I felt about that stranger who was so familiar to my soul. Like I had known her before I knew myself. A rediscovery. Or a reminder. The world abounds in mystery. Love might be the greatest mystery of all. 

Miles

A complex beast is the capacity to make music that is more humane than we can sometimes be to each other. The horn plays the player as much as the player plays the horn. Francis might have been the miles of music he heard after she was gone. Do we always hurt the ones we love the most? And did that thought ever cross his mind?

Here in this candid moment we project the idea of him that is safest for us to hold. The totality of a life is not safe to hold. We are dangerous terrain and our journey to meet each other might be on an unpaved road. The sign says I Dare You. Travelling miles alongside you to discover a fraction of the universe that you are, is several lifetimes we will never live. But you can play Blue In Green. It will tell you something. Maybe enough to go down that unpaved road of the lover you uncoiled for.

Light

Perhaps the light knew something I didn’t before I walked into studio C without a plan. Just loose ideas and the accumulation of years lived. The life I’ve been privileged to endure and delight in, tells on itself on such occasions as this one. Both sides of a coin put in a bid for what my heart subconsciously knows. I’m still learning to speak an old language.

Cello

Your mind drinks the sound of rain. Nurtures peace. Paints possibilities. Come take your bow and find your sweet music in me. Play your song as tender as a mother’s embrace. I won’t leave you for treasures of Gold. We are bound as one. Night and brown. Round in tone. We chase dreams for fun. And when I hear your voice speak through the hollow of my body, it resonates in the realm of the unseen. A language for healing hurts. We escape into the melody. A step ahead of the drift but not too far behind the beat. The tempo of my heart quickens when I see you smile in C sharp. Your joy dances across the strings that keep me sane. 

In a world of sand papered expressionists. Of clowns with crooked faces, and shiny knights made of Marzipan wishes come true, I find you in those quiet moments when the noise of grown ups fades into the shadows with your tears. I’ll never leave you for Emerald and Sapphire.

Play me again when I’m old and despised. I’ll be in the hollow waiting for you to release me from the indigo silence, that we might travel once more into new colours unimagined. Brighter than we ever sounded before. Lighter than the weight of careless words aimed at us. Stronger than fear’s hope to bring us down below the groove of love. Not for Ruby and Amethyst

Play me

Not for Diamond and……

Play me

Monk

Monk like, walking side ways to go forwards two chords ahead of cowardice, where’s the change? Front to the future, grim reaper’s keeper, swine snatches pearls before you ever caught the wind’s tail. A race?

Like walking backwards to see the ending before it all began, and how I made you feel so good before you knew me. Shall we dance my dear?

A question worn out, big toe poking out of socks, sucks to be this free without a new world to unmask. I might be everything you ever wanted, just arrange the parts around my heart, its tough to kill and too easy to die. Again?

Walking forwards, to find the back of you, we chain our eyes to red dot secrets, and embrace lasers like lovers headed to the guillotine, defy life at your own risk, to fall in, all the way down, take a left turn at the corner of your doubts, I am all your fears come true, your worst mistake and your best decision. Now?

Adverts

One of three. Three. Free. Wanting to be. Young Disciples had that song back in the day about wanting to be free. Its called Freedom Suite. A beautiful work in three movements or parts. Carleen sang with such authority about a longing for a state of being that is not conferred on everybody. The freedom to be. Just to be. Human. To be people. Who share gifts during pagan holidays. And eat a lot during that time. Most likely, such people will have family over, and share in the merriment of that moment. It might or might not be Turkey at that table. It might be Chicken wings. Or Egusi soup. Akara. Plantain. Or good old roast potatoes with beef and gravy.

“Still in your mind all we do is keep wandering and gathering, spear chucking and dancing. You imply we must prove to you that we deserve freedom.”

Wanting to be…..

Just to be….

Being….

Human….

Human Being…

Wanting…

Free….

Just to be…..

London

This Roman city has been my stomping ground for all my life, and like a woman, it remains a mystery to me. A beautiful and sometimes infuriating mystery. And with all its challenges and failings, it has a beating heart that dares you to embrace it. Its old architecture and industry built from the profits of the slave trade, colonialism and the far reaches of the British Empire are part of London’s legacy. As a post colonial descendant, I am able to harness the history of London as both a symbol and witness of the city’s possibilities. The immigrant blood that upholds the NHS and that has permeated its way into the life and culture of Londoners is only one of many ways in which the history contends with the present. I try to see the beauty, resilience and hope that escapes into the polluted London air. I see the London of the Arts. I think of the fact that London can claim Mozart, Jimi Hendrix, Bob Marley and Marvin Gaye as former residents. Its been the city of visionaries like William Blake. It gave the world the genius pathos of Charlie Chaplin. Its the city of Shakespeare and boasts the world’s greatest theatre scene and tradition. Charles Dickens did not hide the ugliness and brutality of London. Neither did Dizzee Rascal. As reflected in the Grime and Drill music, London has a screw face too. Knives and young lives have not been kind to eachother. But I’ll always be grateful to London because its where I found the great love of my life. She knows who she is. I hope that we will enjoy this city together again someday. A man can dream. I love London.