While many concept albums reach for extremes, Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” exists on perfect mediums. It resorts neither to pleading urgency nor adolescent angst. It came after Gaye’s success with soulful ballads, but before his transition to erotic funk. It spoke to a counterculture lost somewhere between Woodstock and Watergate. Many have imitated Gaye through cover songs, which offer the surface of soul without the passion of it. “What’s Going On” holds a particular place in the legacy of Motown – it was the label’s most unique album, delivered by its most unique voice.
When close friend and singing partner Tammi Terrell died in 1970, Gaye became depressed and isolated. He was also troubled by war stories from his brother, Frankie, who came home from Vietnam after three years of service. Frankie’s letters inspired him to compose what would become the title track of “What’s Going On” with Motown regulars Renaldo Brown (of the Four Tops) and Al Cleveland in 1971. Lyrics of social awareness were unusual for Gaye, considering his success with pop music.
All things considered, this wasn’t a good time for Motown to address injustice, protest and war. With the success of the Jackson 5, Motown became devoted to bubblegum balladeers who wooed a new generation of listeners. Motown founder Berry Gordy hated “What’s Going On,” and refused to release it as a single: He claimed its anti-war gravity would be too unfamiliar for pop radio. Yes, Gordy had approved Edwin Starr’s unconventional hit “War” earlier that year, but that was just a one-shot deal.
Gaye was persistent: Either Gordy would approve “What’s Going On” or he’d never sing another note for Motown. Although he hadn’t recorded a hit in two years, his absence from the charts was brief enough for Gordy to remember what kind of talent he’d be losing. Gordy gave Gaye his blessing, confident that “What’s Going On” would be a failure.
He was startled when it became a top-ten hit on pop radio, and reached number one on the R&B charts. Gordy soon requested an album to capitalize on the song’s success, which became Gaye’s highest-selling. (His own record was broken with the release of “Let’s Get It On” two years later.) Gordy even gave more creative control to a handful of Motown acts – it’s no coincidence that Stevie Wonder’s two independent projects, “Music of My Mind” and “Talking Book,” were released the following year.
“What’s Going On” became an album where protest coexists with personality. After contemplating war and poverty on “What’s Happening Brother,” he asks: “Are they still getting down where we used to go and dance?/Will our ball club win the pennant? Do you think they have a chance?/And tell me friend, how in the world have you been?” “What’s Happening Brother” is the first in a “song cycle,” where each track segues into the next. Although every song on “What’s Going On” focuses on a different injustice, their relationship on the album demonstrates how they all connect to universal suffering.
There’s a moment on “Save the Children” where Gaye doubts his own cause. In a dictated stanza, he ponders: “Who really cares?/To save a world in despair/Who really cares?…When I look at the world/It fills me with sorrow.” Gaye knew America’s concern with Vietnam would be resolved with time, and aimed his lyrics at broader issues – with all our recent attention on pollution, “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)” remains as poetically vital as when it was written. Many wonder why “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)” was included as a melancholy centerpiece, ending with a reprise to the title track. The reason is that Gaye wasn’t pleading for an unrealistic utopia: He accepts whatever problems we may face in the future, but hopes to secure the present before we get there. The orchestra is as effective as the lyrics, and Gaye complements the music rather than overshadowing it.
“What’s Going On” succeeds because it doesn’t rely on theatrics – it trusts our emotions. Although lots of the imitators left in its wake favor aplomb to modesty, Gaye was tactful enough to think in reverse. “The fact that people just won’t let us think for ourselves really bugs me!” he wrote in the liner notes. “Now, just because I like ‘Mercy Mercy Me’ and the one that says ‘Save the Children’ shouldn’t influence anyone. And you shouldn’t have to pay any special attention to the lyric on ‘Flyin’ High in the Friendly Sky’ just because I think you ought to. It’s ridiculous.’”