“What’s Going On” by Marvin Gaye (1971)
Release Date: May 21, 1971
Produced by Marvin Gaye
Chart Positions: #6 (US), #10 (Germany), #56 (UK)
Certifications: Platinum (UK), Gold (US)
Singles: “What’s Going On #2 (US), #6 (Brazil), #7 (France), #10 (Canada), #80 (UK), “Mercy Mercy Me” #4 (US), #2 (France), #12 (Canada), #15 (Brazil), “Inner City Blues” #9 (US, France), #11 (Canada)
What's Going On is Marvin Gaye’s eleventh studio album, released May 21, 1971, on the Motown-subsidiary label Tamla Records. Recording sessions for the album took place in June 1970 and March–May 1971 at Hitsville U.S.A., Golden World and United Sound Studios in Detroit and at The Sound Factory in West Hollywood, California. What's Going On was the first album on which Motown Records' main studio band, the group of session musicians known as the Funk Brothers, received an official credit.
The first Marvin Gaye album credited as being produced by the artist himself, What's Going On is a unified concept album consisting of nine songs, most of which lead into the next. It has also been categorized as a song cycle; the album ends on a reprise of the album's opening theme. The 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, and the Vietnam War. He has also been credited with discussing global warming before it became a hot topic .
What's Going On was an immediate success upon release, both commercially and critically. Having endured as a classic of 1970s, a deluxe edition set was released on February 27, 2001, and featured a rare recording of a May 1972 concert shot at Washington, D.C.'s Kennedy Center. Worldwide surveys of critics, musicians, and the general public have shown that What's Going On is regarded as one of the landmark recordings in pop music history, and one of the greatest albums of the 20th century. The album was ranked number six both on Rolling Stone's 2003 list of the "500 Greatest Albums of All Time", and in the magazine's update nine years later.
Selling more than 2 million copies “What’s Going On” was one of the first Motown albums to sell in large amounts. Previously most Motown artists had lots of hit singles but album sales were secondary. After Gaye artists such as Stevie Wonder, Temptations, Commodores and others released albums that were multi-million sellers.
While traveling on his tour bus with the Four Tops on May 15, 1969, Four Tops member Renaldo "Obie" Benson witnessed an act of police brutality and violence committed on anti-war protesters who had been protesting at Berkeley's People's Park in what was later termed as "Bloody Thursday". A disgusted Benson later told author Ben Edmonds, "I saw this and started wondering 'what was going on, what is happening here?' One question led to another. Why are they sending kids far away from their families overseas? Why are they attacking their own kids in the street?" Returning to Detroit, Motown songwriter Al Cleveland wrote and composed a song based on his conversations with Benson of what he had seen in Berkeley. Benson sent the unfinished song to his band mates but the other Four Tops turned the song down. Benson said, "My partners told me it was a protest song. I said 'no man it's a love song, about love and understanding. I'm not protesting. I want to know what's going on.'"
Benson and Cleveland offered the song to Marvin Gaye when they met him at a golf game. Returning to Gaye's home in Outer Drive, Benson played the song to Gaye on his guitar. Gaye felt the song's moody flow would be perfect for The Originals. Benson, however, felt Gaye could sing it himself. Gaye responded to that suggestion by asking Benson for songwriting credit of the song. Benson and Cleveland allowed it and Gaye edited the song, adding a new melody, revising the song to his own liking, and changing some of the lyrics, reflective of Gaye's own disgust. Gaye finished the song by adding its title, "What's Going On". Benson said later that Gaye tweaked and enriched the song, "added some things that were more ghetto, more natural, which made it seem like a story and not a song... we measured him for the suit and he tailored the hell out of it." During this time, Gaye had been deeply affected by letters shared between him and his brother after he had returned from service over the treatment of Vietnam veterans.
Gaye had also been deeply affected by the social ills that were then plaguing the United States at the time, even covering the track, "Abraham, Martin & John", in 1969, which became a UK hit for Gaye in 1970. Gaye cited the 1965 Watts riots as a pivotal moment in his life in which he asked himself, "with the world exploding around me, how am I supposed to keep singing love songs?" One night, Gaye called Berry Gordy about doing a protest record while Gordy vacationed at the Bahamas, to which Gordy chastised him, "Marvin, don't be ridiculous. That's taking things too far."
Reuniting at their parents' suburban D.C. home, Marvin's brother Frankie discussed the events of his tenure at Vietnam, detailing experiences that sometimes left the two brothers consoling each other in tears. After Frankie explained witnessing violence and murder before he was to depart back to the states, he recalled Marvin sitting propped up in a bed with his hands in his face. Afterwards Marvin told his brother, "I didn't know how to fight before, but now I think I do. I just have to do it my way. I'm not a painter. I'm not a poet. But I can do it with music."
In an interview for Rolling Stone magazine, Marvin Gaye discussed what had shaped his view on more socially conscious themes in music and the conception of his eleventh studio album:
“In 1969 or 1970, I began to re-evaluate my whole concept of what I wanted my music to say.... I was very much affected by letters my brother was sending me from Vietnam, as well as the social situation here at home. I realized that I had to put my own fantasies behind me if I wanted to write songs that would reach the souls of people. I wanted them to take a look at what was happening in the world.”
— Marvin Gaye
The song “What’s Going On” was released as a single in January 1971, several months before the album, and immediately zoomed up the charts. The song topped the US soul singles for five weeks. Gaye entered the recording studio, Hitsville USA, on June 1, 1970 to record "What's Going On". Instead of relying on other producers to help him with the song, Gaye, inspired by recent successes of his productions for the vocal act, The Originals, decided to produce the song himself. “What’s Going On” marked Gaye's departure from the Motown Sound towards more personal material. This was one of the first Motown songs to make a powerful political statement. Stevie Wonder and the Temptations were also recording more serious and challenging material, which was a radical departure from the Motown hits of the '60s. "What's Going On" (the song) was inducted into the Grammy Hall of Fame in 1998. "Mercy, Mercy Me" was inducted in 2002.
"What's Going On" (1971)
The second single “Mercy, Mercy Me (The Ecology)” was the second single release from the album and followed the success of “What’s Going On” made it to #4 on the US chart. Many years before global warming became a hot topic, Marvin Gaye wrote this song about the environment and how we have an obligation to care for the Earth.
The third and final single “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)” continued Gaye’s chart success reaching #9 in the US. Written by Gaye and James Nyx Jr., the song depicts ghetto life and bleak economic situations of inner-city America, and the emotional effects these have on inhabitants. The song helped Gaye make history by being one of the few artists to have three or more Top 10 songs on Billboard's Pop Singles chart peaking at #9 and one of the first to have three consecutive #1 hits on Billboard's R&B Singles chart where it stayed for two weeks. Although not certified by the RIAA at that time, all three releases from the What's Going On album gained Gold status by selling over 1,000,000 copies each in the US.
Album highlight “God Is Love” is a stirring ballad which was a return of sorts to Gaye's religious background dedicating this song to God and his father, Marvin Gay, Sr. The song was originally recorded as the B-side to "What's Going On" shortly after that song was recorded.
“What’s Happening Brother?” continues the song cycle, that begins with the song “What’s Going On,” about a man returning home from fighting in the Vietnam War only to discover that his world is abstractly different from what it used to be before he left for duty. In Marvin's case, the song was dedicated to his younger brother, Frankie, who was returning from a three-year duty in Vietnam. Musically the song follows the same path as "What's Going On" and features The Andantes as background vocalists.
“Flying High (In The Sky)” continued a song cycle begun with the previous track, "What's Happening Brother" after that song ended with the lyric, "Cause I'm slightly behind the time", creating a moody and ominous sound punctuated by the singer's falsetto. Co-written with wife Anna Gordy and confidant Elgie Stover, the song talked about drug addiction, particularly heroin, as heard in the lyric, "I know I'm hooked my friend/to the boy who makes slaves out of men".
Marvin Gaye (1971)