Friday, January 23, 2015

6 What's going on (1971) Marvin Gaye



1. What's Going On
2. What's Happening Brother
3. Flyin' High (In the Friendly Sky)
4. Save the Children
5. God Is Love
6. Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)
7. Right On
8. Wholy Holy
9. Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)

What's Goin On has without a doubt one of the best stories attached to any album on this countdown. Apparently Marvin Gaye went into the studio to record the title track and produced the Funk Brothers himself. He put down his vocals, mixed the song and then played it to Motown head Berry Gordy. Gordy was a legendary mogul and one of the most powerful people in music. What Gordy said, went and what Gordy said about What's Goin On was not good. He hated it and declared it one of the worst things he'd ever heard. He refused to release it as a single and wanted his label to have nothing to do with it. He certainly didn't want Marvin Gaye, who was a big seller as a singer of love ballads, to waste his time recording anything else like it.

Thankfully What's Goin on had some fans in Motown records and some of Gordy's staff made the single without his permission and took a huge risk by shipping it to record stores. It is quite literally the record that wasn't released, it escaped.

Gordy had no idea that the record he hated so much was available in shops and the first he heard of it was when he was told that it had become Motown's fastest ever selling single. It was a smash hit which prompted Gordy to jump into his car, drive to Gaye's house and demand he go into the studio and record more tracks like it to make a full album.

The result is What's Going On, which is sort of a concept album about how the world has become a nasty place. Gaye wrote it during the Vietnam war, which his brother had just returned from (although he worked as a disc jockey so he probably didn't see the most intense fighting unless you count squabbles over playlists) and he was deeply affected by the social mood at the time. It recounts bad things that are happening, like people treating Vietnam Vets badly and people being addicted to heroin and in an impressive piece for forward thinking, the environment being stuffed up. These things were affecting Marv so he sort of put them together into an album that could be called "Things Marv is upset about and thinks you should be too."

I don't know why it is but I don't get Soul when its tackling social justice issues. I can appreciate it's my fault but I have a very narrow concept of what lyrical subjects are acceptable for Soul music. Love is fine, Soul should sing about love. Sex is good too. Having fun is okay especially when it involves sex and fun. Dying fish is not. There's just something about the death of wildlife that I don't really think works in a soul album. I know this is a blatant prejudice on my part. For some reason I'm happy for folk music and rock and roll to address social issues. When Neil Young and Midnight Oil get angry about injustice I can get behind it. But when Marvin does it just seems weirdly wrong to me. It's possibly in part because Gaye's lyrics don't aren't really especially insightful. Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology) talks about fish with lots of mercury and pollution and over crowding but doesn't offer any solution, insight or perspective. It's just name checking bad environmental stuff.

What's Going On is a huge album. It's here at number 6 on this countdown and its at number one on a bunch of others, but it doesn't really affect me all that much. I love the opening track which is a beautiful piece of soul. But the rest of the album is an attempt to invoke a mood that I'm just not getting. It doesn't help that Gaye's preferred style of vocalising is in a high falsetto when I prefer a deep baritone in my soul singers. I think Marv has a pure and fantastic voice but it doesn't move me as much as a singer with half his talent singing an octave or two lower.

There are only five albums greater than this one apparently, unless you listen to some other music lists in which case there's nothing that can top it. I'd like to be one of their number but frankly I'm happy to respect Marv and to enjoy the title track if it comes on again but I don't really need to hear him earnestly intone the world's problems in a high falsetto over the sound of strings ever again.

Favourite Amazon Customer Review Quote: "Listening to "What's Going On" is like having a really sexy civics teacher in high school. She can talk all day about police brutality and the civil rights movement; your mind's somewhere else."

-That's a truly brilliant analogy.

So what's going on with you and this album? Let me know below.


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