Tuesday, 23 October 2007

What's Going On - Marvin Gaye

What can be said about 'What's Going On' that hasn't already been said? It rightly has its place amongst the very best records ever released. It features in many a music journal's Top 100 albums and is still hugely influential. I can't add much to its many plaudits but I can tell you why I think it is so great.

When it was released in May 1971 it was like a breath of fresh air to what had become, to some at least, a rather stagnant soul scene. The fact it was released om Tamla Motown just added to its mystique. Motown released 'pop' records and yet here was an album tackling subjects such as drug addiction, war and poverty. What is more it was Tamla golden boy Marvin Gaye who was singing about them.

Gaye was credited as the sole producer on an album of nine tracks which, on the whole melded into one another. For all intents and purposes it is a concept album. The songs are written from the point of view of an soldier who has just returned from the horror of the Vietnam War and it really captures the anguish of a young man who had been through such a shocking experience.

Apart from Gaye's absolutely gorgeous voice, what stands out for me is the musicianship. The best house band in the universe Motown's Funk Brothers lay down some seriously funky rifts with James Jameson (to some the boss when it comes to bass players) is understated spot on on side one , Joe Messina plays some nice guitar and Gaye himself (on this listen more than just the greatest soul singer ever) plays some lovely piano and some funked up drums on several tracks.

The album spawned three classic singles; 'What's Going On', the gorgeous 'Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology) and Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler) a song steeped in the politics of the day when Nam was on the agenda and the disaffected youth of the ghetto said enough is enough.

My favourite track though is 'God Is Love'. It is 1 minute and 11 seconds of absolute bliss. I am an atheist but even an old skeptic like me is moved by this hymn to Marvin's Lord. It moves beautifully and seamlessly into Mercy Mercy Me and is a perfect end to side one.

The songs may be introspective and the subject matter bleak but 'What's Going On' is far from a depressing album. It isn't the joyous fodder that made Motown so famous but it is an album of hope. It is angry, yes, and quite rightly, the early seventies were a time of political upheaval and many Americans were disaffected (whether this has changed much is another story), but the sheer beauty of Gaye's voice and the fabulous music that accompanies it make it, almost certainly, the greatest soul album of all time.

I once read an advert in NME that was advertising Sony Walkman's, the advert had a cassette of 'What's Going On' next to its latest technological breakthrough. The strap line under the cassette was 'Everyone Should Have One Of These'. Quite right too. You owe it to yourself. You won't be disappointed.

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


Vincent the soul chef said...

I know I'm a little late commenting on this post, but I must agree that this is by far the single most important album ever recorded bar none... and the fact that the social commentary still rings true some thirty-five years later makes this album that much more important.

marmiteboy said...

Thanks Vince,

It is also timeless. It sounds as fresh today as it did thirty-five years ago.I completely agree about its relevence today too. All that is needed is for the listener to replace the image of Vietnam with either Afghanistan or Iraq.

It is a work of complete genius.

Anonymous said...

I remember the ad too. Brilliant. I was about 13 and couldn't work it out. Now I'm 32 and work in advertising. And still cant work it out. But at least I remember it, so it must have done something right.