Last week we got word that What’s Going On, one of the most enduring albums of all time, would be getting a well-deserved documentary. The album, in the words of the film’s producers, “challenged America and the world to self-reflect, going on to inspire a generation of artists and music lovers.” In light of this news, this week’s Audio Rewind will focus on the seminal elements that make Marvin Gaye’s masterpiece so resonant—as it remains today. Perhaps the film can challenge America once again and remind us that we should spend more time self-reflecting and asking, “What’s going on?”
In 1970, the What’s Going On project began as a single track, that titular song that has become emblematic of Gaye’s legacy. The first version of “What’s Going On” was written by the Four Tops’ Renaldo “Obie” Benson. When he brought it to the rest of the Tops, though, they rejected the piece and so he gave it to Gaye, who modified the track before taking it to Motown boss Berry Gordy. The magnate hated it, immediately refusing to release a “protest song” on the Motown label. Using Motown backchannels, Gaye was able to release it as a single behind Gordy’s back. “What’s Going On” promptly sold 200,000 copies in a week, which, of course, left Gordy singing a different tune. He visited Gaye to grant him permission to turn the song into a record, and, more or less, gave him carte blanche over all of its production.
The rest is history, but the most iconic musical moment from What’s Going On remains on that first track. During recording sessions, Gaye recorded two separate vocal takes for the song. When he asked to have them played back to him so he could choose one, the sound engineers accidentally mixed them together. Gaye loved the synergy of the separate parts, and so it was that “What’s Going On” was multi-tracked with two unintentionally complementary vocal melodies—both bearing Gaye’s voice. The decision remains a landmark moment for multi-tracking possibilities and creative production of all kinds.
That visionary decision is indicative of Gaye’s open-minded approach to the album. He decided to turn the whole record into an unconventional nine-track song cycle, for example. And he was exceptionally collaborative, tapping dozens of contributors to play a multitude of instruments. There are groovy bass lines, sax solos, lush string arrangements, harps, flutes, oboes, vibraphones…and through it all Gaye’s dulcet vocal remains always at the fore. It’s a master class in production, and a paragon of Gaye’s jazz-infused, soulful R&B.
That sound and practice were revisited in the ‘90s Neo Soul movement by people like D’Angelo, Erykah Badu, and Lauryn Hill. And variations of Gaye’s manifold sound and production style continue to evolve today, informing hip-hop, electronic music, and other collaborative projects with roots in soul and jazz (the experimental funk/jazz/soul/electronic cadre of Flying Lotus, Thundercat, and Kendrick Lamar comes to mind). Many artists, as the upcoming documentary’s producers assert, can still trace their lineage back to Gaye and his magnum opus.
It’s the guts of What’s Going On, though—the topical observations of war and violence and hardship—that persist most saliently. Those are truly the focus of the album. Peek into the mind of Gaye, see through his eyes, listen to his voice, and you’ll find that the things he was seeing are not so different than what we see today. Within his lyrics is our sobering realization of just how far we haven’t come since 1971.
Gaye fashioned What’s Going On as a concept album, telling a story from the perspective of a soldier just returned from the Vietnam War. Upon the man’s return, he finds only hatred, injustice, and suffering. The idea stems from the experience of Gaye’s brother, Frankie, who fought in Vietnam and relayed horror stories when he got home. Through those stories, Frankie passed his trauma on to Marvin, and it was that emotional exchange that inspired him to collaborate so much on the record. People can convey so much more together, he realized, and Frankie even became the focal point of the album’s second song, “What’s Happening Brother?”
Perhaps Gaye can challenge America once again to ask, “What’s going on?”
The album begins as the story did, with the aforementioned title track, and it, too, was rooted in harrowing reality. Obie Benson based his version of “What’s Going On” on an act of police brutality that he witnessed in Berkeley in 1969. “‘What is happening here?’…Why are they attacking their own children in the streets?” he asked author Ben Edmonds. “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.'”
It’s an inclination that many people face every day. As we see brothers and sisters and mothers and fathers attacked and killed, it’s reasonable that we should want to know “what’s going on.” And as the record develops, we’re presented with more and more familiar ideas that continue to resonate today. “Flyin’ High (In the Friendly Sky),” for instance, the album’s third track, details the heroin problem that afflicted many Vietnam veterans. Today, our vets still experience undue emotional trauma that’s not adequately cared for, and heroin addiction remains one of the only available and affordable options for relief.
The familiarity continues from there. The LP’s second single, “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology),” is a prescient ode about our mistreatment of the environment. “Right On” tackles economic disparity. “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)” addresses the bleak economic situations and oppressive living environments of inner city America. All of these things still ring true today. 45 years later, these issues remain issues.
This all leaves me thinking about our own future. What will we be saying 45 years from now in 2061? Who will be our Marvin Gaye? Did the documentary, like the album that inspired it, challenge America and galvanize a young artist who learned to speak for a generation? To heal a generation? To change a generation? It’s something we should think about now. We should heed Gaye’s words in “Save the Children” when he insists: “Live life for the children.” If we do that, at least they won’t have to open each morning’s paper with blood dripping from the headlines. At least they won’t have to ask every single day: What’s Going On.
Image: Tamala Records