“What’s Going On”, the lead track off Marvin Gaye’s seminal 1971 album of the same name was, for a time, held hostage.
The titular single, a reaction to the Berkley Police Department’s now-infamous brutality against anti-Vietnam War protestors, concerned the Motown subsidiary label Tamala Records, who subsequently refused to release the track. The company opinion was that the song was “too political” for radio. In turn, Gaye went on strike, demanding the label release the tune. The immediacy of inter-personal politics, where the label’s biggest star was simply sitting idle for months, shifted corporate concern. Sensitivities toward how the company was perceived politically gave way to that weird brand of self-protectionism exhibited by big businesses when art and commerce meet. Something–anything–needed to be released. And in an act of rare subversion from a Motown artist (Stevie Wonder being the only other self-producing artist at the time), Gaye won control of the song and proprietorship of the album. The rest, as they say, is history.
On May 21, 1971, Marvin Gaye released What’s Going On? The artist’s eleventh studio album was a startling departure from usual themes, and provided Soul music’s biggest performer with his first credit for production. The album is a nine-track song-cycle, with many songs leading into the next and the final song echoing themes of the first. The concept of the album is an evergreen anti-war exploration told from the perspective of a Vietnam vet. The protagonist, tenderized by an immoral war, returns home to the USA only to discover inescapable injustice, abuse, and brutality on the streets of the country he had fought to defend.
These are mature and sensible songs that never falter into trite emotionalism or sloppy wish-thinking.
When responding to charges that “What’s Going On?” was populated with protest songs, Gaye and his songwriting partners stated that they didn’t know what they were protesting; they were simply looking for answers amongst the chaos. And it’s weird that such a deliberately measured album, whose heart is rooted in compassion, pacifism, and tolerance, is loaded with so many questions. At the top of the sequence, “What’s Going On?” and “What’s Happening Brother” introduce an atmospheric uncertainty and undermined confidence where political mechanisms are not trusted. The following songs continue a vein of perseverance and longing, where personal relationships appear to have lost all points of reference.
Whilst concepts like “love” and “understanding” are offered up as being the path away from earthly agony, it’s suggested that human endeavors just have a way of relying on brutality to get the big jobs done. The fleeting beauty of life, and the enduring love of “god” are held in contrast to what’s actually going on. These are mature and sensible songs that never falter into trite emotionalism or sloppy wish-thinking.
But even in the most confidently compassionate songs, there is doubt. “I just want to ask a question; who really cares, to save a world in despair?”, is a chilling line, spoken at the start of “Save the Children”. The soothing balm of instrumentation offers the only real salve to a catalog of emotional wrongs.
The strength and presence of typical Motown sounds are present–the horns, the rhythms–but they are refracted through something new, something edgier yet calmer than before. It’s here, on this album that Motown label’s main sessions musicians known as Funk Brothers received their first official credit. Gaye, a producer and songwriter intent on becoming more than a record company puppet beyond “…the Grapevine” was keen to cut the strings of his colleagues and reward hard work with creative recognition.
Gaye was simply looking for answers among the chaos.
Given the dramas of Gaye’s personal life–his being hounded by the taxman, the violent breakdown of his marriage, and the death of his former duet partner and dear friend Tammi Terrell–there is a tectonic shift in his artistic approach to the subject matter. The sense of being played by Motown, being bent to the will of oppressive relationships, and a general confusion in both the church-and-state of things pushed Gaye to assert his creativity in all endeavors.
A year before the album’s release Gaye said, “With the world exploding around me, how am I supposed to keep singing love songs?” Years later, to biographer David Ritz, the artist suggested that it was on “What’s Going On?” that “I’d finally learned to sing.” In part, this revelation was performance based–the singer approaching the microphone with a lighter breath; singing softer than he had on previous issues. Vocal performances are multi-tracked to provide a deep pool of harmonic layers. You can virtually swim through the tonal structures. In part this approach is enforced by the personalization of craft, and focus of subject matter. True–the concepts of the album are societal, political, and antiwar, but Gaye never drops focus from the individual; the human scale of stories–the real time woes of measured desperation. Look no further than “Mercy, Mercy Me” by way of illustration.
Many years after the event when the title track is now ubiquitous, the greatest achievement of the album is sometimes difficult to perceive. It should be remembered what Motown sounded like before Marvin Gaye played with all the conventional authorities, whilst simultaneously refining his artistic approach. True, the artist was made a star by the label that he would later battle and surpass. However, what he accomplished with personal investment in this album, for label, for artists and for genre is now an indelible part of the cultural substructure.
Marvin Gaye took personal and political pains and achieved a kind of alchemy in every aspect of the project; in business, production, and performance. Informed by the tradition of Black music and the contemporary industry template, it is no overstatement to suggest that “What’s Going On?” also projected the finest possibilities of all music.
IMAGES: Tamala Records.