The Rolling Stone Top 500 Greatest Albums of All Time has been a key source of content for this blog, as most of you have probably realized. Only once during this entire exercise can we discuss their #1 rated album, and today is that day. “What’s Going On”, the impactful concept album from Motown recording artist Marvin Gaye has been selected in that top spot, and it is certainly a worthy contender. Who is to say what is THE greatest album of all time? Perhaps there is a different between “greatest”, and your “favorite”? Hard to say, but regardless of how it is rated, “What’s Going On” is a fantastic record.
As I researched this album in greater detail, I learned what an uphill battle Marvin Gaye faced to record and release this album. Still contractually bound to hitmaker Berry Gordy and Motown Records, this album shaped up as a big departure from a singles artist, complete with a blend of connected songs that ran together as one piece. Additionally, this album directly confronted several issues Marvin was passionate about, the dissension over the Vietnam War, the racial conflict within the United States, and the ongoing crisis of poverty in America’s inner cities. All of this ran completely counter to Gordy’s desire to appeal to a mass cross-over audience, by avoiding conflict and making “happy” music.
Because of his perseverance, and the caliber of music he created, Gordy eventually relented, and Marvin Gaye and a select group of musicians known as The Funk Brothers, were able to record the entire album in about ten days. Like Curtis Mayfield previously, as well as Sly and the Family Stone, this record is an excellent time capsule of the emotions and struggles of America’s black community in the early 1970s.
The album opens with the epic title track, which sets the mood for the entire album. The song, and the rest of the album, is intended to portray the reaction of a black US veteran returning home after a painful stint in Vietnam. This was a very personal issue, as Marvin’s brother served during this time, as captured in the next song, “What’s Happening Brother”. With a beautiful mix of funk, soul and strings, the album sails through the rest of side one, with “Save The Children”, “God Is Love”, and a warm transition into “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)”. Hearing that song surface as I listened to the album was a great experience, and exactly why I don’t look at the track listing before I begin each album.
The first clear break in the sound came as we start side two with the slow jam of “Right On”. Religion and poverty also get their focus point as the album continues to groove through “Wholy Holy” and the closer, “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler).
Marvin Gaye is just one of many artists who worked hard to evolve their sound and deliver something with greater depth and meaning. He faced several visible and hidden obstacles along the way, some of them self-imposed, but nonetheless he saw this project through to conclusion and to his credit, it was a major commercial success in addition to being a critical success. In doing so, he likely impacted artists and recording executives around the world to give greater license and freedom to the real talent who created the music, thereby making all of us beneficiaries for his commitment.
“Mother, mother, There’s too many of you crying”
Brother, brother, brother, there’s far too many of you dying”
“You know we’ve got to find a way, To bring some loving here today, yeah”
“What’s going on…”