Saturday, April 7, 2012

What's Going On: A Timeless Classic

Original Recording: 23-6-2011


Before this album, Marvin Gaye was regarded as a talented singer of soul-inflicted pop ditties. That image remains a key component of his popularity. Songs like Wonderful OneAin't That Peculiar and I Heard it Through the Grapevine remain popular standards to this day, epitomizing the timeless appeal of Motown's pop music. 

Let's not mince words, the Sixties were very good years for Marvin Gaye. But 1971's WHAT'S GOING ON is when he went from being a talented singer of contemporary tunes to a great artist with enduring appeal. The first Soul concept album, it represented a complete break from anything Gaye had done previously, and would come to define him for the rest of his career.

The album's genesis came at one of the darkest periods in Gaye's life. His friend and duet partner Tammi Terrell (Ain't No Mountain High Enough) had been diagnosed with a fatal tumor in 1969, collapsing into his arms in the middle of a concert. She never recovered and died the following year, aged only 26. Intensely depressed over his friend's death, Gaye retired from live performing and contemplated leaving the music industry entirely. Terrell's death was not the only millstone around his neck.

He had watched the other rock artists of the Sixties, such as the Beatles, change their images and their musical styles, exploring and expanding the sound and content of rock. Locked into a draconian contract by Barry Gordy's Motown Records, he railed at having to sing the same pop-Soul songs he'd been doing since the early Sixties. For Gaye, his friend's death only highlighted how little he had been able to express of his own creativity as a musician.

And then there was the Sixties themselves. Gaye had lived through the various social and political upheavals which have come to define that decade, and wanted to produce something more meaningful. His brother Frankie had served in Vietnam, and the letters of his experiences haunted Marvin, and compounded his disillusionment with the shallow content of the albums he was recording.

What he needed was a catalyst to give him the impetus he needed. He found it in a song he had originally only intended to produce: What's Going On.

From the rousing title track to the haunting close of Inner City BluesWhat's Going On is an incredible achievement. Filled with Gaye's love of jazz and old-school blues, this album sees the origin of many of Gaye's signature techniques, from the multi-tracked choruses, to the almost cinematic use of strings to accentuate the power of Gaye's voice. 

Picking out the best track is difficult, since, as a concept album, each song leads into the next, maintaining and extending the bitter-sweet atmosphere of the title song to the outright disillusionment of the final track. Aside from those tracks already mentioned, other highlights include Mercy Mercy Me and Wholy Holy, though my personal pick would be the spacey, transcendent Flying High in the Friendly Sky.

WHAT'S GOING ON was an immediate commercial and critical success, and remains one of the most highly regarded albums of all time (Rolling Stone placed it at #6 in their 2003 poll of the best 500 albums of all time). A brilliant testament to the talents of Marvin Gaye and his collaborators, the album completely altered the industry's perception of him, and turned the former pop singer into a cultural icon. The album cemented his status as an enduring inspiration to other artists, and would establish Marvin Gaye as the defining influence on the direction Soul and R'n'B would take in the Seventies and Eighties. Simply brilliant.

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