Marvin Gaye: ‘What’s Going On’ – 40th Anniversary Edition

(2 CD set, Island/Universal)

It’s the sixties, and Marvin Gaye had spent the best part of ten years churning out one perceived classic after another as part of Detroit’s very own hit factory, Motown. However, by 1970, the label that could previously do no wrong, was now struggling to sound fresh amid the ever changing fabric of popular music. These were heavy times in the States; the optimistic ideologies of the previous decade, free love and hippie-ism, were now perceived as naive and were quite rightly swept away by the dark realities of the Vietnam War, increasing poverty, race-riots and drug abuse.

Marvin Gaye realised that recording another album predicated around broken hearts and the latest dance craze was never going to cut it in increasingly politically aware and troubled times. The album he proceeded to make became a landmark album. Both in terms of breaking the Motown mould, and in a far wider sense, being the first pop LP to have a cohesive concept regarding social commentary.

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The album is written from the viewpoint of a Vietnam veteran’s commentary on how his beloved country had changed since he’d left to go to war. Marvin’s brother Frankie, having just returned from serving three years in Vietnam would have proved to be a key inspiration for the concept of What’s Going On.

The music itself represents a clear departure from anything Motown, or indeed any other soul label had released. Previous Motown artists had addressed issues of the day with great success, Edwin Starr’s ‘War’ and the Temptations’ ‘Ball of Confusion’ both scoring big hits. However, the nine tracks that made up What’s Going On were different – instead of masking a social message inside an easily palatable floor filler, Marvin chose to strip away the Motown sound leaving his message bare. This meant that listeners were faced with a far more potent and uncompromising commentary and it was this that propelled the album and eponymous lead single to the top of the charts.

Marvin also introduced a new production technique during these sessions by layering his voice on top of each other, as well as shrewdly choosing to swap the conventional Motown soul and funk sound with elements of jazz and classical music, and this combination engaged the music buying public, forcing them to take note.

As I’m writing this review I feel compelled to speak my mind and not follow the pattern of heralding this collection as ‘The Greatest Soul Album Of All Time’. You see, I prefer my soul to have some grit, the kind that will either make you tap your feet and wiggle your tush, or pull so tightly on your heart strings that you feel lucky to feel the pain of a broken heart. What’s Going On fails on both counts.

The music is at times more insipid than inspired, the classical and jazz influences in my mind, relegate this album to the kind of  muzak you’d be more likely to hear while in an elevator. I also feel this album is partly guilty for opening the flood gates to the breed of soul music that still plagues the radio-waves today: Diluted, funkless, overtly polished and grit(s)-free.

I understand the message it seeks to portray. In fact the most interesting point to note from listening back to these recordings is the stark realisation that all the issues addressed still resonate so strongly today. In some cases more so than ever; we’re now fighting multiple wars without any mandate, drug abuse continues to prey upon our less fortunate communities and the environmental concerns have worsened beyond all belief.

I have the upmost respect for Marvin spreading his message, it sold in its millions, highlighting key issues to listeners that many may have been previously oblivious to.

As for the luxuriousness of this deluxe set, complete with two disks of extras, the LP and a beautiful LP sized book – all of which look fabulous and a real treat on first glance but much of the bonus material is sadly reserved for the hardcore fan – Consisting of the various sessions that help build the finished product. These tracks are mainly instrumental grooves, loose and jazzy.  None of which lend themselves to repeated listens and serve merely as a curiosity.

There are some very special exceptions – the various mixes of ‘You’re The Man’ were a revelation to this writer, as cool and slinky as anything Marvin ever recorded.  Also the numerous alternate mixes of the original nine tracks offer the listener a different perspective; but these can be found on the 30th anniversary edition so don’t actually bring anything new to the table.

This album was ground breaking, it commented on the present day with a potency never seen before or since, and without knowing it, quite correctly predicted a grim future. However, it also changed soul music forever and I’m sad to say, not for the better. Step forward Lionel Richie and R Kelly – I rest my case.


Glen Manners is front-man of SE London’s finest rock combo ‘Dig For Victory’. He is an avid collector of music, especially records between the magical years of ‘66 and ‘73. Over last 12 years Glen has been joyfully soaking up some of the finest indie/mod/hippie hangouts across London. And at the ripe old age of 32, can not envisage a time when he would ever want to slow down. Glen has one eye on the worlds rich musical heritage and another firmly on the here and now, this can give him the most startlingly odd look but that is simply the way he likes it. Glen is a television freak, movie buff, lyricist and ever playful optimist.

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Originally posted 2011-07-13 16:47:06. Republished by Blog Post Promoter

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