Time to holler

Marvin Gaye
What’s Going On
Motown, 1971

Mother, mother
There’s too many of you crying
Brother, brother, brother,
There’s far too many of you dying

What’s Going On is one of the most amazing albums ever made. That is stating the obvious, but its place in the canon cannot be denied, and it should never be forgotten that this album almost didn’t get made. The world would be a sorrier place without it.

It’s not just a musical landmark, it’s a blueprint. Just as “I Heard it Through the Grapevine” sounded like nothing that preceded it, so would “What’s Going On” proceed to make everything around it look like trite product for a naive malt-shop aesthetic that no longer existed. It set the parameters for everything that would follow. It is secure in its place in the musical pantheon next to Pet Sounds and Revolver, but because of its political intention and its political impact, it deserves more.

This album is an intimate lesson in contemporary urban black history, and therefore a lesson that America in 1971 desperately needed to learn. Its narrator is speaking from a place of isolation — a lone voice amidst the faux-party vibe, cutting through the political bullshit to ask questions about human dignity. Is there any chance of grace? Do we have it within ourselves?

Crime is increasing
Trigger-happy policing
Panic is spreading
God knows where we’re heading
Oh, make me wanna holler

Or think about:

Rockets, moon shots
Spend it on the have-nots

This is not just any black experience. This isn’t the cotton-pickin’ Southern-blues cliché that white rock ’n’ rollers had been raking over in search of an authenticity and sexuality they felt missing in their own lives. And it isn’t the safe cage manufactured for black artists who wanted to do no more than make entertaining pop singles.

This was articulate, this was urban, this was Northern. Elegantly politicized, this was going to be a bombshell. This grenade might blow up in your own hand.

Picket lines and picket signs
Don’t punish me with brutality
Talk to me so you can see
Oh, what’s going on.

What’s Going On is a black artistic window into politics, the first pop music window. Instead of the intimidating aura around the raised fist of the black power salute, this was sweet soul music. This was make-out music, this music had ass. Except the croon is, “Natural fact is / Honey, that I can’t pay my taxes.” Lush with strings, ripe and sensual as July, with the sweetest singer alive, it asks ugly questions, gives some unpleasant answers. But life is not all politics, and this newly revealed urban black man is presented as spiritually sound and compassionate, or weak and self-destructive, just like any other mortal. What a revelation. What a powerful weapon. What’s Going On couldn’t have been more perfect if it were designed as a public service announcement by the NAACP: We are here, our grievances are universal; hear our demands, hear our prayer, hear our song.

What’s Going On revealed a level of sophistication and intelligence unknown in mainstream pop at the time, much less the candy-floss hit factory of Motown. With Curtis Mayfield, Steve Wonder and Sly & the Family Stone following Gaye’s lead, it was a “new black consciousness.”

“Wholly Holy,” is a profoundly sensual hymn. The verses are just that — verses. Biblical in their cyclical nature, they reinforce Gaye’s vision of the Oneness of the Divine. The man is making out with God. No joke. And God offers no resistance.

Marvin Gaye gallantly escorted our AM-radio love affair from the dance floor to the bedroom, and now finally out into the streets. When Berry Gordy protested that “What’s Going On” was protest music, Gaye insisted it is a love song — one sung in isolation against the party vibe, a love song raised like a prayer against the rising tide of injustice and social upheaval. What’s going on? What’s going on?

Gaye found a way to channel his grief over the death of his vocal partner, Tammi Terrell, of a brain hemorrhage, to voice his empathy for his brother, recently returned from Vietnam, traumatized and isolated in a country that wouldn’t give him a job other than killing other brown people far away. The assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and Bobby Kennedy. The riots that burned in the streets of Detroit in 1967, in Chicago during the Democratic National Convention of 1968 and the bullets flying at Kent State. Seeing a man walking on the moon when there was such economic devastation a mile away was surreal and depressing.

The primal pulse of percussion grooves throughout the album, and serves as perfect counterpoint for David Van De Pitte’s elegant orchestral arrangements. It is a complete departure from anything Motown had ever done. A concept album, a protest album. A song cycle that takes the conscience by the hand and leads it from the burning street to the church and back outside again.

Yet, Gordy was horrified. Along with several other prominent black leaders, Gordy thought that black capitalism would be the redemption of black people, and was a staunch Nixon supporter at the time. He didn’t understand why Gaye wanted to make “ugly” protest music when he was already a successful pop star and sex symbol. Gordy considered it career suicide, refused to release it and advised Gaye to record another album, another Motown album with the standard Motown songwriting team and the recognizable Motown sound that was, to Gordy, the sound of cash registers ringing across the land.

Marvin Gaye refused. This was the first time the notion of “artistic control” had reared its willful head at Hitsville USA, and once Gaye had a taste of that freedom, he was never going back to the assembly line recording techniques that characterized Motown singles. Gordy tried to starve him out while the IRS swooped in and cleaned out his bank accounts, but Gaye stood his ground. He’d heard protesters say that the only way for an individual to fight the war machine was not to allow his body to be used as an instrument of that war, and Gaye applied this approach to his battle with Motown. Gaye didn’t budge, until Motown succumbed to the distributors who were howling for more Marvin Gaye product. As a last word on the subject of the single, Gaye pushed the faders up during the final fade out of “What’s Going On.” It was Gaye’s little fuck you to the record company. It said, “You think a song you hate so much is over? Surprise!”

Return to the introduction for this special collection of music stories, where you'll find links to the other nine records on our list of Detroit discs that shook the world.

Shireen Liane is a freelance writer filing reports from the UK. E-mail her at [email protected]
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