28 November 2006

Marvin Gaye: What’s Going On

Next to punk/post-punk/new wave/alternative (yes, it’s one large, inclusive genre in my world), 1970s R&B is my favorite. It was the heyday of soul, the birth of funk, probably the greatest era of male voices in my lifetime. We’ve covered my favorite R&B crooner, Al Green, on these pages. Now it’s time for Marvin.

We found a great record store last week in Baltimore — Sound Garden, in Fells Point — where I discovered new bands while flirting with the blushing, shy record store boy. But the best part (yes, even better than the flirting) was I found a copy of the remastered What’s Going On — for just seven bucks. I have it on vinyl, but the CD is long gone (damn exes), so finding it was a thrill. (But who the hell could sell such a beauty?) I bet I haven’t listened to the entire album in ten years. And I haven’t stopped listening since I got home.

Marvin Gaye changed the world of R&B in 1971 when he released What’s Going On — the first concept album in the soul bins. It came out years before Stevie Wonder’s Songs in the Key of Life or Innervisions. It’s a sublime song cycle of protest, supposedly sung from the point of view of a disillusioned Vietnam War vet upon his return home. The war and poverty, ecology and injustice are covered in some of the loveliest songs to cut the edge that year.

Put the album in context of what an R&B album was in the sixties and early seventies: a collection of hits with filler tunes. At that time, R&B and soul were, for the most part, recorded for singles, not albums. What’s Going On changed that.

You youngsters out there have heard “What’s Going On” and “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology).” Both are great pop songs that stand on their own … but you need to hear the album from beginning to end to get the full effect. Don’t worry; you’ll thank me. Think of What’s Going On as a symphony or an opera. The songs flow from one into another, following a theme in music and subject. Marvin wove in jazz and classical influences in these nine R&B tunes, taking his music to a new level.

Trivia: If I remember correctly, What’s Going On was the first album to list The Funk Brothers in its credits. If you don’t know who The Funk Brothers are, rent Standing in the Shadows of Motown this weekend.

My three favorite tracks? Can’t do it. What’s Going On really needs to be heard from the opening bars of “What’s Going On” until the last note fades on “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler).” If you like the two hits, you’ll love the album.

Do I need to say how much I love this album, how much joy it brings me every time I listen?

Rolling Stone named What’s Going On the album of the year in 1971, and it’s often (and deservedly) included the top ten of any definitive music list. Not just R&B, but all popular music in the rock era. And, damn, it deserves every accolade it gets.


You’ll want to come back every Tuesday in December, kids, as I feature my favorite Christmas albums. Yes, a full month of Christmas albums. And you’re gonna love it.


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22 Comments:

At 11/28/2006 06:06:00 AM, Blogger Writeprocrastinator said...

A whole month of Christmas albums?


Ahhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhhh

Marvin meant something odd to me in junior high. I knew him as the "Got To Give It Up"/"Let's Get It On" Guy. Then he did "Funky Space Connection," a little song that would become my first non-TV Beatnik experience at spoken word.

Rapper's Delight and Blow Fly didn't come out until that November, so he was in effect, my first experience with rap. I wouldn't get to know Motown Marvin and the hits he did with Tammy until I moved out to the suburbs, the oldies stations weren't playing any non-Temptations Motown as the stuff really wasn't "oldies," back then.

Plenty of neo-soul, R & B and rap artists have given Marvin the credit he is due, but for some odd reason, he hasn't caught like he should have in terms of sales.

 
At 11/28/2006 06:06:00 AM, Blogger Writeprocrastinator said...

P.S. I tagged ya!

 
At 11/28/2006 07:31:00 AM, Blogger Old Lady said...

Ear Candy for sure! It is a great album.

 
At 11/28/2006 09:04:00 AM, Blogger Ben said...

I've listened to this and "Let's Get it On" so many times now and it's never grown old, as much of the motown stuff has. I like how the artists such as Gaye and Stevie Wonder were calling their own shots, and although I personally prefer all of Stevie's stuff from 1970-77, this is still one hell of an album.

 
At 11/28/2006 10:12:00 AM, Blogger Johnny Yen said...

I love Marvin Gaye's stuff from all eras-- "Hitch Hike," "Can I Get a Witness," "Stubborn Kind of Fellow," and other early stuff, and later stuff like "Sexual Healing,", etc. But overall, I think "What's Going On" stands as a triumph as an R and B album, a pop album and as a message.

BTW, when we were talking about covers, Soul Asylum did an unlikely and wonderful cover of Sexual Healing back in the mid nineties on the "No Alternative" disc.

 
At 11/28/2006 12:08:00 PM, Blogger Peter said...

I didn't realize how early this album came out. That makes it even more impressive. And you're right about the funk bros. They were so much more than studio musicians.

I like the phrase, "songs to cut the edge that year." Never heard it. =)

 
At 11/28/2006 01:11:00 PM, Blogger haahnster said...

Great album.

I must admit I'm a bit skeptical about the prospects of enjoying a month's worth of Christmas album write-ups.

 
At 11/28/2006 04:55:00 PM, Blogger Grant Miller said...

I bought that album years ago and will agree it's got some great songs. But what really blows me away is the production. It's decades ahead of it's time.

 
At 11/28/2006 06:00:00 PM, Blogger Dale said...

Time to head back to the Deja Vu and see if I can find a copy! You're promising we'll love the Christmas albums, that's a lofty aim Ms. Beth!

In other Marvin Gaye news, the other day for the first time in ages I went to get French Fries from a 'chip truck' near work. I was salivating just thinking of home cut fries deep fried in fat when Marvin started cooing from the truck's speakers -- Let's Get It Onnnnnn... and I did.

 
At 11/28/2006 06:08:00 PM, Blogger justacoolcat said...

I used to own the album too oh and the 8 track.

I wonder what you consider a youngster?

 
At 11/29/2006 12:27:00 AM, Blogger Erik said...

If you want to get a little more wrapped up in Marvin, get "Here My Dear", the album he made to pay for his divorce. He was initially going to be a vindictive ass and pump out some by the numbers soul record just to get it out of the way and move on. But he used the circumstances to pour his heart out into a soul epic. Don't miss it.

 
At 11/29/2006 12:31:00 AM, Blogger Bubs said...

Beth, have you seen the new compilation from Rhino? It's called "What it is" and it looks like a cool collection of less-known funk from the late 60's early 70's.

 
At 11/29/2006 02:21:00 AM, Blogger Coaster Punchman said...

The Christmas album post is a good idea - I have about three that I consider absolute musts so I'll be curious to see if you agree.

 
At 11/29/2006 07:21:00 AM, Blogger Beth said...

WRITE PROCRASTINATOR: I love me some "Got to Give It Up" and "Let's Get It On" Marvin ... but my very favorite Marvin tune may be "Trouble Man." Damn, that song is so cool. And you're gonna love my Christmas tunes; they're all over the musical map.

OLD LADY: I knew you'd agree!

BEN: Isn't that era of Stevie's music the best? I love both Stevie's and Marvin's sixties stuff, too. Some Motown has never grown old -- such as the Temps and the Four Tops -- but some has. I'm more of a Stax girl myself.

JOHNNY YEN: I don't think I've heard that Soul Asylum cover. Must. Find. It. Now! Thanks for the tip.

PETER: "songs to cut the edge that year" is a Coffey original; I was trying to rework the overworked "cutting edge," so I'm glad you noticed.

HAAHNSTER: Ah, ye of little faith.

 
At 11/29/2006 07:26:00 AM, Blogger Beth said...

GRANT MILLER: It is brilliant, isn't it? I skimmed the Wikipedia entry for the album; the history of it is fascinating.

DALE: Nothing like gettin' it on with a stack o' hot fries. You are living the life, my Canadian friend!

JUSTACOOLCAT: Youngster = anyone born the year of or after the album came out (1971). My ex was born in 1971, and it took him a while to embrace 1970s R&B; now he's the biggest Stevie Wonder fan around.

ERIK: Thanks! I'm going to pick up Here My Dear this weekend; nothing like vindictive soul.

BUBS: I don't think I've seen that Rhino disc. Yet another purchase for the weekend. Our local RFG station used to have an hour of 1970s R&B every Wednesday evening, and that sounds like its playlist; the show was so good, I used to tape it and listen to it over and over until the next show.

COASTER PUNCHMAN: My Christmas musts run from R.E.M. and "A Charlie Brown Christmas" to Andy Williams and Johnny Mathis.

 
At 11/29/2006 10:55:00 AM, Blogger Writeprocrastinator said...

"And you're gonna love my Christmas tunes; they're all over the musical map."

If the entire list is "Christmas, bah, bug, and hum!" from "Olive The Other Reindeer," then I will love it ; )

 
At 11/29/2006 10:57:00 AM, Blogger Beth said...

See, that's why I love you, Write Procrastinator; you also love Olive the Other Reindeer. J. Otto Seibold is my favorite illustrator of children's books; in fact, my cat Otto is named for him. He's in the San Francisco area, isn't he?

 
At 11/29/2006 12:03:00 PM, Blogger Coaster Punchman said...

Ok, I'll just tell you that my three are Vince Guraldi "Charlie Brown" as you noted; my other two are Esquivel "Merry Christmas from the Space Age Bachelor Pad" (thanks Lu!) and Mahalia Jackson "Silent Night."

 
At 11/29/2006 07:34:00 PM, Anonymous m said...

can we vote on this xmas thing?

 
At 12/01/2006 12:10:00 PM, Blogger Johnny Yen said...

Rhino is just the cat's meow, aren't they? What other company would issue the Dave Edmunds box set (which I own).

 
At 12/06/2006 08:59:00 PM, Anonymous DJ Cayenne said...

I'm a little late to this party, but I wanted to chime in with this:

The Dirty Dozen Brass Band have put together a Katrina benefit album that is a cover of the whole album. It features Chuck D, G. Love, etc. Check it out:

http://www.flashenhanced.com/dirtydozen/

 
At 6/11/2007 12:40:00 AM, Blogger T-Bird said...

Oh hell yes!!! This album WAS a pioneer and still sounds wonderful.

I wrote about it here

http://saturdaynightsoulsoup.blogspot.com/2007/03/saturday-night-soup-for-soul-13.html

Click on the juke box at teh bottom of the post (all the "Saturday Night Soup for the Soul" posts have one) to listen to it. Marvin's Wholy Holy followed by Aretha's rendition. Two giants of American music.

 

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