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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Labels: My Soundtrack