Marvin Gaye – What’s Going On

Suffering from depression following the death of his singing partner Tammi Terrell, Marvin Gaye, after an aborted attempt to leave his musical career behind, began work on the album which would bring his socio-political ideals to the forefront of his music. Inspired by his correspondence with his brother who was away fighting in the Vietnam war, and the injustice still being suffered by black people in America, Gaye went about creating a concept album that told the story of a Vietnam war veteran who returns to the the country that he has been risking his life for, and is faced with nothing but injustice and hatred.

‘What’s Going On’ was an enormous departure by Marvin Gaye from his previous work, which was dominated by radio friendly pop hits more reminiscent of the standard Motown sound of the 1960’s. The music was so far removed from what Motown bosses had expected, that when Gaye first submitted the album’s opening single and title track, they were reluctant to even release the material, believing it to be too politically minded. Fortunately, after much debate, Gaye was allowed to release the single, and despite the reluctance of label bosses, ‘What’s Going On’ became the fastest selling Motown single to that date.

The album that followed is a masterpiece of soul, with the exquisite quality of Gaye’s voice superbly supported by the magnificent backing of Motown’s in house backing band, the ‘Funk Brothers’. The composition of each song, and the album as a whole is sublime, with a generally downbeat vibe punctuated beautifully by occasional up beat and optimistic pulses. The music is subtly complex enough that something new can be garnered many times after the first listen, and the cyclical nature of the album provides a perfect excuse to put the album straight back to the beginning as soon as it has reached it’s climax.

Fortunately the themes of ‘What’s Going On’ are largely a distant memory these days, and this album may itself have brought the inequality that was present at the time of it’s recording to the attentions of people who would otherwise have paid them little heed. Regardless of the political implications of the album, ‘What’s Going On’ is still a wonderful musical achievement, and will be surely seen for years to come as one of Motown’s finest releases.

‘What’s Going On’ was released on 21st May 1971 by Tamla records (A subsiduary of Motown records).


About Steve Hancock

Steve is the host of the Cosmic Fragments radio show, he is also the creator and main contributor to the Cosmic Fragments website. On the side, he is also a failing musician, dog owner and shabby boyfriend, he does all of this while maintaining a full time job that provides little financial reward.