What's Going On
For Marvin Gaye, the end of the 1960s marked a period where any optimism which had spread through the United States earlier in the decade was fading. Civil rights were being eroded and visionaries such as Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy assassinated. The escalation of war in southeast Asia resonated with each letter his brother, Frankie, sent from Vietnam, while the death of Terri Terrell, his musical partner, in early 1970 shocked Gaye into a pit of depression that threatened to end his career.
Released: Monday 27 June 2011
Best known in the UK for the classic hit single 'I Heard It Through the Grapevine' in 1968 and, for younger listeners, 'Sexual Healing' in late 1982, Gaye was shot dead by his father less than 18 months later, on the eve of his 45th birthday. As good as these tracks are, What's Going On remains Gaye's classic album and sounds just as immediate as it must have done all those years ago.
Gaye's lyrics are, if anything, even more poignant 40 years on, from the opening title track, with lines like "Brother, brother, brother/ There's far too many of you dying," and "War is not the answer/ For only love can conquer hate" sending as strong a message to those responsible for sending troops to Afghanistan and Iraq as it did to the administration of US President Richard Nixon during the Vietnam War.
What's Going On is considered to be the first soul music concept album, in the way that it relates the plight of a soldier returning from Vietnam to a country without much money and little chance of getting a job. The title track sends a general message of disbelief, before seamlessly moving into 'What's Happening Brother', in which the plight of the returning GI is addressed. This merging of tracks, a la Sergeant Pepper's Lonely Heart's Club Band, did not go down well with Motown chief Berry Gordy, as there were (unnecessary, as it turned out) fears that the songs wouldn't get played on the radio.
'Flyin' High (in the Friendly Sky)' hints at the darker consequences facing returning Vietnam vets, with the lines "I know I'm hooked, my friend/ to the boy who makes slaves out of men" not leaving too much to the imagination. "God is Love" and this reviewer's standout track, 'Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)' tackle the wider issues of environmental pollution, with the latter track lamenting that "Things ain't what they used to be/ Radiation underground and in the sky." And four decades later, the words resonate even more than ever.
The album finishes on another high with "Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)," as our returning soldier has seemingly jumped from the frying pan into the fire, with the lines "Crime is increasing/ Trigger happy policing/ Panic is spreading/ God knows where we're heading" expressing the fears and futility of urban life. In spite of the serious lyrical content, What's Going On is not a depressing listen and can be enjoyed purely as a piece of beautiful music. Allow the album to wash over you from start to finish and you'll emerge from it refreshed and, believe it or not, feeling energised.
Apart from the original album, this two CD and 12in vinyl edition includes a remastered copy of the original album, mono versions of the singles off the album, out-takes and recordings made in Detroit before Gaye moved to Los Angeles. The vinyl extra contains the original 'Detroit Mix' of the album. Apart from the music, the set has lyrics, an explanation of how the album was conceived and images from the studio.
Now, for hardcore fans the extras may well be worth the money, and if your budget stretches that far, it's a well-packaged release. But if you have never heard What's Going On and can't spare 50 quid, get hold of the regular version of the album. Quality never diminishes and What's Going On is pure class.