By Jessica Jones, Staff Writer
Original Release Date: May 21, 1971
There couldn’t have been a better time in the world for the release of Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On (except for now, maybe). The Sergeant Pepper of the soul, this concept album tells the story of war, poverty, police brutality and drugs through the eyes of a Vietnam veteran returning to the States. With songs effortlessly flowing into one another, each takes on a similar tone while still sharing a different message. Placed at number six in Rolling Stone’s 500 Greatest Albums, this is one passion-project and protest album mashup that was an instant commercial and critical success. And, it still proves to be just as important today, sparking inspiration for other political activist albums.
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Nearing the end of the 1960s, Gaye was faced with a number of less-than-ideal situations. Slipping into a depression brought on by his failing marriage to Anna Gordy, the recent brain tumor diagnosis of his duet partner Tammi Terrell, a cocaine dependency and other troubles with Motown Records, Gaye began to focus on producing rather than songwriting. After producing a number of hits for other Motown groups and touring with The Four Tops, Gaye was introduced to the song “What’s Going On” by Renaldo Benson. Benson wrote it after witnessing acts of police brutality in Detroit, arguing that his song wasn’t a protest, but rather a love song and a song about understanding. Once he was granted permission from Benson, Gaye switched up the melody of the song and made it his own. During this time, he was also writing letters to his brother in Vietnam, which would also provide inspiration for the album.
When you think Marvin Gaye, you typically think about his love ballads or his hot and heavy “bedroom music.” But because What’s Going On was so different content-wise, not everyone at Motown thought an activist album would pay off. While recording the album, Gaye stayed true to his signature style of steady jazz tempo and use of keys, saxophone and strings. One of the happiest accidents had to have been the use of layering vocals, as this wasn’t initially done on purpose. When the audio engineers accidentally mixed two of the vocal tracks together, Gaye liked it so much that he kept it throughout the album. It is most notably used in the first 30 seconds of the title track. The experimental sounds of this album paid off big time; it was established in black music history and will forever remain.
The songs themselves are not only soulful, passionate love letters to American citizens, but they are political statements as well. The title track and hit single, “What’s Going On” attempts to bring the world together, questioning the need for war while simultaneously shedding light on the police brutality going on back home: “You see, war is not the answer / For only love can conquer hate” and “Picket lines and picket signs / Don’t punish me with brutality.”
You’d never know it upon first listen, but “Flyin’ High (In the Friendly Sky)” is about heroin, opiates and the rise in the popularity of drug usage amongst veterans. This dreamy tune feels gentle and secure while the lyrics are anything but.
Other highlight tracks include “What’s Happening Brother”, a song Gaye dedicated to his brother, Frankie. This track depicts the feelings of a veteran returning from war and the confusion and heartbreak one faces after spending so much time away from America, which at the time was rapidly changing. “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)” – a personal favorite – is one of the most captivating songs to come from Gaye. An easy-going rhythm paired with disparaging lyrics about the current state of the environment really puts environmentalism into perspective, something not many people cared about at the time.
According to his biographer David Ritz, Gaye once said, “With the world exploding around me, how am I supposed to keep singing love songs?” Gaye never quit singing love songs, but he simply changed the messages. Every song from the album is incredibly enchanting, transporting the listener to a time and place that feels so magical. All the while, the lyrics continuously illustrate the exact opposite: a country filled with war and suffering. After the death of Marvin Gaye in 1984, the album re-entered the pop music sphere, this time being heralded as one of the most important albums in pop history. No matter who you are or what your music taste, What’s Going On has proven time and time again to be a paramount moment in music history.