Sunday, 1 July 2012

What's Going On- Marvin Gaye

What's Going On is a seminal album in the history of popular music, it's influence moved far beyond the boundaries of genre. The album was not just important musically it was important creatively and for the independence of the artist free from the constraints of record company demands. It was one man's attempt to document the profound sense of anger and dissillusionment he was feeling not just within the confines of his career but in the broader maladies that were being inflicted upon the citizens of America. It's difficult to even begin to describe this album musically it wasn't your typical R&B or soul album for that era it was so far ahead as to defy description. This album needs to be viewed in the context of the personal demons that Marvin Gaye was confronting during the gestation period of that album. Marvin was increasingly frustrated by the demands of Berry Gordy head of Motown Records, Marvin wanted to move his music beyond the formulaic approach that had developed at the label, he wanted to write and produce his own music and have complete artistic control. There was his frustration with the state of his country, bogged down in an unpopular war, spreading poverty and an acute awareness of human impact on the environment. Marvin had not performed since the collapse and later death of his singing partner Tammi Terrell which affected him greatly.

So Marvin withdrew within himself to create an album that would vent his feelings and give him the opportunity to create his musical vision. On June 1 1970 Marvin headed into the Motown studios to begin recording the single What's Going On, the track was unlike anything Marvin had recorded before stripped back and sparse in sound the opening sax solo give way to Marvin imploring people to be non-judgemental, to embrace peaceful co-existence to end brutality and to find a greater meaning in life. The song is very percussive with a truly amazing bass line from James Jamerson who for me is probably the greatest modern bass player. Marvin was presented with the song by four Tops member Obie Benson and Al Cleveland, Marvin the re-wrote some of the lyrics. When Marvin presented the song to Berry Gordy it was immediately rebuked, Berry didn't want to release it deeming it totally uncommercial and telling Marvin it would alienate his fan base. Marvin refused to buckle telling Berry he would not record any further material, it wasn't until early 1971 that the song was finally released and it became a huge hit reaching #2 on the billboard charts. Following this Marvin re-entered the studio in March and over ten days completed the rest of the album.

What's Happening Brother is more dense with mellow strings but the music conveys a certain darkness and uncertainty. Marvin was deeply affected by what he heard of his brother Frankie's expereinces in Vietnam, once again the uncertainty of joblessness and a reflective look over the shoulder to times when people took the time to talk and establish relationships, to go dance at their local club.

Flyin High In The Friendly Sky is a harrowing tale of drug addiction, something that would plague Marvin up until his death. The song has this rolling drum pattern played with brushes and clashing cymbals and a heavy percussive feel. Marvin sings of having self destruction in his hand and being hooked to the boy that makes slaves out of men, just the depth of emotion and starkness I don't think had been conveyed on record like that before. Save The Children is a plea to create a better world for the next generation with those lilting strings in the background, it also has an uptempo jazz interlude in the middle, as the song begins to fad out a cascading piano fill signals the transition into God Is Love which is ecstatic and exuberant with punchy horn fills Martin implores

Love your mother she bore you
Love your father, he works for you
Love your sister she's good to you

Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology) was significant for being one of the first songs to focus on the degradation of the environment. Marvin laments at the oil wasted on the ocean, fish full of mercury, he questions where did the blue skies go. Marvin strips the song back before adding layered backing vocals and a torturous sax solo, when released as the second single it reached U.S #4. Right On is more jazz influenced with a flute solo at the start and some nice percussion once again Marvin sings of being aware of what is happening and that it's good to care. Wholy Holy captures Marvin devout faith and belief that love and respect can and always will conquer hate. Inner City Blues just resonates with a sense of hopelessness from the opening piano chords that feel like dark thunder looming across, Bob Babbitt then comes in on the bass with this amazing underpinning lick. Marvin regails at the current state of life,

Rockets, Moon shots
Spend it on the have nots,
Money, we make it,
Before we see it you take it.

The poignancy and frustration of these lyrics is something that hadn't been attempted at this point, certainly not in the canon of soul music, not in such a dramatic effect. The sense of hopelessness is multiplied with Marvin saying he wants to throw up his hands.

Crime is increasing,
Trigger happy policing
Panic is spreading
God knows where were heading

Very rare to end an album on such a despondent note but it's a great song, it has the ability conjure up an image of a decaying city, poverty and violence hand in hand. Marvin created an amazing album out of the threads of his despair and unhappiness, one that has resonated for decades and will continue to do so. When the album was released it reached U.S#6, strangely enough neither the singles nor the album made an impact in the U.K.

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