It’s almost impossible for the modern listener to grasp what really was goin’ on in 1971. We think we live in turbulent times and to an extent we do, but for an American – particularly a black one – at the turn of this particular decade, there had perhaps never been such collective anxiety and uncertainty since the build-up to Civil War. Jim Crow had only been laid to rest a few years earlier, but old habits die hard and segregation arguably continues in one form or another to this day. The Vietnam War had certainly fractured the nation along lines of class and age but the black grievance was perhaps the most compelling, articulated best by the late Muhammad Ali in 1967; “why should they ask me to put on a uniform and go ten thousand miles from home and drop bombs and bullets on brown people in Vietnam while so-called Negro people in Louisville are treated like dogs and denied simple human rights?”
The growing moral decay of the 1960s counterculture and general social climate paralleled Marvin Gaye’s own personal troubles. His marriage was on the rocks, his singing partner at Motown Records Tammi Terrell had died of cancer, and his addiction to cocaine deepened. It was the return of his brother Frankie from Vietnam, and his harrowing accounts of the violence there, which shook Marvin most profoundly, moving him to use his music as a tool for social criticism; “I didn’t know how to fight before, but now I think I do. I just have to do it my way. I’m not a painter. I’m not a poet. But I can do it with music”.
What resulted from this was a paradigm shift at Motown. Whilst the LP as a singular mode of artistic expression took off in other popular music genres after ‘Rubber Soul’ and ‘Pet Sounds’ in the mid-60s, Soul and R&B were still heavily focused on ballads and singles about trifle pop fare, the album intended to supplement those sales with a throwaway cash-in. What’s Going On was something never heard before in the genre, a 35-minute quasi-suite of songs that segue from one to the next with recurring musical themes and motifs as well as political ones. Motown feared commercial disaster and refused to release the title track, provoking Gaye to quit making music for the label for months until they relented and released the song to commercial and critical acclaim. Now an indelible fixture of the boomer generation musical canon, what makes it and the rest of the album so timeless is its relaxed distance from the issue of the age, straddling the line between angry protest and maudlin resignation that would have fixed it in the early 70s. It is achingly earnest, universal and essential. Listen to this album today and it’s about Black Lives Matter, the Syrian Refugee crisis, the Clinton/Trump election, climate change.
Gaye juxtaposes the personal and political literally without skipping a beat, ‘Flyin’ High’ crooning about ‘the boy’ heroin, ‘Save the Children’ remaining in the same muted tone, this time crying out to the world “who really cares? Who’s willing to try?” Gaye knows these questions will remain forever rhetorical. ‘Mercy Mercy Me’ is a remarkably prescient ode to the environment before most had even heard of words like ‘ecology’. ‘Right On’ is rarely held among Gaye’s classics, maybe because it’s seven and a half minutes long, but it’s the album centrepiece and a downright gem. Variations on the album’s classical theme are laid over a roving funk jam that kicks in and out of gear in all the right places. The iconic bass performance of Bob Babbitt on ‘Inner City Blues’ serves to underscore that ever-present multi-layered echoed vocal track with the blues and melancholy. “Makes me wanna holler, and throw up both my hands” could be the rallying cry for disappointed idealists the world over, for all time.
-By Alex Boyd