Throwback Single: Marvin Gaye 'What's Going On'
Marvin Gaye’s very name evokes visions of Motown musical excellence. Considered to be one of the greatest recording artistes of all time; the enigmatic singer, songwriter and musician was instrumental in the evolution of music of black origin. With a career spanning four decades from the late ‘50s to the early ‘80s, Gaye’s own musical voyage was closely intertwined with the history of Rhythm and Blues.
The gifted composer possessed an exalted musicality, releasing no less than two dozen studio albums. His music enjoyed chart success with a staggering forty one of his singles reaching the US Billboard Top 40 and replicating similar success across the globe.
Known for his sensual ballads and that distinctive smooth, honey laden voice, it was Gaye’s milestone 1971 conceptual album ‘What’s Going On’ that saw the artiste experiment and take music of black origin to new heights, propelling it to address politics of the day. The title track that was the initial foundation block from which the album was created, is indelibly engraved in recording history as one of the most universally recognised and culturally influential songs to date.
The track written by Gaye, the Four Top’s Renaldo ‘Obie’ Benson and Motown songwriter Al Cleveland, had an inception which was as prodigious as its ensuing legacy.
Benson had been in San Francisco on tour with the Four Tops and witnessed police heavily clamping down on young anti-war protesters. The singer started to think deeply about the futility of the situation and he began to internally ask questions. The police brutality, young voices being forcefully silenced, America embroiled in a lengthy conflict in Vietnam and civil rights issues, all spurred Benson to diligently put pen to paper. He began writing a protest song and brought Cleveland into the creative process. The writing duo pitched the still incomplete and untitled song to Benson’s own band and to Joan Baez. Both declined citing different reasons.
Gaye was experiencing an exceptionally low period in his life. Long term singing partner and close friend Tammi Terrell had passed away from a brain tumour rendering Gaye to become disillusioned and depressed. Concurrently, Gaye was becoming increasingly frustrated with the direction his music was taking and sought more creative freedom at Motown Records. He wanted his new material to widen its scope and address social issues, yet the label vehemently did not want him to court controversy- believing it could prove detrimental to his successful career. Gaye had come to loggerheads over this with his brother-in-law and Motown founder Berry Gordy. Whilst the singer was battling internal and external battles, his brother Frankie returned from serving in Vietnam. Frankie’s horrific stories of the war deeply saddened Gaye and made the artiste more inspired and determined than ever for his music to address societal injustices.
Benson approached label mate Gaye to pitch the still untitled song. After a measure of convincing, Gaye realised this was the very platform he was arduously seeking. Gaye modified the original song, adding lyrics, playing piano and brought in a stellar production team. From arranger David Van De Pitte and bassist James Jamerson to members of the Funk Brothers and even two Detroit Lions; Gaye brought together an eclectic and powerful team to create the historic track. It was during this process that Gaye stumbled upon counterpoint vocals which later became a stylistic symbol of his.
The track’s lyricism was its most powerful attribute. It was an earnest exposition on the socio-political difficulties of the time. The song spoke of the futility of war; the injustice served by forcefully silencing the socially conscious and the importance of promoting love, peace and understanding. “What’s Going On” went on to become the one of the fastest selling Motown singles and a global classic that transcended time.
The song is as pertinent today as it was at the time of its release. Conflict and injustice are sadly stubbornly recurrent themes. When Gaye spoke of Vietnam, today we can speak of Afghanistan. When Gaye spoke of peaceful Californian protesters experiencing Draconian establishment brutality, today we can speak of pro-Democracy protesters in the Middle East being silenced. When Gaye spoke of injustice stemming from prejudice, today we can tragically speak of young Trayvon Martin. When Gaye sang,
We don’t need to escalate
You see war is not the answer
For only love can conquer hate…”
We can sombrely reflect on Marvin Gaye’s life coming to an end one day short of his forty fifth birthday on April 1st, 1984- after being shot by his father. A personal conflict escalated in the most heinous way.
Despite the soulful legend's untimely passing, his legacy is bountiful. Gaye’s use of multi-track vocalising, strong themes and asserting creative control over his art, inspired many subsequent recording artistes. He set a benchmark. Multiple generations today, appreciate and enjoy Gaye's music and through this; he very much lives on in hearts... In minds.
“What’s Going On” is much more than a song; it is a universal moral guide reminding humanity to be humane.
Words by: Reema Kumari Jadeja ©