True 5-Star Albums: Marvin Gaye's 'What's Going On'

Ironically, it was the record Motown didn’t want to release. A soul “concept album” about racism, the environment, and the Vietnam War. A complete masterpiece.
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By Gillian G. Gaar

Ironically, it was the record Motown didn’t want to release. A soul “concept album” about racism, the environment, and the Vietnam War? No way would that find an audience.

But after the success of “What’s Going On” as a single (it reached #2 in early 1971), Motown President Berry Gordy changed his mind, and the subsequent album, released later that year, was just as successful, reaching the Top 10 and spinning off two more Top 10 singles.


Gaye’s album was rooted in pain. He’d been saddened by the letters he received from his brother, then serving in Vietnam, and the death of singing partner, Tammi Terrell, in March 1970 had led him to consider abandoning music altogether. But he eventually teamed up with Renaldo “Obie” Benson (of the Four Tops) and Al Cleveland, who were working on the politically-themed “What’s Going On.” Gaye helped them complete the song, which forthrightly stated “War is not the answer/for only love can conquer hate,” and it proved to be the starting point for a landmark album.

Over the course of nine songs, Gaye considers the current state of the union with a heavy heart; you can easily imagine him shaking his head as he sings “When I look at the world/it fills me with sorrow” in “Save The Children.” The bleak landscape he surveys is blighted by innumerable problems — drug abuse (“Flyin’ High [In The Friendly Sky]”), unemployment (“What’s Happening Brother”), the poisoning of the atmosphere (“Where did all the blue skies go?” he sings in “Mercy Mercy Me [The Ecology]”) — though there are moments of respite in “God Is Love” and “Wholy Holy.”

What makes the album especially poignant is that it’s a work of sadness, not anger; Gaye’s voice has the kind of passion that comes from being torn between hope and hopelessness. The same sweet, high tenor heard on “Pride and Joy” soars above lush string arrangements and a funky swing that helps lighten the mood, but never completely alleviates the overall pessimism that washes over the album.

Such a bittersweet work was highly unexpected from someone whose previous records focused on romance (and aside from Gaye’s devotion to God, there are no love songs on “What’s Going On”). The album was Gaye’s first where he co-wrote every song and produced, and it showed how topical themes could be introduced into a soul setting. Gaye provided no answer to the world’s problems, but by simply standing up and acknowledging them he touched a nerve with anyone who’d ever felt overwhelmed by the troubles of modern day life.

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