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(Credit: Marvin Gaye Album Cover)

50 years of Marvin Gaye's ‘What’s Going On’: A damning reflection of society's flaws

The year is 1968, and on April 4th, Martin Luther King Jr steps out onto a hotel balcony in Memphis, Tennessee and is assassinated. A week later, on April the 11th, President Lyndon B. Johnson signs the Civil Rights Act and many newspapers run with the narrative that all is now well. This has such an effect on the national psyche in America that the writer James Baldwin struggles to drum up support for his notion that more still needs to be done. 

In the three years between that and Marvin Gaye’s album being released, America intensifies its actions in Vietnam, including the flashpoint incident of the Mai Lai massacre where US forces actively open fire on 500 unarmed rural villagers, killing an unknown number of people estimated to be around 100, including infants a matter of days old, only one of the soldiers involved goes to prison, for a total of three days. Robert F. Kennedy is assassinated. The Manson family slayings terrorise Hollywood. Four unarmed students are killed by the National Guard as they open fire on peace protesters at the Kent State University in Ohio. And on May 21st, 1971, Marvin Gaye releases a musical statement that says this is What’s Going On.

There is no question mark at the end of that, or even an exclamation, it is a simple declaration of “What’s Going On” – this is what is happening around us is the simple message within. Now, 50 years on from the release of the record, I could assimilate a very similar list of atrocities depicted in the three-year span of history listed above. This does not represent any futility on the part of Marvin Gaye’s record, rather it epitomises why it is as prescient now as ever.

In the opening track, Gaye states: “War is not the answer”. At the time of writing, scores of civilians are currently losing their lives in the Israel-Palestine conflict. In the second track he states: “Money is tighter than it’s ever been,” as 2.5 million people in the UK are forced to used food banks; ten years ago, that figure was around 61 thousand. Later in the record on ‘Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)’ Gaye states: “Animals and birds who live nearby are dying,” before asking: “What about this overcrowded land,” in the last 50 years the population of humanity has increased by around four billion mostly owing to a failure to bridge the development gap and the world has lost two-thirds of its wildlife. 

At one point the record even asks: “To save a world in despair / Who really cares?” and it answers that question in the same breath. Despite the diatribe of societal denigration that the album assimilates through the unfurling clutch of entreaties that it calls upon, it is ultimately an inviolable salvo of hope and through its sound and joyous performance, it encapsulates the euphoric sanctity that music provides. 

Even the narrative of how the record came to be seems to exemplify this all-conquering paramountcy of music and the multitudes contained therein. The juggernaut of Motown had cruised to gold-plated success by acting as a musical corporation. It had a formula and a method, and it got results. However, Berry Gordy’s tight-fisted hit-churning quashed creative individualism by making artists seem like they were part of some corporate machine. 

The late sixties counterculture, however, was an overwhelming force of its own, it hurtled towards the future in a cacophonous mass of accelerated liberalism, movements and mayhem. It was travelling so fast that certain creatively stagnating Motown artists felt it was leaving them behind. They saw their contemporaries making musical waves, kicking up a commotion that called for change and prophesied a brighter future through profound visionary works. All the while, they were stuck making the same songs about lovers and dancefloors and essentially ‘working for the man’. The issue was that those lovesongs were usually brilliant. Thus, it can’t be ignored how truly bold and brave a stance it was when Marvin Gaye and Stevie Wonder defiantly shed their safe Motown skin and barnstormed the independent artistic milieu of the seventies resulting in poignant masterpieces of their own. 

Even the story of how James Jamerson’s evocative rolling bass came to be on the record symbolises the creative zeitgeist as though his presence in the grooves was woven into place by some mystic figures of fate. As the tale goes, he was mid-performance in a dive bar so refreshed that he was staggering about the stage when Gaye snatched him to come and play on his record. Jamerson then proceeded to propagate the most literal laidback bass of all time because he was flat on his back as he journeyed his way around the fret crafting a maelstrom of manic soul energy with rhythms that could stir honey into tea from the next room. In this regard, the production technique of framing the album as a party could not be any more befitting. 

More so than a production gimmick, it sounds like the studio was accidentally recording; capturing scatting, chatting and accidental sax, as Gaye and the Funk Brothers huffed down whatever the creative ether swirled up. Tempering the magic with a savouring maturity that brings measure and narrative to the record without losing the riotous splurge of the realised joys of living. It is not a record that seems to have been born in the usual inception of crafted intent, more so it fell out dancing and began asking some very serious questions.

On paper, this all might form a jarring dichotomy, in fact, this very review had no choice but to rapidly transition from doom to redemption, but that is exactly why the record is brilliant and beautiful. It contains complexities and blemishes and as it jostles through the tumultuous scuffle of society in search of some sort of understanding it creates an amorphous space where the usual one-track rigidity of protest music is effortlessly eviscerated in a soaring balm to the miseries that it stands beside. 

The album refuses to turn its cheek to the problems of the world, it steadfastly calls upon them to explain themselves and refuses to offer up any answers. In doing so it provides a perfect depiction of life, all while simultaneously offering exultant deliverance from it in a sonic melee of ecstatic eudemonia. 

As the aforementioned writer and civil rights figurehead James Baldwin once said: “All I know about music is that not many people ever really hear it […] But the man who creates the music is hearing something else, is dealing with the roar rising from the void and imposing order on it as it hits the air. What is evoked in him, then, is of another order, more terrible because it has no words, and triumphant, too, for that same reason. And his triumph, when he triumphs, is ours.”

The triumph, in this case, is that Gaye delves into the plashy depths of a civilisation eternally docked in a tempestuous bay, and he emerges clutching an amassment of flaws which he elucidates with unfettered clarity and somehow transfigures them in a boon of exultation that neither diminishingly dances upon the issues nor vehemently aggrandises them. In doing so, What’s Going On does what a lot of great art does: it divulges hard truths and makes them bearable, illuminating, with beauty, that misery does not have to be tackled morbidly and that despair and deliverance coexist. And it does this in scintillating musical style. 

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