A few moments in musical history can pinpoint a change of attitude and provide a resonance that will ring out through the aeons of human existence. While that may sound a little grand, it comes nowhere near close enough to describing one of the greatest albums ever made in Marvin Gaye’s classic What’s Going On?. The record was a seismic moment in history and continues to still pack a punch today as its inclusion in Spike Lee’s film Da 5 Bloods can attest to.
The first album Marvin Gaye produced on his own would yield arguably one of the greatest moments of his career. The singer had been previously happy to sing the songs given to him, like ‘Heard It Through The Grapevine’ and ‘Ain’t No Mountain High Enough’ and cash in his Motown cheques. But, it soon became too formulaic for Gaye and his desire to be recognised as an authentic voice would push him into breaking out of his mould and becoming a legend. Beneath it all, however, would remain one constant — his incredible vocal power. Below, we’ve got his isolated vocal track for the seminal single ‘What’s Going On?’.
What’s Going On? will forever go down as a golden ticket to some of the smoothest and most soulful jams around. The album set Gaye on a course to becoming an icon of music and a hero for generations. As a defining moment on the album, the title track works as the perfect introduction to Gaye’s seminal LP.
While the song works perfectly as a distillation of its mother record, the real reason for its inclusion in our list is that it typifies Gaye’s spirit. The song was originally shunned by Motown boss Berry Gordy who labelled it the “worst song” he’d ever heard. Conceived by Al Cleveland, Gaye saw the potential in the track and adopted the initial concept. He manipulated the lyrics and melody, introducing his own experiences into the potent structure.
The concept of the entire album saw Gaye draw on the experiences his brother Frankie had suffered during the Vietnam war and on this song he lets that notion shine brightly. It’s arguably one of the finest concept albums ever made and puts Gaye’s vision for the LP as one of the clearest in pop music history.
That’s despite the fact that Berry Gordy, Gaye’s former producer, wasn’t a fan of the song, something he disputed in The Wall Street Journal: “For years, people have written that I stood in the way of this song’s release and that Marvin had threatened never to record for me again if I didn’t put it out,” he said. “That must make for great reading, but none of it is true.”
“My reason for pushing back on Marvin wasn’t to stop the single, just to determine whether or not this was another one of his wild ideas,” Gordy said. “Motown was about music for all people – white and black, blue and green, cops and the robbers. I was reluctant to have our music alienate anyone. This was a big risk for his image.”
There are countless songs on the album that could go on to represent Gaye as one of the greats but this is perhaps the greatest collaboration of Gaye’s soul, spirit and astounding vocal cords. Listen to the isolated vocals of Marvin Gaye for his classic song ‘What’s Going On?’ below.