What’s Going On

Released in 1971 for Tamla Records, subsidiary of the Detroit historic label Motown Records, What’s Going On is probably the most known and appreciated record by Marvin Gaye.

Born from Gaye’s determination, the album grew from the track of the same title (which is also the first of the record).

The Sixties had been a period of political and social awakening, that affected also Gaye, who, following the ’65 Watts Riots, started to ask himself: «With the world exploding around me, how am I supposed to keep singing love songs?».

He talked about his concerns with Berry Gordy, Motown’s manager, asking him, without success, the opportunity to write social theme centred and protest songs.

In 1970, after a two month seclusion, due to the depression for the passing of his colleague and friend Tammi Terrell – in which he changes look, embraces again his spirituality and tries to solve his personal problems – Gaye finds in his hands a song, written by Motown’s songwriter Al Cleveland, based on a conversation between him and Obie Benson about the riots at Berkley’s People’s Park in May ’69.

Gaye adds a new melody to the song, changes some portions of the lyrics, adding his point of view, influenced by the accounts of his brother, who came back from Vietnam. And he choose a title: What’s Going On.

Gaye records the song during June 1970, walking away from the style of his previous albums. He sends the song to Gordy, who initially disapprove it. But, after the single, released behind his back, sells more than 100.000 copies in a few days, he is forced to change his mind and allow Gaye to record a whole record on the same style.




The result is an album composed by nine songs with strong jazz, gospel and funk influences. The record introduces some innovations, being one of the first R&B concept albums and adopting a cycle trend, where every song introduces the following and the last one reprises the first.

In the title track, Gaye asks himself what’s going on, but, rather than reflecting on the destruction and alienation created by war and social policy, he tries to emphasize the most charitable side of humanity, that tries to bring love and understanding where there are not.

In What’s Happening Brother, dedicated to his brother Frankie, Gaye tries to explain the disillusionment of Vietnam veterans coming back home, while Flying High (In the Friendly Sky) focuses on heroin addiction.

Save the Children is a passionate plea to worry about the future of children, «to try to save a world that’s destined to die»; while in the short God Is Love Gaye remind the listener that God created us in order that we love each other, same topic of Wholy Holy.

Mercy Mercy Me is another passionate plea to dedicate to the safeguard of environment.

Right On, the longest track, influenced by funk and Latin soul rhythms, focuses on Gaye’s soul, torn between hate and love.

The final song, Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler), on of the most famous songs of the album after What’s Going On, focuses on the spreading poverty in the cities and on the sacrifices that poor people need to do.

What’s Going On became a success, that Gaye repeated with the later Let’s Get It On, where he will move on sensual themes. He will never come back on political and social themes so explicitly.

The record became a milestone in soul and R&B music, and its songs were covered by an immeasurable number of artists like, for instance, Aretha Franklin and Donny Hathaway.
The songs of What’s Going On has also been sampled by a lot of producers and beat-makers, like Bonnot for the AP2P project with M-1, or Gramatik.

A little treat: some weeks ago was released Yasiin Gaye, the umpteenth music madness by Amerigo Gazaway, talented producer of time-challenging collaborations, that united on the same album Marvin Gaye and the rapper and singer Yasiin Bey aka Mos Def (free download from here.



by Francesco Rovito