Fri 17 September 2021

Racism, police brutality, inequality, ecology, the trauma of the Vietnam War and drug addiction, Chris Sullivan considers how the classic 1971 album explored what was really going on – and still is

It has been 50 years since Marvin Gaye released What’s Going On and the album ranks alongside John Steinbeck’s book The Grapes of Wrath, Picasso’s Guernica and Gillo Pontecorvo’s film The Battle of Algiers as a piece of protest art.

Nelson Mandela, soon after his release from 28 years in prison in 1990, quoted lyrics from the album at Tiger Stadium in Detroit. “Brother, brother, there’s far too many of you dying,” said Mandela. The crowd instantly recognised the lyrics as Mandela continued to quote Gaye’s words as a reflection of the South African condition. “For how long,” he asked, “must our brothers and sisters go on dying?” And added: “We declare. Not for long.”

I didn’t know how to fight before, but now I think I do. I just have to do it my way. I’m not a painter. I’m not a poet. But I can do it with music.

Marvin Gaye

The album was recorded in 1971 at the height of the Vietnam War. President Richard Nixon was dominating the polls. And Marvin Gaye’s brother Frankie had returned to the US totally traumatised by his three-year tour of duty while his cousin (also called  Marvin) had died in service. “I saw all the things I never wanted to see in the places I  never wanted to be”, wrote Frankie in his memoir.

“Before this Marvin was about love and romance – candy music”, explains Sam Pollard director of the documentary, Marvin Gaye: What’s Going On. “So, his brother comes back from Vietnam and finds racism, poverty, brutality, drugs and is unable to get a job. Marvin listened and the conversations changed him. He said he had a new record in him. Marvin shaped his brother’s words and experiences that many Afro American Vietnam vets had suffered into lyrics so that the album became a call to action to instigate, stimulate and cause dialogue and it’s as relevant today as it was then.”

Gaye told his brother: “I didn’t know how to fight before, but now I think I do. I just have to do it my way. I’m not a painter. I’m not a poet. But I can do it with music.”

What Was Really Going On

A concept album that tells the story of an American soldier returning home from Vietnam with few prospects apart from the needle, What’s Going On spawned three hit singles and was Motown’s best-selling album to date.

Initially, Gaye delivered just the title track as a single. But Motown founder, Berry Gordy, thought Marvin was going way too far and refused to release it. “This is the worst thing I ever heard in my life,” he told the star. Gaye responded by refusing to record anything else until Gordy saw sense and released the song,

Eventually, the single of What’s Going On was released as a seven-inch disc without Gordy’s knowledge. It sold more than 200,000 copies within a week, reached the top of the charts within a month and stayed at number one for five weeks on the Billboard R&B charts, ultimately selling over two million copies. It was the fastest-selling Motown single ever and forced Gordy to allow Gaye not only to produce his own music but to complete the album, What’s Going On, by the end of March.

“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 later explained. “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 Marvin’s image.”

But he was convinced the risk was worth it: “With the world exploding around me, how am I supposed to keep singing love songs?” explained Gaye.

New Songs: New Protests

The album address social injustices that are still all too apparent in modern America.

Its title track was initially composed by Renaldo ‘Obie’ Benson of the Four Tops after he witnessed what became known as Bloody Thursday in Berkeley, CA when police opened fire on a large crowd of peaceful young demonstrators with buck and birdshot. A 25-year-old visitor from San Jose, James Rector, was killed. Another protestor Alan Blanchard was blinded, while Donovan Rundle was shot point-blank in the stomach and almost bled to death.

Subsequently, martial law was declared, national guardsmen armed with bayonets and live ammunition subjugated the town, a curfew was imposed and a military helicopter doused the college campus with tear gas.

Later, former Vietnam vets in the Alameda County sheriff’s department admitted that they treated anti-war students like the Viet Cong. Benson offered his lament to the Four Tops who declined and then gave the untitled song to Marvin who changed the lyrics somewhat into a protest against the war.

As Benson said: “He added some things that were more ghetto, more natural which made it more like a story than a song. We measure him for a suit and he tailored the hell out of it”.

Also on the album, Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology) reveals his concerns about the environment and asks where did all the blue skies go. What’s Happening Brother voices his outrage regarding the war in Vietnam and the disillusionment of war veterans who returned to civilian life. Flyin’ High (In the Friendly Sky) looks at heroin addiction then life in urban ghettos while Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler) explores the problems both financial and otherwise suffered by underprivileged black America.

The song and the album that followed was Gaye’s declaration of independence from  Motown’s pop machine. Amalgamating jazz, soul, doo-wop close harmonies and spirituals it demonstrated that Gaye, now in his early 30s, was a sophisticated musician.

Gaye kicked opened the doors of protest music for others to follow: Stevie Wonder, Donny Hathaway, Timmy Thomas and a whole generation of rap acts such as Public Enemy and Kendrick Lamar. With Black Lives Matter, climate extinction and rampant drug problems around the world, What’s Going On is simply an astonishing release that is even more relevant 50 years later.

What’s Going On Deluxe Edition/50th Anniversary Digital Reissue is available now from all good platforms on download, CD and vinyl.


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