What's Going On
Released: May 1971
Chart Peak: #6
Weeks Charted: 53
Marvelous Marvin Gaye is the smoothest, and his "What's Going On" smash slipped Gaye back into hit stream, bound to overflow with that persuasive Gaye groove. His latest LP -- he produced it and had a hand in all the songs -- is a cross between Curtis Mayfield and that old Motown spell, and outdoes anything Gaye's ever done on "Inner City Blues," "Right On" and "Flyin' High." Marvin's on top again.
- Billboard, 1971.
This may be a groundbreaking personal statement, but like any Berry Gordy quickie it's baited skimpily: only three great tunes. "What's Going On," "Inner City Blues," and "Mercy Mercy Me (the Ecology)" are so original they reveal ordinary Motown-political as the benign market manipulation it is. And Gaye keeps getting more subtle vocally and rhythmically. But the rest is pretty murky even when the lyrical ideas are good -- I like the words on "What's Happenin' Brother" and "Flyin' High (in the Friendly Sky)" quite a bit -- and the religious songs that bear Gaye's real message are suitably shapeless. Worst of all, because they're used a lot, are David Van De Pitte's strings, the lowest kind of movie-background dreck. B+
- Robert Christgau, Christgau's Record Guide, 1981.
"It's tragic that Gaye should only have been re-assessed because of his death. In this time of social and political concern by musicians this stands as one of the greatest social comments -- and collection of songs -- of all time."
Robin Denselow strikes the nail on the head. Since he was killed by his father, Marvin Gaye has been appreciated far more fully than he was even in his extraordinary career. This album marks a major re-evaluation by the critical establishment.
"Gaye's vision of spiritual hope, despair, joy, melancholia, sexual consolation and the redemptive power of love covers every emotion one asks of music," Mick Brown enthuses. Adam White is also deeply appreciative: "Marvin's Motown-bred style of supreme "cool" melds with social awareness to produce a milestone more meaningful -- and less self-conscious -- than most comparable rock albums. More mature, too, than similar efforts by stable-mate Stevie Wonder." Andy Peebles notes What's Going On as the first major Black concept album, a direct inspiration for many that soon followed.
Marvin had gone into a two-year period of semi-seclusion shortly after his historic hit "I Heart It Through The Grapevine." He hated touring, having a terrible fear of live performance, but he wa also horribly upset by the death of his recent partner on love duets, Tammi Terrell. Gaye also claimed to be annoyed by Motown's insistence that he work with othe writers and producers, and took charge of the Originals' "Baby I'm For Real" in 1969 to show that he could supervise a million-seller himself. His intense reading of "Abraham, Martin and John," a British top ten hit in 1970, was the only pointer to the kind of job he could do with material like What's Going On.
"What's Going On," "Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)" and "Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)" were all million-selling singles in the U.S. "Save the Children" was a chart single in the U.K.
"What's Going On' was originally sketched by Obie Benson of the Four Tops and Al Cleveland, who famously co-wrote "I Second That Emotion" with Smokey Robinson. Feeling it perfect for Marvin, they offered it to him and finished it with him. The people partying at the beginning of the track are members of the Detroit Lions that Gaye invited to the recording session.
In 1987, What's Going On was chosen by a panel of rock critics and music broadcasters as the #4 rock album of all time.
- Paul Gambaccini, The Top 100 Rock 'n' Roll Albums of All Time, Harmony Books, 1987.
What's Going On, a singularly influential Motown recording, represents Gaye's autonomous recording ideas, executed with some distance from the hit factory. It went a long way toward making black pop music meaningful to both its black and white audiences (but primarily the former). It helped bring a social consciousness to Motown, although the tenor of the times was also moving that way, and it delivers three great songs, "What's Going On," "Mercy, Mercy Me (The Ecology)," and "Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)." In August, 1987, Rolling Stone ranked What's Going On tenth in its compilation of the "100 Best Albums of the Last 20 years," saying of it: "Throw in hints of jazz...a pronounced gospel feeling, and you a singular, exquisitely spiritual album." The sound on the recording is much brighter, cleaner, and more dynamic than on the LP. It sounds better, if a bit compressed and occasionally overbright. A+
- Bill Shapiro, Rock & Roll Review: A Guide to Good Rock on CD, 1991.
All the contradictions of forward-thinking African-American pop in the early seventies assert themselves on What's Going On and its 1973 successor, Let's Get It On.
Gaye had already traveled a long way when he arrived at the triumph of What's Going On, one of the early-seventies LPs that expanded the vernacular of Motown pop. After his tutalage under Harvey Fuqua in the late permutation of the Moonglows, he moved to Motown and the tutelage of Berry Gordy, married the boss's sister, and worked as a session drummer and percussionist until he got his chance to shine in the spotlight. His first pair of singles, "Stubborn Kind of Fellow" and "Hitch Hike," weren't smashes, but they did set the pattern for the major hits to follow: his willful yet smooth voice atop a tale of generalized spiritual/romantic yearning. By the end of the sixties, he had transcended Motown form, recording the tumultuous "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" (a record whose ramifications deserve their own book) and several dozen duets with Tammi Terrell that remain the liveliest, most hopeful series of tales celebrating romantic fidelity ever.
But Gaye wanted more. What's Going On towered over most soul albums, even the better ones, in that it was a conceptual work with musical and lyrical themes throughout; as far as concept went, it owed far more to Tommy than any record released by Motown. Gaye's tone on the record was anguished but searching, through songs about war, pollution, God, and, most of all, himself. The seven-minutes-and-thirty-one-seconds "Right On" broke rules about what could happen on a soul record and not just becuase it sported a flute solo; throughout What's Going On, Gaye was experimenting, trying to discover new ways to sing, emote, project. A case can be made that "Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)" revealed nothing so much as Gaye's distance from the subject, but since the whole record is about wanting to connect, it's likely that Gaye had some sense of his predicament.
- Jimmy Guterman, The Best Rock 'n' Roll Records of All Time, 1992.
Shortly after Marvin Gaye turned 30, he became the first Motown artist with a measure of creative control. What's Going On was the result, surely Marvin's finest moment and, along with a number of Stevie Wonder's early-'70s releases, one of a handful of great Motown albums. A concept album, What's Going On chronicled a multitude of societal ills. Ironically, Motown owner Berry Gordy did not want to release it. He was convinced it held no commercial potential. Gordy couldn't have been more wrong: What's Going On catapulted Marvin Gaye into superstardom. Three #1 singles were pulled from the album: the title song, "Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)," and "Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)." This was the first album where Marvin overdubbed his voice multiple times, creating a one-man vocal group. The result was a level of timbral integration in the harmonies that became a Gaye trademark. * * * * *
- Rob Bowman, The All-Music Guide to Rock, 1995.
What's Going On is not just a great Gaye album but is one of the great pop albums of all time. (Splurge and get the deluxe edition.) * * * * *
- Gary Graff, Musichound Rock: The Essential Album Guide, 1996.
Marvin Gaye co-wrote and produced this entire, seminal album in a matter of weeks, revellling in the artistic freedom that hits like "I Heart It Through The Grapevine" had won him. Although happy to finally be in control, Gaye was still mourning the death of his singing partner, Tammi Terrel, which made What's Going On curiously ambivalent. it wasn't an international hit but its growing stature has crossed over cultural, racial and musical barriers. The title track's party atmosphere quickly turns introspective -- mirroring an America still mired in the Vietnam war. There were new environmental worries then too, concerns which Gaye echoed on the nifty "Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)," with its minimal hook. "What's Happening Brother" epitomized nostalgia for for happier, simpler times and "Save The Children" showcased Gaye at his most vulnerable. It was the penultimate "Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)" that caused the most excitement at the time, though, with its wordless chorus and dramatic bassline. On the cover of "What's Going On" Gaye's rainy tears gave a hint -- like the background's discarded toys -- of the paternal wounds that were later to kill him and imprison his father, but the soulful disc within continues to inspire.
- Collins Gem Classic Albums, 1999.
Social statement and pure soul peacefully co-exist on a gorgeous yet gritty concept album, a visionary apogee that provides a snapshot of a different time and culture in our country, with landmark cuts that are poignant in message, yet smooth in sound. Motown almost rejected it for not being outwardly commercial, but in the end, it changed the face of popular music, with spacey grooves driving stream of consciousness delivered by the voice of an angel. * * * * *
- Zagat Survey Music Guide - 1,000 Top Albums of All Time, 2003.
What's Going On remains, undeniably, one of the most moving and masterful suites of music ever conceived. The LP possesses a graceful artistry, an unanswering sense of purpuse, and a deep-seated spirituality that seized the zeitgeist of its time, but will never go out of style. Three generations later, it still retains the same incredible power that made it so widely loved and praised at the time of its original release. It is a truly overwhelming and transcendent album, never failing to astonish those seeking hope, insight, solace, or simply some of the most soulful soul there ever was.
What's Going On was voted the 4th greatest album of all time in a VH1 poll of over 700 musicians, songwriters, disc jockeys, radio programmers, and critics in 2003.
- Nevin Martell, VH1's 100 Greatest Albums, 2003.
"In 1969 or 1970, I began to re-evaluate my whole concept of what I wanted my music to say," Gaye once said about the creation of What's Going On. "I was very much affected by letters my brother was sending me from Vietnam, as well as the social situation here at home. I realized that I had to put my own fantasies behind me if I wanted to write songs that would reach the souls of people. I wanted them to take a look at what was happening in the world."
The last thing Motown wanted its fans to think about, however, was "what was happening in the world." So with Gaye determined to shatter the label's hugely successful pop formula and address issues such as the Vietnam War, civil rights and the environment, Motown founder Berry Gordy was not pleased, to say the least. He claimed that "What's Going On" was the worst song he had ever heard. As for "Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)," Gordy asserted that he didn't even know what the world ecology meant. For his part, Gaye said he would never record for Motown again unless "What's Going On" was put out as a single. After initially being rejected by Motown's quality-control committee, it was; when it became a Top Five hit, the album -- and a burst of socially conscious music from Motown -- followed soon after.
Producing the album amid a haze of marijuana smoke, Gaye made one intuitively brilliant decision after another -- from letting the tapes roll as his friends mingled and chatted to recording the rehearsal exercises of saxophonist Eli Fountain. When Fountain complained that he had just been goofing around, Gaye replied, "Well, you goof exquisitely. Thank you." And that's how the plaintive saxophone line that announces What's Going On came to be.
What's Going On was chosen as the 6th greatest album of all time by the editors of Rolling Stone magazine in Dec. 2003.
- Rolling Stone, 12/11/03.
How can you be sexy and smile when the weight of the world is on your shoulders? Turn tragedy into triumph? Oh, and revolutionize soul music at the same time? Simple: be Marvin Gaye.
Stricken by the death of his singing partner Tammi Terrell, increasingly ruled by drugs, and desperate to stretch the musical style for which he was famous -- short and sweet soul songs -- Gaye's salvation lay in his humor and extraordinary talent. Both shine from an album that, in lesser hands, could have easily been a self-righteous drag.
Words cannot do What's Going On justice. It ebbs and flows from the ironically uplifting title track, through waves of gospel and jazz (the relaxing kind, not the noise) -- then explodes into "Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)" and finally closes with the unsettling "Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)."
Bar Smokey Robinson, who rates it the greatest album of all time, Motown could not see how a politically charged yet lushly languid suite could translate into hits. Certainly the sentiments were not the saccharine ones of Gaye's Sixties smashes -- but today it sounds like a natural evolution from the loving lyrics of "You're All I Need To Get By" and the musical sophistication of "I Heart It Through The Grapevine." Three Top Ten singles and 30 years of strong sales vindicated Gaye's threat to record nothing more for Motown unless it was released.
Let your ears decide. As Gaye wrote, "You don't have to be told how groovy it is, or which tunes you should dig, or how great his or her majesty is..."
- Bruno MacDonald, 1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die, 2005.
Gaye eventually prevailed, and the rest is history -- What's Going On is a radical miracle of pop music, an alignment of talent and message unlike anything before or since. Using his formidable powers of seduction. Gaye spoke about the Vietnam war, conditions in the inner cities, and the environment in a way that gently led listeners to greater awareness. "Something happened with me during that period," Gaye said later. "I felt the strong urge to write music and to write lyrics that would touch the souls of men."
He did that first with the title song, which rises from the sounds of a party in progress -- an emotional homecoming for a Vietnam veteran. The song acquired its distinctive sound, with several layers of Gaye's lead vocals, through a happy studio accident: As an engineer played back a practice track he'd recorded earlier, Gaye, sitting at the piano in in the famous Motown studio nicknamed "Snakepit," began singing along, echoing and embellishing the existing vocal. His overlapping voices, locked in an urgent, internal conversation, surprised everyone in the room -- and from that moment became a distinguishing feature of What's Going On.
When Motown executives heard the track, they flatly refused to release it -- saying it was too political, not hit material. A standoff ensued: Gaye vowed he wouldn't do anything else for the label until "What's Going On" came out, and in January 1971, six months after it was recorded, the song was issued. It became an immediate hit, reaching the top of Billboard's soul chart and the number two position on the pop charts. Motown wanted an album to follow immediately, and during a feverish ten-day marathon, Gaye and a crew of writer/producers knocked it out, with the house rhythm section, the Funk Brothers, establishing the basic accompaniment and members of the Detroit Symphony providing the sweet, questioning strings. The album reached stores in May, and its album tracks and subsequent singles -- "Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)" and "Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)" -- coalesced into one riveting whole, a commentary somehow greater than the sum of its (stellar) parts. Through these persuasive songs, Gaye took the frustrations of a heated wartime moment and made them eternal: What's Going On resonates where there is conflict and misunderstanding, touching the souls of men by calling to the highest within them.
- Tom Moon, 1,000 Recordings To Hear Before You Die, 2008.
(2011 40th Anniversary Super Deluxe Edition) What's Going On is both time-stamped and timeless: a picture of Vietnam-era turmoil that will blow minds as long as there are ears. This 40th-anniversary version lives up to its bombastic billing: two CDs and a vinyl LP, plus demos, B sides and the "What's Going On" that Motown refused to release. But it's the original LP (heard here in remastered form) that transfixes: Listen to Gaye's unearthly multitraced voice over the spacey gospel of "God Is Love." Greatest protest album ever made? Most stirring soul-music symphony? Yes and yes. And then some. * * * * *
- Jody Rosen, Rolling Stone, 6/23/2011.
Perhaps the truest melding of social commentary and swooning musicality ever achieved -- a triumph of substance and soul.
What's Going On was chosen as the 13th greatest album of all time by the editors of Entertainment Weekly in July 2013.
- Entertainment Weekly, 7/5/13.
What's Going On was soul music's first concept album, and one of the most important and influential LPs ever made. John Legend recently described it as "the voice of black American speaking out that we couldn't always smile on cue for you." Building it all around one finished song lent What's Going On a musical and thematic through line. "What's Happening Brother" assumes the voice of a Vietnam vet like Gaye's brother, puzzled by a changing America and looking for work; "Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)" is a taut ode to the environment; "Flyin' High (In the Friendly Sky)" takes on drug addiction.
After What's Going On, black musicians at Motown and elsewhere felt a new freedom to push the musical and political boundaries of their art. "When I was struggling for the right of the Motown artist to express himself," Gaye said, "Stevie [Wonder] knew I was also struggling for him."
At the end of the final song on What's Going On, the lament "Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)," the music shifts back into a jazzier reprise of the title track. As the album fades out, the groove continues on. Five decades alter, it still hasn't stopped.
What's Going On was chosen as the greatest album of all time in a Rolling Stone magazine poll of artists, producers, critics and music industry figures in Oct. 2020.
- Rolling Stone, 10/20.
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