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Record Rewind: Marvin Gaye – What’s Going On

3 min read

45 years ago, the Motown giant, gospel-infused innovator helped shape the way music and truth coexist. Marvin Gaye is undeniably one of if not the most influential artists of that era, still revered and looked upon by modern musicians and singers of today. His 1971 album, What’s Going On, hinged on political unrest, devouring messages of love, hate, helpless sorrow and enigmatic positivity – capturing the hearts of many, and paving the path for modern album composition, and R&B music as we know it.

Marvin Gaye What's Going OnThe record’s first track may very well be the greatest introduction to any album recorded. Setting the political tone for the nine track album, What’s Going On shifts through important paradoxes of realisation and pain. Renaldo “Obie” Benson and Al Cleveland wrote the song as a reflection and rhetoric to police brutality experienced by war protestors. Sliding away from objection, Marvin Gaye’s resulted version brings out a soft and powerful tidings of love understanding and genuine respect. The climbing build of orchestral strings, rippling horn sections and the equally as impressive backing voiced expressions, make for an incredible piece of recorded history. The message is in the thought provoking and heavily emotional, concrete lyrics. “We don’t need to escalate, war is not the answer. For only love can conquer hate”, he laments.

The musicality, however, brings out a side in Marvin Gaye’s voice that catapults it into a blinding category of fused brilliance. While Gaye’s songwriting and singing dominance attract the main focus, it had also been the first time the Motown session musicians were credited on a selling record. Rightly so, they express a universal instrumental coherence with tight fulfilment and candid appeal. Whether it’s the funk drive and latino sentiments interwoven within the seven-minute grace in Right On, or the ode to urban poverty – a slow tempo, faint winding bluesy doors opening throughout Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler). Gaye’s larger than life persona springs to mind whenever the sound of his perfect multi-track vocals grip to these songs. They float over the instrumentation, wielding a passion as he references insufficiency, drug use and mournful mercy. The story like qualities bending in and out of the singing portray a beaming confidence. This is needed to delicately make a point in delivering the message behind the record’s general purpose. This is perhaps most felt in the singing plea to rescue and relieve disadvantaged youth. Save The Children bundles hopelessness and trouble as Gaye cries for repentance and pre-apocalyptic salvation. “When I look at the world (when I look at the world), It fills me with sorrow (it fills me with sorrow), Little children today (children today), Are really going to suffer tomorrow (really suffer tomorrow)” he bewails. His ubiquity displays a bleeding poignant truth that detail the sufferable qualities of an era ripe with pain. He does this with a shining spirit and unholstered call to explain issues of importance. So much of this still holds sensitive and true today.

Honesty and prolific beauty roar within Gaye’s angelic tone and concentrated songcraft. Right from the powerfully iconic album artwork to the song cycled conceptual framework within the album’s song structure – What’s Going On is an extraordinary golden crown of recorded music – a tuneful reminder of how harshness and unrest are best explained through a complete musical mastery. It clutches to an embellished beauty and sonic provoking power that’s injected within a songful timelessness – preserved inside the richness and enchanting momentum further fuelled by visionary instrumentalists. Marvin Gaye used his platform to educate and manifest awareness, it’s by understanding this can we truly appreciate the total magnitude, depth and pleasant fortitude of such an influential and profound record. It’s this robust cohesion that works together to create a fulfilling result – capable of shaping and influencing many generations.