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Marvin Gaye’s Masterpiece: How “What’s Going On” Became a Cultural Touchstone

Devouring a Masterpiece | Sunday, 21st May 2023

In 1971, Marvin Gaye released the timeless classic “What’s Going On” which has since been hailed as one of the greatest albums of all time — to us, personally, it is the greatest.

What's Going On by Marvin Gaye

Marvin Gaye’s eleventh studio album was released by Motown Records, the legendary subsidiary label to Tamla and was recorded between 1970 and 1971 and released on 21 May 1971.

The songs’ narratives are told from the point of view of a Vietnam veteran returning to his home country, now filled with hatred, suffering, and injustice. Marvin Gaye’s introspective lyrics explore themes of drug abuse, poverty, and the Vietnam War. Gaye, through the classic “Mercy Mercy Me”, is also credited with promoting awareness of environmental issues before the public outcry over them had become prominent.

The album was an imminent commercial and critical success, is viewed as a classic of 1970s soul, and is widely regarded as one of the greatest albums of all time and a landmark recording in popular music.

It was a mainstay on the Billboard Top LPs for over a year and became Gaye’s second number-one album on Billboard’s Soul LPs chart, where it remains for over nine weeks. In 1985, the NME voted it the best album of all time and in 2020, it was ranked number one on Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.

But, what made Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” such a success? Why did it connect with so many people, both lyrically and musically? 

The Social and Political Climate Surrounding the Release of “What’s Going On”

With “What’s Going On”, Marvin was heavily influenced by the politics and social climate of the era. Marvin touched on the Vietnam War, civil rights, and social justice which were all at the forefront of public consciousness in the 1960s and early 70s. The Vietnam War was raging and the protests against it were becoming increasingly vocal and violent. In tandem, the civil rights movement was gathering steam, with activists fighting for equality and justice for African Americans.

And it was personal to Marvin. It was reported that Gaye was inspired to write the album after fellow musician, Renaldo ‘Obie’ Benson of the Four Tops, witnessed police brutality during an anti-war rally (later known as Bloody Thursday) in Berkeley, California; and after the passing of his close friend and fellow Motown artist, Tammi Terrell. He was deeply affected by the state of the world around him, and it only takes one listen of the masterpiece to identify those themes. “What’s Going On” tackles them head-on, and it marked somewhat of a departure from Gaye’s previous releases, which were primarily love focused — although, the tracks “Save the Children” and “God is Love” both still touch on love and compassion.

Written by Gaye, Obie Benson, and Al Cleveland, the title track asks the prominent question of “What’s Going On?”, with Gaye tackling the chaos and confusion that he sees within the world around him, whilst trying to understand the motives of those in power. According to an interview with Cleveland in the Guardian, the track was originally inspired by a conversation the three writers had about the state of the world. The song’s opening lines, “Mother, mother / There’s too many of you crying / Brother, brother, brother / There’s far too many of you dying,” set the tone for the album’s themes of social justice and protest.

It was reported that Gaye was inspired to write the album after fellow musician, Renaldo ‘Obie’ Benson, witnessed police brutality during an anti-war rally (later known as Bloody Thursday), and after the passing of his close friend and fellow Motown artist, Tammi Terrell.

Gaye goes on to lament the damage being done to the environment in “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology),” with “Oh, mercy mercy me / Oh, things ain’t what they used to be, no no / Oil wasted on the oceans and upon our seas / Fish full of mercury.” An article in The Atlantic cites Marvin Gaye’s concern for his environment and his experiences of growing up in the inner city as heavy inspirations.

Also inspired by his adolescent years in Washington, D.C., “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)” addresses the poverty and violence that plagued the urban communities during the time, singing “Crime is increasing / Trigger happy policing / Panic is spreading / God knows where we’re heading.”

Marvin Gaye’s Personal Experiences That Shaped the Album

In the early 1970s, Marvin Gaye was going through a period of turmoil in his personal life; having recently separated from his first wife, Anna Gordy, whilst also struggling with depression and drug addiction.

Frankie Gaye, Marvin’s brother, had just recently returned from serving in the Vietnam War, and Marvin was deeply affected by Frankie’s recounts of the atrocities he had witnessed.

It was this combination of personal struggles and the general state of the world around Marvin that led him to re-evaluate his life’s meaning and his approach to music. It was at this point that Marvin realised he had a platform through his music, and he wanted to use it to shed light on the issues that weighed heavy on him.

With “What’s Going On”, Marvin stepped away from the brand and style he had built with his previous catalogue, opting for a more experimental approach that incorporated elements of soul, jazz, and funk; rejecting the formulaic Motown sound that had of course grown incredibly popular. Gaye also took a more hands-on role in the production of the album, co-writing and arranging the songs.

Marvin Gaye writing What's Going On

The Innovative Recording Techniques Used on Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On”

With Marvin Gaye heavily involved in the production of the album, he worked closely with his session musicians and engineers to achieve the desired sound he was wishing for. It inspired a unique and innovative process that contributed to the album’s distinctive sound, which still stands the test of time to this day.

One notable aspect of the recording process was the use of a technique called “the Marvin Chorus,” which involved layering multiple tracks of Gaye’s voice to create a lush, choral effect. This technique can be best heard on tracks “What’s Going On” and “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)” in particular.

Another innovative recording technique used for “What’s Going On” was the use of an early version of a drum machine, believed to be a Rhythm King or Maestro Rhythm King which were early analog drum machines that were popular in the 70s and used by many artists of the era. Gaye and the engineers used the drum machine to create the unique percussive sounds heard on “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler).”

The recording process was also notable for its emphasis on collaboration and improvisation, where Gaye encouraged the session musicians to experiment and contribute their own ideas to the music, resulting in a more organic, dynamic, jazz-inspired sound.

In an interview with the BBC, bassist James Jamerson Jr. talked about the way Marvin would work with the musicians: “Marvin would give us a basic outline, and then we would play around with it… Sometimes we’d come up with something that was totally different, and Marvin would say, ‘That’s it, that’s what I want.’”

Motown engineer and producer Ken Sands, when speaking to Rolling Stone, commented on Gaye’s approach saying, “Marvin was always looking for something new, something that would excite him… He loved the element of surprise, he loved to be able to get something new from his musicians, and he loved to improvise.”

The combination of recording techniques and collaborative processes contributed to a distinctly unique sound, cementing “What’s Going On” as a masterpiece of soul music.

The Legacy of “What’s Going On” and Its Lasting Impact

Quickly becoming a commercial and critical success upon its release in May 1971, “What’s Going On” peaked at number six on the Billboard 200 and spent over a year on the chart. The title track became a number two hit on the Billboard Hot 100, and three other singles from the album also charted in the top 40; “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology),” “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler),” “Save the Children.”

In addition to its commercial success, the album had a profound impact on the music industry and society as a whole. “What’s Going On” is one of the first soul albums to address social and political issues directly, and it’s inspired several generations of socially conscious artists in a range of genres. The album’s been covered and sampled by a wide range of artists, from the likes of Donny Hathaway and Diana Ross to contemporary acts such as Michael Kiwanuka, Common, and Pharrell Williams.

Its impact has continued to be felt over the decades since its release. It has been widely recognised as a classic of both soul and popular music, and has been included on numerous lists of the greatest albums of all time. Its message of social justice and unity remains as relevant today as it was over 50 years ago, making it a timeless masterpiece that continues to inspire and move listeners around the world.

Marvin Gaye in the studio

For those who have never listened to “What’s Going On” before, it’s a great starting point for those interested in exploring soul music. As mentioned, some of the standout tracks include “What’s Going On”, “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)”, and “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)”, all of which showcase Marvin’s introspective and socially conscious lyrics.

whats going on marvin gaye

What’s Going On

by Marvin Gaye


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In 2021, a special 50th-anniversary edition of the album was released, featuring a newly remixed version of the original album, as well as a previously unreleased Detroit Mix of the album that includes different vocal takes and instrumentation. It’s available on popular streaming services as a testament to the enduring legacy of “What’s Going On” and its continued relevance in today’s world.