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Classic album: Marvin Gaye – What’s Going On

Marvin Gaye
What’s Going On
Tamla Records
Released: May 21, 1971 

As far back as I can remember, Motown music has been a part of my life due to an uncle who absolutely loved Marvin Gaye and Motown to such an extent that I have a cousin called Tamla, named after the subsidiary of Motown Records, Tamla Records. While this piece might be biased, anyone who has heard What’s Going On will know it is a classic album. But it is more than just an album. It helped progress the music scene to releasing albums that dealt with both contentious and controversial issues on albums and singles, even if Motown didn’t originally want to release it.

Before working on the album, Gaye had suffered from depression after the loss of a close friend and in fact had tried to distance himself from the music industry as much as possible, attempting to join the NFL’s Detroit Lions. After an unsuccessful trial, he came into contact with Al Cleveland and the Four Top’s Obie Benson to help compose what would be ‘What’s Going On’, which Gaye was later persuaded to record himself.

The inspiration for much of the rest of the album was said by Gaye to be from the letters his brother sent him back from Vietnam and the unrest and social situation in the USA at the time. When the Motown founder first heard the album, he was not pleased and is reported to have said the song ‘What’s Going On’ was the worst song he had ever heard. Possibly due to its lyrical content including “Picket lines and picket signs / Don’t punish me with brutality” ultimately criticising the social situation of protesting Vietnam in 1970.

But once it was released as a single, due to Gaye’s stubborn attitude of refusing to record for Motown until it was released, it showed that political songs can be successful with it reaching the Top Five, subsequently creating a wave of socially conscious Motown music.

Along with ‘What’s Going On’, ‘Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)’ became an instant classic and as such has been referenced and covered by numerous artists ever since, including The Strokes and fellow Motown artist Stevie Wonder.

While many people will remember him only for ‘Sexual Healing’ or ‘Let’s Get It On’, What’s Going On is an album any person who is interested in music and it’s history has to hear and while the message was for Vietnam 40 years ago, it still is as relevant, if not more, today.

Marvin Gaye – What’s Going On (live)

Tags: Album, Marvin Gaye, Motown, Tamla Records, What's Going On

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