Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Goin’ On” is the title track of soul’s very first “concept” album, What’s Going On. Released in 1971 on the Motown subsidiary Tamla, it is widely recognized as one of the most important songs in the history of American popular music.
When the song was written, many other genres were tackling social issues—think Dylan, Baez, or just about any other Woodstock artist—but to date soul and especially Motown had, with only a few exceptions, shied away from politically conscious and potentially contentious material. Motown was about hits, after all. It built its reputation on lighthearted love songs, bubbly dance grooves, and impeccably turned-out artists playing music that was less message-laden and far more commercially viable.
Marvin Gaye was one of Motown’s stars. He began his career with the doowop group the Moonglows, but then was signed as a solo artist to Motown, releasing a string of hits in the 1960s—“How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved By You),” “Ain’t That Peculiar,” and “Heard It Through the Grapevine”— that earned him the title “the prince of soul.” At age 31, however, he lost his friend and fellow Motown artist Tammi Terrell to a brain tumor. Distraught, Gaye stopped recording and explored a new direction. He trained and unsuccessfully tried out for the NFL team the Detriot Lions.
Around the same time, he met up with the Four Tops’ Renaldo "Obie" Benson and Motown songwriter Al Cleveland, who had begun early work on the song that was to become “What’s Goin’ On.” They had been inspired to write the song after seeing police brutally attack anti-war protestors in San Francisco. Gaye helped Benson and Cleveland complete the lyrics, then wrote an arrangement for the song. Gaye wanted the Motown group the Originals to record it, but Benson and Cleveland convinced Gaye to do it himself.
It wasn’t so easy for Gaye to convince Motown’s president, his brother-in-law Berry Gordy, to let him record the song. Gordy felt it was not commercially viable and too different from other pop songs at the time. However, Gaye continued to lobby for the song with Gordy and other Motown execs, and finally Gordy relented.
“What’s Goin’ On” was released in January 1971, and much to Gordy’s surprise, it climbed the charts more quickly than any Motown song had before it, soon topping both the pop and R&B charts, where it stayed at no. 1 for five weeks.
Musically, the song had much more to offer than many of the prevalent pop songs of the time. Its extended format allowed space for Gaye to scat, jazz style, over a groove laid down by Motown’s Funk Brothers. Though the original release came in at just under four minutes, the song could and did easily expand to twice that length in live performance.
Buoyed by the song’s commercial success, Gaye used “What’s Goin’ On” as the centerpiece for an entire concept album of the same name. The album, What’s Goin’ On, is really a suite of connected songs that tackle war, poverty, environmental destruction, and a variety of social injustices. Gordy, who had been deeply moved by letters his brother sent home from the war in Vietnam, wrote the album from the perspective of a returned Veteran—someone who has fought abroad for his country and returns home only to find more suffering and hatred.
Someone once told me that you'll know when you're doing the right thing in life when you someday say, "They PAY me for this?"
Check out What's Goin' On, my friends. Buy it on Amazon here.