In 1971 Marvin Gaye sought to defy the pop blueprint that had come to identify the Motown label, instead delivering a profound, contentious chronicle of the political and social disparity present in America at the time.
Motown founder, Berry Gordy, unfortunately did not share Gaye’s vision for revision, dismissing title track “What’s Going On?” as the ‘worst song he had ever heard’ and imploring his potentially pioneering artist to return to honey-bloated, tried and trusted methods.
Marvin indignantly rebuffed such a proposal, asserting that if the track wasn’t released as a single then he would never record for Gordy again, while privately confiding in family and friends that he felt stung by his mentor’s reaction.
Following extensive negotiation, Motown acquiesced and the album’s title track was released, subsequently reaching the US billboard’s top five and acting as catalyst to an era of LP’s strung together by socially pertinent narrative.
To dismiss “What’s Going On” as a one track album would be frivolous of course. The inaugural glut of half a dozen songs are blended together with evident precision, and although a first listen may provoke criticism towards sentimental sameness within the first half of the album, it is soon discernible that this deliberately dovetails with closing cuts.
“Inner City Blues (makes me wanna holla)” arguably showcases the pinnacle of proceedings, with its timely mesh of multi-tracked vocals and gritty lyrics creating an affecting springboard that never threatens to outstay its welcome.
Others of note are the pleading “Mercy, Mercy Me (The ecology)” and effortlessly uplifting “God is Love”, the latter of which delivers optimism in spades, albeit from a religious standpoint.
At the eleventh attempt, Marvin Gaye produced a studio album that broke him out as a legitimate and conscientious solo-superstar.
In the embryonic stages of what was to become Cocaine dependency (and rarely sans-doobie in the studio) Marvin produced and recorded an album which set his career on a fresh (ultimately tragic) course – that’s a story for another time though.
“What’s Going On” topped the R&B charts in America in 1971 and is justifiably regarded as a trailblazing album of its time, as well as being integral to Motown’s shift of gears throughout a fertile decade.