Marvin Gaye “What’s Going on” Album’s History


Marvin Gaye was born in Washington, D.C., on April 2, 1939 and he died on April 1, 1984 he used to sing as a child in church (Turner S, 1998 p.12). His father was a Pentecostal church minister and hence Marvin Gaye grew up listening to the music of American blues singer Ray Charles, which became a major influence on Gaye’s work. Marvin Gaye is popularly known as the American singer and songwriter, a recording artist for Motown Records, and a very popular singer of rhythm-and-blues (R&B) of the 60s and the 70s (Posner G, 2002 p.24).

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Main Body

Gaye was a very successful and creative recording artist for Motown Records, L.P record company of Detroit, Michigan. This company brought black performers and black music to the mainstream popular music charts and became the largest black-owned business in the United States (Dyson M. 2004 p.32). He started his career tat Motown in 1961 where he became a very popular top solo male artist with various hits in the 60s among them, the Stubborn Kind of Fellow, How Sweet It Is to be loved you, I heard It through the grapevine and several hit duets with Tammi Terrell, such as ain’t no mountain high enough as well as you’re all I need to get By among others (Posner G, 2002 p.27)

After signing on a recording contract at Motown he changed his name from Marvin Gay to Marvin Gaye, and several of his hits for Motown were duets with female artists including Kim Weston and Mary Wells (Gaye F & Basten F, 2003 p. 39). This group produced the first Gaye/Wells album, 1964’s together, was Gaye’s first charting album (Gaye F & Basten F, 2003 p. 39). It was Marvin’s work with Tammi Terrell that became the mainly popular and memorable.

Terrell and Gaye had an excellent rapport and their first album together; in 1967’s produced the hit ain’t no mountain high enough. Unfortunately Tammi Terrell passed away of a brain tumor on March 16, 1970 of which devastated Gaye very much which drove him into isolation refusing to perform for two years and he had even contemplated venturing into other career like football and quitting music for good (Turner S, 1998 p.12). Marvin Gaye failed to perform well in these fields hence he returned back to music. In 1970 he recorded the tracks including what’s going on, God is love and sad tomorrows which was the earlier fashion of the song flying high in the friendly sky among others (Dyson M, 2004 p.30).

In this period Gaye wanted to release the song, What’s Going On, however, when Motown head Berry Gordy heard that he refused, calling the single uncommercial he refused to record any more tracks until Gordy gave in (Dyson M, 2004 p.32). The song was eventually released in January 1971 becoming an instant hit and so Gordy eventually requested a whole album of similar tracks from Gaye (Gaye F & Basten F, 2003 p. 39).

The hit “What’s Going On” was composed with jazz tune and it greatly addressed the political and social problems of the world and black, the Vietnam War and the black’s pitiable crime rate (Turner S, 1998 p. 67). The song emanated from a notion by four tops member Renaldo “Obie” Benson, who, witnessing stressful conditions while on tour in Europe, began writing a song to express his feelings (Turner S, 1998 p. 67). The song “What’s Going On” is popular for its heavy use of major seventh and minor seventh chords, a fairly rare occurrence in popular music of that era (Turner S, 1998 p. 67).

Further, particularly for this record, Marvin Gaye sings both lead and background vocals himself. The process had been used for many years to give parts of a recording extra strength, however, Gaye took it a step further and sung each of his vocal passes in various harmony parts, creating an ethereal sound that became one of his trademarks (Gaye F & Basten F, 2003 p. 39).

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In Marvin Gaye songs there is an ordinary theme, not merely lyrically, however, musically. The syncopated djembe percussion in conjunction with major 7th chords, floating strings and Marvin’s trademark multi-tracked vocals throughout give it an immediate identifiable timbre (Dyson M, 2004 p.32). The Beatles’ effect is tangible, as the songs effortlessly run into each other, enforcing the suggestion of a concept album whereby the opening theme is reprised in the last song (Dyson M, 2004 p.32).

Lyrically, from the plain yet soulful social consciousness of the opener to the final song, a funky critique of contemporary establishment, Marvin Gaye’s words are both poetic and philosophical (Turner S, 1998 p. 67). There is a real disaffection and cynicism with the Vietnam War with the plight of contemporary American values, drug abuse and with the environment. Moreover, save the children, sounds schmaltzy in the modern context, however, is not out of place on this album, just for its pure optimism and passion, passed in the strength of Marvin’s vocals (Turner S, 1998 p. 67).

He preaches love and peace, which is easy to sneer at Inner city blues’ deals with the fraction between a disillusioned US suffering from a hippy hangover, and the ruthless opposition from its out-of-touch organization (Turner S, 1998 p. 67). Its bass line and falsetto vocals evoke Curtis Mayfield; however, the style is obviously Marvin’s (Turner S, 1998 p. 67). It was his initially conscious venture into funky territory as well as the funk brothers clearly relished playing it. These social and political concerns are general, however are also evidently very personal to Marvin as is the music. Singing about war was not a new theme, but connecting it to the war of daily life in urban US had not been done like this before (Turner S, 1998 p. 67).

‘What’s Going On’ is a protest that depicts how US was torn apart by the Vietnam War, civil unrest, poverty as well as racism in the early 1970s (Dyson M, 2004 p.41). In radical contrast to other protest songs of Marvin Gaye’s contemporaries, such as James Brown or Sly, it has a laidback, warm and even concerned feel to it with jazz-influenced rhythms and soulful saxophone breaks (Dyson M, 2004 p.41).

The song applies the family both literally and metaphorically, for instance, the lyrics ‘father, father/we do not need to escalate could be a reference to Gaye’s strained relationship with his own father, or equally a plea to God (Gaye F & Basten F, 2003 p. 39). Similarly, the lyrics ‘brother, brother, brother/there’s far too many of you dying’ could be a message to his own brother Frankie or the brotherhood of all humankind (Gaye F & Basten F, 2003 p. 39). Moreover, Gaye also provides an answer to his own entreaty that reoccurs throughout the song ‘only love can conquer hate’ (Gaye F & Basten F, 2003 p. 39).

‘What’s Happening Brother’ can be considered as part 2 of what is going on and involves a confused war veteran who returns home from one hell to find that home is not much different in that there is unemployment, depression and poverty (Gaye F & Basten F, 2003 p. 42).

Utilizing lush strings and vocals with congas and relaxed bass lines this is a song full of emotion. ‘Flying High (In A Friendly Sky)’ is concerned is about heroin addiction and the pain and suffering it brings (Gaye F & Basten F, 2003 p. 42). Beginning with cymbals, drums, bass and Gaye’s own falsetto it strikes a very ominous tone (Gaye F & Basten F, 2003 p. 42). ‘Save the Children’ offers a plain message for Americans to create a world worth living in for future generations. This song can be considered as Gaye’s overdubbing technique on this album.

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Begging with Gaye speaking the lyrics over strings, percussion and bass, he then adds a pained vocal repeating the lyrics after his speaking (Gaye F & Basten F, 2003 p. 42). In this song as the vocal gets filled with emotion, and as the percussion and bass build, it takes over from the speaking until the song reaches an emotional agitation (Gaye F & Basten F, 2003 p. 42). The song eventually returns to a melancholy mid-tempo that closes the track (Gaye F & Basten F, 2003 p. 42).

God Is Love’ which was originally recorded as the B-side of the song ‘What’s Going On’, the album version is much shorter and has a much heavier and more relaxed feel, enabling it to fits in excellently with the rest of the album (Dyson M, 2004 p.43). Additionally, this song reassures us that God will forgive sinners and that all he asks of us is that we give each other love (Dyson M, 2004 p.43).The song ‘Mercy, Mercy Me brings us back down to tell of another human wrong that is the destruction of the environment (Dyson M, 2004 p.43). In the same vein, ‘Right On’ is concerned about a man trying to find his place in the world and about love. With jazzy interludes between the laid back vocals and saxophone and flute solos, the track flows smoothly over the seven minutes (Dyson M, 2004 p.43).

The song ‘Wholly, Holy’ can said to be unearthly hit that connects the end of ‘Right On’, about love and peace, onto the focus of individuals got to come together (Turner S, 1998 p. 67). The Inner city blues, that is make me wanna holler is the final hit and brings us penetratingly back down to earth with a jerk (Turner S, 1998 p. 67). The hit passes Gaye’s fury and desolation about poverty and corruption in the inner city areas (Turner S, 1998 p. 67).


The song, what’s going on immediately established critical and commercial success on its release in early 1971 and by the end of 1972 it had sold over two million copies (Posner G, 2002 p.31). In the subsequent years various artists enclosed songs from this album and in 2001 a cover of ‘What’s Going On’ featured an all-star line-up of artists from a range of genres, all the proceeds went to the Artists Against AIDS Worldwide campaign (Dyson M, 2004 p.43).

Overall, the saddest thing about the track what’s going on is that none of the tracks have dated at all over the last 30 years (Dyson M, 2004 p.43).The concerns that Marvin Gaye wrote about are still as relevant to this date as they were in the early 1970s. The expression of his dissatisfaction and concern over these difficulties still leaves an astonishing impression today and the songs still sound exceptionally fresh (Dyson M, 2004 p.65).

Works cited

Gaye, Frankie& Basten, Fred E. (2003). Marvin Gaye: My Brother. Backbeat Books.

Dyson, Michael Eric (2004). Mercy, Mercy Me: The Art, Loves, and Demons of Marvin Gaye. New York/Philadelphia: Basic Civitas.

Posner, Gerald (2002). Motown: Music, Money, Sex, and Power. New York: Random House.

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Turner, Steve (1998). Trouble Man: The Life and Death of Marvin Gaye. London: Michael Joseph. ISBN 0-7181-4112.

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