After hearing a preliminary mix of Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On, with its unabashedly passive advocacy for peace and love, Motown head Berry Gordy refused to release the record. Gordy wasn’t offended by Gaye’s embrace of countercultural politics—Stevie Wonder had already released a few decidedly bleeding-heart singles such as “Heaven Help Us All” and a cover of Bob Dylan’s “Blowin’ In The Wind.” No, what really offended his sensibilities (and caused him to infamously dub the LP “the worst record I’ve ever heard”) was its absolute cohesiveness as an album. With What’s Going On, Gaye presented to Gordy, who ran Motown as if it lived and died by the hit single, what might be considered the studio’s first concept album. (At the very least, it was a groundbreaking experiment in collating a pseudo-classical suite of free-flowing songs.)
Of course, when all was said and done, Gordy ended up eating crow with his caviar, as What’s Going On spawned three massive hit singles, not to mention rave reviews. It was also the first album after Sly and the Family Stone’s Stand! to attempt to illuminate the political mood of the era. And a heartbreaking update on the state of things it was. Stand! was stuffed with both tart missives against racism (“Don’t Call Me Nigger, Whitey”) as well as sweet anticipations of love and happiness (“Everyday People”), and the challenging blend of optimism and awareness of injustice gave the album an invigorating sense of immediacy. But What’s Going On, released a few long, hard years after the love movement had peaked and deflated in the face of ongoing indifference and hostility, has an understandably mournful tone.
Strangely, the first sounds of the album aren’t of uprisings or demonstrations, but rather of a successful social festivity (“This is a groovy party, man!”). Gaye’s choice to emphasize humanity at its most charitable rather than paint bleak pictures of destruction and disillusionment is characteristic of the album that follows. Gaye’s observer role is bemused rather than indignant, grounded instead of judgmental. And so, befitting a social ethnographer, the titles of the first couplet of songs sound like questions, even if they aren’t used as such in the chorus. “What’s Going On” sees Gaye suggesting to “father” and “mother” (not so much literal parental figures, but rather symbols of authority and the status quo) that “war is not the answer, ‘cause only love can conquer hate.” The opening track’s good-natured debate with the powers that be segues directly into the camaraderie sob-song of “What’s Happening Brother,” in which Gaye assumes the role of a Vietnam veteran returning home and asking an old friend where the scene is, as the man’s disconnect from American pop culture has left him feeling displaced. (The entire album was reportedly inspired by the return of Gaye’s brother from Vietnam.)
The remainder of the first side continues as such, a guided journey through Gaye’s disillusioned but still optimistic moment of self-pity. “Save The Children” sees Gaye at his most horrified (“Think of the children”), which makes the gorgeous religious awakening of “God Is Love” far more convincing, as does the honesty of “Flying High (In The Friendly Sky).” In fact, if there’s one song on the first side that seems to carry over into the second, it’s “Flying High.” Side Two is marked with far more languorous song lengths, extended and unfocused jams, string parts that meander where they swirled seductively on the first side. By the time Gaye closes the album out with the anguished bawl of “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler),” which melts into a final, funereal reprise of the album’s title track, one gets the heartbreaking sense that a spirit as seemingly resilient as Gaye’s can crumble in the face of encroaching urban despair.
It didn’t take too long for Gaye to discover perhaps the one lyrical theme that fit his musical sound even better than political melancholia: erotic ecstasy. Gaye, who began the decade with an open letter to the urban proletariat, spent the remainder on the verge of one decidedly classy orgasm. 1976’s I Want You in particular, unfocused and suffuse with the half-sleep of a marathon lovemaking session, is basically a rethink of What’s Going On with the words “brother” and “god” replaced by “bed” and “dick.” This is not to doubt Gaye’s sincerity in matters of either flesh or the devil; both are convincingly conveyed through his sweeping sentimentality and velvety falsetto. If What’s Going On remains immortal and untouched in the canon of great pop albums, it’s probably because Gaye managed to make political consciousness (a theme usually conveyed via crunching guitar and unabashed vocal howling) feel as intimate as a night in his boudoir.