In a bit of a genre change from last week’s column on Bob Dylan, this week I’ll be looking at Marvin Gaye’s eleventh album What’s Going On. One of the all-star Motown Artists, Gaye used this album to change the sound of soul in the 70s. He chose to use his music as what we would know as protest songs, focussing on the unrest of 70s America. Gaye has been quoted as saying that he was “very much affected by letters [his] brother was sending [him from Vietnam],” which encouraged him to change his musical outlook, so that he was able to “reach the souls of people”. So with this record, that’s what he did, focussing his lyrics on the state of the world and criticizing a nation obsessed with war, and unable to love.
The album itself was, at first, largely rejected by Motown, failing its quality-control-check and angering founder Berry Gordy. It was a new direction for any Motown artist, who classically released up tempo pop songs, or love ballads. Gaye, caught in a battle to release the kind of music he wanted to, left Gordy with an ultimatum: release the song What’s Going On as a single, or lose him. Obviously, it was released, making the Top 5 in the charts and subsequently paving the path for the politically active album that was to follow it.
The record itself is (obviously) a soul and R&B album, drawing in elements of jazz and blues. Throughout, Eli Fontaine leads long, wandering saxophone lines – captured by Gaye’s decision to record his warm ups – which tie the songs together. Lyrically, the record captures the anti-war attitude common in so many around the time of the Vietnam War; title track What’s Going On aligns Gaye with those with “long hair” who know that “war is not the answer, for only love can conquer hate.” From this, to the depiction of a soldier returning from war in What’s Happening Brother, to his subsequent drug addiction in Flying High(In a Friendly Sky), Gaye maps the life of the returned Vietnam veteran who doesn’t recognise his home country. In Flying High… Gaye marries the lyrics about flying under the influence of a drug (“I go to the place where the good feelin’ awaits me / Self destruction in my hand”) to a slow, ethereal melody complete with tinkering glockenspiels, clashing symbols and elongated vocals that perfectly emulate the freedom that’s being expressed in the lyrics. As with much of the album, this track runs into the next one Save The Children, in which the lyrics are spoken before they’re sung. The continuation of the music from Flying High… makes it seem as if these pontifications on needing to “live life for the children… save the children” is part of the drug-fuelled dream of the idealistic veteran.
While it’s easy to assume the meaning and significance of Gaye’s lyrics on this record, it’s harder to capture in words the effect these have when paired with the gentle soul music. All in all, this album being what it was when it was (i.e. one of the first of its kind) is enough of a reason to listen to it; the amazing songs are just the icing on the cake.