What's Going On

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What's Going On

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Sly & The Family Stone might have psychedelicized soul music, but Marvin Gaye personalized it. Although the powers-that-were Motown didn't even want to release the record, the unexpected success of What's Going On, issued in 1971, inspired Stevie Wonder, Curtis Mayfield, and just about every other black artist on the planet to take greater responsibility for their music and its meaning. Gaye co-wrote the songs and produced the album, flavoring it with layer upon layer of his own multi-tracked vocals, oceans of hand percussion, strings, flutes, and jazzy horn solos. Spacey and loose as a spliff-fueled Sunday afternoon jam in the park, the nine songs all played like a hit single. The title track--inspired by his brother's return from the Vietnam War--and the obvious social commentary of "Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)" and "Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)" actually were hit singles. Two other tracks ("Wholly Holy" and "Save the Children") would inspire hit covers by Aretha Franklin and Diana Ross, respectively. Nevertheless, What's Going On sounds as fresh today as it did the week that it came out. Recommended reading: Divided Soul: The Life of Marvin Gaye by David Ritz (McGraw-Hill, 1985). --Don Waller

Customer Reviews:

Rating: Five-Star Rating for Whats Going On
Date: 2008-07-05
Songs of life and death
Wow. When it comes to an album like What's Going On, it's easy to become jaded. Critics have been praising this thing since the day of its conception, have been hailing it as a masterpiece since before you even knew how to read, have apparently been putting it on a pedestal since before Marvin Gaye was born. It gets old after a while. It's the kind of album that becomes cliché before you even hear it, that's the kind of thing you can have a conversation about even if you don't own a copy. It's the Dark Side Of The Moon of soul.

Well, I have some advice for you: If you don't already own a copy, buy one right now. Put on some headphones. Turn the volume up. Close your eyes. Listen. And fly away. This album has an entire world in it, a world of wah-wah guitars and moaning strings and divine horns and mind-enveloping percussion. It's a world of textures and feelings. Emotion bleeds out of every gorgeous layer of sound, radiates from every nook and cranny. It's the kind of thing you can swim in. Listen: There's joy, despair, anguish, hope, suffering, pain, beauty. There's life in it. The critics were right on the money with this one.

Rating: Five-Star Rating for Whats Going On
Date: 2008-06-25
God IS Love...
Along with 'Kind of Blue' and 'Songs In The Key of Life', this cd, album, whatever...is the absolute embodiment of what music is about. Marvin was touched by the all-encompassing spirit that moves through and around all of us. 'What's Going On' speaks to a place in us that can only be described as seminal, pure, suigeneris...priceless.

Rating: Five-Star Rating for Whats Going On
Date: 2008-06-09
Should be part of American History, and one of the greatest albums of all-time
1.) This should be taught in schools.
2.) One of the most cohesive albums I've ever heard. A true, true, true classic.

Rating: Five-Star Rating for Whats Going On
Date: 2008-06-08
Is Marvin Gaye's masterpiece, What's Going On, outdated?


War, crime, poverty, drugs, inflation, taxation, ecological disasters. These are some of the social and political issues that Marvin Gaye addresses on his brilliant 1971 album, What's Going On.

And in 2008?

Take a look around. These same issues are (still) What's Going On.

This album couldn't be any more direct in identifying the world's most urgent problems, or in suggesting that the world slow down and take a spiritual and peaceful approach to solving these problems.

Outdated? No.

A masterpiece? Yes.

The atmospheric, funky, and smooth soul music is powerfully emotional, and perfectly highlights the thought provoking themes. Jazzy saxophones, flutes, congas, and funky bass lines accompany Gaye's soulful piano, heartfelt vocal expressions, and the sweet Motown orchestration. It all comes together beautifully.

Every song has a social conscience, and each one addresses one or more of the important issues that face the world, then and now.

What's Going On:
Mother, mother
There's too many of you crying
Brother, brother, brother
There's far too many of you dying

What's Happening Brother:
Can't find no work, can't find no job, my friend
Money is tighter than it's ever been

Save The Children:
I just want to ask a question
Who really cares?
To save a world in despair
Who really cares?

Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology):
Oh mercy mercy me
Ah, things ain't what they used to be
What about this overcrowded land
How much more abuse from man can she stand?

Inner City Blues (Makes Me Wanna Holler):
Rockets, moon shots
Spend it on the have nots
Money, we make it
'Fore we see it, you take it

What's Going On is simply a brilliant and satisfying album. It couldn't be any better. The music is great, it's socially and politically relevant, and even as it tackles difficult issues, it's message is spiritually uplifting and positive. There are no romantic love songs here. They'll be on the next album. This isn't a sweeping epic, either, and more power to it for not being one. That would overwhelm Marvin's message. This is music for the people. For God's Children.

What's Going On.

Rating: Five-Star Rating for Whats Going On
Date: 2008-05-10
A tour de peace.
Using questions, gestures of friendship, and ghetto lingo, Marvin Gaye makes powerful statements against war, pollution, poverty, drug addiction, and government overreach.
The title track ("What's Going On") was a watershed in Vietnam-era protest music and for Motown Records. As Ben Edmonds's jacket notes explain, Gaye engaged in passive resistance (refusing to produce any more music) after Motown declined to release a single of "What's Going On." Gaye won the stalemate and so, eventually, did Motown after the song became a huge hit, giving the label its last smash before it left Detroit for Los Angeles. Motown's corporatist conformity and move to the Sun Belt were emblematic of trends blowing through American culture, trends so eloquently criticized by Gaye throughout the CD "What's Going On."
Gaye movingly articulates emotions of the bewildered man of G-d amid the Silent Majority. The overseas militarism and domestic caution of the 1940s and 1950s had crashed headlong into the counterculture and civil rights movements, sending people and institutions careening in all directions. Rising as a musical Martin Luther King, Gaye tried to pull the strands back together, using appeals to America's Christian heritage and our common humanity. The job was/is too much for any one man but Gaye left an imperishable testament that current and future generations would do well to absorb.
"What's Going On" the CD also displays notable worldly sophistication. "Inner City Blues" has the artist connecting hyper government spending and activity with rising taxes, shrinking economic prospects, and shorter physical life spans. (Give that man a Nobel Prize!).
"...No, no baby, this ain't living
No, no, no
Inflation, no chance
To increase finance
Bills pile up sky high
Send that boy off to die..."
Gaye implores America to get back to long-term thinking. Less than two years after the 1971 release of "What's Going On," the U.S. Supreme Court declared all unborn children nonpersons through its infamous Roe v. Wade decision. Surveying the ongoing abortion holocaust that has disproportionately impacted blacks (15 million black babies dead and counting), listening to "Save The Children" is eerie and deeply saddening (especially since Gaye's prophetic plea was ignored).
"...Live, live for life
But let live everybody
Live life for the children
Oh, for the children
You see, let's save the children
Let's save all the children..."
Driving home the point is a jacket photograph of the artist standing in an empty playground.
Besides peaceful tones and appeals to love in the tradition of Nat King Cole, the enduring appeal of Marvin Gaye's music is its overall hopefulness. What's the cure for America's meltdown? George Harrison called it "unfolding your love." Others might refer to it as uncompartmentalized religion. Marvin referenced it as "Wholy Holy."
"...Oh, Lord
We can rock the world's foundation
Yes, we can
Better believe it
Wholy holy together and wholy
Holler love across the nation..."

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