Listening to What’s Going On makes me very, very angry.
I’m not angry about the songs where Marvin shifts to preacher mode and tries to convince us that following Jesus is the way out of our troubles. Given his origins as the son of a preacher man, I would have expected him to go there. I can put my atheism and deep skepticism about religion aside and respect Marvin Gaye for making a sincere attempt in those songs to offer a solution to the moral and ethical dilemmas facing Americans in the 60s and 70s. The underlying message is really “love one another,” and you’d have to be a sociopath to take offense to that.
I’m certainly not angry about the music or the performances on the album. What’s Going On is about as good as it gets from a musical perspective and represented a significant and necessary expansion of Motown’s boundaries. I have a few quibbles, but nothing to write home about. And no, I’m not angry about the dated slang used in several of the songs and I don’t think that the use of “right on” and “what’s happening, brother” make What’s Going On a period piece.
I’m angry because Marvin Gaye put his career on the line to urge the human race to abandon brutality, war, environmental destruction and prejudice and fifty-plus years later, things have only gotten worse. I’d like to think that if Marvin Gaye were still alive today, he’d put aside any discomfort about using foul language and re-release the album with the title, What in the Fuck is Going on, People!
Let’s look at the issues Marvin Gaye raised and see where we’re at today. Some of the issues are USA-specific; others cross national boundaries:
- Police Brutality: The outrageous murder of George Floyd in 2020 comes immediately to mind, and obviously the cops learned nothing from that avoidable tragedy, filling unarmed Jayland Walker with forty-six bullets just last month. The Washington Post has kept a database on police shootings in the United States since 2015 which makes for pretty grim reading. World Population Review noted that “Police shootings are an issue of great concern and controversy in the United States, which has the highest number of police shootings of any developed country (every other country in the top 10 is a developing country) and the highest rate of private gun ownership in the world. In addition to the sheer number of police shootings, the killings of 17-year-old Tamir Rice, whose killer, George Zimmerman, was acquitted after claiming self-defense; and emergency medical worker Breonna Taylor, who was shot by plainclothes detectives who may have failed to identify themselves as police before breaking down her door, have sparked massive protests and concerns about racial inequality in the U.S. justice system.”
- War: According to the Global Conflict Tracker of the Council on Foreign Relations, there are twenty-seven active conflicts in various parts of the globe today. Joe Biden announced last September that “for the first time in twenty years, the United States is not at war. We’ve turned the page.” Joe Biden is full of shit. The United States still has troops all over the world and plenty of drones that can be launched from anywhere for use in police actions and counter-terrorism efforts. Quibble over definitions all you want, Mr. President, but the United States is always at war, just like Oceania, Eurasia and Eastasia in 1984.
- Ecology: It’s so fucking hot in the South of France that we’ve temporarily moved to my dad’s place in Cork County, Ireland. The earth continues to overheat. The ice caps are vanishing. Plastics fill our oceans. Some EU countries are firing up coal plants to compensate for lost Russian gas while half of the United States thinks climate change is a hoax. “Let’s utilize what God-given natural resource we have to bring down the cost of energy,” said nutcase Senator Ron Johnson, reflecting the view of the entire GOP that fossil fuels should be granted sacred status. America abandoned the Paris Agreement; America re-entered the Paris Agreement; America isn’t doing dick about climate change.
- Prejudice: Americans elected an openly racist president from an openly racist political party in 2016. The Republicans are doubling down on that electoral strategy and seem likely to win back Congress and the presidency in 2024. Hate crimes are on the rise, so you can expect the racist, sexist and homophobic majority on Supreme Court to figure out a way to eliminate hate crimes from the criminal code. The empty suits vying for the job of U. K. Prime Minister have been trying to outdo each other in the race to determine which asshole is the most transphobic and anti-immigrant. I’d be happy to send them our Marine Le Pen, who would expose them all as lightweight haters.
Finally, I’m angry that if Marvin Gaye were alive today, Republicans would poke fun at him for being part of the “woke” crowd.
Then again, “woke” is so much better than “stupid.”
On the surface of things, Marvin Gaye was sitting in the catbird’s seat at the end of the decade. He was a regular visitor to the top ten throughout the ’60s as both a solo act and in duets with Mary Wells, Kim Weston and Tammi Terrell, finally hitting #1 with his version of “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.” He’d sung the National Anthem at the 1968 World Series. Hell, he’d even married the boss man’s sister. There seemed to be no logical reason for Marvin Gaye to mess with success—all he needed to do was adhere to the Motown/Tamla formula and he was set for life.
Beneath the surface, things were coming to a boil. Tammi Terrell had collapsed in his arms during a performance, was later diagnosed with brain cancer and died in March 1970. His marriage to Anna Gordy wasn’t working out all that well. The IRS was after him. He developed a nasty coke habit. As a multi-talented musician, he struggled under Berry Gordy’s tight control of his artists. Sinking into depression, he attempted suicide by handgun, saved only through the intervention of Berry Gordy’s father.
Marvin started “acting out.” He refused to perform live to promote his latest album. He explored a football career with the Detroit Lions, but the owner talked him out of it. He grew a beard and abandoned tailored suits for sweats. It seemed as if Marvin’s mid-life crisis—often the last chance for an adult to choose between an authentic life or a conformist life—had arrived early, at the age of thirty-one.
Most importantly, he had been troubled about the state of the country ever since the Watts riots in 1965. His enlisted brother sent him disturbing messages about the horrors of Vietnam and when his tour was up, brought Marvin to tears when he told him about the shabby treatment meted out to returning veterans. He’d already put his toe in the water of more socially relevant songs with a cover of Dion’s “Abraham, Martin and John,” but when he called Berry Gordy about the possibility of doing a protest record, Gordy dismissed the idea as “ridiculous.”
Meanwhile, “Obie” Benson of the Four Tops happened to witness the police violence inflicted on anti-war protestors at Berkeley’s People’s Park. When the Tops returned to Detroit from their tour, Benson sat down with Motown songsmith Al Cleveland, who wrote a song based on Benson’s recollections. Obie tried to get the Tops to record the song—no dice. After a day on the golf course with Marvin, Obie offered him the opportunity to record the song. Marvin didn’t exactly jump at the chance but eventually agreed to record “What’s Going On” with the proviso that he receive partial songwriting credit.
Marvin did make a few changes . . . okay, he pretty much rewrote Al Cleveland’s original take—new melody, new lyrics, new compositional structure. After gathering a few Funk Brothers and a few non-Motown musicians to record the song at Hitsville U. S. A. studios, he presented it to Berry Gordy, who unsurprisingly refused to release it. It took an act of backhanded mutiny on the part of two Motown executives to reverse that horrible call; the nefarious duo decided to release 100,000 copies to record stores and radio stations while Gordy was on vacation.
Viva la revolución!
According to Rob Bowman’s essay included in The Real Thing: In Performance collection, “What’s Going On” became one of Motown’s fastest-selling singles ever and reached #1 on the Hot Soul Singles Chart and #2 on the Billboard 100.
Berry Gordy may have been a stubborn old fart, but he wasn’t an idiot. He not only authorized Marvin to record a full album centered around “What’s Going On” but gave him complete creative control over recording and production. By this time, Marvin was a man on a mission. As he explained to Rolling Stone: “In 1969 or 1970, I began to re-evaluate my whole concept of what I wanted my music to say . . . I was very much affected by letters my brother was sending me from Vietnam, as well as the social situation here at home. I realized that I had to put my own fantasies behind me if I wanted to write songs that would reach the souls of people. I wanted them to take a look at what was happening in the world.”
The man on a mission was also a man in the groove. It took a mere ten days to record the rest of the songs on What’s Going On—a stunning example of studio efficiency given the number of players (fifty-five, counting the folks in the orchestra) and the mix of diverse musical influences (jazz, classical, soul, funk, gospel). The album represented a creative breakthrough—not only for Marvin Gaye but for the Funk Brothers and other Motown regulars who had been limited to the Motown success formula.
Reviews of What’s Going On were uniformly positive (though Christgau had a few gripes). My favorite critical comment came from Vince Aletti of Rolling Stone, who wrote, “There are very few performers who could carry a project like this off. I’ve always admired Marvin Gaye, but I didn’t expect that he would be one of them. Guess I seriously underestimated him. It won’t happen again.”
There are many aspects of What’s Going On that deserve kudos, but what is most impressive in my book has to do with Vince Aletti’s understandable underappreciation. When you look at Marvin Gaye’s progression over the years, the truth is that there wasn’t much progression at all. He was a reliable, predictable performer in the Motown mode, playing it safe and adhering to the rules. His previous album gave no indication whatsoever that he had capabilities beyond his marvelous voice and the ability to sing standard-issue soul music and pop standards—all but one of the songs were covers (“Yesterday,” “Groovin'” and “Cloud Nine,” for example). Marvin Gaye wrote none of the songs on That’s the Way Love Is (even the title track is a cover of the Isley Brothers), played no instruments and had nothing to do with the production.
Then Berry Gordy let him loose. Marvin Gaye wrote or co-wrote all of the songs on What’s Going On, played piano, Mellotron and box drum, performed lead and background vocals, and most impressive of all, produced the whole shebang. That would have been a noteworthy feat even if the finished product turned out to be so-so, but Marvin Gaye produced what many critics consider one of the greatest albums of all time on his first try.
As I learned in my review of Willie Nelson’s Red Headed Stranger, it’s amazing what a true artist can create when you remove the chains.
Various critics have described What’s Going On as follows:
- A song cycle, defined as “a coherent group of individually complete songs designed to be performed in a sequence as a unit.”
- A concept album, or “an album whose tracks hold a larger purpose or meaning collectively than they do individually.”
- A musical narrative reflecting the experience of a returning Vietnam veteran.
There’s no question that What’s Going On passes tests 1 and 2. As for the third . . . that’s a bit of a stretch. I can buy the proposition that two or three of the songs likely represent the experience of a guy returning from Nam, but I think Marvin had plenty to say himself and playing a character for the whole album would have been limiting.
Structurally, the title track stands apart from the rest of the songs, serving as the thematic overture that puts us in the picture. From there, the songs segue into one another (though not between tracks 6 and 7, because you have to flip it over to get to side two). For the most part, the seamlessness works, strengthening the coherence of the “State of the Union” narrative. The lyrics that make up that narrative fall into the category of straight talk—honest, direct and to the point. After perusing the lyrics several times, I found them surprisingly apolitical—there are no calls for revolution and no references to the government. In many ways, What’s Going On feels like one side of a conversation that Marvin has initiated with “the people.” It’s like he’s saying to the listening audience, “Look at what’s going down—we can fix this if we try.” Marvin’s faith in the higher power is a given; his faith that “we the people” can work things out on our own makes What’s Going On remarkably accessible to the average listener.
“What’s Going On” opens with the sounds of people welcoming each other to a party, establishing a conversational mood. The song proper begins when saxophonist Eli Fontaine performs his now-famous goof (Fontaine: “I was just goofing around.” Gaye: “Well, you goof off exquisitely. Thank you.”) that Marvin insisted was the perfect opener for the song. The riff is naturally relaxed and laid-back, and as it turns out, syncs beautifully with Marvin’s vocal approach. “What’s Going On” is a protest song but it certainly doesn’t fit either of the protest song prototypes of Barry McGuire growling with anger or Phil Ochs singing with passionate urgency. Marvin wants to talk to his audience, not shout at them, so he disarms us immediately with a surprisingly gentle vocal expressing concern for the suffering, raising his voice only in the optimistic closing line of the verse:
There’s too many of you crying
Brother, brother, brother
There’s far too many of you dying
You know we’ve got to find a way
To bring some loving here today
Marvin doesn’t waste time parsing the difference between African-Americans who died disproportionately on the front lines of Vietnam and those killed by the cops. People are dying and that’s all that should matter to anyone with a sense of humanity.
In the second verse, Marvin questions the human propensity to resolve issues by making war, using Vietnam as the ultimate example of battlefield insanity:
We don’t need to escalate
You see, war is not the answer
For only love can conquer hate
I wish that the last line were true, but sending our love to Hitler would have been a colossal waste of time. Nonetheless, the line is consistent with Dr. King’s assertion that “Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that,” and though Marvin never directly refers to non-violence as a medium for change, he models non-violence in the anger-free lyrics. Even when he addresses the subject of brutality—which, as a black man, he was more likely to experience—he phrases it as a modest request for the respect every human deserves:
Picket lines and picket signs
Don’t punish me with brutality
Talk to me
So you can see
Oh, what’s going on (What’s going on)
I’m struck by the line “Talk to me.” It reflects Marvin’s desire that we start engaging in dialogue rather than screaming at each other or resorting to violence. I’m with Marvin one hundred percent, but I’m not sure that at the time he wrote the song he understood how difficult it is for human beings to engage in honest dialogue. Paolo Freire, the accepted authority on the subject, argued that “true dialogue cannot exist unless the partners engage in love, humility, faith, trust, hope, and critical thinking.” If you’re a black man, how do you engage in dialogue with a white supremacist who will never love you, takes pride in their white privilege and has no intention of giving it up, bases their belief in white supremacy on a twisted interpretation of the good book, doesn’t trust you, hopes you disappear and whose dogmatic approach to life makes critical thinking impossible?
Though later in life Marvin would express disillusionment about the possibilities of changing the world through music, the simple fact that I’m asking that question shows that he succeeded in engaging me in the struggle for universal human respect—and I think that was true for a lot of people who listened to the song.
At this point in the song we rejoin the party, the conversations mingling with the instrumental break. What’s delightful about this segment is the sound of Marvin Gaye launching into a surreal burst of scat that epitomizes joyfulness. The contrast between the ecstasy in Marvin’s voice and the heaviness of the song’s subject matter is stark indeed, but absolutely consistent with his belief that love is the answer.
The next verse focuses on the trivial reasons why Mr. and Mrs. America refused to take young people seriously—their (gasp!) appearance:
Everybody thinks we’re wrong
Oh, but who are they to judge us
Simply ’cause our hair is long
Oh, you know we’ve got to find a way
To bring some understanding here today
For those of you interpreting the verse through the hippie lens, I would remind you that African-Americans of the period did not all look like Sidney Poitier and many adopted the afro, which certainly qualifies as “long hair.” Marvin is making an argument that he shouldn’t have to make: we shouldn’t make a big deal about superficial differences and those differences certainly shouldn’t prevent us from talking and listening to one another.
The song ends with an extended chorus followed by more background conversation and Marvin’s wordless rides up and down the scale. He sings with such confidence that the realist in me takes a little break and wonders if we can really fix things through honest dialogue. It’s a feeling that will probably disappear the next time I scan the headlines, but I appreciate Marvin for reminding me that despite my pessimism about the future, I’m still capable of hope.
Overture complete, we shift to the segue flow of the album with the two songs most likely to reflect the perspective of the returning veteran—“What’s Happening Brother” and “Flying High (In the Friendly Sky).” Both songs are cleverly grounded in American cultural norms, making it easier for the core audience to relate to them.
The phrase “What’s Happening Brother” can be interpreted in two ways. The phrase is most commonly used as a simple greeting, like “How’s it Goin'” (heard often on NYPD Blue) or “How ya doin'” (Jersey norm). Responding to any of those phrases with detailed information about your status leads to confusion, as demonstrated in a famous Budweiser commercial. Sometimes “What’s Happening Brother” is a request for information, but most people avoid that usage unless they really want to know what is happening in the other person’s life.
Vietnam was way before my time, so I asked my dad how he and his friends engaged with their buddies who came home on leave or ended their tour. “It varied. Some of them went dark and didn’t want to talk about it, so I learned not to ask and just followed their lead. Some of them wanted to hear about all the things they missed out on and get back in touch with life as they knew it. Pretty much all of the guys I knew just wanted to get stoned and forget all about it. There were a couple of guys who seemed to want to talk about their experiences, but I think they sensed that people didn’t really want to hear the gory details so they clammed up pretty quickly. For most of them, coming home was kind of a shock. Think about it—one day you’re slogging through a rice paddy with people trying to kill you then they fly you to paradise on Oahu for a day then you come back home where people are living the good life and are sick to death of hearing about Vietnam. Vietnam vets got the cold shoulder because Americans wanted to leave it all behind.”
When asked the question, the vet speaking in “What’s Happening Brother” senses the discomfort and responds with comforting clichés: “I’m just getting back, but you knew I would/War is hell, when will it end?” He does share some of the barriers he’s encountered in attempting to re-integrate into society (“Can’t find no work, can’t find no job, my friend/Money is tighter than it’s ever been/Say man I don’t understand/What’s going on across this land”) but his conversational partner remains silent, offering no help at all. Eventually he tries to reconnect with “normal” (“Will our ball club win the pennant/Do you think they have a chance?”) and closes with a plea for sympathy (“What’s been shaking up and down the line?/I want to know ’cause I’m slightly behind the times”).
This rather awkward, largely one-way conversation is held over a background of dissonance; the music is dominated by augmented and diminished chords that communicate that “slightly-off” feeling reflected in the lyrics. The Andantes complement Marvin’s outstanding vocal with stellar work of their own, but I also suggest that after you’ve absorbed the full arrangement you tune out the vocals and focus your attention on the fabulous contribution from the deservedly-legendary James Jamerson on bass.
The fade linking “What’s Happening Brother” and “Flying High (In the Friendly Sky)” is executed perfectly, with Marvin’s “oo-oohs” closing the former and opening the latter. Some people might have been disappointed that Marvin borrowed a commercial message for a song title, but people who lived in the pre-CGI era, when jingles and catchphrases were essential components in advertising, frequently used those snippets in daily conversation and heard them employed as cultural reference points in television shows, films and political pitches. “(Winston) tastes good like a cigarette should” made its way into The Manchurian Candidate; “Where’s the Beef?” was featured in the 1984 presidential debates; and (more to the point), “Things go better with Coke” was used as an invitation to snort a line or two. Given Marvin’s intent to engage with the vox populi, he couldn’t have picked a better song title.
The song could be about a returning Vietnam vet, for as my father noted, many of his friends turned to drugs as a way to mute the trauma of war. I’m reluctant to make a definitive call because one of the most common and unfair stereotypes applied to Vietnam vets is that they were all drug fiends. Marvin Gaye had his own problems with drug addiction and given his disturbing “you are there” performance on this track, he at least had to be channeling some of his own experience.
I find the song terribly haunting in several ways. The usual reference points of verse and chorus are blurred, so it feels like we have nothing to hold onto. The multi-layering vocal approach used frequently on the album (another happy accident) works particularly well here, with Marvin’s counterpoint used sparingly for moans and cries for help and his lead vocal a combination of self-condemnation and chosen helplessness. The background singers and orchestra form a gauzy, fragile tone in stark contrast to James Jamerson’s nervous bass. And the lyrics perfectly capture the mindset of the addict—I know this is bad for me, I’m an idiot for shooting up but fuck it all I’m going to do it anyway:
Nobody really understands, no no (help me, somebody)
And I go to the place where good feelin’ awaits me
Self-destruction’s in my hand
Oh Lord, so stupid minded (can you help me? Can you help?)
Oh Lord, I go crazy when I can’t find it (help me)
Well I know, I’m hooked, my friend (got to help me)
To the boy who makes slaves out of men (got to help me)
“Flying High” is a long way from the joyousness of “It Takes Two,” and though the effect is deeply disturbing, it’s one damn fine piece of music.
The segue to “Save the Children” is unnecessarily abrupt. I suppose it does serve the purpose of yanking the listener out of the opium den, but I think extending the orchestra or the background vocals a few seconds with a nice fade would have made for a more effective transition. I really dislike the multi-layering here in the incredibly long first verse, where Marvin-as-lead narrates in a flat voice while Marvin-on-counterpoint sings in his upper range, repeating what he just said. I’m quite relieved when we get to the too-brief second verse and it’s just Marvin singing without his doppelgänger. By contrast, the segue to “God Is Love” is executed perfectly with a quick downward piano run that immediately supplies the song’s upbeat rhythm. Of the two “preaching songs” on the album, this is my favorite, and far superior to the slower extended single version. There’s a joy in this song that even this non-Christian can appreciate and I love the different approaches (harmony and varied background support) on “And all he asks of us/Is we give each other love.”
After a couple of nanoseconds of silence, we jump straight into “Mercy, Mercy Me (The Ecology.)” Like its predecessor, the song’s tempo is upbeat, though here the danceable beat appears to be out of sync with the gloomy lyrics. Once you listen to the song a few times, though, you hear the song’s quick tempo as an urgent call for action—a call intensified by the fragility expressed in Marvin’s vocal.
The rhythm arrangement on “Mercy, Mercy Me” is a clever combination of diverse textures—electric rhythm guitar, thick bass (played by Bob Babbitt, who takes over for Jamerson from here on), Marvin on piano and a wood block struck by a rubber mallet taking the place of the snare drum. As the song progresses, Wild Bill Moore adds additional texture with a sax solo reminiscent of the early days of rock ‘n’ roll with that classic growl. Towards the end of the song, the progressive textural pattern disappears completely, replaced by an operatic soundscape featuring what at first sounds like a contralto but really is Marvin on the Mellotron. The closing music leaves us with feelings of dread and uncertainty . . . perfectly in sync with how many people feel about our decaying environment.
The lyrics are worth repeating in their entirety:
Woah, ah, mercy, mercy me
Ah, things ain’t what they used to be (ain’t what they used to be)
Where did all the blue skies go?
Poison is the wind that blows
From the north and south and east
Woah mercy, mercy me, yeah
Ah, things ain’t what they used to be (ain’t what they used to be)
Oil wasted on the oceans and upon our seas
Fish full of mercury
Oh mercy, mercy me, ah
Ah, things ain’t what they used to be (ain’t what they used to be)
Radiation underground and in the sky
Animals and birds who live nearby are dying
Hey, mercy, mercy me, oh
Hey, things ain’t what they used to be
What about this overcrowded land?
How much more abuse from man can she stand?
While some of the environmental problems identified in the song have eased somewhat in Western countries (the smog isn’t as bad as it was in the 70s; nuclear testing is comparatively rare), fish are still loaded with mercury and oil spills still make the news. If you’re living in Buttfuck, South Dakota, you might think overpopulation isn’t a problem, but the truth is the world’s population has doubled since 1975. The more astonishing truth is that the need to protect the environment remains debatable.
This should be a no-brainer, people! It should be an issue beyond politics!
Sigh. No . . . heavy sigh. After living on the front lines of climate change for a while, I’m rather pessimistic about the future, but it looks like “Mercy, Mercy Me” will wind up as the epitaph for a world too stupid to save itself.
Flipping over to side two we find “Right On,” the longest track on the album. It’s also a rather odd piece, living most of its existence as a cool funk number before a sudden shift to something approaching ballad-style then back to funk. Marvin tosses out a few good lines (“Some of us feel the icy wind of poverty blowin’ in the air” is my favorite) but the lyrics never really come together to form a coherent statement, the music gets tiresome after a while and the strings simply don’t belong here. To my ears, it sounds like an overly long introduction to the second “preacher song,” ending with the line, “If you let me, I will take you to live where love is king.” A few seconds later, the song transitions to “Wholy Holy.”
Sorry, but I’ll have to recuse myself from reviewing “Wholy Holy,” as I’m neither qualified to evaluate the song nor particularly interested in doing so.
Fortunately, What’s Going On ends with a bang in the form of “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler).” Co-writer James Nyx Jr. (who also earned co-writer credits for “What’s Happening Brother” and “God Is Love”) talked about the song’s creation with Neely Tucker of the Detroit Free Press:
“Marvin had a good tune, sort of blues-like, but didn’t have any words for it,” recalls Nyx, now 77 and still living in Detroit. “We started putting some stuff in there about how rough things were around town. We laughed about putting lyrics in about high taxes, ’cause both of us owed a lot. And we talked about how the government would send guys to the moon, but not help folks in the ghetto.
“But we still didn’t have a name, or really a good idea of the song. Then, I was home reading the paper one morning, and saw a headline that said something about the ‘inner city’ of Detroit. And I said, ‘Damn, that’s it. ‘Inner City Blues.’ “
As befitting a song about the inner city, the song is filled with tension. Technically it’s not a blues song since it’s limited to two chords (Eb and Ab) and their variants (Absus4, for example), but the chordal repetition, insistent rhythm and telegram-style lyrics combine to form a song of unusual power. This is as close to anger as Marvin gets on What’s Going On, but despite the personal reference to tax problems, the anger is softened by empathy, capturing the no-way-out feelings of many an inner city resident:
Rockets, moon shots
Spend it on the have-nots
Money, we make it
Before we see it, you take it . . .
Inflation, no chance
To increase finance
Bills pile up sky high
Send that boy off to die . . .
Crime is increasing
Trigger happy policing
Panic is spreading
God knows where we’re heading
Oh, make me wanna holler
The way they do my life (He-ey-ey)
Make me wanna holler
The way they do my life
No American city suffered quite as much as Detroit from the mid-60s and beyond. In retrospect, it’s astonishing that until What’s Going On, Motown artists were forbidden to record songs that dealt with the overwhelming social tensions right there in their own backyard. More than any other song on the album, “Inner City Blues” represents Marvin Gaye’s emphatic pronouncement that those days were over and it was high time for Motown to start living in the real world.
The last minute of the track is a brief reprise of the last verse of “What’s Going On.” When the music shifts and Marvin enters with a multi-layered take on the line “Mother, mother, mother,” you’d have to be made of stone not to feel the tears welling up in your eyes.
The tears that well up in my eyes are more tears of anger than anything else. I remain frustrated that What’s Going On and the title track in particular didn’t have a large-scale impact on the way people think and the way the world works. Unfortunately, my feelings were shared by the creator. In an interview with Melody Maker a year before his death, David Fricke asked Marvin if the song “What’s Going On” still held meaning for him twelve years later. “Not really. I feel a bit apathetic about the world, that the song hasn’t done a great deal of good.”
I hate to admit it, but Marvin was right on. There have been dozens of moving songs about the sheer insanity of war and none have moved the human race from engaging in armed conflict. The same is true of the many songs urging us to love one another, care for the environment and eschew violence. Those songs may move individual listeners to change their ways, but the record shows they have little systemic impact. Can anyone name a leader who listened to “What’s Going On” or Eric Bogle’s “No Man’s Land” or “Imagine” and changed their ways?
I don’t know . . . maybe it’s one of those tipping point things where we have to reach a critical mass before anything changes. If that’s the case, we need to figure out a way to reach that tipping point pretty damned fast.