What's Going On by Marvin Gaye

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What's Going On by Marvin Gaye
What's Going On by Marvin Gaye

Album Released: 1971


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1.What's Going On3:53
2.What's Happening Brother2:42
3.Flyin' High (In The Friendly Sky)3:48
4.Save The Children4:01
5.God Is Love1:41
6.Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)3:17
7.Right On7:29
8.Wholy Holy3:07
9.Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)5:28


Given its vast influence I ought to rate this album a full star higher, but once you separate the concept from the actual music, it doesn't measure up to the praises showered upon it.

Still, this is unquestionably Gaye's artistic peak - never again would he take chances and completely reinvent himself as he does here.

For he really comes into his own here, as this disc sounds nothing like his earlier more tentative records. Instead of belting out 3-minute Motown singles, the grooves stretch out, ebbing and flowing as one cut bleeds into the next. Between Side One's bookends - two classic Top 10 singles (the title track, and "Mercy Mercy Me") - are a string of short not fully-written songs all seamlessly tied together, a bit like the suite on Side Two of The Beatles' Abbey Road.

Side Two only has three lengthy songs, one of which - the heavy funk protest number "Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)" - was a third Top 10 hit. He then circularly ends the album with a brief fragment of the opening title track.

Historically significant as the first concept album in a black pop context, this brought many of the conceptual innovations of white 1960's rock to R&B, and precipitated more freedom of expression for other Motown artists.

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by Reviewer: Creative Noise

My rating for What's Going On is a really high 5 stars, but there are nevertheless a few flaws to this acknowledged classic that nobody ever seems to mention.

For one, it all sounds the same ... ambient soul/funk, lyrically focused on saving the world, and - in particular - the urban black community. Which is nice, but both the music and lyrics get seriously strained on tracks like "Save the Children", which literally consists of Gaye speaking and then singing lines about um, saving the children; and pretty tracks like "Flying High (In the Friendly Sky)" and "What's Happening Brother" start to run into each other after a while.

It's obvious that Gaye ran out of songwriting steam after co-penning the album's three absolute classics. Still, those classics are as good as anything 70's R&B ever produced - the title track may be the best song of all time - a soulful yearning cry for peace and love with a smooth urgent vocal from Gaye and a lovely melody.

"Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)" is a stirring tale of pollution and decay around the world with a breathtaking orchestral coda; and "Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)" has a truly scary soft-funk arrangement that really makes me feel the urban experience more than anything I've heard.

Besides those three songs though, only "Right On" with its funky percussion and airy flute, makes a real impression as an individual song - otherwise, it's hard to pay attention throughout the whole album. Still, it's all gorgeous, with intricate arrangements by Dave Van De Pitte, and James Jamerson kicks butt on bass throughout (except for a solid performance from Bob Babbit on "Inner City Blues"); and Gaye's voice is absolutely amazing - smooth, airy, and tender, with beautiful layered harmonies that betray a real love for his work. Plus, it all changed the world or something.

I'd almost recommend getting the three big songs on a hits collection rather than buy this, but the album does work as a thematic whole, and it is very enjoyable - just inconsistent in parts.

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by Reviewer: Cosmic Ben (blogging at Cosmic Ben [Defunct])

The first thing to notice about this album is the songwriting credits, as there's something a little bit out-of-the-ordinary there - there's 'Gaye' (with his various collaborators) next to every song.

This is what the man was finally able to produce after busting through a monumental personal and institutional logjam. Hell, I think this is a triumph for black people in the music business in general. After nearly ten years as a pinup product-delivery machine for Motown, during which it's safe to say his creativity was er, not encouraged to its fullest extent, Gaye had had enough.

He saw a rather gaping gulf between the love 'n' happiness of the Motown product line, and the disturbing images in the world around him, and saw himself on the wrong side of that divide. He was a black singer in America, but he sang in a tuxedo for predominately white audiences, Uncle Tom-ing to their requirements for clean, uncontroversial, castrated, de-politicized, safe Negroes.

For his part, Berry Gordy, who had his mind on the dollar far more than on political issues, did everything he could to discourage deviation from his formula for success. For a black man to build one of the most successful and high-profile black-owned and black-run businesses in the country, he sure was afraid of offending the susceptible sensibilities of his cash-rich white customers.

To that end, Gordy maintained a Gestapo-like regimentation of his business. Singers, after completing their requisite whitification classes, were for singing and dancing, writers were exclusively for songwriting, the band were ridden like minimum-wage laborers and never credited for their musical contributions (what would "Grapevine" have been without James Jamerson's bassline?), and everybody was expected to stay in line or they'd get Mary Wells-ized.

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by Reviewer: Capt Bonanza (blogging at Capn Marvel's Bonanza [Defunct])