Marvin Gaye, for the longest time, was considered by Berry Gordy and many others to be, “The Sex symbol of the ’60s and ’70s…’ ” He was very clean cut and created hit records again and again. Marvin Gaye was someone that the girls wanted to be with and the guys wanted to be. He was not one that would seem to get involved in what was about to follow with “What’s Going On”.
This album was created because the nation was in distress due to the war in Vietnam. The draft was in full swing and tearing young men away from their families, some wouldn’t be coming home. Police brutality seemed to be at a high with students being mistreated, arrested or even receiving beatings. The police in many opinions were completely out of control. There was picketing and rioting everywhere. Marvin Gaye’s own brother, Frankie, served a three-year tour of duty in Vietnam. When he returned he was changed he was haunted by what he had seen and done while stationed in Vietnam. When Frankie returned he was met with disrespect, disdain, and unemployment. The only work he could find was as a dishwasher or a doorman. The nation was hurting, everyone could see it, feet it and was effected by it, but no one knew what to do.
Although Marvin Gaye took this song and made it his own he was not the original creator of it. This came from a gentleman named Renaldo “Obie” Benson who was with the Four Tops. He was an eyewitness to how students were being treated as described above. No one seemed interested in this song until Benson thought of Marvin. He knew that Marvin Gaye would be the perfect person to sing this song. However, just like Benson struggled with finding someone to sing it, Marvin Gaye’s desire to sing this song was also met with a lot of roadblocks.
Marvin was told that this was a protest song and would ruin his entire career. The record labels, at that time, wanted to control everything that their artist did and said. Even their interview answers were manufactured by the powers above. When the album was finished Berry Gordy called it, “the worst thing I’ve ever heard in my life” and refused to release it. Marvin Had to threaten to walk away for Gordy to consider moving forward with the album, but even the censors at the time refused it, along with many of Marvin’s previous albums.
What’s Going On was a new sound for Marvin and a new sound for Motown. Producer, Van DePitte, stated that, “Gaye wanted to stay away from anything resembling a standard Motown beat.” He wanted it to be different, and so it was. Some of the things that made this album different were created do to mistakes, practice takes or even warm ups. The multi-layered lead vocal track was a mistake by an engineer, Ken Sands. He said, “Marvin had cut two lead vocals, and wanted me to prepare a tape with the rhythm track up the middle and each of his vocals on separate tracks so he could compare them. Once I played that two-track mix on a mono machine and he heard both voices at the same time by accident.” Marvin liked this so much he used in as a signature sound on albums that followed. Even Eli Fontaine’s alto sax line that opens the record was created by a mistake. Van DePitte recorded his warm-up and had gotten what they needed from just that. There were also a few elements that were influenced by illegal substance use.
I grew up listening to this album and never understood what it was really about. It wasn’t until I was older that I see the meanings behind the lyrics, the emotion behind the notes and the power that this album has to change a generation, to change a nation. This album boldly stands for something and it is with that same passion that influences me to take what I want to say or what we need to say and say it. The best songs are the ones that have truth. Sure I can write a song about the perfect girl, the perfect life or some amazing moment where all of the stars aligned perfectly, but it is the songs that speak truth about what’s going on that people can relate to and make the most difference.
” What’s Going On by Ben Edmonds | Books | guardian.co.uk .” Latest US news, world news, sport and comment from the Guardian | guardiannews.com | The Guardian . N.p., n.d. Web. 19 May 2013. <http://www.guardian.co.uk/books/2001/dec/08/extract>.