Album of the Month: Marvin Gaye - What's Going On

Released in May 1971, Marvin Gaye's ground-breaking album chronicles a fast-changing world of trouble and strife

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Looked at from today's perspective, What's Going On is a fascinating social document of unfolding events from the period - just as its name suggests. Its release also marked a major shift in the way that soul music was regarded. No longer about love, dating and failed romances, Marvin Gaye turned the genre into a chronicler of social change.

By the end of the 1960s, Gaye had grown tired of being a product of the Motown hit machine. After the commercial success of I Heard it Through the Grapevine in October 1968, he publicly lamented that he “felt like a puppet”, and set in motion a sequence of events that ended with him reimagining himself as a radical artist. He moved off the Motown label to its Tamla subsidiary, got to grips with the production side of recording and changed his look. Drawing heavily on current affairs, he sketched out the concept album that later became What’s Going On.

Released on May 21st, 1971, his 11th studio album was stirring stuff, demonstrating his extraordinary talent not just as vocalist, but as a songwriter and music producer. Recorded in the previous year at Hitsville U.S.A. studios, United Sound Studios in Detroit and The Sound Factory in West Hollywood, California, it featured music from Motown’s in-house studio band, known as the Funk Brothers. While the recording is warm and sumptuous, its plaintive, acerbic lyrics conjure up a very different mood indeed.

Songs are written from the point of view of a Vietnam War veteran returning home to the United States, only to witness a host of social ills. Lyrical themes touch on suffering, injustice, drug abuse and poverty, as well as ecological concerns. As Gaye later told Rolling Stone magazine, “I realised 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.” His vocal delivery is so angelic that the subject matter never comes over as polemical - rather, it is tender and beguiling, showing him to be one of the finest soul singers ever.

The album proved a huge commercial success, leading to four excellent singles - What's Going On, Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology), Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler) and Save the Children - throughout 1971. Yet it’s greater than the sum of its parts, and plays through as a single piece of work beautifully. Five decades on, it remains a powerful and thought-provoking listen - one that is as sweet as a lullaby to listen to. By today’s standards, the recording sounds dated, yet it still rewards serious hi-fi systems handsomely. Whether you're streaming in hi-res or playing on silver disc, a single listen reveals exactly why it topped Rolling Stone's list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time.

Marvin Gaye - What's Going On

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