Marvin Gaye - What's Going On

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Marvin Gaye - What's Going On
A photo of Gaye looking away from the camera
Studio album by Marvin Gaye
Released May 21, 1971
Recorded June–September 1970; March–May 1971
Studio Hitsville, U.S.A., Golden World, United Sound Studios, Detroit
The Sound Factory, West Hollywood, California
Genre Soul, R&B
Length 35:38
Label Tamla (US)      Tamla Motown (UK)
Producer Marvin Gaye
Marvin Gaye chronology
Super Hits
What's Going On
Trouble Man
Singles from What's Going On
  1. "What's Going On"
    Released: January 20, 1971
  2. "Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)"
    Released: June 10, 1971
  3. "Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)"
    Released: September 1971
  4. "Save the Children"
    Released: November 11, 1971


  "What's Going On" is the eleventh studio album by soul musician Marvin Gaye, released May 21, 1971, on the Motown-subsidiary label Talma records. Recording sessions for the album took place in June 1970 and March–May 1971 at Hitsville U.S.A., Golden World and United Sound Studios in Detroit and at The Sound Factory in West Hollywood, California. "What's Going On" was the first album on which Motown Records' main studio band, the group of session musicians known as the Funk Brothers, received an official credit.

The first Marvin Gaye album credited as being produced by the artist himself, "What's Going On" is a unified concept album consisting of nine songs, most of which lead into the next. It has also been categorized as a song cycle; the album ends with a reprise of the album's opening theme. The album is told from the point of view of a Vietnam war veteran returning to the country he had been fighting for, and seeing only hatred, suffering, and injustice. Gaye's introspective lyrics discuss themes of drug abuse, poverty, and the Vietnam War. He has also been credited with criticizing global warming before the public outcry against it had become prominent.

"What's Going On" was an immediate success upon release, both commercially and critically. Having endured as a classic of 1970s soul, a deluxe edition set was released on February 27, 2001, and featured a rare recording of a May 1972 concert shot at Washington, D.C.'s Kennedy Center. Worldwide surveys of critics, musicians, and the general public have shown that "What's Going On" is regarded as one of the landmark recordings in pop music history, and one of the greatest albums of the 20th century. The album was ranked number six both on Rolling Stone's 2003 list of the "500 Greatest Albums of All Time", and in the magazine's update nine years later.



An ornate white building
Gaye experienced personal and professional turmoil in the late 1960s and part of his refocusing on music was attending concerts from the Detroit Symphony Orchestra at Orchestra Hall at the Max M. Fisher Music Center.


By the end of the 1960s, Marvin Gaye had fallen into a deep depression following the brain tumor diagnosis of his Motown singing partner Tammi Terrell, the failure of his marriage to Anna Gordy, troubles with the IRS, and struggles with Motown Records, the label he had signed with in 1961. During this time, Gaye began experiencing international success for the first time in his career following the release of "I Heard It Through the Grapevine" and subsequent hit singles such as "Too Busy Thinking About My Baby", "Abraham, Martin and John" and "That's the Way Love Is". But Gaye was in no mood to celebrate: "My success didn't seem real. I didn't deserve it. I knew I could have done more. I felt like a puppet—Berry's puppet, Anna's puppet. I had a mind of my own and I wasn't using it."

During this time, Gaye was able to prove his worth as a producer, producing several songs for Motown vocal group The Originals. The songs, "Baby, I'm for Real" and "The Bells", became hits as a result. On March 16, 1970, Terrell succumbed from her illness, a month before her 25th birthday. Gaye dealt with Terrell's death by going on a prolonged seclusion from the music business. After his success with the Originals, Gaye changed his look, ditching his clean-cut, college boy image to grow a beard and dressing more casually, wearing sweatsuits. Gaye also pierced his ear in defiance and stood up to Motown executives who felt he should have been touring. He also began working on fixing his personal issues, re-embracing his spirituality and also attended several concerts held by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra, which had been used for several Motown recordings in the 1960s. Around the spring of 1970, Gaye also began seriously pursuing a career in football with the professional football team the Detroit Lions of the NFL, even working out with the Eastern Michigan Eagles football team. However, Gaye's pursuit of a tryout with the Lions was stopped after being advised that an injury would derail his music career, leaving him upset. Despite this, Gaye would befriend three of the Lions teammates, Mel Farr, Charlie Sanders and Lem Barney, as well as the Detroit Pistons star and future Detroit mayor Dave Bing.



Benson in a suit looking sideways
Fellow soul singer Renaldo Benson inspired Gaye to write about political themes and social change in his music.


While traveling on his tour bus with the Four Tops on May 15, 1969, Four Tops member Renaldo "Obir" Benson witnessed an act of police brutality and violence committed on anti-war protesters who had been protesting at Berkeley's People's Park in what was later termed as "Bloody Thursday". A disgusted Benson later told author Ben Edmonds, "I saw this and started wondering 'what was going on, what is happening here?' One question led to another. Why are they sending kids far away from their families overseas? Why are they attacking their own kids in the street?" Returning to Detroit, Motown songwriter Al Cleveland wrote and composed a song based on his conversations with Benson of what he had seen in Berkeley. Benson sent the unfinished song to his bandmates but the other Four Tops turned the song down. Benson said, "My partners told me it was a protest song. I said 'no man it's a love song, about love and understanding. I'm not protesting. I want to know what's going on.'"

Benson and Cleveland offered the song to Marvin Gaye when they met him at a golf game. Returning to Gaye's home in Outer Drive, Benson played the song to Gaye on his guitar. Gaye felt the song's moody flow would be perfect for The originals. Benson, however, felt Gaye could sing it himself. Gaye responded to that suggestion by asking Benson for songwriting credit of the song. Benson and Cleveland allowed it and Gaye edited the song, adding a new melody, revising the song to his own liking, and changing some of the lyrics, reflective of Gaye's own disgust. Gaye finished the song by adding its title, "What's Going On". Benson said later that Gaye tweaked and enriched the song, "added some things that were more ghetto, more natural, which made it seem like a story and not a song ... we measured him for the suit and he tailored the hell out of it." During this time, Gaye had been deeply affected by letters shared between him and his brother after he had returned from service over the treatment of Vietnam veterans.

Gaye had also been deeply affected by the social ills that were then plaguing the United States at the time, even covering the track, "Abraham, Martin and John", in 1969, which became a UK hit for Gaye in 1970. Gaye cited the 1965 Watts riots as a pivotal moment in his life in which he asked himself, "with the world exploding around me, how am I supposed to keep singing love songs?" One night, Gaye called Berry Gordy about doing a protest record while Gordy vacationed at the Bahamas, to which Gordy chastised him, "Marvin, don't be ridiculous. That's taking things too far."

Reuniting at their parents' suburban D.C. home, Marvin's brother Frankie discussed the events of his tenure at Vietnam, detailing experiences that sometimes left the two brothers consoling each other in tears. Then after Frankie explained witnessing violence and murder before he was to depart back to the states, he recalled Marvin sitting propped up in a bed with his hands in his face. Afterwards, Marvin told his brother, "I didn't know how to fight before, but now I think I do. I just have to do it my way. I'm not a painter. I'm not a poet. But I can do it with music."

In an interview with Rolling Stone, Marvin Gaye discussed what had shaped his view on more socially conscious themes in music and the conception of his eleventh studio album:

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.

— Marvin Gaye



Two two-storey houses with signs marking one as Hitsville U.S.A.
Gaye recorded the album at Motown's in-house studio Hitsville U.S.A. (since converted into a museum)


On June 1, 1970, Gaye entered Motown's Hitsville U.S.A. studios to record "What's Going On". Immediately after learning about the song, many of Motown's musicians, known as The Funk Brothers noted that there was a different approach with Gaye's record from that used on other Motown recordings, and Gaye complicated matters by only bringing in a few of the members while bringing his own recruits, including drummer Chet Forest. Longtime Funk Brothers members Jack Ashford, James Jamerson and Eddie Brown participated in the recording. Jamerson was pulled into the recording studio by Gaye after he located Jamerson playing with a local band at a blues bar and Eli Fontaine, the saxophonist behind "Baby, I'm For Real", also participated in the recording. Jamerson, who couldn't sit properly on his seat after arriving to the session drunk, performed his bass riffs, written for him by the album's arranger David Van De Pitte, on the floor. Fontaine's open alto saxophone riff on the song was not originally intended. When Gaye heard the playback to what Fontaine thought was simply a demo, Gaye let him go. When Fontaine said he was "just goofing around", Gaye replied, "well, you goof off exquisitely. Thank you."

Gaye's trademark multi-layering vocal approach came off initially as an accident by engineers Steve Smith and Kenneth Sands. Sands later explained that Gaye had wanted him to bring him the two lead vocal takes for "What's Going On" for advice on which one he should use for the final song. Smith and Sands accidentally mixed the two lead vocal takes together. Gaye loved the sound and decided to keep it and use it for the duration of the album.

That September, Gaye approached Gordy with the "What's Going On" song while in California where Gordy had relocated. Gordy took a profound dislike to the song, calling it "the worst thing I ever heard in my life". Gaye, who had also begun recording some songs that would later be featured on his later album, "Let's Get It On", responded by going on strike from recording anything else for the label unless Gordy relented. Motown executive Harry Balk later recalled that he had tried to get Gordy to release the song to which Gordy replied to Balk, "that Dizzy Gillespie stuff in the middle, that scatting, it's old." Most of Motown's Quality Control Department team also turned the song down, with Balk later stating that "they were used to the 'baby baby' stuff, and this was a little hard for them to grasp." Gordy also felt the song was too political to be a hit on radio and too unusual compared with what was considered a part of the popular music sound of that time to be commercially successful.

With the help of Motown sales executive Barney Ales, Harry Balk got the song released to record stores, sending 100,000 copies of the song without Gordy's knowledge, on January 17, 1971, with another 100,000 copies sent after that success. Upon its release, the song became a hit and was Motown's fastest-selling single at the time, peaking at number 1 on the Hot Soul Singles Chart, and peaking at number 2 on the Billboard Hot 100. Gordy was stunned by the news and drove to Gaye's home to discuss him making a complete album, stating Gaye could do what he wanted with his music if he finished the record within 30 days before the end of March and thus effectively giving him the right to produce his own albums. Gaye returned to Hitsville to record the rest of "What's Going On", which took a mere ten business days between March 1 and March 10. The album's rhythm tracks and sound overdubs were recorded at Hitsville, or Studio A, while the strings, horns, lead and background vocals were recorded at Golden World, or Studio B.

The album's original mix, recorded in Detroit at both Hitsville and Golden World as well as United Sound Studios, was finalized on April 5, 1971. When Gordy listened to the mix, he cautioned Gaye of the album's potential of possibly alienating Gaye's core fan base, which was mostly women; however, Gaye refused to budge. Gaye and his engineers did a new sound mix of the album at The Sound Factory in West Hollywood in early May, integrating the orchestra somewhat closer with the rhythm tracks. Though Motown's Quality Control department team feared no other hit released from the album due to its concurrent style with each song leading to the next, Gordy surprisingly allowed this mix to be released that month.



"What's Going On" features soulful, passionate vocals and multi-tracked background singing, both by Gaye. The song had strong jazz, gospel, classical music orchestration, and arrangements. The song also featured major seventh and minor seventh chords, which was then unusual for pop music at the time. Reviewer Eric Henderson of Slant stated the song had an "understandably mournful tone" in response to the fallout of the late 1960s counterculture movements. Henderson also wrote that "Gaye's choice to emphasize humanity at its most charitable rather than paint bleak pictures of destruction and disillusionment is characteristic of the album that follows."

This is immediately followed in segue flow by the second track, "What's Happening Brother", a song Gaye dedicated to his brother Frankie, in which Gaye wrote to explain the disillusionment of war veterans who returned to civilian life and their disconnect from pop culture. "Flyin' High (In the Friendly Sky)", which took its title from a United Airlines tag, "fly the friendly skies", dealt with dependence on heroin. The lyric, "I know, I'm hooked my friend, to the boy, who makes slaves out of men", references heroin as "boy", which was slang for the drug. "Save the Children" was an emotional plea to help disadvantaged children, warning, "who really cares/who's willing to try/to save a world/that is destined to die?", later crying out, "save the babies". A truncated version of "God Is Love" follows "Save the Children" and makes references to God.

"Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)" was another emotional plea, this time to the enviroment. The song featured a memorable tenor saxophone riff from Detroit music legend Wild Bill Moore. "Right On" was a lengthy seven-minute jam influenced by funk rock and Latin soul rhythms that focused on Gaye's own divided soul in which Gaye later pleaded in falsetto, "if you let me, I will take you to live where love is King" after complying that "true love can conquer hate every time". "Wholy Holy" follows "God Is Love" as an emotional gospel plea advising people to "come together" to "proclaim love [as our] salvation". The final track, "Inner City Blues (Make's Me Wanna Holler)", focuses on urban poverty, backed by a minimalist, dark blues-oriented funk vibe, with its bass riffs composed and performed by Bob Babbitt, who also performed on "Mercy Mercy Me" (Jamerson played on the rest of the album). The entire album's stylistic use of a song cycle gave it a cohesive feel and was one of R&B's first concept albums, described as "a groundbreaking experiment in collating a pseudo-classical suite of free-flowing songs."


Critical reception

Professional ratings
Retrospective reviews
Review scores
Source Rating
AllMusic 5/5 stars
Chicago Tribune 4/4 stars
Cgristgau's Record guide B+
MusicHound R&B 5/5
The Observer 5/5 stars
Rolling Stone 4/5 stars
The Rolling Stone Album Guide 5/5 stars
Slant Magazine 4/5 stars
Sputnik Music 3/5
The Village Voice B

What's Going On was generally well received by contemporary critics. In Rolling Stone, Vince Aletti praised Gaye's thematic approach towards social and political concerns, while discussing the surprise of Motown releasing such an album. In a joint review of What's Going On and Stevie Wonder's "Where I'm Coming From", Aletti wrote, "Ambitious, personal albums may be a glut on the market elsewhere, but at Motown they're something new ... the album as a whole takes precedence, absorbing its own flaws. 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." Billboard described the record as "a cross between Curtis Mayfield and that old Motown spell and outdoes anything Gaye's ever done". Time magazine hailed it as a "vast, melodically deft symphonic pop suite". Village Voice critic Robert Christgau was less impressed. He deemed it both a "groundbreaking personal statement" and a Berry Gordy product, baited by three highly original singles but marred elsewhere by indistinct music and indulgent use of David Van De Pitte's strings, which Christgau called "the lowest kind of movie-background dreck".

According to Paul Gambaccini, Gaye's death in 1984 prompted a critical re-evaluation of the album, and most reviewers have since regarded it as an important masterpiece of popular music. In MusicHound R&B (1998), Gary Graff said What's Going On was "not just a great Gaye album but is one of the great pop albums of all time", and Rolling Stone later credited the album for having "revolutionized black music". BBC Music's David Katz described the album as "one of the greatest albums of all time, and nothing short of a masterpiece" and compared it to Miles Davis' "Kind of Blue" by saying "its non-standard musical arrangements, which heralded a new sound at the time, gives it a chilling edge that ultimately underscores its gravity, with subtle orchestral enhancements offset by percolating congas, expertly layered above James Jamerson's bubbling bass". In his 1994 review of Gaye's re-issues, Vhicago Tribune reviewer Greg Kot described the album as "soul music's first 'art' album, an inner-city response to the Celtic mysticism of Van Morrison's "Astral Weeks", the psychedelic pop of The Beatles' "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely hearts Club Band" [and] the rewired blues of Bob Dylan's "Highway 61 Revisited" Richie Unterberger found the album somewhat overrated, writing in The Rough Guide to Rock (2003) that much of its "meandering introspection" paled in comparison to its three singles.



In 1985, writers on British music weekly the NME voted it best album of all time. In 2004, the album's title track was ranked number four on Rolling Stone's list of the "500 Greatest Songs of All Time". A 1999 critics' poll conducted by British newspaper The Guardian named it the "Greatest Album of the 20th Century". In 1997, "What's Going On" was named the 17th greatest album of all time in a poll conducted in the United Kingdom by HMV Group, Channel 4, The Guardian and Classic FM. In 1997, The Guardian ranked the album number one on its list of the 100 Best Albums Ever. In 1998 Q magazine readers placed it at number 97, while in 2001 the TV network VH1 placed it at number 4. In 2003, it was one of 50 recordings chosen that year by the Library of Congress to be added to the National Recording Registry. "What's Going On" was ranked number 6 on Rolling Stone magazine's 2003 list of the "500 Greatest Albums of All Time", one of three Gaye albums to be included, succeeded by 1973's "Let's Get It On" (number 165) and 1978's "Here, My Dear" (number 462). The album is Gaye's highest-ranking entry on the list, as well as several other publications' lists.



Marvin Gaye - What's Going On

UK Tamla Motown STML 11190 stereo (1971).

Album produced by Marvin Gaye.

This record for sale is a 1971 UK 1st pressing with textured cover and smooth centre labels.

Matrix reads: Side 1, STML 11190 A-2       Side 2, STML 11190 B-2

The vinyl record attains a strong excellent grading, suggesting few plays.

Audio quality is very clear and strong throughout.

Both record centre labels are clean and unmarked.

Both record centre labels are free from tears, stains or stickers.

The albums original textured cover is in excellent condition, displaying only minimal signs of wear.

The original company inner sleeve and paper lyric street are absent.

Browse this category: Funk-Soul & Motown Albums