What’s Going On, said Marvin. He was not asking.

Marvin’s Gaye’s 11th album What’s Going On is not a question. IOt’s a statement and Marvin wasn’t asking us what was going on, he was telling us what was going on. It’s the Original Soundtrack to 1970/1, a concept album, a song cycle about drug abuse, poverty, Vietnam and ecology (before anyone new what that meant)

This towering, landmark musical achievement is 50 years old, It was released on 21 May 1971, 49 years ago this month but Marvin and well-chosen band of musical brothers went into Motown’s studios in Detroit and recorded the title track as Marvin’s next single on 1 June 1970. America was on fire with inner city race riots, poverty, drugs, Kent State, the Weathermen and the Vietnam War. And as I write this on 1 June 2020, America is on fire with pretty much the same thing. Whatever would Marvin make of it.

The list of accolades for What’s Going On is almost endless. It is regarded as one of the greatest albums and a landmark recording in popular music. It was 6th in Rolling Stone magazine’s list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time. It was the Guardian’s Best album of the 20th Century. It was also massive commercial success in the USA, selling over 2 million copies in the first six months of release. Here in the UK, nada. Neither the LP nor any of its 4 singles troubled the chart compilers, only Save the Children got to 41 in late 1971.


Yet Marvin’s creative zenith came directly from his personal nadir. Always a troubled man with a cocaine habit which he couldn’t shake and which took all his money, he was extremely depressed, drug-addicted, skint, owed the IRS millions in tax, his best friend had just died and was in a doomed and volatile marriage. If that wasn’t bad enough, his wife was the boss’ sister. He couldn’t even make sense of the extraordinary success of I Heard It Through the Grapevine. He felt he didn’t deserve it because up to that point, Grapevine notwithstandinghe had become successful from a series of fluffy production line pop songs, although that production line was one of the finest ever known to culture.

He signed to Motown in 1961 after impressing CEO Berry Gordy Jr at a Christmas Party. Originally packaged a middle of road crooner, he sang jazz standards but no one bought his records so for the most part he earned a living playing as a session or on the Motortown Revue package tours. When the Revue arrived in Chicago in June 1962, Marvin Gaye was the drummer on Little Stevie Wonder’s Fingertips Part 2 which was Number One in the US singles chart for the 13-year-old Stevie a year later.

He didn’t have a hit of his till 1962 with Stubborn Kind of Fellow, the first of many modest pop hits, but they didn’t show off his extraordinary voice. He wasn’t fantastically successful either, so Berry Gordy turned him into a suave male half of duos with the likes of Mary Wells, Kim Weston and especially his favourite singing partner, Tammi Terrell, with whom there was considerable chart success. They singing one night at a club in Virginia in October 1967, Tammi collapsed in Marvin’s arms from a brain tumour from which she didn’t really recover.

He was devastated then and beyond consoling when she died in March 1970, by which time he was top of the world after 10 years of trying. A year earlier, his two-year old version of a stock Motown song, I Heard It Through the Grapevine which had been rejected by Motown’s Quality Control department and stuck out as an album track, became a worldwide hit.  A DJ in Chicago had started playing it so much that Motown released it as a single. It flew to the top in the USA and in the UK, selling more copies than any Motown record had sold before.

He was finally a major star and an artist of substance, guided by the hand of God. Whilst much of his personal life wasn’t especially divine, he remained deeply religious as a result of his upbringing. And as the World’s Number One, he thought he had a bit of leverage over Berry Gordy. No more would he or Motown nix a single because they didn’t think it would sound good on radio. He was going to make serious records.

As it happens, one of the Four Tops, Renaldo ‘Obie’ Benson had written a song after he’d been on tour with the Tops in California in 1969 and had seen police beating protesters with clubs at a rally in Berkeley, near San Francisco.  He started wondering what was going on, why was it happening, why kids were being sent overseas to Vietnam. The results – with lyrics by a Motown staff writer called Al Cleveland was called What’s Going On. It’s a statement, not a question.

Obie played it for the Four Tops but they weren’t interested. They didn’t do the socially conscious stuff. Playing golf with Marvin one day, he pitched the song and Marvin thought it was perfect … for a group he was producing called The Originals, a traditional vocal group who often provided backing vocals on sessions for other Motown acts. He only agreed to do it himself when Obie offered him a third share in the publishing, despite the fact he had not contributed to it. In the end Marvin added the finishing touches to it lyrically and musically and it is credited to Obie, Al Cleveland and Marvin.

The song began to inspire Marvin’s vision for his new serious record. His younger brother Frankie had just come back from a 3-year tour in Vietnam and he had many conversations. Frankie was scarred and unemployed despite serving for 3 years in a real war zone. And a cousin, also called Marvin Gay, had been killed in Vietnam in late 1968. Marvin had enlisted age 17 but had effectively been dishonorably discharged in the late 1950s but felt he should do something in 1970 through his music

Marvin worked up some songs and took them to label boss Berry Gordy and said that he wanted to do a new album of protest songs, Gordy said why do you want to ruin your career? You sing love songs, not sings about police brutality. But he was adamant and he went ahead and changed his image. The 60s Marvin is suave and usually tuxedo’d. 70s Marvin has a beard and less tidy hair, and funkier, casual clothes. He was going to look different and he was going to sound different.

Marvin’s next single, What’s Going On was begun in 1 June 1970, fifty years ago today as I write at the Motown studios at Hitsville – now a museum – on West Grande Boulevard in Detroit, the same one next door to Berry Gordy’s house where the same basement studio had been used since 1959. It had been built as a basement extension by the previous owner for his dark room, It had a fabulous sound, and no one dared touch anything in the room lest they destroy the magic. The drums in the middle of the room had not been moved for 11 years.

He used many of Motown’s usual session musicians known as the Funk Brothers, plus a few other musicians on there that he thought would shake things up, especially percussion: on the title track there’s drums, bongos, congas, vibes and other assorted percussion. Marvin, a former drummer plays piano and conducts the percussion section for extra groove. The alto sax opening was played by a guy called Eli Fontaine. He played it through a few times as a warm-up, then said to Marvin in the control room, we can go for a take now. Marvin who had had the tases running all through, said it’s okay, we’ve got it, you can go home. Eli explained he’d just been goofing around. Well, said Marvin, you goof around exquisitely

In the background, they mixed in noises provided by three friends, who happened to play football for the Detroit Lions so it feels like you’re also at a really hip party, sitting round the piano while Marvin played you his latest tunes. On top of all that, they dropped the lush strings played by the Detroit Symphony Orchestra

Lastly there is Marvin’s voice, doubled and layered so that he doesn’t sing the same thing twice, rather he answers himself and effectively duets with himself. It was an accident. He recorded two versions of the lead vocal, done different ways and the engineer accidentally played them in the control room at the same time and everyone went Wow!

Proud of his new sound, he took the song to brother-in-law Berry Gordy for approval. It would be an exaggeration to say that Marvin and Berry had ever been on good terms. They frequently clashed and when Marvin – the aged 24 – married Anna, Berry Gordy’s 41-year-old sister in 1963, things stayed bad. Berry said it was the worst thing he’d ever heard in his life and refused to release it. He thought he would alienate his fanbase at that time mainly women and suave Marv. Motown’s Quality Control dept turned the single down too, but the sales dept saw that shops had placed advance orders of 200,000 – he was hot from Grapevine after all – and they desperately needed a new Marvin record so went ahead and released it as a single in January 1971, months ahead of the LP. Berry Gordy, effectively based in California with Diana Ross, was furious

Only when it went to Number 2 on the US singles charts did he calm down but said I want an album and I want in 30 days, by the end ion March 1971. Marvin had a commitment to star in a movie, called Chrome & Hot Leather – stop sniggering at the back – a biker movie about a guy who returns home from Vietnam to find that a Biker gang has killed his fiancee. He rounds up his Green Beret buddies and takes revenge. Marvin is a Green Beret but gets ride a motor bike. Seriously. It’s on YouTube in its entirety and my research methods are so exhaustive that I have watched it all. So you don’t have to.

Marvin had his act together. He knocked the basic tracks off in 10 days March 1971, with him right at the centre of everything playing piano in the studio, essentially producing his own record for the first time. Up till then. He had been the hired singer. The music just seems to flow from start to finish, using the same or similar grooves or musical themes a bit like a film soundtrack. Yet they were all recorded separately recorded on different days and times and assembled into the running order he wanted by manually splicing the tape with a razor blade

Once he had the running order, he added the strings and the finally the vocals. He sang twelve hours a day for four days, usually at night in a darkened studio filled with the smell of, let’s say incense, using a handheld mike. He was done.

He gave the finished album to Berry Gordy on 5 April and it was released in May 1971. An immediate chart success in the USA, it sold 2½ million copies in the first 12 months. All 3 singles – What’s Going On, Mercy Mercy Me and Inner City Blues – were Top ten hits, the first act to have 3 Top Tens from the same album. However, it did not chart here nor did any of the 4 singles Tamla Motown UK released. The album did eventually get to No.56 …. but only in 1984 after he had died.

The next year Motown moved to LA and things were never the same, although for a time Marvin went from strength to strength. His Let’s Get It On sold more than What’s Going On and other records including the Diana and Marvin album sold phenomenally well, though not really here.

His problems never did get any better. He got divorced, married and divorced again, he always owed millions to the tax man and had a debilitating addiction to cocaine for most of his adult life. He even came to London in 1980 to get away from drugs but just found more than he had ever seen in his life. In early 1981, he relocated again – not to Los Angeles, but to Ostend in Belgium which is where he wrote and recorded his album Midnight Love and the hit single Sexual Healing which gave him a comeback 20 years after his first hit. Sexual Healing was his most successful single in terms of sales, bigger even than Grapevine.

He was back at the top, but what most people will remember of course is his death at the hands of his father on 4 April 1984, two days before his 45th birthday. Marvin Gay Sr told Police he had fired in self-defence and the Police did find both cocaine and PCP in Marvin’s system. His father in the end pleaded no contest to a charge of voluntary manslaughter and was given a six-year suspended sentence and five years of probation for the shooting.


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