I’ve finally finished my Zappa book, and not a moment too soon as I only have one last album in my collection to listen to. But that will have to wait for another post because as I’ve learned, there’s only so much Zappa can take in one day. Anyway, I’ve moved onto my next read, ‘Ready for a Brand New Beat: How “Dancing In the Street” Became the Anthem for a Changing America‘ by Mark Kurlansky. Largely, it’s a book about the rise of Motown. Sadly, I don’t own a lot of Motown in my collection as I’ve never really collected 45rpm records, so I’m listening to one of the records that I feel suits the new switch in gears this evening, the ‘What’s Going On‘ album by Marvin Gaye.
This isn’t really Motown, true, but it was recorded at “Hitsville U.S.A.” and released on Tamla Records (1971), a subsidiary of Motown Records making it, in my books anyway, good enough.
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. Coincidentally, he has also been credited with criticizing global warming before the public outcry against it had become prominent.
Essentially, this album is not only Marvin Gaye’s masterpiece, it’s the most important and passionate record to come out of soul music, delivered by one of its finest voices, a man finally free to speak his mind and so move from R&B sex symbol to true recording artist.
With ‘What’s Going On‘, Gaye meditated on what had happened to the American dream of the past – as it related to urban decay, environmental woes, military turbulence, police brutality, unemployment, and poverty. These feelings had been bubbling up between 1967 and 1970, during which he felt increasingly caged by Motown’s behind-the-times hit machine and restrained from expressing himself seriously through his music. Finally, late in 1970, Gaye decided to record a song that the Four Tops’ Obie Benson had brought him, ‘What’s Going On‘. When Berry Gordy decided not to issue the single, deeming it uncommercial, Gaye refused to record any more material until he relented. Confirmed by its tremendous commercial success in January 1971, he recorded the rest of the album over ten days in March, and Motown released it in late May. Besides cementing Gaye as one of the most important artists in pop music, ‘What’s Going On‘ was far and away the best full-length to issue from the singles-dominated Motown factory, and arguably the best soul album of all time. In fact, my Bible (Mojo, August 1995) ranks it at #6.
My favorite track however is the last one on the album, ‘Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)‘ is killer. Honestly, I could listen to that track over and over again if I thought for one second Kelly would let me.
And with this infectious injection of sweet soul into my veins, I’m settling down before bed with a plateful of homemade brownies and the last episode of ‘This Is Us‘.
See how incredibly urban I am?