The Infinite Jukebox: Marvin Gaye’s ‘What’s Going On’


Some records you have to grow into.
I was just turned 14 when I first seriously began to listen to music, the beginning of the Seventies, 1970. A year of naivete, lack of knowledge, lack of background, and trying to work out what my tastes might possibly be.
One of the Top 10 records I heard that year was Marvin Gaye’s ‘Abraham, Martin and John’. I had no idea how uncharacteristic of Gaye’s recordings for Motown this song was, nor that it was a cover of a successful Dion single of two years earlier. Probably I’d never heard or heard of ‘I Heard it through the Grapevine’, though I did know Gaye’s name from his duet with Tammi Terrell at the end of 1969, on ‘The Onion Song’, whose simple, catchy melody I’d liked even as I struggled to reconcile it with the similarly themed ‘Melting Pot’ by Blue Mink. Did I like ‘Abraham, Martin and John’? Between then and now, I can’t remember.
One of the other things I didn’t know was Tammi Terrell had died at the age of 24 years within only a few months of ‘The Onion Song’, dropping out of our charts, of a brain tumour that had resisted nine operations, or that this was first diagnosed after she had collapsed on stage whilst singing live with Gaye in 1967. Gaye had held his partner’s voice in high esteem, and was devastated by her death. Because he was her friend, he was the only person from Motown to be allowed to attend her funeral, at which he sang.
Terrell’s death affected Gaye immensely, driving him into depression and drug use and into a deep rethinking of what he wanted from his music. The result of this was ‘What’s Going On’, as a song and an album. Berry Gordy hated it, thought that a song about Vietnam would kill Gaye’s career. Don’t forget that Motown was a commercial label, a hit factory, a production line, just one with incredibly talented musicians and singers. In Gordy’s eyes, ‘What’s Going On’ was anathema. Motown didn’t do politics, didn’t offend. I believe that Marvin Gaye responded to this by refusing to sing for six months, until Gordy gave way and agreed.
I heard it in the early part of 1971, a year on from beginning but not yet even beginning to form my own tastes. It was the follow-up to ‘Abraham, Martin and John’, but it didn’t chart, it didn’t get much airplay, and in my naïve way I blamed it on the contrast between the smooth surfaces, the easy, flowing vocals, the sweet music, and the busy, fussy percussion, bubbling beneath the surface of the song.
Every now and again, through the Seventies and beyond, there’d be Best Album polls. The New Musical Express came out with the first I saw, in 1973: their writers nominated 99, and a competition was set the readers to write 100 words nominating the 100th, with the winner getting the whole 100. Except that it was a Moody Blues album (my then favourites) and I had to pare my initial draft down from 200 words to exactly 100, I don’t remember my entry, but I didn’t win.
And the winner was What’s Going On, an album I’d never heard, that I’d never heard of, that seemed totally alien to the rock coverage of the NME. And every succeeding iteration of that Best 100, in that paper at least, was always won by Marvin Gaye and this album.
I was a white boy whose tastes started in pop, diverged into rock, with unwilling exposure to prog, and no interest in soul or disco, except for very odd things here and there (I was the least likely Jimmy Ruffin fan you could imagine). I’ve no idea now when I finally did listen to What’s Going On, but I was a long time past the Seventies, I had broadened my tastes in many unexpected directions (and I hadn’t had to listen to prog for a very long time).
And I was ready. Ready to listen with ears wide open to something that I at last understood was a masterpiece. To an album, to a song, that a man with things on his mind, looking at the world around him and seeing so many wrong things in it, seeing both his people and their people driven and riven, and speaking out, asking people to see and hear and and not keep on this path because of where it went.
First and foremost was this song. Musically, now I’ve discarded my stupid ideas about the clash between the voice and the percussion, I am in awe of it, as a relaxed, whole experience, that brings together Gaye’s assurance as a singer and his uncertainty as a man. The lyrics are simple and straightforward, couched as addresses to those around him as members of a great family: mothers, too many of them crying, brothers, far too many of them dying.
It speaks to the times, of a stupid, needless, cruel and draining war that too many rich white men avoided too easily and too many poor black men fought. Gaye sang from within the destruction of the Vietnam War, seeing the loss around him, asking for the tide to be stemmed, for the people to see each other as people. War is not the answer could be said in 1971, and increasingly many were saying it, though they were loathed and screamed at by the ones who weren’t at risk of dying.
Only love can conquer hate, in another’s voice, might have been a pale reflection of the hippy dippy trippy Flower Power of 1967, but in Gaye’s vision it was a reminder that we all of us must live together and that love was the only thing that worked for us all.
By the time I was old enough to hear these things, and to understand them outside of their being words, I was cynical and mistrusting, but I was old enough to hear this music and understand all it tried to do, and that its spirit was real, was whole, whole enough to overtake me.
America is no longer at war in Vietnam. Marvin Gaye was murdered by his father in 1984. But just as Sam Cooke saw what was around him, and put what he knew into ‘A Change is Gonna Come’, Marvin Gaye looked about him and sang ‘What’s Going On’. It too has not aged a nanosecond. It wrapped its time around itself, it was bold enough to make a statement, not a question, and it will forever speak to us of what we are and what we need to do and be if we are to extend our time on this planet.
Mama mama, there’s too many of you crying, brother, brother, brother, there’s far too many of you dying. Still.

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2 thoughts on “The Infinite Jukebox: Marvin Gaye’s ‘What’s Going On’

    1. And a song that will still be played in a thousand years. I was blind to so much in those young years, as will be further evidenced in another Jukebox piece I’ve only written this morning.

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