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Marvin Gaye: What's Going On

Marvin Gaye's "What's Going On"
Reissued as Deluxe Two-CD Box

By Mike Zwerin

PARIS, 5 September 2001 - Marvin Gaye's elegant "What's Going On" has been reissued as a deluxe two-CD box by Motown/Universal on the occasion of its 30th anniversary. With alternate takes and mixes, original single versions and "Live at the Kennedy Center" added, there's close to four times more music than on the original LP, which was, along with the Beatles' "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band" and just possibly the Steve Miller Band's "Sailor," one of the most musically mature and lyrically successful "theme" or "concept" albums of the rock era.

The nine tracks of the original LP take up the first half of the first CD. They are followed by what is called "Alternate Detroit Mix" - another take on the same material. By the time you realize you are basically hearing the same stuff again, instead of turning it down or off you want to make it louder. The more alternate tracks the better. Put the entire box on a loop and let it run all day. Gaye, who was called the Prince of Motown, broke through in 1968 with the enormous hit "I Heard It Through the Grapevine." At the time, he had been part of a good and promising duo with Tammi Terrell, who became his close friend as well as his singing partner. She developed brain cancer and one night she collapsed in his arms onstage. She died in 1970. Gaye was devastated. He went into a long depression and came out of it with the song "What's Going On."

At first, Motown did not want to record it. They thought its social and political outrage would anger too many people. And it would certainly be no hit. By that time, Gaye had enough leverage inside the company to be able to self-produce, and little by little he got it done. Then the company refused to release it. What about all of that sophisticated jazz/funk/soul fusion? There was an angry disagreement, but the single came out in 1971, and it stayed on the soul chart longer than "Grapevine." .

On the album of the same name that followed, although there are arranger, adapter and production credits, it is clear that Gaye is responsible for just about all of it. He even sings backup parts. It was recorded in Detroit, and there are neither star soloists nor the usual big-name studio sharks from either coast. Gaye was already one of the franchise voices of our time, but this piece of genius - there is no other word for it - is something of a miracle. Gaye had a hand in writing all nine songs. He hummed fragments and sketches to arrangers, he coached and coaxed continually everywhere throughout every session. Editing involved precise string, brass, vocal and percussion overdubs, resulting in some of the most complex multitracking up to that time. After it was released it was called "album of the century" and Gaye never recorded for Motown again.

The muscular street poetry... "Hang-ups, letdowns Bad breaks, setbacks Natural fact is I can't pay my taxes" . ...is also chock full of clichés. "Save the babies," "love your mother" and "war is hell," for three. At the same time, there are astounding, sophisticated, hair-raising modulations - like fireworks exploding with an aleatoric sequence of colors in unexpected places. Gaye's high tenor voice over-dubbing itself floats on top of killer, McCartney-influenced electric-bass lines mixed over shifting, altered chords and a bubbling Latin-tinged funk beat. Nothing like it had ever been heard before. To speak of "clichés" in such a context is to understand nothing.

It can be seen as a final resolution of that school of harmonically sophisticated pop music that goes back to Paul Whiteman and up through the arrangements of Fletcher Henderson, Quincy Jones, Nelson Riddle and Gil Evans. Steely Dan's "Gaucho" would not have existed without "What's Going On." Along with Miles Davis's "Tutu," it is the ultimate postmodern urban music reflecting big city life at the end of the 20th century - the high-rises and the parks as well as the ghetto. There was no other place for that tradition to go. After that, hip-hop was to leave melody and harmony behind and take to the streets.

In Gaye's words, from "Inner City Blues": "Makes me wanna holler, Throw up both my hands."

Related: Rock and Roll Hall of Fame: Marvin Gaye

Mike Zwerin has been jazz and rock critic for the International Herald Tribune for the last twenty years. He was also the European correspondent for The Village Voice. Mike Zwerin is the author of several books on jazz and the jazz editor of Culturekiosque.com.

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