By Mike Zwerin
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.
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."
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.
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.
words, from "Inner City Blues": "Makes me wanna holler,
Throw up both my hands."
and Roll Hall of Fame: Marvin Gaye
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.