Soul, as you may have noticed, is a bit of a weak spot for me, but in my defense, it’s not entirely my fault. For one thing, the soul music industry was all about singles, so not that many albums, let alone great albums, were even made in the first place. Motown continued to produce mainly singles long after the Beatles ushered in the album era for rock music with Rubber Soul in 1965, and by 1970 Marvin Gaye had tired of their outdated assembly line production model. He recorded “What’s Going On” and presented it to Motown founder and executive Berry Gordy, who declined to release it as a single. Gordy was wary of releasing a “message song” that departed from Motown’s pop formula, which had been nailed down to a science by this time, and he also was hesitant to grant artistic control to one of his artists, fearing others would demand the same.
Gaye responded by refusing to record any more music until it was released, and Gordy relented, releasing “What’s Going On” on January 20, 1971. Gordy, it turns out, was dead wrong about the song’s commercial prospects — it skyrocketed to the top of the Billboard R&B chart for five straight weeks. Gordy apologized to Gaye by asking him to record an entire album he could release to the hungry masses, and Gaye delivered a doozy. What’s Going On opens with a six-song medley that features no fade outs or stoppages, a most unusual recording technique at a time when everything was geared towards how it would sound on the radio. (That’s why fade-outs are so common on older recordings. It should be noted, however, that the title track does feature a bit of a fade-out (it was initially recorded and released as a single, after all), but it’s still easy to overlook it if you’re not paying complete attention to it.)
It’s a bold artistic statement, especially coming from the conservative Motown production model. That opening six-song medley occupies the entire first side, spanning close to twenty minutes. It ends with “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology),” which is one of the album’s highlights, for sure. The second side is even more interesting, and it sports my all-time favorite Marvin Gaye song, “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler),” which is one of the great album closers. (He even reprises “What’s Going On” towards the end of it for good measure.) But the curiously long “Right On” is the album’s biggest revelation, as Gaye allows the famed Motown session musicians the Funk Brothers to spread their wings and fly for more than seven minutes.
There’s just so much happening in all of these songs: the great James Jamerson’s incredible bass anchors the whole thing quite nicely with a funky energy, a jazzy flavor permeates the record’s air at pretty much all times, the omnipresent orchestra never sounds forced or cheesy, and Gaye’s voice never sounds smoother or more soulful than it does here. What’s Going On is a terrific achievement, overhauling an entire industry and providing needed social commentary during a turbulent period in our country’s history. It’s hard to make the case that very many albums in popular music are greater than this one.