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'What's Going On' - The Story Behind the Song

Marvin Gaye was undoubtably one of the most influential artists of the twentieth century, he went from being one of Motown’s biggest stars to being one of the biggest artists in the world. The nineteen sixties saw Motown Records become arguable the greatest hit making factory the world has ever seen and the record company helped nourish some of the greatest pop and RnB artists of all-time. ‘The 1960s would be Motown's golden years. When the decade started, Shop Around by the Miracles was the second bestselling single in America (it sold a million copies). The next year, Motown signed the Supremes, then known as the Primettes. The Temptations, Marvin Gaye, and Stevie Wonder soon followed. In 1962, the Marvelettes gave Motown their first number one pop hit, Please Mr. Postman’. Funding Universe. By the early seventies Gaye had already showcased his musical ability to the world with hits like ‘I heard it through the grapevine’ and ‘Aint no mountain high enough’ which he sung with his good friend Tammi Terrell.

The writing process of “What’s going on” came at a significantly dark time in Gaye’s career, his marriage to Anna Gordy had turned sour and his friend and fellow artist Tammi Terrell had recently passed away from a brain tumour. The song was also inspired by the amount of unrest that America was experiencing during this time; Malcolm X and Martin Luther King had been shot and killed and racial divides were beginning to increase across the country, this was a very dark time for the United States of America. The song was also hugely inspired by Marvin’s brother Frankie as he returned from the Vietnam war. Frankie told him many stories from the front lines which also made a huge impression on the singer. “Tired of churning out peppy love songs, Gaye co-wrote What’s Going On with the hope of taking his music in a new direction. He wanted, in his words, to “touch the souls of people everywhere.” When his boss, Berry Gordy, listened to the new recording, his excitement turned to horror. The song was more than a soulful change of pace; it was a lament depicting the sorrow and futility of the Vietnam War”. Mental Floss (2012).

The arrangement itself began with Renaldo Benson of the Four Tops setting out to write a new song after seeing some young anti-war protesters getting assaulted and then arrested by police in San Francisco. Benson was soon followed by Al Cleveland a well established Motown composer and eventually the two were helped out further by Gaye himself. “Accordingly, after a golf game with Obie Benson and Al Cleveland resulted in them playing Marvin Gaye the unfinished song back at his house, he came up with the title and added more lyrics, while also embellishing the melody on his piano. 'What's Going On', Gaye thought, would be ideal for the Originals, whose hits 'Baby I'm for Real' and 'The Bells' he had co‐written and produced”. Richard Buskin (2011). After working on the song with Benson and Cleveland, Marvin decided that the song would be perfect for the Originals (a Motown group that he was managing at the time). However Benson did not agree and replied by offering him a percentage of the royalties if he released it as one of his tracks.

The track itself shows a turning point, not just in Marvin Gaye’s career but for Motown as a whole, before this song Motown artists were seen as innocent performers singing about love. Many involved in the record label even spoke about the way in which the artists were told to bring them selves across socially and how they were told specifically not to write about anything controversial as well as in interviews; but “What’s going on?” changed this for good. Keeping this in consideration its no wonder that the head of Motown Berry Gordy refused to release it at first, “I was in the Bahamas trying to relax,” Gordy recalled in a Motown documentary. “He called and said, ‘Look, I’ve got these songs.’ When he told me they were protest songs, I said, ‘Marvin, why do you want to ruin your career?’ Lydia Hutchinson (2014). Despite the strong feeling coming from the boss, Marvin decided to do what many would of seen at the time as a huge risk and to keep pushing for the songs release. “They didn’t like it, didn’t’ understand it, and didn’t trust it. Management said the songs were too long, too formless, and would get lost on a public looking for easy three-minute stories. For months they wouldn’t release it. My attitude had to be firm: ‘Put it out or I’ll never record for you again!’”. Rock Hall (2015).

Aside from the lyrical content, the track does sound very different to many of the previously recorded Motown songs; the chords for instance are quite experimental for an artist who prior to this album used very typical chords for most pop songs at the time. “To record “What’s Going On” and the concept album around it, Marvin drew from the full arsenal of local talent, from house arranger David Van De Pitte to the Funk Brothers. Paying for the sessions himself, Marvin drafted in extra players, including several Detroit Symphony members and two friends from the Detroit Lions football team to add street chatter.” Lydia Hutchinson (2014). Unlike Gayes previous albums, “Whats going on?” was in fact a best selling album rather than just a best selling single, I feel as though this was the turning point in the singers career, the point in which he decided to add some seriousness to everything that he did, a concept that in fact worked out very well for him indeed.

George Capon

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