Sacred Cows: an occasional series in which NME writers re-appraise classic albums
After towing the party line in the ‘60s, it wasn’t until the ‘70s that soul music found its voice in terms of talking about the appalling behaviour doled out to black Americans (well, black people all around the world, but for the most part, soul sang about the people on its doorstep). The Last Poets spat furious socio-aware polemics over sparse rhythms, soon followed by Gil Scott Heron. The big guns were there too, with Stevie, Curtis, Aretha, Nina and more, all delivering some very uncomfortable truths to White America.
In the mix was Marvin Gaye who had tried looking a little further than love and heartache with the poorly executed, but well-meaning ‘Onion Song’, but it wasn’t until he recorded ‘What’s Going On?’ that people really took notice. He talked of ‘Inner City Blues’, growing his hair long, picket signs, the environment, corruption, Vietnam and a spiritual healing of a world broken in the eyes of a man who was to leave behind his pop leanings and grow into a ‘serious artist’.
Sadly, all these thoughts and views resulted in one of the shabbiest LPs ever cut to wax. The title single, as a stand-alone piece, is a terrific thing. It feels almost like a mood-poem (or something equally idiotically hatched up by a writer trying to prove his chops), funking along with Gaye’s flow of consciousness and howls of anguish. However, when stretched as a motif over the duration of an entire LP – well, it’s about as invigorating as a train timetable.
That’s not to say the album doesn’t have its moments. ‘Right On’ is a pleasant enough jam for a couple of minutes (before it outstays its welcome by noodling on for too long) and ‘Inner City Blues’ is, without question, one of the greatest pieces of music ever created by anyone, ever.
Sadly, the rest of the album is so samey (intentionally, granted) that it’s hard to stay interested in it. Berry Gordy tried to resist Gaye’s assertion that the LP should be a song cycle, but gave in to the artist’s whim. The sales proved Gaye to be right, however, Gordy had a point. The commercial element of a song cycle is of little importance, but the fact that ‘What’s Goin’ On?’ is really, really boring, is. The message and intention of the album is admirable If You Like That Sort Of Thing, but for the most part, ‘What’s Going On?’ meanders along too much. ‘Flyin’ High (In The Friendly Sky)’ is nearly 4 minutes long, but feels like it overruns by roughly 82 years thanks to it merging seamlessly with the gnawing ‘Save The Children’. The same four or five chords come back for the tawdry ‘God Is Love’ and the distracting ‘Mercy Mercy Me’.
‘Wholy Holy’ arrives after the jam-session to plod along in what is clearly a showcase for Gaye to duet with himself and then, after the interest of the opening 2 minutes of the album have long left, you’re left with the devastatingly brilliant ‘Inner City Blues’ which probably never gets a listen by most, thanks to unswerving boredom setting in like a bad breakfast.
Like many classic albums, ‘What’s Going On?’ suffers from universal praise, leaving record buyers gobbling it up, never likely to embrace it in the same way that those who feel like they should praise it to the hilt (because it makes them look clever). Sadly for Marvin Gaye’s great opus, he told us more about himself in ‘I Heard It Through The Grapevine’ and the myriad of songs where he basically told us all how much he enjoyed wielding his penis around (‘Let’s Get It On’, ‘Sexual Healing’, ‘Distant Lover’… although, that said in ‘Ego Tripping Out’, his obsession with women is nauseating to say the least).
With ‘What’s Going On?’, Marvin ushered in a new wave of creative freedom for Motown artists, which was impressive for a while, but sadly, Stevie Wonder’s ‘Journey Through The Secret Life Of Plants’ was one of the results, not to mention ‘Songs In The Key Of Life’ which is one of the most arduous albums you’re likely to sit through, once you’ve taken the 3 or 4 great tracks off it.
Basically, ‘What’s Going On?’ plods around the same uninspiring musical motif, leaving Marvin Gaye the room to manoeuvre around a subject matter well covered elsewhere and, not only that, draws a curtain on Berry Gordy’s control over the greatest pop-factory the world ever had the fortune to be graced with. Some legacy.