Messages. Billions sent every day and 99% of which are a dime a dozen. The I luv u’s, LOL’s, Hey sxy’s and see u l8r’s of this world are important to the sender yet wholly ineffectual in the grand scheme of things. It can be argued that most political messages are just as unwarranted. Shrouded in hidden conceptualism and tainted with overhyped back talk and alarmist double speak. Messages in music are often the same, when it’s not blatantly promoting sex money and misogyny.
Once in a while however the opposite happens. Like an aural bolt from the blue, an acoustic thunderclap from the heavens, or an instrumental tsunami from beneath the waves. All put in their place by arguably the silkiest ray of angst driven vocal sunshine soul has ever scene before or since.
When ”What’s Going On” was set free on the masses in 1971, the world in many ways seemed to be a simpler place. The internet was not even a twinkle in Sir Tim Berners Lee’s eye, which made music’s use as a communication tool far more valid than it could ever be in todays social media hyper verse. The news, social commentary and angst at that time was driven by one theme….. Vietnam.
Through the tribulations and hardships suffered by friends in relation to the social duel brought about by some of the most disturbing activity and imagery in military history, Marvin Gaye brought about arguably the most communally representative album ever created. Told through the eyes of a returning veteran, Marvin turned the spotlight on his own country, questioning the stance of the powers that be, the civil unrest and the treatment of his fellow servicemen. And he did this with a brand of twisted soul that could easily have alienated him from his fan base and his iconic record label.
Berry thought ”What’s Going On” was the worst song he had ever heard’ is a statement that for a split second had me questioning if Mr Gordy was indeed the brains behind Motown’s success. To countenance such a thought these days is sacrilege yet The motor city labels quality control team did their best Simon Cowell impression when faced with Marvin’s vision. Sociopolitical soapboxing was never on the agenda. The formula was simple… Give the people what we love and they will love what we give. The irony being that Marvin’s opus was probably a better example of that than anything that had come from the label before it. Yet only a threat of never recording for Motown again changed their minds and the rest, as they say, is history.
The stretched out, funky, opera scented amalgam championed by Gaye had never been seen with such abandon in the same musical airspace. Purposely designed for each song to melt perfectly into the next, the music matches its subject matter. Its troubled and moody and eerie and melancholy. The sombre, off kilter, almost morose haunting wails and strings that easily overpower the soft drums and tablas of What’s Happening Brother, Save The Children or Wholly Holy for example, are of a type that musical messiahs are made of.
Where either psychedelia, Rock or untainted Soul came to the fore on many of the other leading albums of the era, ”Whats Going On” is the antithesis of all of that and more. The way the message was delivered and the soundscapes used to accompany the message was the catalyst for a new brand of Soul. Artists could now look a lot further afield for subject matter and the younger generation of that era proved that if it was done right, it would be accepted critically and commercially. If a more forward thinking, accomplished and era relevant soul album has been released before or since, the world has yet to hear it.