Political Songs | What’s Going On – Marvin Gaye

Rejected by other musicians as too political, Gaye reworked the original to make it a sad, beautiful, world-weary reflection on 1970s America – and Motown’s fastest-selling single.

In 1970, soul superstar Marvin Gaye went on strike. The musical conveyer belt that was Motown Records no longer appealed to him, the artist who had been successfully marketed until then as one of the label’s “lover men”. Marvin wanted control over his means of production, literally so.

It was a terrible time in his life, too. Marvin’s regular duet partner, Tammi Terrell, to whom he was close, had died from a brain tumour. His marriage to Anna Gordy, the sister of Motown’s big boss, Berry Gordy, was falling apart. Plus, his cocaine habit was threatening to spin out of control.

Marvin went into seclusion. Motown was getting anxious. How was the Prince of Soul’s songwriting going?

Marvin had a new song, What’s Going On, which was prompted by the unprovoked police brutality its co-composer, Renaldo “Obie” Benson, witnessed in May 1969. Benson, a member of Motown vocal group the Four Tops, was on tour with the band and as their bus arrived in San Francisco, he saw the police attacking a crowd of hippies over a disused urban lot called People’s Park.

He described the incident to author Ben Edmonds in the 2001 book, Marvin Gaye: What’s Going On and the Last Days of the Motown Sound. “The police was beatin’ on them, but they weren’t bothering anybody. I saw this, and started wondering what the fuck was going on. What is happening here? One question leads to another. Why are they sending kids so far away from their families overseas? Why are they attacking their own children in the streets here?”

Those questions became What’s Going On, but the other Four Tops rejected it for being too political. Even folk singer Joan Baez turned it down.

Brothers and fathers

Benson offered it to Marvin, who edited, tweaked, changed and enhanced the song. As Benson put it, “We measured him for the suit and he tailored the hell out of it.”

The “tailoring” included Marvin removing the question mark behind the song title. What’s Going On was no longer a question but a sad, beautiful, world-weary reflection on the situation in the United States: Malcolm X, Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy had all been assassinated, President Richard Nixon was in charge, race relations were deteriorating, poverty levels rising and there was an increasing anger against the escalating Vietnam war.

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For Marvin, What’s Going On was both a personal and a political statement.

His battle-weary younger brother, Frankie, was a Vietnam veteran who had just returned from a three-year tour of duty. His stories of hardship inspired Marvin, who universalised it:

Brother, brother, brother
There’s far too many of you dying
You know we’ve got to find a way
To bring some lovin’ here today

Marvin addressed a number of “fathers” in the song.

Father, father
We don’t need to escalate
You see, war is not the answer
For only love can conquer hate
You know we’ve got to find a way
To bring some lovin’ here today

There was his own father Marvin Sr, with whom he had a deeply troubled relationship. The song was almost prophetic, because Gaye’s father would shoot and kill him on 1 April 1984, the day before Marvin’s 45th birthday.

He also addressed the warmongering fathers of the American nation, pleading with those “fathers” and their running dogs to listen:

Picket lines and picket signs
Don’t punish me with brutality
Talk to me, so you can see
Oh, what’s going on

Marvin was excited by his new direction and got on the phone to Gordy, who was on holiday in Barbados. But the Motown label boss wasn’t impressed with the song’s overtly political tone and jazz influences.

Writer Dorian Lynskey described it in his book on protest music, 33 Revolutions Per Minute: A History of Protest Songs. “Gordy responded like a father whose favourite son had just rejected an Ivy League scholarship to become a Yippie. ‘Marvin, don’t be ridiculous. That’s taking things too far.’”

When Gordy heard the actual song he called it “the worst thing I’ve ever heard in my life” and said he hated the “Dizzy Gillespie-styled scats”.

Stalemate to sales

A months-long stalemate ensued as Marvin refused to record any other material. Not even his friend and fellow Motown star Smokey Robinson’s intervention changed Marvin’s mind. Smokey told Gordy that, “like a bear shitting in the woods, Marvin ain’t budging”.

Finally, Motown vice-president of distribution and sales Barney Ales, gave permission without Gordy’s knowledge for 100 000 units of the single to be pressed. It sold out within 24 hours of its release date on 21 January 1971. The next 100 000 copies were printed days later and sold out that same week, making What’s Going On Motown’s fastest-selling single ever.

The big boss, being a boss, smelled money. Gordy went to Marvin’s house and insisted that a reluctant Marvin record an album for What’s Going On. Wiley Gordy made a bet with Marvin that he wouldn’t deliver a full album within a month. Marvin, of course, did.

What’s Going On, the album, was a concept record that expanded on the single’s themes as well as on ecological issues, drug abuse, injustice and suffering. Produced by Marvin, it remained in the charts for more than a year and sold two million copies.

The introspective What’s Going On was the first Motown album not to have the label’s motto, “The Sound of Young America”, printed on its cover – accurately so, because it reflected a society that had lost its lustre, its verve, its smile.

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