Monday, January 9, 2012

Classic Albums: Marvin Gaye's What's Going On

Some artists excel in story telling, others in evoking mood.  The latter take you to a beautiful, fascinating place that you never want to leave.  The best albums of the vinyl era -intended to be a holistic experience rather than a collection of songs- build these other worlds inside of their grooves.  Of all the great records, there is perhaps none that can succeeds so well in making its feel felt than Marvin Gaye's What's Going On, so much so that when I put it on the turntable, it seems like a sacramental experience.  When I listen to it, I hear the last sounds of what was best about the 1960s, straining to be heard as it was released in 1971, with the dawn of the Age of Aquarius fading into sunset.

The title track opens the album not with notes, but with voices; a bunch of guys greeting each other, making it seem as if the residents of this album's world are calling out to invite the listener in.  The voices are key to the concept of the album: a Vietnam veteran returns home to comment on what he sees in America.  The voices give way to a high, mournful saxophone that encapsulates the whole feel of the record in just a few notes.  (I first heard those notes on the soundtrack to The Big Chill, which a friend had dubbed onto tape off of record for me when I was in junior high.  Strangely enough, that soundtrack sparked my love of soul music, especially via "My Girl," "Tracks of My Tears," and "What's Going On.")

There are many reasons to love this album, but among the biggest is that the Funk Brothers, the Motown house band, are finally given a chance to show what they can really do.  If you love music, you need to see Standing in the Shadows of Motown, a documentary about these musicians, who got little credit or dough, despite the fact that they were the symphony behind a huge number of the best 45s ever made.  Although their names weren't on those Motown singles, they were the most successful musical group of all time.  Most of these musicians had backgrounds in jazz, which helps explain their otherworldly feel and the subtle swing behind those classic jams.  In the documentary, pianist Joe Hunter reveals the breadth of his music ability when he talks about his early influences, saying that his goal was to make his left hand "as strong as Rachmaninov's."  These guys were the real deal, and on Gaye's revolutionary record they are set loose to go beyond the simpler pop structures that Motown had called for to that point.

The first side of What's Going On is less a pop album side than a symphony, the songs sliding into each other, tied together by the theme of the social issues of the Vietnam era and the ethereal musical mood.  Political songs often fail due to their heavy-handedness, but the intimacy of the album's sound makes them  less bombastic anthems (Bono, I'm looking at you) than heartfelt pleas.  On the title track when Gaye sings, "Father, father/ we don't need to escalate/ because war is not the answer/ and only love can conquer hate" and the music suddenly rises, I never fail to get a chill down my spine.  The sentiments of "Save the Children" could easily come off ham-handed or just sillily sentimental, but this is a song that really means it.  You can hear the weariness in Gaye's voice as he inhabits the Vietnam vet character, a man who has seen so much death and destruction already in his short life and is saddened by seeing the violence on the city streets.  The same feeling of genuine concern comes out on "Mercy Mercy Me"'s lament for ecological destruction.  Instead of raising his voice in frustration and anger, as many political anthems tend to do, Gaye drops it in disappointment over humanity's blindness.  That song closes out what is perhaps the greatest single album side in history, twenty minutes of unmatched, brilliant beauty.

The second side is pretty damn good too, and it goes even further away from pop song structures into sound landscapes.  "Right On" has a bouncy Latin jazz feel to it, and the musicians stretch the track out past seven minutes, segueing into the coda of "Wholy Holy."  As good as those songs are, they are mere prelude to the record's last number "Inner City Blues," a dark, pulsating groove that bitterly recounts the stifling inequality of life in the ghetto and what it's like to live a life with the deck constantly stacked against you.  Gaye delivers his lines with a startling directness, the lyrics spare and skeletal.  In many ways, both literal and figurative, it's the flip side of "What's Going On."  The title track holds out the hope for peace, love, and understanding amidst war, violence, and suffering; "Inner City Blues" holds out no hope at all.  The album begins with a blast of sixties idealism, and ends on a note of seventies depression and malaise.

I see the latter in the back cover of the album, which has always strangely affected me.  Gaye stands in the rain wearing a massive unbuttoned black leather coat, in what looks to be a broken down playground, with an almost despondent look on his face.  It's a visual representation of the mood of "Inner City Blues," a sign that the man who once sang such songs of life-affirming power ("How Sweet it Is" etc.) wants to take the listener down some darker byways.  In these days of "bad breaks" and "setbacks," we need an artist like him to shed some light on what's going on.

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