Counterbalance No. 6: Marvin Gaye’s ‘What’s Going On’

Marvin Gaye's What's Going On has been called the greatest soul album of all time. But is it truly "right on"—or maybe a little bit "jive"? Counterbalance’s Mendelsohn and Klinger find out what's happening, brother.

What's Going On
Marvin Gaye
21 May 1971

Klinger: Ah, there’s nothing like relaxing on a pillowy cloud of soulfulness for a half-hour or so to settle the old nerves, eh Fresh? I feel like a new man.

Mendelsohn: You nailed it, Klinger. I had no idea what I was missing. I mean, I’m familiar with Marvin Gaye—who isn’t? But I never spent any time with his albums, and if it weren’t for this little endeavor we’ve embarked on, I don’t think I ever would. And oh, what I would have been missing!

I have very limited knowledge of soul music, but it seems to me that there is something a little bit different about this album compared to the soul albums that had come before it. Shed a little light on this for me.

Klinger: Well, I’d say the main thing is that What’s Going On is one of the few soul albums of its time that was constructed as an album first and foremost. Up until the late 1960s, soul was almost exclusively a singles genre. LPs were generally a few hits scattered among a handful of covers and lesser tracks. But the advent of serious rock writing gave a few artists a new perspective by the end of the decade. After blowing the hippies’ minds at Monterey Pop, Otis Redding was starting to get the big picture about his work, but his death seemed to set things back for a couple more years.

Ironically, the big breakthrough happened at Motown, a label that had kept its artists under pretty tight control. Maybe Berry Gordy was preoccupied with the move to LA, the grooming of the Jackson 5, and the shtupping of Diana Ross. Still, he seemed unusually willing to cede territory to budding auteurs such as Stevie Wonder and, of course, Marvin Gaye.

But I take it from your response that What’s Going On is to your liking, my funky friend?

Mendelsohn: I like it. But with my known predilection for pop music, does that come as a surprise? Gaye packed What’s Going On with vocal harmonies, melody to spare and beats—oh those beats! For a closet pop freak, this is music to my ears—literally. It’s just a bit more sophisticated.

But on a higher level, I love the raw emotion in this album. At the surface, this album could soothe any savage beast. Still, there is so much anger buried in Gaye’s lyrics as he rages against the system, bemoaning the plight of the underprivileged and unemployed, calling for equality in a country where equality should reign supreme but seldom does.

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Klinger: It’s the sweetness of the music that turns the anger and confusion into a beautiful melancholy, which makes all the difference. Would even the most enlightened rock critics, let alone the average AM-radio listener, been as willing to listen to an ecological diatribe, wrapped in such an attractive package? Marvin Gaye had learned the lessons of Motown and taken them to the next level here.

Mendelsohn: This album is deep, no question. And there’s no argument that Gaye pushed soul to a different level, but does this record deserve its top ten status? Was it a game-changer? Or did it achieve its status simply as a sum of its parts? Does Great Soul Music + Social Commentary = Top Ten Placement? Or is it the album’s ability to transcend the decades and remain strikingly relevant to this day?

Klinger: I think you’ve tapped into something very important about rock critics, especially those first-wave boomer guys that initially embraced What’s Going On. To qualify for this kind of rarified, Top-Ten-of-All-Time air, I suspect that a soul album would have to meet them on their terms, talking about war, drugs, and other stuff that the “heads” could “dig”—preferably by using their own groovy lingo in the process. But none of that’s Marvin Gaye’s fault, and it doesn’t diminish how great this album is.

Those of us who first heard What’s Going On on CD, though, missed out on something pretty terrific—the side one/side two shift. Notice how the tension builds throughout those first few songs and then climaxes with “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)”. There’s a massive drop as the strings and the chorus effect segue abruptly into “Right On” and its harder, grittier piano-based soul. The album becomes a completely different experience when the needle lifts. It’s really not the same feeling when you have to switch into that mode yourself.

Mendelsohn: The subtleties of vinyl are a lost art, my friend. Why write in cursive when you can just dash off a quick TXT full of LOLs? At least with CDs, you could get the occasional “hidden track”. These days it’s just MP3s. Finding a message in the metadata just doesn’t have the same effect.

No matter the format, Gaye’s music seems to have remained as relevant as the day it was written, much more so than the first five albums on the list. It has a timeless quality, probably because humanity is still struggling with the same problems Gaye so eloquently addresses.

Klinger: Wait, you haven’t been writing these in cursive? I thought we agreed that we’d draw these up in longhand and then leave them with Betty, who’d transfer them over to cyber format so they can go on the Web site. I mean, Betty’s been with Counterbalance ever since our grandfathers founded this operation to review every single entry in the Burpee Seed Catalog! I’m all for this “new media” you’re always on about, but procedures are procedures, Mendelsohn.

If Marvin Gaye were alive today, he’d surely be addressing issues just like these (that is, when he wasn’t once again stressing the need to “get it on”).

Mendelsohn: What are you prattling on about? All of my missives are first written in shorthand, edited and transferred to longhand and then mailed first-class to Betty for transcription—how they make it to you or “online” for that matter, I haven’t the foggiest (I hear it has to do with a series of tubes). In my opinion, if the written word isn’t printed in a nice, neat typeface or inscribed in flowing cursive lettering, it isn’t worth reading. I was merely bemoaning the loss of culture that extends from the physical act of flipping a vinyl record to the eye-pleasing curls of the King’s longhand.

Gaye didn’t really address “getting it on” on this record, which I found surprising considering singing about “getting it on” is what he is most famous for.

Klinger: Much as I love that song, I’m glad that he’s also become known for What’s Going On. Interestingly, Gaye never really returned to the social issues that he visited on this album (although his 1972 blaxploitation score Trouble Man comes close). As great as later albums often were, they typically remained on the physical plane.

In some regards, he has much in common with John Lennon, whose own peace period was relatively short-lived, at least insofar as it was committed to vinyl. I suspect that the rock star excesses of the ’70s had a lot to do with both artists abandoning their lofty goals, and their tragic demises have a lot to do with people’s earnest desire to see them at their best and most profound.

Mendelsohn: It is much easier and much more fun to sing about getting it on than it is trying to bring the nation’s attention to the suffering around them. Because, in the end, who would listen to music if it didn’t provide some sort of escape from our social ills? Listening to someone harp on me about equality, and the environment gets old pretty quick. Whereas listening to someone singing about getting it on will never get old.

Klinger: Yes, no matter how pillowy the clouds of soulfulness are, and no matter how keen your social and political observations are, eventually, you’re going to want to get back to getting it on.

Mmm hmmm…

Excuse me. I need to call my wife.

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Ten years ago, we began presenting the beloved Counterbalance series that ran through 2016. Jason Mendelsohn and Eric Klinger debate the merits of some of the most critically-acclaimed albums of all time. We are re-running the entire series with a new entry each week. Enjoy.

This article was originally published on 21 October 2010.