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The Rock’s Backpages Rewind: Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On

Smokey Robinson called it the greatest album ever made; certainly What's Going On is the single greatest achievement by one's most singular talents. Jim Irvin reappraised Gaye's masterpiece in MOJO--Barney Hoskyns, Editorial Director, Rock's Backpages

Some years ago I interviewed Paul Buchanan of the Blue Nile. A musician known for his restless lifestyle, I asked him if there was anywhere he'd like to settle. Stumped at first, towards the end of the interview he thought of somewhere he'd always fancied inhabiting. "I wanted to live in the first sixteen bars of Marvin Gaye's 'Inner City Blues'," he said.

This makes perfect sense. It's a piece of music that appears in front of your ears like a sonic hologram depicting a city in suspended animation - congas here, piano over there, the bass snaking by in the foreground, the strings sailing by in back. And there, in the centre, stand Marvin and his shadow, swaying in the music's current like a couple of spirits, singing - in that wistful way of theirs - about the insidious pressure of bills, taxes, politics and crime.

This tableau reveals an intriguing quality of What's Going On. Here is a "protest" record, a suite about life's iniquities, that barely breaks into a sweat. Marvin doesn't browbeat and rage, he floats into your conscience. And these aren't songs so much as ruminations, dreamy litanies delivered into the middle-distance, with Marvin as a watchful zephyr, one minute warning of modern life's unwholesome drift, the next describing a more godly, more loving world. Facing a future of harmful social upheaval, Marvin sings up a little glimpse of perfection and beckons us in.

Which is why What's Going On has endured, indeed grown in reputation, down the 30 years since it first appeared. Apart from making politics sexy, Marvin (and his many collaborators) somehow fashioned a paradise that few have approached since, and the longer it exists without equal the more inviting it looks.

Of course, many of the album's sentiments - the "why can't we just live together" stuff, "war is hell, be good to your brother, love God, save the children" and so on - have long since become pop clichés, particularly in soul music. But somehow, Gaye's iteration of these ideals is so deft that they never feel like platitudes.

Smokey Robinson, in his introduction to the splendid anniversary reissue, calls it, unequivocally, the greatest album of all time, though he notes that Motown, especially company founder Berry Gordy, was resistant to it at first. It bore no resemblance to the kind of thing Motown had thrived on. As it turned out, Gordy was right to be suspicious, for (in tandem with the work of Sly Stone, Curtis Mayfield and Isaac Hayes) What's Going On's sophistication and poise made the ingenuous charm of Motown's regular output look hopelessly outmoded.

This new edition allows us to reassess that feat on several levels, to gauge how the record developed and how quickly it was done. It includes the oft-forgotten single version of the title track that preceded the album (no party-style intro, a more clattery rhythm track, less prominent backing vocals and a drier mix - this is the cut that first horrified Berry Gordy). Then it lets us into a secret, making available for the first time the mix of the album prepared in Detroit in April 1971, one month before its subsequent, final mixdown in LA only two weeks before the release date.

You might not play this mix much, but as a lesson in how a few tweaks can make or break a record it's exemplary. The drier, flatter feel lacks the focus and clarity of the album we've come to love. On the second disc there's a live rendering of the whole LP as part of a complete concert from 1972: though some of the playing's shaky, the opening medley of Marvin's '60s hits delivered What's Going On-style is fascinating, something you wish he done in the studio. Finally, there's the original gatefold artwork featuring Marvin's pleased-with-himself liner notes.

Three key songs, including the title track, were co-written with Renaldo Benson of the Four Tops and Al Cleveland. Lyricists Jamie Nyx, Elgie Stover and Marvin's wife Anna Gordy helped shape its groundbreaking worldview, and conga player Earl DeRouen took part in creating the album's extended groove, 'Right On'. David Van DePitte's string arrangements were both pervasive and subtle and, as already noted, Laurence Miles' final mix was a superb bit of architecture.

What's Going On stands as both eulogy and testament to a spirit of co-operation, understanding and harmony. It's a vision of Utopia in words and music one could wander around in for ever.


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