Today’s the birthday of Marvin Gaye, famous for his classic version of “I Heard It through the Grapevine,” and for today’s song, “What’s Going On” The song was recorded as a response to violence at a protest rally and was deemed too political by Bernie Gordy at Motown, so they sat on it till Gaye’s refusal to record further material forced their hand. The song was a hit for R&B and pop stations, and introduced me to Gaye, as a Top 40 listener (yes, thanks to Motown’s delay the song dates as yet another from 1971). The album of the same name also had the hit “Mercy Mercy Me” which was all about threats to ecology as the Seventies got under way.
“Don’t punish me / With brutality” is a key line of today’s song, as it references the phrase “police brutality,” a widespread response to the Civil Rights movement and also to Vietnam protests. And of course it would be a factor in the recent Occupy movement as well. Which is a way of saying that “What’s Going On” remains a key question. And the concerns of “Mercy Mercy Me” have reason to be even more anxious now than they did then. Both songs though, as I think back on them, seem, in their sound, wonderfully mellow, as perhaps only the Seventies can be and get away with it. It’s in that opening, unmistakable sax riff, here, and in Gaye’s light and airy vocal, double-tracked with himself. Gaye, with today’s song, showed himself a master of a certain kind of jazz-soul combination that made the song almost Easy Listening, and yet the words and the “right on, brother, right on” interjections in the chorus keep us from feeling that this is a feel-good song. And how many Top 40 hits of the day offer policy opinions, “father, father, there’s no need to escalate.”
The irony in hearing those words now comes from the fact that Gaye was killed by his own father with a gun that Gaye bought his old man, who feared break-ins. The domestic wrangling between Gaye and his dad certainly did “escalate” when you move from abusive words and fists to firearms. Which, in our gun-happy culture, is all too common and another reason to ask “What’s Going On.”
The song is not only mellow, but, despite its lyrics, also very cool. Maybe too cool for the situations of mourning for the too-many who are dying, though Gaye does sound troubled. The line “who are they to judge us because our hair is long” is of the moment as the notion of “long-hairs” as hippies and peaceniks and druggies had been prevalent for a few years by then. The song’s recording follows on the Kent State campus killings and the song, in cautioning our nation’s “fathers” not to escalate the war, could also be a warning about escalating the war or revolution in the streets—the “picket lines / and picket signs.” The song, without partaking of the usual musical settings for anti-war protest, could be said, like Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come,” to make a bitter pill easier to swallow. In any case, it was a very influential song, and a milestone for Motown.
The album continues the theme of “For only love can conquer hate”—which for Gaye means specifically the love of God and Jesus. That aspect of the album tips the genre more toward gospel-soul and that’s fine, but the message that Jesus is the answer seems a bit wishful when far too much ill has been done in his name and when the atrocities in both human life and environmental costs that Gaye mourns go on regardless of whether one believes in a higher salvation. Still, you can’t blame Gaye for trying to include a positive message to offset the finely wrought confusion of “What’s Going On”