Everyone's been in a situation where a friend has recommended an album to you. However, some albums rise to a plataeu where there's almost an unpoken contract amongst music listeners - if you consider yourself a fan of music, you have to hear this album. They can be seen - almost perversely - as a rites of passage. Sgt. Peppers? Check. Pet Sounds? Check. Thriller? Check. What's Going On is on that plataeu.
Contextually, it deserves that status. Motown was a label issuing a constant stream of soul and proto-R&B during the 60s and 70s. It was the biggest label in the world - but it was a self-contained, almost disengaged one. Nobody on the roster was taking notice of the world's ills. Except, that is, Marvin Gaye. He took what he saw around him - war and racial tension, mainly - and turned it into an album. An album that Motown boss Berry Gordy labelled as 'the worst thing I've ever heard'. The public disagreed, and all of a sudden, Motown's audience was woken up to the real world, and the peaceful protestors of the world has a soundtrack. Consequently, we were treated to one of the greatest purple patches in musical history, as Stevie Wonder found a new artistic freedom in Marvin's wake.
Musically, however, it doesn't. Albums of that stature rarely do. It simply hasn't aged very well, for a start. The 'love-conquers-all' message it presents you is, most people would say, an admirable one. But it's a horribly naive one, too. It didn't seem that way in the 70s, but now we look upon that sort of message differently. It also suffers the problem of having singles that tower above the rest of the album. I went into this album blind (having not heard any of it) and I picked out three songs that actually do justify the status this album has. They were the title track, Inner City Blues, and Mercy Mercy Me. All released as singles. Looks like Berry Gordy got something right after all.
To a fan of rock music, the sort of socially conscious, and very peaceful, politics in this album, may well be wrong-footing. The political music we're more used to consists of Rage Against The Machine, early Manic Street Preachers, and The Clash - bands that came storming out of the traps and took no prisoners. Here, the comments on the outside world are wrapped in lush, soulful arrangements, Marvin's equally lush and soulful voice, and a kind of street-level preaching (a scan of the lyrics throws up countless 'oh Lord's and 'brother's). Marvin Gaye wasn't the kind of person to have a video directed by Michael Moore. Consequently, his politics seem very weak. This may well not matter to some listeners, but there's occassions on this album where a tuneful 'Save The World!', or 'Love your brother!' rise to the surface, and you can't help but think how uninspired it is.
The constant religious pestering really annoys me too. You can't move within this record with hearing Lord!, Father!, God!. The liner notes state that Marvin thought of this record as a gift from God. That all well and good - and nobody can doubt Marvin's conviction - but it gets so irritating after a while. If you're of a Judeo-Christian persuasion yourself, it probably won't matter. But after a while, you can't help but feel like you're listening to an especially persistent Jehova's witness. It interferes with the lyrics, too. The 'street-level preaching' mentioned above manifests itself, on most occasions, in freeform snippets of words, rather than fully formed songs. It seems at times that Marvin can't think of anything to say other than the title of the song, or some religious outburst. The overall effect is that a 9-year old could have written these lyrics.
The album also suffers from simply not having a track as good as I Heard It Through The Grapevine. Sad to say, but it does.
The plus points? Well, it runs almost the entire gauntlet of black music (no funk, sadly). This makes it a chilled, relaxed album that isn't bland - a rare commodity. It's a great album to have on as background music - problems only really arise when you try listening to it too hard. Sadly, the reputation it has means that most people will listen to it too hard, trying to find the revelatory politics it supposedly contains.
Overall, I'd give it 3/5. I'd still say it's essential listening, only for contextual awareness. But it's not an essential purchase. Borrow it from a friend, your dad, or Limewire, and save your money.
[QUOTE=themightyquinn]The title track is just as good as I Heard It Through A Grapevine.[/QUOTE]
For me, I Heard It Through The Grapevine is one of the greatest songs ever written. Best R&B song, certainly. That's why it's quite harsh to say it, but it did affect my enjoyment of the album. The three singles are all good songs, don't get me wrong, but Grapevine set up a standard that's nigh-on-impossible to beat.This Message Edited On 06.23.05
I have been listening to this a lot lately, and I think in all fairness it deserves a 5/5. Not only is it an essential album, but just look at the fabulous songs on it. What's Going On, Inner City Blues, Mercy Mercy Me, and What's Happening Brother, to name a few. They are all well written, and the album flows very well. The lyrics are deep and send a good message. Not to mention the amazing bass work by James Jamerson and Bob Babbit.
During the recording session for the song, "Whats Goin On?", Jamerson came into the studio completely ****faced. He was so hammered, he had to lie down on the floor and someone held the chord chart above his head so he could play it.
And bull**** to this album being overrated. Marvin Gaye was a ****ing legend. Same with the Funk Brothers. Anything any of them did was amazing. So **** off if you think it is.
this album is definately 4 stars at least. this is, after all, an extremely important album in the progression of soul music as it was basically the defining record that undercut Motown's "creative control" policy.
remember that Berry Gordy did not want this album released, he thought it was the worst thing he had ever heard, as the socio-political themes were an element that was completely unacceptable in pop-soul at the time, and therefore completely unprofitable to Motown.
im ranting here i guess, but i just think its a damn fine album