Instead of releasing "What's Going On" that fall, Motown put out the Gaye compilation Super Hits, which depicts its clean-shaven star as a cartoon superhero flying through the air and fixing a radio tower as a buxom damsel perilously hangs from his shoulder. But Gaye wanted nothing more than to blow up that gleaming image of himself-- now in his early 30s, he would accept nothing but complete control over his art. And if Motown wasn't going to release his first self-produced song, he wasn't going to make music for Motown. Gaye sat idle for months until his label, desperate to put out something-- anything-- from its biggest solo star, finally eked the single out under Gordy's nose on January 21, 1971. It was an instant success, hitting No. 2 on the pop charts and, perhaps more importantly for Gaye, giving him a win in his constant battle with Gordy, who couldn't deny a smash. Five months later, Marvin Gaye released his full-grown symphony to God, What's Going On, with little resistance.
Forty years of ubiquity have made the title track commonplace, so it's easy to forget that the song was the "most avant-garde hit Motown ever had," according to Ben Edmonds' thorough album history What's Going On: Marvin Gaye and the Last Days of the Motown Sound. With this album, Gaye wished to sidestep the sound that made him and others famous during Motown's untouchable 60s run, trading in that trademark big, bright beat for laid-back grooves inspired by Duke Ellington, Curtis Mayfield, Isaac Hayes, and Santana. And not only was the album a coming-out party for Gaye as a producer and songwriter, he found his signature voice-- soft, floating, airy-- on What's Going On, too. "I felt like I'd finally learned to sing," he told biographer David Ritz. "I'd been studying the microphone for a dozen years, and I suddenly saw what I'd been doing wrong. I'd been singing too loud." The record and its creative revelations led to his stunning 70s auteur period, which birthed three more classics: 1973's Let's Get It On, 1976's I Want You, and 1978's Here, My Dear. Yet What's Going On still stands tallest, making this 40th anniversary, 2CD/LP edition more of a welcome reminder than just another eulogy to baby-boomer culture.
Much has been made of What's Going On's political bent, and it's true that the music was partially inspired by Marvin's brother Frankie, who had come back from a three-year tour of Vietnam, along with troublingly violent episodes like the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. and the Kent State shootings that saw four students killed by national guardsmen. Songs like peace-espousing title track and "What's Happening Brother", which finds Gaye expressing a war veteran's helplessness upon returning home, show Marvin's dismay toward his country and government. But this album isn't just a protest time capsule. Far from it. Gaye's disappointment isn't just societal, it's personal as well. During this period, the singer had lost his duet partner and dear friend, Tammi Terrell, and his marriage to Gordy's sister Anna was violently breaking down, and he was being tailed by the IRS for unpaid back taxes. His resulting depression is evident throughout; What's Going On isn't a fiery album filled with timely sloganeering. Part of its long-lasting appeal involves an element of true-to-life resignation. "Who's willing to try to save a world/ That's destined to die," he sings on "Save the Children", pinpointing an American melancholia-- a mix of world-saving power and funereal inevitability-- that endures today.
But the album doesn't wallow, either. It hums and glides on the effortless, multi-tracked Marvins that swoop through the stereo spectrum like ghosts. Gaye's signature vocal ad libs started here and have endured through R&B and hip-hop ever since. His marijuana-soaked delivery, along with the album's mutating, percussion-fueled rhythms, majestic strings, and jazzy horns, give the affair levity. Perhaps this smooth front also has to do with the fact that Gaye was "hardly an activist in the traditional sense," according to Edmonds. While his Vietnam-battered brother was an emotional catalyst, Gaye had neglected to send him one letter during his army stint. And though he was certainly aware of the Detroit race riot that left 43 people dead in 1967, he viewed the sad display on TV from his cushy home on the outskirts of town. Not to say Gaye didn't wholeheartedly believe in the progressive observations found on What's Going On, but his relative distance from his subjects allows him to fly over top of them, providing a healing pulse to the disarray below.
For an album as timeless as this one, reissue bonus material can provide worthy footnotes to the main article. Probably thanks to the last decade's vinyl resurgence, this 40th anniversary edition immediately sets itself apart from 2001's 30th anniversary release by presenting its iconic cover in a glorious 12"x12" square. The package's lone LP features the more straightforward, early Detroit mix of the album, while the final, L.A. mix is relegated to a CD. For die-hards, the most alluring part of the package may be the second compact disc, which features 18 mostly instrumental demos recorded in Gaye's post-What's Going On honeymoon period, when his vast artistic ambitions and abilities were being embraced by the greater public. These somewhat experimental demos-- deep, in-the-pocket funk in the vein of Sly Stone, George Clinton, and Jimi Hendrix-- clearly laid the groundwork for much of his subsequent 70s material. Though he doesn't sing on most of these tracks, it's exciting to hear him get loose as keyboardist and band leader.
Just as What's Going On marked the emergence of Marvin Gaye as an all-in-one talent, it also signaled the decline of Motown's reign. It's tempting to simply side with Gaye in his battles with the label that raised him and play into the auteur myth. But it's more complicated than that. Without his tutelage at Motown, first as a session player then as a singer, Gaye wouldn't have been able to conceive a work like this. The help of Motown backing band the Funk Brothers-- credited in the What's Going On liner notes after years of anonymity-- was also essential. Before he was shot and killed by his own father at age 44 in 1984, Gaye was afforded the schooling of America's finest pop academy and then the freedom to flourish and act on his own whims afterward. His 70s brilliance is unfathomable without his 60s pop triumphs. And What's Going On is the turning point, the moment when he was able to bypass his selfishness and self-destructiveness in the name of God, peace, love. It's a nice dream. One that he knew was too good to last. "Mercy, mercy me," he pleaded calmly, desperately.