Off the Record – What’s Going On, Marvin Gaye – 4/10/17

On August 1st, I tweeted that I wanted to write more about new music, but was struggling to, because all I ever found myself listening to was Marvin Gaye’s 1971 album What’s Going On.

marvin gaye

I’d been living in Wi-Fi-less existence for the past month, having just moved house. It is hard to be 21 years old and without internet for a month. It is, however, a great opportunity to rediscover CDs you might not have listened to in a while.

This isn’t the case for What’s Going On, though. I listen to it on the regular, in a way that must annoy the neighbours. I’d just finished listening to it for the first time that day, and was walking over to the stereo to press play again. Then, I had a thought. Rather than two-stepping to it in the mirror for the second time in an hour, I’d write about it in the time it takes to listen to it the whole through. Thus, the idea for a new mini-series of pieces of writing was born.

In ‘Off the Record’, I will write about music that I’ve played over and over and over and over, even though it might not be cool or new or undiscovered. Most likely, these will be albums that have been written about time and time again, but, nonetheless, hold a very dear place in my heart. I will also only allow the length of the album’s running time to write about it (as both a time-saver and a challenge).

First up: Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On. *presses play*

I bought What’s Going On in HMV in Wimbledon, around this time last year, in a 2 for £10 deal with Frank Ocean’s Channel Orange. I’d just moved into my first flat in London with girls I didn’t know, and fancied a couple of new CDs so I could quickly cook my dinner, avoiding eye contact, then sit in my room all night listening to music.

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After very nearly settling for the Notorious B.I.G’s Greatest Hits to complete the combo deal (which wouldn’t have been so bad, in hindsight), I couldn’t help but be drawn to Gaye’s omniscient look in his eyes on the cover of What’s Going On, plus, that collar (it was autumn 2016 – black PVC coats were seriously in).

I also thought that it was probably an album worth listening to, after all, it was one of those classics that you’d often see in Best Of lists, and famous musicians had often noted it as one of their favourite albums (including Bruce Springsteen, who said it was one of the greatest albums ever recorded, in his Desert Island Discs).

Once I’d got home, I played Ocean’s Channel Orange, and I liked it. It felt quite long (an ideal album for me is 10 tracks long, no more, no less) but I could see why people raved about it. I could really imagine making out to the album, for example, so it was good for something.

Then I put the Marvin Gaye disc in the player, and those opening bars of the title track seemed so familiar, like these were sounds that I’d heard – and enjoyed – many times before. Gaye’s voice has such a warm, soulful tone, and the way the first track just fades in (and each track bleeds over to the next one until the SEVENTH song) is magic, on recorded format. The production is second to none.

Its his 11th studio album, and very different to his previous work (some of Gaye’s best-known singles from the ’60s include Ain’t No Mountain High Enough and You’re All I Need to Get By – whereas this was released in ’71, at a time when tensions around the Vietnam War were high, something that influenced the themes of the album).

The opener is everything: Marv asking for peace (‘War is not the answer/For only love can conquer hate’), before going into something still relevant regarding police brutality in America today (‘Picket line, and picket signs/Don’t punish me with brutality/Talk to me, so you can see/What’s going on’).

This glides into a huge stand-out second track, What’s Happening Brother, (‘War is hell, when will it end/When will people start getting together again?’) before the rest of the album takes you to places, musically and emotionally, that ensure it’ll be an album you’ll listen to time and time again. There is so much there – you have to. It is a work of pure magic.

One of my ultimate favourite tracks on the album is God is Love, so much so that it made me consider a very low-key faith in Christianity at a time that I was Seriously Into This Album (but then neglected, after I realised I wasn’t into God as much as I was into Marvin Gaye). God is Love runs straight in from the previous track, Save the Children, and there’s something about the way the time signature changes and launches into ‘Do do doo doo doo, do do doo doo doo’ before the falling ‘Oh, don’t go and talk about my father/God is my friend (and I love him!)’ vocal that sends a shiver down my spine.

This stonker of a track then launches into Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology), one of the greatest songs of its time (and therefore ever), asking what the f*** has happened to the O-zone layer, and ‘how much more abuse from Man can she stand?’ – which is still applicable now, but with an added 46 years of fossil fuels. Aside from the lyrics, the melancholic sighs of Gaye’s vocal complements the falling melody, making for a quietly exasperated plea asking, ‘Where did all the blue skies go?’ (something that is emotionally relatable on any rainy day, actual or metaphorical).

My boyfriend bought me a Marvin Gaye top for my birthday with the words: ‘Only love can conquer hate’ written on it (from the title track) – and, as cheesy as it seems (and is), that’s the essence of this album’s message.

I’m reaching the end of my time listening to this album, and while the above will get a necessary amount of editing, I want to stick to my plan to stop writing once the record has wound up. It is an utter joy to listen to this album, and I’ve definitely listened to it at least three times a week since I bought it a year ago. It cost me a fiver, and it’s had such a hugely positive impact on my life. It helped me through an incredibly rough patch earlier this year, as what it offers is the idea that a belief in hope – and a trust in love – will ultimately outweigh the bad in the world. It’s a beautiful message. (I’m not stoned, I promise). It also makes me rate Bruce Springsteen even more highly (if that’s possible), as, if the Boss says it’s the greatest album ever recorded, your mind should be made up anyway, before even listening to it.

If you’d like to, though, here it is:

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