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"What's Going On" includes chatting, scatting, and a saxophone solo recorded by accident. The recording sessions included lots of marijuana and little planning (except for that genius planning that happened in Marvin's head). The final product, which gives you the feeling that you are hanging out in the studio with Marvin Gaye and the Funk Brothers, is a masterpiece in its own right—but the sort of masterpiece that happens almost by accident.
The song opens with chatting voices greeting each other: "hey, what's happenin'?" and "hey, brother" rise up out of a party-type atmosphere. (Gaye hired his friends, Detroit Lions players Mel Farr and Lem Barney, to chat and party alongside the Funk Brothers.) And then, piercing and cool, Eli Fontaine's saxophone solo cuts through the room. Apparently, Fontaine was recorded rehearsing a few lines and sent home early in the recording process. These tossed-off lines became the song's famous opening lick, and when Fontaine remarked that he was just goofing off, Gaye told Fontaine he had "goofed off exquisitely."
Gaye's classic Motown voice comes in over James Jamerson's even more classic Motown bass playing. A key part of the Funk Brothers, Motown's house band, Jamerson played on more number one hits than the Beatles during his tenure at Motown, but because of Motown's focus on product over process, the Funk Brothers were not so much as credited on an album before the release of What's Going On.
To get him to play on the track, Gaye apparently went searching for Jamerson all over the city, going from bar to bar to drag the musician into the studio. Jamerson is rumored to have been so high or drunk during the recording that he lay on his back while he played the bass. Jamerson's wife, Annie, recalls that her generally inexpressive husband came home that night and told her he was working on a "masterpiece." Jamerson, who wrote the famous bass introduction to "My Girl" and played on hits like "Dancing In the Street" and "You Can't Hurry Love," lost his job when Motown moved to L.A. in 1972 and died in 1983 both broke and bitter. (A wonderful 2003 documentary, Standing in the Shadows of Motown, finally told the story of the under-credited Funk Brothers.)
What Berry Gordy called "too jazzy" and "old" becomes a sort of soft tribute to both the jazzy black music of the past and the new trend towards Afro-centrism in music, with the Funk Brothers on a drum set and bongos and a scatting session from Gaye in the middle of the song. A noticeable key change near the end of the song smoothly jumps back to the original key, but the riff in the new key is also the intro to the next track on the album, "What's Happening Brother," such that the two are seamlessly linked. Violins from the Detroit Symphony Orchestra and gentle guitar playing by the Funk Brothers fill out the sound and make it ethereal and open.
All the while, Gaye's smooth, emotive voice seems to be singing right at you. In fact, Gaye recorded two vocal leads with the intention of using only one, but when he heard them together, decided to make use of both on the final track. On "Father, father," the singer's plaintive high range comes in above his velvety middle range, adding an accidental feel to even the lead vocals on the song.
"What's Going On" plays with accidentalness to seamless results, producing the ultimate in soul music and what might be the most chill protest song of the century.
The entire What's Going On album is narrated from the perspective of a Vietnam veteran who has just returned from the war and finds his home turf troubled and turbulent. The chatty greetings at the beginning of "What's Going On" represent the vet's return to his social world, and Gaye's vocals on the track are his first confused lament. You can almost see him walking into a room of friends and beginning to have a long, marijuana-influenced conversation about the state of the union.
Following that plaintive opening track, he sings about war, children and poverty, his own spirituality, and the environment (on "Mercy, Mercy Me"). The "Inner City Blues" come from a perspective close to Gaye's own experience, that of young black people in the impoverished and disinvested inner cities after the "white flight" of the 1950s. Overall, the narration is a casual but sensitive take on the possible feelings of a black war vet who doesn't believe in the war abroad and doesn't feel that he's getting his dues at home.
Marvin Gaye really was a sex symbol of the 1960s, but with the release of "What's Going On," he became more than a star. He became somebody who people felt they knew, identified with, and even struggled alongside. He became a symbol of complexity and vulnerability. He was also, at least for a period of time, the psychological center of soul music, which took the God-loving gospel style out of the church and into the world of secular pop. But behind his sparkling image, a history of abuse as well as a deserted evangelical piety fed both his musical explorations and his gradual personal deterioration. He was a pop star with stage fright and a superstar who believed no one loved him. "How did he ever get there?" researcher Harry Weinger wondered about the brilliance of Gaye's career. "It's a miracle he got there, and then what he did with it!"
Part of what makes Marvin Gaye such a lasting influence is the three-fold nature of his psyche: sex, God and politics obsessed and troubled him in almost equal parts. His genius was even more multi-faceted: he had a skill for collaboration, stylish vocals, composition, music production (which he discovered on "What's Going On," his first self-produced track), and he also rocked out on every instrument he picked up (he played drums, piano, and whatever suited his whims in the studio). His struggles combined with his genius came to define his music. His music was all about love, but Marvin was driven by a lifelong sense that he lacked just that.
Weinger summed up the key to "What's Going On" in the context of Gaye's overall work: "Marvin is a never ending source of artistry and fascination, because everything is great. Everything. And you read the books, you hear stories about his struggles with women, pushing against Berry, and going with the flow of the sixties, using his craft and his skills, and then he starts to push a little. What comes out of that?"
We've got the answer to Weinger's rhetorical question. It's "What's Going On."