Tuesday, December 21, 2010

"What's Going On" (1971)

16. Marvin Gaye, "What's Going On" (March 6, 1971, #2)

A frequent complaint about Motown through the '60s was the distance they maintained from the current events consuming so many—civil rights, long hot summers, Vietnam, all that. Everyone and everything was required on some level to bear "relevance" back then, and so, as if to validate the appreciation of the galvanizing sounds, some heard coded messages, as in Martha & the Vandellas' "Dancing in the Street" (or, to a lesser degree, "Heat Wave"). Toward the end of the decade, the label made more formal if often wrong-headed (though some perfectly apt) attempts, as with the Temptations' "Psychedelic Shack" or Edwin Starr's "War" (+ don't forget this). But no one on the roster, producer or performer, ever got it as right as Marvin Gaye here. Nothing had ever sounded quite like it before. Nothing would ever sound quite the same again. Almost purely a studio concoction, with complex layerings of tracks, led by Gaye's soaring, swooping, shimmering vocals and his shrewd and tuneful and emotionally pitch-perfect songwriting, it sounds simultaneously exhausted, enlivened, depleted, and energized. The poignant saxophone lines alone can rend a heart. The words are plaintive and heartfelt, never cloying though they may scan that way when read: "Father, father / We don't need to escalate / You see, war is not the answer / For only love can conquer hate." It captures perfectly (cliché alert) the sense of being alive and young in the early '70s. The song and the album that the song kicks off—an album that provides even more complexity with its suites of artful musical and lyrical themes and that went on to produce three top 10 hits—remain among the most purely felt auditory sensations that have ever come racketing out of car speakers on staticky AM radio stations.

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