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From the Vaults

'What's Going On' Reveals Gem's New Facets

A two-CD reissue of Marvin Gaye's '71 album, which took social commentary to a soulful new level, includes a vintage alternate mix.

February 23, 2001|RANDY LEWIS | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Marvin Gaye was Motown Records' top male star in the 1960s, thanks to a remarkable string of alternately gritty and elegant hit singles including "Can I Get a Witness," "How Sweet It Is to Be Loved by You," "Ain't That Peculiar" and "Ain't Nothing Like the Real Thing."

But he didn't hit the top of the pop chart until 1968 when he recorded "I Heard It Through the Grapevine," a Norman Whitfield-Barrett Strong tune that had been a hit for Gladys Knight & the Pips a year earlier.

Gaye's version stayed at No. 1 for seven weeks and became Motown's biggest-selling single to date, which gave Gaye even more power as an artist than he had already.

What he did with the extra muscle was extricate himself from Motown's assembly-line mentality, which demanded hit single after hit single.

The album he came up with, "What's Going On," came out in early 1971 and stands as one of the most ambitious, deeply felt R&B-soul albums ever. A new, expanded reissue hits stores Tuesday, and provides a valuable new look at this masterpiece.

*

**** Marvin Gaye, "What's Going On," Motown. Gaye may have been at the top of the charts with "Grapevine" in 1968, but he certainly wasn't feeling on top of the world.

His partner in a series of sterling duets, Tammi Terrell, had collapsed on stage in 1967 from a brain tumor, and she would die three years later. At the same time, Gaye was having problems with the IRS and his wife, on top of the pressure from Motown to keep cranking out the hits.

Under such circumstances, he could have been forgiven for simply trying to tread water musically. Instead, he achieved a major artistic breakthrough.

"What's Going On" spawned three Top 10 hits--the title track, "Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)" and "Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)." But its real achievement was its thematic coherence and musical sophistication. Gaye shifted from catchy love songs to haunting explorations of social issues confronting not just African Americans, but all people.

Gaye wasn't the first soul act to start addressing social injustice; James Brown, Sly Stone and the Temptations, among others, had paved the way. But few ever did it so thoroughly or effectively as Gaye did in "What's Going On."

Although there are nine distinct songs, "What's Going On" plays like an R&B symphony. The sultry, conga-driven groove of the title track is echoed in the song that follows, "What's Happening Brother," then pops up again in a pair of cuts midway through ("God Is Love," "Mercy Mercy Me") and brings the album full circle when it returns yet again in the closing "Inner City Blues."

Gaye created bridges between those first two sections with "Flyin' High in the Friendly Skies," which lyrically and atmospherically captures the mind-set of a junkie, and "Save the Children," a companion plea not to allow personal indulgence to sacrifice society's youngest members.

The musical transition between the second and third theme statements comes in "Right On," a Latin jazz-influenced declaration that's followed by the album's most ethereal number, "Wholly Holy." Gaye expressed his spiritual yearnings in this free-tempo number, which defies the conventional verse-verse-chorus pop-song structure. It unwinds, unconcerned with progression or pulse. It simply is.

The relaxed, through-line vibe of the album as a whole probably helped set the stage for smooth jazz, though little of that movement as it has developed has the benefit of Gaye's penetrating lyrics or his heavenly tenor voice.

An essay by Ben Edmonds, author of "Inner City Blues: Marvin Gaye & the Last Days of the Motown Sound," makes no mention of what influences Gaye was drawing on, but you have to feel that the pop experiments of Brian Wilson and the Beatles weren't lost on him.

Edmonds, however, does a great job of capturing the feeling in the studio while "What's Going On" was coming together. The pros who played on Motown sessions "usually . . . didn't have the slightest idea for whom a song was intended, or even what it was called," he writes. "These supremely gifted musicians often looked down their noses at the pop music they were hired to churn out. Not this day. When bassist James Jamerson got home from work, he told his wife he'd just cut a classic."

The reissue is a jam-packed two-CD set that includes the original album plus an earlier mix of the full album that Gaye had done in Detroit before bringing the tapes to Los Angeles for further refinement. There's also a 1972 concert performance at the Kennedy Center in Washington where he played the album in its entirety, though not in sequence, along with a medley of his '60s hits.

The previously unreleased Detroit mix of "What's Going On" puts a different cast on the songs--more intimate, some more earthy and sensual than the gorgeously polished final versions. It's also fun to jump back and forth between versions to hear the differences.

The live set by the notoriously stage-shy Gaye adds a touching and bold note to the rest as you hear him and the band sometimes struggle with the newer material, yet often soar as they reach new emotional heights.

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