Sometimes, one hears musicians and listeners alike talking in pretty specific terms about something that, ultimately, is simply judged by the way it sounds.
Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On (WGO) is musically complex in not only specific terms but in subtle nuances as well. It is a record that would be impossible to replicate; one can play all the notes but still not achieve the same sound, that intangible essence.
Marvin Gaye was seemingly out of the music business in early 1970. His singing partner, Tammi Terrell, had died of a brain tumor. At this point, Gaye was definitely not interested in music. Nevertheless, he did perhaps the hardest and most admirable thing a person can do in life: made a come back, sharper than ever.
Up until WGO, Gaye had been taking a more traditional approach to his musical arrangements and lyrics. Yet WGO totally shattered the mold. The music is vast. Gaye’s vocals are one of kind; there will never be another like him, and WGO is his showcase in effortless-mastery. His voice floats over the tracks in a commanding and nostalgic way. Lyrically, it tells the story of a man coming home from Vietnam to see that he has been fighting for a country that could care less about him and his contributions. He’s gotten a raw deal. I think it would cheapen the lyrics to call them political without clarifying that they are political in a social sense as well. Everyone can emphasize with a raw deal.
As for the music, the harmonies are lush, and the playing truly exhibits mastery of technique, art and compromise. These are the amazing Funk Brothers, a band who played on more number one hits than The Beatles, Elvis, The Stones and The Beach Boys combined. They are some of the most listened-to musicians ever, and WGO is the first time they were ever credited for anything. This is their showcase in musical mastery and teamwork. WGO is made up entirely of the people behind it. Marvin Gaye and The Funk Brothers came together and really brought it, and this album is a perfect combination of passion and experience – the quintessential example of someone at the top of their game.
Sometimes we listen to music when we do other things. WGO is not one of those records. The music really has a way of opening up your ears, your mind and your soul. The music really makes you stop and listen.
Want to know what’s happening?
What’s happening is when a group of people get together with a shared vision. These people help bring out a most impressive strength in themselves and each other. Smartly, they have the ability to compromise to be greater than they are by themselves. They give each other credit where it is due and, perhaps most importantly, they empathize. Then they go out and do something great. Which is precisely what Marvin Gaye and The Funk Brothers came together to do on WGO.
– – Written by Benjamin Williams, contributing writer of the ATL Collective and musician with The Shadowboxers.