What's Going On

Album: What's Going On (1971)
Charted: 2
  • This was written by three golfing buddies who also happened to be Motown hitmakers: songwriter Al Cleveland, Four Tops member Renaldo "Obie" Benson and singer Marvin Gaye, who added lyrics and worked on the arrangement. Gaye wanted the Originals to record the song, but Benson and Cleveland prevailed upon Gaye to do it himself.
  • Until this song, Gaye rarely participated in the songwriting process. For this album, he took control of the production so he could make a statement as an artist. Motown management was skeptical, but Gaye was an established star and had enough power to pull it off, going so far as to use an orchestra on this track.
  • Gaye's lyrics in this song were inspired by the stories his brother Frankie told him when he came back from the Vietnam War.
  • This was one of the first Motown songs to make a powerful political statement. Stevie Wonder and the Temptations were also recording more serious and challenging material, which was a radical departure from the Motown hits of the '60s. The song had a tremendous impact because listeners weren't used to hearing social commentary from Gaye. As Jackson Browne said in a 2008 interview with Rolling Stone: "No one was expecting an anti-war song from him. But it was a moment in time when people were willing to hear it from anybody, if it was heartfelt. And who better than the person who has talked to you about love and desire?"
  • Gaye worked hard to become a talented football player, and while he never played in the NFL, he was good friends with Detroit Lions Mel Farr and Lem Barney. "What's Going On" was an expression they used to greet each other, and Gaye used it as the title. Farr and Barney sang backup on the track.
  • Gaye was deeply affected by the death of his partner Tammi Terrell, who succumbed to a brain tumor a year earlier. This led him to take charge of his career and infuse messages in his songs.
  • The What's Going On album takes on many issues, including the environment ("Mercy Mercy Me") and poverty ("Inner City Blues"). It was the first album Gaye released that sold a lot of copies. Until then, like most Motown artists, he had lots of hit singles but album sales were secondary.
  • According to the book Mercy, Mercy Me: The Art, Loves & Demons of Marvin Gaye, Motown head Berry Gordy initially refused to release this song, calling it the "worst record I ever heard in my life." The song was slipped out by the man in charge while Gordy was on vacation and, of course, he was furious... until he found out the single sold 100,000 copies in the US upon its release. Needless to say, he soon changed his mind about this song.
    At the end of the single version, the song fades out, then suddenly rises in volume again. This was Gaye's way of giving a "nice F–You" to Berry Gordy, as in "you think this song you hate so much is about to end?...PSYCHE!"

    Although Berry Gordy admits he had reservations about "What's Going On," he claims all of the stories surrounding his refusal to release the song are false. He explained to the Wall Street Journal: "For years, people have written that I stood in the way of this song's release and that Marvin had threatened never to record for me again if I didn't put it out," he said. "That must make for great reading, but none of it is true."

    He went on to explain the potential ramifications of the song: "My reason for pushing back on Marvin wasn't to stop the single, just to determine whether or not this was another one of his wild ideas," Gordy said. "Motown was about music for all people—white and black, blue and green, cops and the robbers. I was reluctant to have our music alienate anyone. This was a big risk for his image."
  • Gaye wrote this when he could no longer take refuge in his love songs. His marriage to Anna Gordy was in shambles (although the divorce wouldn't be final until 1977), his duet partner and friend Tammi Terrell collapsed into his arms during a concert and died in 1970, drug use was pervading the inner city culture and Malcolm X, Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were all gunned down.
  • Shortly before the terrorist attacks on the US in 2001, a group of artists including Bono, Michael Stipe, Jennifer Lopez and Christina Aguilera recorded this to benefit AIDS research in Africa. After the terrorism, they decided to give half the proceeds to victims of the attacks and the other half to AIDS charities. The song was scheduled for release on World AIDS Day, December 1, but it was pushed up to September 21 due to the tragedy. MTV aired a version of this featuring footage of the recording session mixed with images from the attacks.

    The new version was released as a CD single containing different mixes of the song. The first one released as a single was the rock remixed by Fred Durst. Scott Weiland, Perry Farrell and Bono were on the track. Other remixes include an R&B mix by Jermaine Dupri, an electronic mix by Moby and a contemporary mix by Bono.

    The videos for the mixes were directed by Jake Scott, who worked on "Everybody Hurts" by R.E.M. He had the artists wear blindfolds to demonstrate how some people are blind to issues like racism and religion.
  • Cyndi Lauper scored a hit with this song when she recorded it in 1986 for her album True Colors. Her version went to #12 in the US.
  • A possibly apocryphal story has circulated that in-house Motown studio musician James Jamerson, who is regarded as one of the greatest bass players ever, recorded his part for this song while lying flat on his back as he was too intoxicated to stand upright.

Comments: 23

  • Markantney from BiloxeJul16,

    Noah, if I'm getting your question correct, Vietnam was heavy on his mind during this album. His brother had recently returned I believe. That and it was on the tail end of Civil Rights, MLK and Kennedy assassinations,..
  • Noah from WinnipegmbWhat conflict is he referring to?
  • Markantney from Biloxi, MsForgot to add, as a kid I'd be in my own little world (playing, watching TV,...) and as soon as I'd hear that (Alto?) Sax and those Brothas mumbling in the the background; I'd stop what I was doing to hear that song.

    I've always wondered why an instrumental wasn't released or popular, based on the opening of "What's Goin On". It's one of the most memorable openings of song I can recall?
  • Markantney from Biloxi, MsTo Gordy's credit, (to a degree) he cops to the Brain Cramp in a Bio I saw on either Motown or Marvin.

    But he never really explained how/why he believed it wasn't a Great Song?

    I was a mere Puppy when this came out and though I wasn't mature enough to fully understand the lyrics/message; it was a Hit the first time I heard it.
  • Barry from Sauquoit, NyOn February 14th, 1971, "What's Going On" by Marvin Gaye entered Billboard's Hot Top 100 chart at position #81; and on April 4th it peaked at #2 (for 3 weeks) and spent 15 weeks on the Top 100 (and for 8 of those 15 weeks it was on the Top 10)...
    And on March 21st, 1971 it reached #1 (for 5 weeks) on Billboard's R&B Singles chart...
    The first week it was at #2, the #1 record was "Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me)" by the Temptations; and for its 2nd and 3rd week it was "Joy To The World" by Three Dog Night that was in the top spot...
    On the R&B Singles chart it knocked "Just My Imagination (Running Away With Me)" out off the top spot on March 21st...
    R.I.P. Mr. Gay (1939 - 1984).
  • Joseph from Bronx, NyTo follow up on the comment on bassist James Jamerson. Gaye insisted he be there; he was subsequently found in a club in Detroit, and brought back to the studio (Motown’s famous Studio A - The "Snakepit"). However he was too drunk to sit in the chair — he kept slumping down and falling off. Eventually, he ended up playing the song — one of the most famous bass lines in history — lying on his back, with another musician holding the sheet music suspended over his head.
  • Don from Aurora, OhWhen you read a little about Marvin Gaye you will understand why he was as deep and profound as he was! This man went through a lot and he was a very sensitive person and able to take all that pain and turn it into something genius. I remember something I heard when visiting the Rock and Roll Hall Of Fame. Smokey Robinson said of Marvin when he was writing" What's Going On" when he talked to Gaye on the phone Gaye said he was not writing this album God was! This guy was a sensitive soul and we all should be thankful he graced this planet and left us with so many gifts!
  • Derek from London, United KingdomBassist James Jamerson was called in last minute to perform for the recording as the session bassits couldn't get it down. Jamerson, a stroppy Motown genious got it down in minutes and played it with his back on the floor due to his physical and possibly mental status.
    - Stratis, Brighton, England
    That's my favourite musical fact ever.... He was absolutely wasted on this session, according to Jack Ashford who was present at the session.... But some other musician called Carole Kaye claims to have played on that session! Everyone said it was Jamerson on those sessions!
  • Ahmed from Chorley, United Kingdomat Johnny, LA:

    funny u should say that, because Hendrix apparently wanted to join Motown and become a sould/RnB singer, but could only find work/record label as a guitarist.
  • Scott from Palm Desert, CaAlthough I was 11 when this came out and I didn't understand the lyrics I loved this song.
  • Greg from Menlo Park, CaGaye became friends with Lions players Mel Farr and Lem Barney (one of the most underrated football players ever) because he actually tried out for the Lions in 1970. He didn't make the team but was good enough that his tryout was taken seriously, and he put on 50lbs training.
  • Stratis from Brighton, EnglandBassist James Jamerson was called in last minute to perform for the recording as the session bassits couldn't get it down. Jamerson, a stroppy Motown genious got it down in minutes and played it with his back on the floor due to his physical and possibly mental status.
  • Johnny from Los Angeles, CaAnd also, Tammi did not die in Marvin Gaye's arms. She had a brain tumor and from then on her health deteriorated.
  • Johnny from Los Angeles, CaI would say Hendrix is better then Marvin Gaye, because Hendrix revolutionized the guitar. And I am more of a rock guy then a mowtown guy. But Marvin Gaye is by far the best in motown (him and Stevie Wonder, actually). His songs have so much meaning. Also nice comment by Nathan.
  • Ray from Stockton, Njthis song had meaning when it first came out and still has meaning 35 years after. This is my mom's favorite song. The thing that hurts me the most is that Hendrix and Lennon dying is a really big deal and Marvin gaye's isnt.Hendrix died because of drugs I think that's your fault yet everyone feels sorry for you(i don't weant to sound mean because i like hendrix) . Lennon got shot by a random guy. Then Marvin Gaye gets shot by his father. Nobody makes a big big deal out of it. In my opinion Marvin Gaye was a better artist than Jimi Hendrix because hendrix did a lot of remakes of songs. I just think its terrible that everyone makes a huge deal in New York about lennon. i mean their was a 3 page article in the new york post about lennon. when gaye's death anniversery comes up nobdy does anything(at lest not much).
  • Nathan from From The Country Of, Canadaaren't we all still asking ourselves whats going on almost 40 years later?
  • Elaine from Waldorf, MdThe album "What's Going On" is in my opinion, one of, if not the best album of all time. The themes are timeless--war, poverty, drug addiction. I loved Marvin Gaye and I don't think there's another performer who comes close to him.
  • Brian from Melfort, Sask, Canadaydur from Knoxville is not totally right, He Married Berry Gordy's Sister Anna from 1961-75, and he wasn't shot on his birthday, it was a day before his birthday
  • Ydur from Knoxville, TnMarvin was an interesting guy; He was kin to Barry Gordy (I think he married Barry's daugter or sister), lived in an abandoned bread truck in Hawaii in a fashion befitting an accomplished hobo (AFTER he was famous), and was ulitamtely shot and killed by his own father (a preacher, no less)on his birthday.
  • Ross from Independence, MoIt is #4 in Rolling Stone's list of 500 greatest songs.
  • Kirstin from Hereford, MdThe cover by A Perfect Circle in reaction to the war with Iraq is a very heartbreaking, slow alternative to this song. I wouldn't say one is better than the other, but A Perfect Circle creates a very different feeling in the listener. It's amazing how this song applies to two very different wars and two very different counter culture movements.
  • Horace from Western, MdThe song bridge wa reused in the songs "Mercy, Mercy, Me" and "Inner City Blues", both of which also became hit singles.
  • Horace from Western, MdLem Barney and Mel Farr, on the Detroit Lions football team at the time, provided backing volcals.
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