500 Greatest Albums
Here’s our list of seminal international albums including The Beatles, Bob Dylan and The Rolling Stones among others
6. What’s Going On – Marvin Gaye
“In 1969 or 1970, I began to re-evaluate my whole concept of what I wanted my music to say,” Gaye once said about the creation of What’s Going On. “I was very much affected by letters my brother was sending me from Vietnam, as well as the social situation here at home. I realized that I had to put my own fantasies behind me if I wanted to write songs that would reach the souls of people. I wanted them to take a look at what was happening in the world.” The last thing Motown wanted its fans to think about, however, was “what was happening in the world.” So with Gaye determined to shatter the label’s hugely successful pop formula and address issues such as the Vietnam War, civil rights and the environment, Motown founder Berry Gordy was not pleased, to say the least. He claimed that “What’s Going On” was the worst song he had ever heard.
As for “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology),” Gordy asserted that he didn’t even know what the word ecology meant. For his part, Gaye said he would never record for Motown again unless “What’s Going On” was put out as a single. After initially being rejected by Motown’s quality-control committee, it was; when it became a Top Five hit, the album ”” and a burst of socially conscious music from Motown ”” followed soon after.
Producing the album amid a haze of marijuana smoke, Gaye made one intuitively brilliant decision after another ”” from letting the tapes roll as his friends mingled and chatted to recording the rehearsal exercises of saxophonist Eli Fountain. When Fountain complained that he had just been goofing around, Gaye replied, “Well, you goof exquisitely. Thank you.” And that’s how the plaintive saxophone line that announces What’s Going On came to be.