The Vinyl Voice: Rolling Stone Magazine’s 6th Best Album Of All Time

Marvin Gaye’s “Whats Going On” Rolling Stones 6th Best Album of All Time

I recently was reading Rolling Stones list of the top 100 albums of all time.  The list is actually the top 500, but I was more interested in the top 50 or so.  There were few surprises in the top 20 or so, at least for a mid-fifties white guy.  One album in particular caught my attention; Marvin Gaye’s  ’What’s Going On” was rated as the 6th best album of all time.  I had always considered Marvin Gaye as a singer of Motown love songs and so I had never listened to the album.  Many of the songs were huge hits and were part of the sound and music of the early 70s, and I had heard this was a very good album, so I looked it up on You Tube and hit play.

The first notes of the music let me know this was not light listening.  The mood is immediately introspective and a bit melancholy.  The opening lyrics:

Mother, mother
There’s too many of you crying
Brother, brother, brother
There’s far too many of you dying
You know we’ve got to find a way
To bring some lovin’ here today, eheh

Father, father
We don’t need to escalate
You see, war is not the answer
For only love can conquer hate
You know we’ve got to find a way
To bring some lovin’ here today, oh oh oh

Picket lines and picket signs
Don’t punish me with brutality
Talk to me, so you can see
Oh, what’s going on
What’s going on
Yeah, what’s going on

Almost 45 years later, these lyrics sound completely relevant.  The themes of poverty, drugs, returning veterans trying to readjust to society, environmentalism, and spirituality are delved into as the music flows beautifully from song to song seamlessly.  There is a real feel or atmosphere to the music; to me it like being transported back to the early ‘70s.  The arrangements are funky/jazzy with strings adding depth without being treacly.  Lots of great grooves all within the context of the music and lyrics, ultimately culminating in ‘Inner City Blues’, which closes the album with a true masterpiece.

This was the first of his albums that Gaye produced himself.  The story goes that he was depressed and very troubled in spite of his enormous success and he felt that he had to comment on what he was seeing in society instead of just singing more love songs.  He presented the song ‘What’s Going On’ to Berry Gordy, who promptly rejected it.  Gaye then refused to record any more music for Motown until the song was released.  Gordy released the song, which was an instant hit.  He then gave Gaye the green light to create an entire album with full artistic control, which Motown had never done before.  Perhaps without this happening, Stevie Wonder may not have been able to make his albums in the mid 70s that ruled music for a few years.

‘What’s Going On’ is a transcendent album that eclipses genres and exists as one of the greatest albums of a period of time that saw amazing musical creativity.  If you have not heard the entire album, I encourage you to do so soon.    If you have heard it, listen to it again soon!

2 Comments

  • Yes…great story and great album! One of my favorites.

    I’m from Baltimore – Mr. Gaye’s sentiments are as relevant today as ever! [sigh] When will we evolve our thinking?

  • I agree with you Soulbrass. I was in the Air Force, stationed at Taiwan during the Vietnam war when this album came out. I knew that this was going to be one of the best records EVER when I first heard it and I still feel that way today. For awhile when I first came back home, I had a hard time finding it, but now I have it on vinyl, cassette and cd. I still like to hear Marvin with Tammi Terrell and Kim Weston too. That was some good music!

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