Marvin Gaye and “What’s Going On”
Remembering marvellous Marvin and that fantastic album 30 years on from his death
I don’t remember where I was when I heard John Lennon was dead, but I clearly remember siting at our kitchen table in Tipperary when the news came on the radio about Marvin Gaye on April 1, 1984. Gaye’s voice took over the airwaves for the rest of that Sunday. The DJs on 2fm seemed to play everything with his name on it they could lay their hands on: the early tunes from the archive, the Motown classics, the duets with Tammi Terrell and cuts from “What’s Going On”, the album to beat all.
These days, I know Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On” as well as I know my own skin. It’s a peerless, magnificent, earth-moving affair, an album full of awesome music which I’m so in awe of because I have no idea how they did it. Sure, you can read all the stories and books you like but unless you were there and you were one of the musicians working out how to get the sound Gaye was hearing in his head onto tape, you really don’t know.
Back then, though, I didn’t even know that album. In those pre-internet days, you couldn’t head over to a computer and get a back-catalogue with a few clicks. The only world wide webs in rural Tipperary in the mid-1980s were the ones spun by spiders in barns and outhouses. You relied on the radio and records, hand-me-downs from schoolfriends and family. I got the bug for Bruce Springsteen from a classmate’s copy of “The River” and late-night radio shows filled me with excitement about The Waterboys, Talk Talk, The Blue Nile, Prefab Sprout and a galaxy of Irish alternative bands who only ever got played when the sun went down (plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose as they say in deepest Connemara).
It took me a year or two to get a tape of “What’s Going On” and fall for its amazing spells. The following year, a TV ad brought Gaye and “I Heard It Through the Grapevine” to a much wider mainstream audience than he’d enjoyed during the last years of his life. But it was “What’s Going On” which did it for me.
While the album has long inspired many soul brothers to emulate what it had in spades, few have come close to matching its emotional pitch and fervour, let alone the way each track resonates with a passion rarely experienced in soul music. The title track and closing track, “Inner City Blues”, are where soul music begins to take on moods and tones rarely experienced to that point, gently turning from highs to lows within the confines of one urban groove. But above and beyond all that, you have Gaye’s voice, a soul vocal which remains unique and unsullied. It coaxes. It caresses. It matters. You catch Gaye’s unease and search for something just out of his reach. You get it.
A while back, I found myself in Detroit for a week, that once grand, proud city now up to its neck with abandonded buildings, social strife, crime and a serious lack of municipal funds to do anything about the above. On my first morning in the city, I headed to the Hitsville USA building over on West Grand Boulevard, paid my dollars for the tour and found myself in the studio where “What’s Going On” was made. Weirdly, there was no music playing. As the rest of the tour party went through to the souvenir shop to spend more dollars, I sneaked on my headphones, closed my eyes and pressed play on “Inner City Blues”. The shivers ran up and down my spine. The best music sends you somewhere else and “What’s Going On” does that every damn time.