A sermon of truth

After breaking free of the clutches of the Motown machine, which required artists to record songs written by some of the stellar composers of the era, such as Holland/Dozzier/Holland, Marvin Gaye wrote, recorded and released his classic album "What's Going On" to an unsuspecting audience who were more used to slick productions and words that didn't particularly stir up any trouble. "What's Going On" changed all that, it's Gaye's sermon on everything that is wrong in the world; from institutional racism, to the Vietnam War and the environment. He preaches from a position of high power with his soulful voice and unrivalled charisma, ensuring that the album's righteousness is always delivered with style and flair. The classic album is best enjoyed as a continuous nine-track song suite, with its concept always focusing on the turmoil and cultural conflict of the early 1970s and in addition, the soon-to-be released 40th anniversary edition of the album boasts three extra discs of additional material that further explore Gaye's groundbreaking vision. "What's Going On" is not a question; it is an album that encapsulates Marvin Gaye's thoughts on the state of a society in disarray.

The album kicks off with the storming title track that ruthlessly underpins Gaye's ideals and the sentiment behind the album. His lyrical imagery is doused in the harsh realisms of the era and his enemies; war, corruption and hate are challenged stoically. He references the Hippie dream 'Who are they to judge us just because our hair is long?' and union strikes 'picket lines and picket signs' but what this song is really about is the firmly ingrained prejudice eating away at the hypocritical core of America. 'War is not the answer, only love can conquer hate' is the song's most enduring line as Gaye asks America to step back and look at her own racial troubles instead of opening up new wounds in the fields of Vietnam. With all of these ideas in a song, you'd expect it to be finger-pointing and righteous, and it is but its enduring reputation as one of the greatest songs ever released proves its merit. Gaye is ably supported by the best of Motown musicians in his strong opening statement, with funky bass lines, crackling drums and some sensual saxophone playing.

'What's Happening Brother?' is a song in the same vein, with lyrics that reference Gaye conversing with his brother who had recently returned from Vietnam. The all-too-familiar themes of unemployment, prejudice and questioning are here again, proving that Marvin Gaye is a man disenchanted with the hypocrisies and inadequacies of his country. 'Who really cares to save a world in despair?' Gaye ponders on 'Save The Children', a lament on the destruction on the world as we know it backed by a soulful chorus and lush string arrangements. The deeply catchy ivory twinkling of 'Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)' continues Gaye's sorrow at the disintegration of the natural world and features prominent overtones of the chemical and nuclear terror that faced the world as a result of the Cold War. Again, like many of the other songs on the record, Gaye's truthful articulation is cooled by the steady and free-flowing atmospherics of Motown's best musicians, giving it an even more sincere and human feeling. Album closer 'Inner City Blues' encapsulates the profound feelings and intentions behind the album and is just more of the same, Gaye's first-hand commentary of the troubles of the Black community due to poor living conditions, institutional racism and prejudice. 'More of the same' may not sound like a particularly fresh compliment but it proves that the album works best as a song-suite rather than individually, and is really just a record that works its way through numerous studies of the same ideas; war, violence, racism, society and change. This is best evidenced as the title track is reprised at the end of the album.

So, on its own, Marvin Gaye's 'What's Going On' is an absolute classic, full to the brim of powerful songs made of profound statements, radical sentiments, unflinching words and pristine musical interjection but the 40th anniversary addition has some treats of its own. Listeners are given the opportunity to experience alternate mixes of the classic tracks in mostly much rawer and earlier forms to grab a taste of how the song's seemingly flawless song-suite painstakingly came to fruition. These tracks act as the perfect complement to the better known album versions of the tracks and give a deep insight into the process of how a classic recording develops over time. B-sides of the album's singles further explore Gaye's fascination with hypocrisy, conflict, society and racism and add another dimension to the heavy narrative of the original album.

40 years after its release, "What's Going On" has been given the release it deserves. It is rightly revered and hailed as one of the best albums ever created and holds just as much relevance to current society as it did during the turbulent 70s. Marvin Gaye should never be forgotten for his contribution to the Black community through his music and especially, this classic album, which made the world sit up and listen. If only people would listen to Gaye's messages of peace and love today, then the world would be less of a sorry place than it is.