Last week was Marvin Gaye’s birthday. He would have been 75.
|Brother was so cool...|
Marvin’s music is the type that is so popular, so big, so universal, you are tempted to ignore it. I did for most of my life. Only started paying attention when I noticed that all these young RnB cats are pretty much trying to be Marvin Gaye. Just listen to Miguel’s “Adorn” and tell me you don’t hear Marvin, particularly in the bridge. I can only imagine how much more eargasmic his music must have been for those who didn’t hear versions of him first. Still eargasmic today, don’t get me wrong.
So, the album that has been on repeat for a week now is what many argue to be his seminal work, “What’s going on?” I first got a real taste of this masterpiece when I stumbled upon a podcast on the BBC (which I will forever advertise freely) a few years ago. They were discussing the ins and outs of the making of the album and why it is still important today. First thing you need to know is that this was the first concept album in the entire RnB genre. Marvin had to fight to make this album because Motown were not willing to hand over creative control to him. Well, they finally did and he made it in 10 days. I guess when the muse arrives it doesn’t take forever to produce your life’s defining work.
I love concept albums. When artists limit themselves to a particular narrative, style, message or storyline, they can’t be lazy. They have to be concise and still blow minds…or at least fire a few synapses. It really tests their ability. The question was a simple one, “Just what in the hell are we (human beings) doing to each other?” It was inspired by the social upheavals that were going on in the states at the time; The Vietnam War, police brutality etc. Musically, the vibe was captured perfectly. The atmosphere created by the exquisite strings, slow, subtle drums, heavenly harmonies(I live for the harmonies on this album), the church-like adlibbing and most importantly, Marvin’s lead tenor that rang heavy with emotion was in a phrase, a Spiritual Revival. The orchestration is the best I have heard in my life (Big up Dave Van dePitte). This is music that makes you want to repent and be healed. Maybe that’s just my pseudo-christian sensibility showing itself but I doubt anyone could truly say they don’t feel God when they hear that tense Marvin wail over a flute solo. Marvin grew up in the Pentecostal church and needless to say, this influenced his style greatly. Lyrically, he wove seamlessly from the more direct messages (What’s going on) to the abstract (Flying high). The loose structure of the album made it feel a little jazzy. One couldn’t really tell when some songs started and others ended. This added to it's euphoric element.
What Marvin was trying to say was noble and a little naïve, which made it all the more special; Let's just love each other. His sensitivity as a human being was tangible in this album and his willingness to strip himself bare for the work only made it richer. He was all soul and truly magical.
This album is a sweet incantation that helped a generation conjure, confront and exorcise its demons. If you haven’t had a listen, your life has a gap that will only be filled by this.