What’s Going On by Marvin Gaye opens with a party scene. It’s all smiles and laughter, but Gaye arrives and tells us what’s really going on. “Mother, mother, there’s too many of you crying. Brother, brother, brother, there’s far too many of you dying.” There are a lot of bad things going on, a lot of problems – war, riots, racism, poverty, unemployment – and Gaye addresses these in the record. So far on our musical adventure, songs have often been about boys, girls and growing up. But this album is different, tackling political issues and carrying a message.
What’s Happening Brother is told from the perspective of Marvin’s brother, a soldier returning from Vietnam. But things have changed since he left and he’s struggling to fit back into society (“Can’t find no work, can’t find no job my friend/Money is tighter than it’s ever been/Say man, I just don’t understand/What’s going on across this land”).
In a world in despair, who will Save The Children? Building, the song gathers strength, rallying support to save the world, save the babies. But the song ends by returning to the original question “But who really cares?”, as if the rally was fruitless. Seamlessly we flow into God Is Love, my favourite track on the record. Short, with a delightful soul rhythm, it carries a simple message: “All he asks of us, is we give each other love.”. The ticking beat of Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology) counts down the seconds we have left on this earth we keep destroying. A haunting choir signal the song’s end, and the planet’s funeral.
Inner City Blues (Makes Me Wanna Holler) closes the record wonderfully with a reflective look at the present and the future “God knows where we’re heading.”, before Gaye takes the album full circle and begins the final verse as he did the first “Mother, mother/Everybody thinks we’re wrong/Who are they to judge us/Simply cause we wear our hair long.”.
With a strong jazz influence, emotional strings and fantastic percussion, the music provides a great backdrop for the lyrics. Gaye’s singing is beautiful and brings out the feeling in the lyrics. The songs flow in and out of each other as if the record is one continuous piece and within tracks there are changes of pace and mood that make this such a moving piece of music.