The Rewind Button is a group blogging project instigated by Rachel Tynan. We’re writing our impressions of Rolling Stones top 40 albums of all time every Thursday.
Today: Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Goin’ On”
Having portrayed Phil Ochs, one of the figureheads of the protest music genre, I learned a fair bit about albums and songs of the era that were known for speaking out against injustice. Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Goin’ On” came up in many articles. Motown produced an incredible number of hits throughout the 60s but few talked politics.
What I like about “What’s Goin’ On” is how cinematic it is. It sounds like a soundtrack to me. The title track and opening track begins with a soundscape, a party, people coming together. People asking questions. It keeps a very consistent sound throughout. Very atmospheric and spatial. Lots of reverb and auxiliary percussion. It closes strong with my personal favorite track of the album “Inner City Blues”. He speaks of the physical and spiritual trauma of war, the impact we have on future generations and financial inequality. I love the line “natural fact is: I can’t pay my taxes”.
What I don’t like about the album is that in between the strong bookends is a whole lotta sameness. What Gaye gains in continuity he loses in variety. I find that the tunes and grooves blend a little too much together for my taste. The tempos and instrumentation don’t deviate all that much for the duration of the record. Also the production, to my ears, lacks presence. I know, in part, this is due to the technology and the esthetic of the time. But there is so much reverb on the vocals and other instruments (like the Anchorman jazz flute) that it loses some intimacy that I think could serve some of his lyrics.
But when it does work, it really works. That final groove is so infectious that even if you weren’t on his wavelength you’d probably still join the protest for the party alone. And this is why I believe it made the all time list. You see, guys like Marvin Gaye made protest and politics hip. A key ingredient to “Make (you) wanna holler and throw up both (your) hands”. It’s what was happenin’ brother in the civil rights and anti-war groovement of the 1960s.