Tuesday, June 19, 2007

The Most Important Album Ever Made

Do you like music? Do you appreciate music built on passion? Do you believe music is art? Do you like to dance? Do you like to think that musicians get to make a least a few decisions regarding what happens to their music? Do you think music can make statements? Do you love music with a message? Do you have soul? If you answered yes to any of the above questions, then let me inform you that the most important album in your life is What’s Going On by Marvin Gaye. I’ll explain.

Throughout the 1960s, Marvin Gaye sang on some of the most catchy, memorable, and poetic pop music we’ve ever smiled to. Working his way up Berry Gordy’s Motown Records roster, he became one of the most bankable stars in the music business. However, as the decade came to a close, Marvin found himself dealing with a series of tribulations which forced him to withdraw from his colleagues and friends. His singing partner, Tammi Terrell died of a brain tumor after collapsing in his arms on stage. His marriage to Gordy’s sister, Anna, featured ever more frequent arguments and mistrust. His brother Frankie’s return from Vietnam fostered Marvin’s guilt over not writing him during his absence. And of course, he continued to suffer from a strained relationship with his father. Partly due to stress and depression from all these concerns, and partly from defiance, he chose to shun the Motown machine, preferring to work only from his home. In talking with Frankie and the Four Tops' Obie Benson, Marvin and Benson came up with an idea for a song that would be different from anything he’d ever recorded. That song was the single, “What’s Going On.”

We all know that song now. It’s an amazing piece of work. It begins with friends talking, greeting one another at a party giving the song a setting. That is followed by a soaring sax solo played by Eli Fountain. Then we get a plea for peace unlike any heard before. In his third and fourth lines, Marvin – who had sung about “love” his entire career – pleads, “You know we’ve got to find a way, to bring some loving here today.” The song goes on to address the major concerns of the era in a way that only Marvin’s soulful supplication could have. He passionately demands understanding and love in hopes of healing the wounds that were open all over the country. It probably was called a protest song, but in actuality, it’s one of the most thoughtful songs ever written. Upon being presented this work, Berry Gordy immediately vowed never to release it. From his perspective, it was too avant garde both lyrically and musically to sell as a single. He was after more “dancing in the streets” and certainly not anything that would shake people up. He was selling to young, white America and he believed he knew what it wanted. Possibly more out of defiance than conviction, Marvin said he would not record another note until Gordy released “What’s Going On” as a single. After several months, Gordy relented, and published the song.

Of course, it was immediately a tremendous hit (ah, to be living in the days when DJs could play what they wanted…), and Marvin was allowed to record an album to be fit around the single. He had won a battle which forever changed the rights of the artist at Motown. And because Motown was considered the model for success in the music industry, his determination caused a ripple across the musical world. Musicians were now able to control their work like never before. Because Marvin held out and the gamble paid off, others were able to follow his example. Stevie Wonder quickly took advantage of Motown's new freedoms, going on the most prolific five-album run of any pop music artist in history.

Marvin had always been put in the role of the crooning pop star, a sex symbol who sang sweet love songs. Because of what he was seeing in the world around him, he no longer found this position tenable. He had to grow into a full-fledged adult, and nothing would hold him back. The rest of the songs he created covered such social concerns as drugs, the environment, faith, poverty, and the future we're leaving for our children. In sum, it was a stunning turn for an artist whose previous album was titled, "That's the Way Love Is." For a star on Marvin's level, this shift to songs of social consciousness was totally unprecedented.

But this album isn't amazing simply because of musician rights or political statements. Put simply, it's so damn good. Marvin's vocals are at their most passionate throughout the album because he is truly singing from his heart. The songs are so well constructed that they sound original, no matter when you hear them for the first time. Not only that, the work was innovative. Always a fan of harmonies, Marvin was the first major artist to overdub his vocals so he could both harmonize with himself and do his own call-response. This technique continues to influence music we hear every day. Stevie Wonder seized on this concept on his very next album, Music of My Mind. Stevie didn't simply overdub his vocals, but started playing all the instruments on his albums. Even U2's The Edge plays guitar the way Marvin sang. His "unique" innovations owe a debt of gratitude to Marvin's creation. I could cite various other examples, but you get the picture.

If you don't own this album, or perhaps only know the title track, you owe it to yourself to get your hands on it and fully digest every bit of it. People often say how they value artists approaching their work with integrity or passion, and there's no better example than What's Going On. It's an album to be revered, but also enjoyed. There are few pieces of music as moving. And if, by chance, you were not totally sure about how to answer the last question I posed at the outset: "Do you have soul?", play this album a couple-two-three times. You can't help but pick some up.

For more about the album What's Going On, I recommend this book by Ben Edmonds. If you are curious about Marvin himself, you absolutely must read Divided Soul by David Ritz. It's not only an in-depth look at Marvin's life, it's one of the best books I’ve read.

No comments: