Inflation, war, environmental degradation, overpopulation, protests and social upheaval are the themes of this seminal album. It is now over forty years since it’s release and not much has changed. This is one of the reasons why this album is still regarded as one of the best albums of all time. The other reason is that the music itself has stood the test of time and has remained Marvin Gaye’s and arguably Motown’s most important musical and social statement.
Motown’s slogan was “The Sound of Young America” but the America they traditionally depicted was one of the affluent postwar years. Although the label was politically and socially forward with regards to the fact that it was owned and operated by African-Americans and was the most successful label of its kind, the musical output was generally fantastically catchy sugar-coated pop songs featuring great musicianship.
Although acts like the Norman Whitfield-produced Temptations and The Four Tops with their album “Still Waters Run Deep” were starting to move away from this sound to keep up with the cultural progression led by the student and hippy movement of the late sixties, Motown’s Berry Gordy wanted Marvin Gaye to remain their mainstream musical star. When he first heard the song “What’s Going On” he called it “the worst thing I ever heard in my life”.
As mix engineer Larry Miles remembered, “He wanted a certain subtlety. He didn’t want it to jump out and beat you up. As he explained it, it was to be an intimate listening experience. We were mixing it for people sitting in their living rooms listening to the album straight through.”