What’s Going on

A couple of weeks ago, pre-George Floyd and on one of my quarantine walks, my Spotify-generated R&B/soul playlist offered up Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On. I hadn’t heard it in a while, and I smiled when I heard the opening murmur of party conversation, followed by Eli Fontaine’s alto sax line.

I’m sure smiles weren’t what Gaye intended when the song was released back in January of 1971 (the album of the same name came out four months later). After partnering with Tammi Terrell on a number of upbeat Motown hits in the late 1960s, Gaye’s songs took a more introspective, socially conscious turn.

On 15 May 1969, Obie Benson, a member of The Four Tops, had witnessed episodes of police brutality in the People’s Park, in Berkeley, CA. Benson shared his experience with a friend, Motown staff songwriter Al Cleveland, who penned the initial draft of a song. After The Four Tops declined the opportunity to record it, Benson shared it with Gaye, who had himself become increasingly distressed by incidents of urban violence dating back to the 1965 Watts riots in LA, and by the war in Vietnam (where his brother had served and a cousin had died). Gaye made revisions to the song, added his own lyrics and ultimately produced it himself.

National guard troops confront a protester at Peoples Park in Berkeley, 1969. Photograph: Ted Streshinsky/Courtesy of the Streshinsky Family

The song was recorded over the course of three months in 1970. Motown chair Berry Gordy sat on it for months because he didn’t understand what Gaye was trying to achieve, and didn’t think the song was commercial enough. When the single and album were finally released, it was clear that many people did understand. One reviewer dubbed the album “the most perfect expression of an artist’s hope, anger, and concern ever recorded.” It’s beyond disheartening that it’s as apt today as it was 50 years after it was recorded. We, as a country, can do so much better. Maybe now, in the post-George Floyd era, we’ll somehow find the will to do so.

Mother, mother
There’s too many of you crying
Brother, brother, brother
There’s far too many of you dying
You know we’ve got to find a way
To bring some loving here today, yeah

Father, father
We don’t need to escalate
You see, war is not the answer
For only love can conquer hate
You know we’ve got to find a way
To bring some loving here today

Picket lines and picket signs
Don’t punish me with brutality
Talk to me, so you can see
Oh, what’s going on
What’s going on
Yeah, what’s going on
Ah, what’s going on

In the mean time
Right on, baby
Right on
Right on

Mother, mother
Everybody thinks we’re wrong
Oh, but who are they to judge us
Simply because our hair is long
Oh, you know we’ve got to find a way
To bring some understanding here today, oh

Picket lines and picket signs
Don’t punish me with brutality
Come on, talk to me
So you can see
Ah. what’s going on
Yeah, what’s going on
Tell me what’s going on
I’ll tell you what’s going on
Right on baby
Right on baby

Trivia tidbit: Two members of the Detroit Lions, Mel Farr and Lem Barney, contribute to the vocal chatter heard on the recording.


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