The Rewind Button – Marvin Gaye, What’s Going Onby LefebvreDave on Apr 18, 2012 • 7:01 pm 1 Comment
(The Rewind Button is a group blogging project. Every Thursday, we review an album from Rolling Stone’s Greatest Albums list.) I step through the hotel lobby and into the elevator, pressing PH before exchanging awkward glances with the short, blue-haired woman in an awkwardly low-cut top and short skirt. She shifts uncomfortably as the doors close, shimmying her skirt down to mid thigh and smoothing the wrinkles in front. She smiles again, this time a coquettish smile punctuated by a wink, then proceeds to purse her lips in the mirror and apply a generous smacking of lipstick.
The elevator begins to rise and with it comes a familiar sound. It’s wafting in through the ceiling, as though it’s been trapped in the empty shaft for years waiting for the elevator to move. Like a player piano, the song progresses as the elevator rises until it seems that the elevator is consuming the song as it makes its ascent.
2-3-4-5-6, the antique arrow arcs its way across the yellowed semicircular dial atop the doors indicating our progress. The woman has yet to push a button. She’s still lost in her makeup. The song filtering through the bowing wood panels in the ceiling captures my thoughts perfectly, as the chorus repeats, “what’s going on, what’s going on, what’s going on”.
Then the song changes, almost imperceptibly becoming: What’s Happening Brother. My questions compile like those of the songs I’m hearing. I begin to wonder if there is a building high enough for the journey that I appear to be having on this elevator. The woman, meanwhile, doesn’t seem bothered by the seemingly interminable ride.
Suddenly, I realize that I don’t know what building I’m in or what I’m doing here, let alone what awaits me in my uncertain penthouse destination. Everything around me is foreign, most especially my companion, who’s face I can no longer make out, nor can I remember what she initially looked like. All I remember is the lipstick she applied and her failure to trace her lips properly, like a three year old failing to stay within the lines while colouring. That jagged second swoop across her upper lip is burned into my memory, like a melted McDonald’s sign.
But one thing is constant – the music, which calms my nerves. It tells me that everything is wrong but everything will also be alright, all at the same time. As the elevator comes to a slow stop, the song Mercy, Mercy Me seems to signal a possible end to this journey, but alas the doors don’t open.
I look up and see that the floor indicator arrow is now dangling straight down, no longer anywhere near the faded yellow halfmoon with the roman floor numerals. The elevator begins to freefall and I awake. I’m sitting in the lounge of a doctor’s office. The nurse is shaking me and telling me that the doctor is ready to see me now. I ask her what’s playing on the small radio next to her computer and she says, “That’s Marvin Gaye silly, don’t you know What’s Going On?
Listening to Marvin Gaye in 2012 is like being transported into an elevator or doctor’s office. This might seem unfair, but it’s true. His music litters these areas, only to do battle occasionally with musak, before winning and continuing its rule as the soundtrack to our most awkward moments. Does he deserve this association, probably not, but it’s burned indelibly in my subconscious and, try as I might, I cannot wash it away.
The party sounds you hear at the beginning certainly set the tone for this album. It’s background music, the kind you might hear at a 70s cocktail reception in New York city. Gaye purposely recorded the album so that each song would flow into the next. He wanted to make a cohesive album from beginning to end, even bookending his album with the same song that begins it – What’s Going On. This admittedly is a bold move, and it furthers my thought that this is great cocktail reception music. It’s as though the DJ has run out of tunes to play, so he’s starting to play them all over again. Maybe it’s time to leave.
While I understand that this album was a dramatic shift for the Motown sound, with its politically- or socially-conscious lyrics, I struggle a little with the associated idea of greatness. It seems as though at times people confuse importance with greatness. Based on my research, it’s hard to argue that this isn’t an important album. Whether it’s a greatest album is debatable. The last two weeks of the Rewind Button have featured albums that flowed as a cohesive whole, whether due to their lyrics or their sound. Both preceded this album in production, though granted neither flowed quite as well. To this end, it is a great concept album, I suppose.
Even Rolling Stone’s music critic, Vince Aletti, commented at the time, “Ambitious, personal albums may be a glut on the market elsewhere, but at Motown they’re something new….” Consider the word Aletti used here, he said “glut”. That’s pretty strong language. He couches his criticism by praising Gaye for breaking down this barrier in Motown, which is justified. Motown initially refused to release this album believing it was too political and that fans would reject it. Instead, not only did fans embrace it, several songs topped the charts and it now permeates our elevators.
Right On is one of many songs that are heavy on message and meaning, something the Motown establishment disdained to the point of nearly exiling Gaye for suggesting that their music could be a vehicle for change. The transition from God is Love to Mercy, Mercy Me (The Ecology) is so seamless that it seems like the same song. This is probably the most interesting part of the record and had me rewinding for this Rewind Button post just to listen to it again.
Released in May 1971, this was Gaye’s 11th album adding to my point last week that artists need time to mature. Inspired by his brother who fought in the Vietnam War, Gaye wrote the album from the point of view of a soldier returning to a country he no longer recognizes – a country rife with injustice.
Will I ever listen to this album again from beginning to end? I seriously doubt it. But Motown is not my thing. I want to understand the value of this album more, I truly do.
To that point, it’s become incredibly obvious now, sitting atop a half dozen records, cassettes, compact disks, or whatever the heck kids are calling mp3 albums these days, that history – the great educator of those willing to delve into the past – is inextricably intertwined with greatness. I’m not talking about groundbreaking historical moments, rather I’m speaking of context – the answer to the question: So what? Or, to put it in context, What’s Going On.
Author’s note: I finished writing this a couple of days ago. Today, I was getting on an elevator and caught myself humming Mercy, Mercy Me. Go figure, maybe it is great.
The following people are participating in the Rewind Button and have posted reviews of this album: