When it comes to Marvin Gaye, I have to confess that if I had to choose, I’m more of a What’s Going On guy than a Let’s Get It on guy. I’ll take social realism over romance and seduction every time.
And if I had to choose a single track, then I’d pick the last one on that 1971 concept album, Inner City Blues, about a soldier returning home from Vietnam to find fresh horrors in the conditions of people in America’s ghettoes.
Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler) burns with righteous anger at the hatred, suffering and injustice witnessed by that not-so-fictional soldier – Gaye’s brother had recently returned from active duty – and couldn’t be more topical today.
Its lyrics lambast a government prepared to spend billions putting a man on the moon but won’t put a penny into its own inner cities. Or, as Marvin puts it succinctly: “Rockets, moon shots / Spend it on the have-nots.”
It struck an immediate chord with the public, especially black music fans, with its grimly poetic vision of the bleak economic situation in inner-city ghettoes, and the emotional effect on its inhabitants, sucked into a spiral of poverty and addiction.
Musically, it’s flawless: from that atmospheric heartbeat intro and Eddie ‘Bongo’ Brown’s eerie percussion to Marvin’s scat singing and that gloriously melodic bassline by Bob Babbitt.
Then the soaring falsetto vocal, tugging instantly at the heartstrings with its perfectly concise articulation of the horrors of life in the ghettoes, made worse by the ever-present threat of the Vietnam draft: “Bills pile up sky high / Send that boy off to die.”
It came from the heart too: not only had his brother returned traumatised from Vietnam, but Gaye himself was suffering from depression with his marriage falling apart, his singing partner Tammy Terrell dying from a brain tumour, and his own descent into cocaine addiction..
He had even attempted suicide, and was only stopped by the intervention of Motown boss Berry Gordy’s father. Ironically, it was Gordy himself who tried to stop What’s Going On being released, calling the title track “the worst thing I ever heard in my life” – until it became an overnight success.
On this slightly longer version that closes the album, that howl just after the four-minute mark chills the blood – it’s a howl of existential despair that the most affluent nation in the world can tolerate such injustice.
As the title track, reprised in the final minute here, asks rhetorically as well as literally: “What’s going on?”