The impact of the record is indisputable and well-documented; an immediate critical and commercial success, it represented a watershed moment for both Motown Records and popular music in general, inspiring the trend of social commentary in mainstream artists.
“I wanted to write an album that could be translated into any language and could still hold its meaning and not be particularly an ethnic statement that other nations and people couldn’t get into. It took a little time to think about that philosophically. I wanted to write stinging things to music that would make people say ‘Wow, he’s after us’… and maybe incense them also,” said Gaye later.
The album channelled the singer’s sorrow and spiritual anguish at a time of great social and personal upheaval; its 1971 release came during an era of Civil Rights protests, counter-culture politics and antiwar demonstrations, as well as amid a slew of personal problems; long-time collaborator Tammi Terrell (with whom he had scored the hit ‘Ain’t No Mountain High Enough’) had died of a tumour in 1970, and Gaye was in the throes of a crumbling marriage.
Though America was ripe for music to reflect the turbulent political and socio-economic pressures of its nation, Motown Records seemed not to be; deviating from a wildly successful pop formula (acts such as Diana Ross & The Supremes, The Jackson 5 and The Temptations had created over one hundred Top 10 hits for the label in the decade preceding ‘What’s Going On’) was not on CEO Berry Gordy Jr’s agenda.
Gaye, already a notable star with ten albums under his belt and hits like ‘I Heard It Through The Grapevine’, was insistent. Fuelled by anger at hearing his brother Frankie, a returning Vietnam vet, telling him stories of injustice and suffering in Indochina, Gaye began work on a record that would forever alter the musical landscape. That record, which was named by NME as the greatest album of all-time in 1985, and Greatest Album of the 20th Century by a Guardian/Observer critics poll in 1999, is now digitally remastered into a Super Deluxe edition that will have fans salivating, despite the fact that a previous ‘Deluxe Edition’ was released to commemorate the record’s 30th anniversary in 2001.
Let’s not to take the cynics’ view against corporate interest, because this collection enhances and expands upon the original recording with a clutch of instrumentals, alternate recordings and outtakes, some laid down before Marvin left his Detroit base for Los Angeles. While 2001’s Deluxe Edition featured a breathtaking live concert Gaye performed at The Kennedy Centre, this Super Deluxe edition contains gems such as the original, Marvin-championed mono single version of the title-track – the one rejected by Motown Quality Controllers. One wonders why; less tame than its namesake, it is nevertheless like uncovering a precious jewel, displaying the same funk and soul of the original with a more stripped-back feel to it.
There are other reasons to seek out this edition – a new single version of ‘God Is Love’, entirely different to the rendition featured on the original album, has a dreamy, wistful quality to it, while an early demo of ‘Symphony’, a political paean for greater understanding and a song that was later rehashed into a love ballad, is particularly touching.
This is not a collection of mishandled shards from the studio cutting floor, but a genuine insight into an artist at the peak of his powers. Disc One contains the original, 9-track album, newly remastered for a richer sound, as well as funky studio demos like an extended version of ‘Head Title’, smooth as a slow groove, and ‘Sad Tomorrows’, the original B-side to ‘Inner City Blues’.
Some versions struggle to form their own gestalt however; the single version of ‘Wholy Holy’ is an almost indistinguishable doppelganger for the album’s original, while the same can be said for ‘Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)’. With that being said, Disc One’s eighteen tracks are arranged and ordered in a way in which one can simply envelope in this landmark record, best placed to enjoy the fusion of jazz, soul and R & B Marvin spun so effortlessly.
While hearing the original ‘What’s Going On’ is an easy listen – musically, at least – it is both challenging and thought-provoking to have it laid alongside the surrogate sounds also in the artist’s head at the time. Aided by the Funk Brothers’ inimitable arrangements, Gaye’s tackling of issues such as environmental abuse (on ‘Save The Children’) and drug addiction (‘Flyin’ High’) sound as relevant today as on its initial release.
Disc Two is firmly aimed at Marvin Gaye’s loyal aficionados, as it features mainly instrumentals and jams recorded during his days in Detroit in the 1960s. Most seem to be entirely original, while a couple are tweaked versions of earlier songs – a scratchy edition of Gaye’s hit ‘Chained’ for example, though the song is so ridiculously catchy in this example that it’s hard to care.
Players like Ray Parker Jr. and Michael Henderson feature, and it is enjoyable to hear their collaboration with Gaye as compared to his musical tryst with the Funk Brothers. There are welcome masters of ‘Checking Out’ and ‘I’m Going Home’, and a trio of versions of his single sequel ‘You’re The Man’ – which are certainly the highlight of Disc Two’s treasure trove.
The overall Super Deluxe Edition also contains rare and unseen photography from throughout the recording process, and a 12” vinyl ‘Detroit Mix’ showcasing Marvin’s talents in full circle. Voluminous and bejewelled, this edifying edition of the classic offers a welcome addition to Marvin Gaye’s substantial catalogue.
There’s only one drawback; listening to all thirty-seven tracks consecutively leaves the listener so chilled out he is supine. Enjoy.