Saturday, May 21, 2011

What's Going On

It is probably appropriate that the 40th anniversary of the release of Marvin Gaye's album "What's Going On" should fall on the latest date that is supposed to bring the so–called "rapture."

The "rapture," after all, is a concept. It is never mentioned in the Bible. Rather, it is an individual's interpretation of biblical passages that forms the basis of a rapture prophecy.

And "What's Going On" was one of the earliest concept albums in which the songs on it were linked by a common theme or view of the world.

The theme of "What's Going On" was alienation and division — and there was a lot of both in America at that time.

Gaye's life was loaded with highs and lows — truly incredible commercial success that brought him fame and fortune ... and a crushing substance abuse problem that contributed mightily to his decline and tragic death.

It is not my intention to recite the circumstances surrounding his death in 1984. Rather, it is my intention to reflect on what may have been his greatest musical triumph.

Certainly, it is seen that way by Rolling Stone, which named "What's Going On" the #6 album of all time.

Rolling Stone also named the album's title track the #4 song of all time — ahead of anything that was ever recorded by Elvis, the Beatles, the Who or the Beach Boys.

And, I guess, when all is said and done, the title track probably is what most people remember about "What's Going On."

But that really isn't fair. There was more — much more — to the album than its title track.

"What's Going On" is surely one of Gaye's most recognizable songs. NPR says it was "one of the most influential records from a passionate and enduring icon."

That's a point with which it is difficult to argue.

But, in fact, the song and the album are really two distinct conversations. The song was released in January. The album on which it appeared was not released until this day in 1971.

The song was remarkably successful and hit the top of the R&B and pop charts two months before the album was released. That, as I say, is a story in itself.

My memory of the album is that it was about sources of alienation — social, political, economic. The conflict in Vietnam was a big part of that, but there were other issues that would have repercussions of their own in the future. They just didn't get nearly as much attention in 1971.

One of those issues was the environment. It was only beginning to attract public attention when "What's Going On" was released 40 years ago today, but the song "Mercy Mercy Me" addressed it head on.

Gaye wrote that song by himself, and it went on to become one of the most famous songs in his repertoire.

Not as well known to mainstream audiences was another song from the album, "Right On," which addressed the divisions in society.

Initially, the lyrics in the song focused on social divisions, but then they veered into politics. Given the modern political climate, that song could be due for a crossover comeback.

Gaye co–wrote that one.

Likewise, "Inner City Blues" wasn't well known to mainstream listeners, but it was more evidence of an emerging social consciousness in soul music.

It was, to say the least, a thought–provoking album — and it was regarded as a classic, even at the time it was released.

And now, to mark its 40th birthday, a remastered package is being released in a week and a half. Perhaps, with this re–release, the album will wield new influence on the culture.

Everything old is new again.