What's Going On


(Mark Sampson) #1

As a kid growing up in Belfast, Thursday evenings in our household was Top Of The Pops followed by The Man From UNCLE. And the former gave me my only dose of what probably wouldn't have been called at the time black music. Fortunately, the days of referring to it as race music were behind us by then.


And black music seemed to mean primarily a string of hits from Detroit. Motown. I was fond of '(Reach Out) I'll Be There' – largely because I associated it with my first kiss, with a girl called Jane Eyre, on the evening of the Aberfan disaster – and a few assorted others, but Motown seemed to mean largely skinny women in sparkly dresses and beehives or male groups in monkey suits doing daft synchronised dance-steps. It didn't seem hip.


But later I bought myself Stevie Wonder's Music Of My Mind to find out what all the fuss was about. He used synthesisers and other modern stuff and, behold, it was good. Very good. But it wasn't a life changer. Not long after, however, I found myself in London after a few weeks of picking strawberries in the Fens. I stayed overnight with a friend of my dad's, who handled the PR for the company he worked for back home. God alone knew what PR meant, but he was a nice guy who lived in an elegant Edwardian apartment block somewhere near Victoria Station.


I must have reached the age of consent by then, because he offered me a (quote, unquote) smoke, but I didn't feel quite ready for that kind of thing. Since he had to go out for the evening, he showed me how his big hi-fi worked and offered me a pair of huge cushioned headphones for supreme stereo sound. He strongly recommended that I take a listen to Marvin Gaye's What's Going On.


The other day, I listened to it again – I mean really listened to all 35 minutes and 35 seconds of it, sitting equidistant between the speakers and not even reading a book. It was a luxury that I can rarely afford in these days of to-do lists, but I wanted to remind myself why it shifted my entire musical focus and why it remains, to my mind anyway, one of the three best albums ever made. Perhaps the finest: better even than Sergeant Pepper and Miles Davis' Kind of Blue.


'Hey, what's happening?' I've always thought of Side 2 as the funky side and Side 1 as one long symphonic paean to the power of lerve. 'War is not the answer/For only love can conquer hate...' In fact, the first side features a plethora of congas and, driven by Benny Benjamin's incredible bass playing, it rattles along at a very brisk and danceable lick.


I always thought, too, that each of Side 1's six tracks segued seamlessly into one indivisible whole. Actually, there is a break between the title track and 'What's Happening Brother', probably because it was conceived as a single. But also, as with 'So What?', the opening track of Kind of Blue, it lays out the modal theme of the whole album and we hear echoes of its beautiful chord structure throughout.


So it's actually the 15 or so minutes that follow before the dying heavenly choir concludes 'Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)' which represent the true seamless suite. But that's just being picky. Here's the thing, ya? It's the subtle shifts in tempo, the breathtaking key changes (from 'Save The Children' to 'God Is Love' and then from 'God Is Love' to 'Mercy Mercy Me') and above all Marvin's magnificent soulful voice that betrays, especially on 'Flyin' High (In The Friendly Sky)', his gospel and doo-wop roots that help it stand above other notable suites, or whatever you want to call them – such as Brian Wilson's Smile and the second side of The Beatles' Abbey Road.


After such an opening, the flip side could have been a disappointment. But Side 2 simply shifts into a funkier gear and we hang on for the ride. A washboard or one of those scratchy percussion things that sounds like an amplified cicada introduces 'Right On': the kind of sinuous funky number in which Curtis Mayfield would specialise and which almost certainly influenced Donny Hathaway's fabulous 'The Ghetto'. It came out the next year, in 1972, and it's no coincidence that Donny recorded on his live album a version of 'What's Going On'.


'Right On' segues into 'Wholy Holy', with its strings and plaintive alto sax and gospel vocals that echo Side 1, before the album ends not with a whimper but a bang. A piano vamp and a truly deft bass line usher in the classic soundtrack to all those long tracking shots through scenes of urban desolation. 'Inner City Blues' indeed make you wanna holler ('the way they do my mind').


Not only does Marvin sing on the album like an angel, but he also produced it and wrote prescient songs about subjects I'd never yet heard about, such as ecology. 'Money, we make it/Before we see it, you take it'. 'Inner City Blues' is full of such resonant lines that underline how nothing would change in the year's following Marvin's masterpiece.


Such knowledge probably didn't help brother Marvin's state of mind. Even though there are people who prefer his follow-up album, Let's Get It On, it looks to me like it was downhill all the way from here on in. The usual cocktail of drink, drugs, divorce and other troubles.


'Don't punish me with brutality', Marvin sings poignantly on the title track of 'What's Going On'. And his father would do just that – with a smoking gun. Apparently, it was as if the son goaded his old man into doing it. His life might have ended in an extraordinarily squalid and unlikely manner, but at least he left the world with one of its greatest musical treasures. Don't take my word for it. Dig out your old copy – or for God's sake buy one if you haven't already done so – sit yourself down between the speakers and really listen to what's going on.



Post script to Nice Enough To Eat


I am indebted to my old friend, Roger Trew, citizen of York, for putting me right about Heavy Jelly. I quote: I have to correct you on the Heavy Jelly reference though, as it is a popular myth that it was Jackie Lomax who did use that moniker but not for this cut. The band responsible were Skip Bifferty, who were popular on the Essex blues club circuit around that time. Strangely I think I saw them supporting Quintessence back in the day, clearly not an entirely unforgettable experience though perhaps it should have been.


I still have the first Nick Drake album that I purchased after hearing the track on Nice Enough to Eat. I don't think, though, that NEtE was the most influential budget album for me: my sister bought me This is Soul when I was starting to listen to music, and though I had to take it to school inside a brown paper bag to avoid the derision of all the progressive rock snobs, I think I had the last laugh. Every cut a classic, a fair number making the 60th party list, which can't be said of Dr Strangely Strange, strangely!


(Strangely, too, I actually owned an album by Skip Bifferty. Briefly. I half-inched it from Woolies during an expedition with some naughty friends from school. When I spotted the woman behind the counter pick up the telephone and call someone – a security man? – I sounded the alarm and we ran like the wind through Belfast's city centre. Exit pursued by a bear...)


And Brian Milne on this network elucidated me about the identity of the 'spies' on the cover of Unhalfbricking: Oh yes, Unhalfbricking - which I have recently digitised. Neil and Edna Denny outside the gate on the driveway, with some of the Fairports having tea in the garden. My mother and Edna were good friends, oh the boring hours of them gossiping. Sandy and I used to have a joke about being born in the same bed! She was a year and a half older than me. My parents were over on leave, some of my mother's family had moved into SW19 and SW20 so that is where they went. I was born in that little hospital (still there but changed function somewhat). The birthing room had one bed, hence our joke. We went to the Leather Bottle pub opposite a couple of times to toast the hospital. She could tip a pint or two, our Sandy. Even from 1978 to the present I terribly miss her.


So, I am biased as hell. Despite that, she had the voice that other female folk singers aspired to before and since and had she lived and cleaned up a bit would have just got better and better.


(Fascinating addenda. Thank you fellas.)


(Barbara Deane) #2

yes...great peiod for music.


(Katherine Davies) #3

We still listen to it all the time. I agree it’s one of the best albums ever recorded. For me,Songs in the Key of Life also fits that bill.


(Brian Milne) #4

Too right, such a pity his life went downhill and the end was so tragic. Had his comeback happened what might he have done? He did a lot that was mediocre after What's Going On but when he recorded Midnight Love in 1982, Third World Girl was a very good tribute to Bob Marley and is a clever song, Rockin' After Midnight is great musicianship, conceptually Sexual Healing lost out by being a big hit thus losing the edge and Joy seems to have him moving back to his gospel influenced background which could have helped push him back toward social statements later. We'll never know. Pity.


(Mark Sampson) #5

Indeed, Brian. Fascinating stuff. We must get together and spin records one of these days. Thank you for reinforcing my notion that Marvin's was one of the most influential albums ever engraved in vinyl. It also occurs to me that he was probably the finest of a whole raft of brilliant soul singers.


(Brian Milne) #6

When I first heard this album the hair stood up on the back of my neck, no mean feat given my Barnet Fair was below my shoulder blades in those days! As a concept album it was light years ahead of itself, yes we were still one foot in the love and peace era but very few of us were as yet into environmentalism (I was but not for what have become more political reasons since) and what I was doing at that time made me acutely aware of social justice and inequality, so Inner City Blues hit a note straight away.

Summer 1971, I was back from a year of fieldwork in South America with a couple of trips back to Europe sandwiched in but all contact with music kind of left back in 1970. I guess I was exhausted mentally but I had seen things I identified with. I too went out on to the Fens to do some fruit picking, not strawberries because it was too late, but apples and pears. Every evening when I got home I put on the radio, then I heard What's Going On. I went to the nearest record shop and bought the album next day on my way to where I had my job. When I got home and played it right through I believe I sank into my chair and froze until I had to turn the LP over. Then froze again. Black music was going through a fantastically creative phrase.

The film may have been corny in both case but Isaac Hayes' Shaft and the Super Fly album by American soul and funk musician Curtis Mayfield a year later were so cool that I can listen to them today and still get a message contemporary black music does not get across as well. It is also a marker of how little has actually changed listening to those albums. The social contexts those people described is as real today. Somehow or other it looked like the creative steam ran out in 1975 with Smokey Robinson's A Quiet Storm and whilst they were good the likes of Sly and the Family Stone, James Brown, Kool and the Gang and even Stevie Wonder all failed to cut it with such concept albums. Sure, a couple of them used second rate movies as a carriage but in their own right, well just forget the films.

Great period for music.