In 1971, there were a limited number of options for a soul singer like Marvin Gaye.
The most obvious was to become a cabaret turn – something at which he had already failed in his earlier attempt to become "the black Sinatra". The other was the form of creative rebirth he engineered with What's Going On, the emblematic soul-protest album which revolutionised black pop.
Inspired in part by his brother Frankie's harrowing letters home from Vietnam, the album was both an affirmation of Gaye's Christian beliefs and a moving cri de coeur about contemporary social problems and issues – ghetto life, the poverty gap, heroin abuse, traumatised war veterans, ecology, child poverty, political paralysis – which still resonate today. Unsurprisingly, when Motown boss Berry Gordy first heard the title-track, he vetoed its release, believing the label's famed "Sound of Young America" should not be this bleak. But Gaye stuck to his guns, threatening to never record for the label again unless his project saw fruition, then hurriedly finished the other tracks whilst Gordy's attention was focused on Motown's move from Detroit to Los Angeles. What's Going On would be the last album the company recorded in its original Hitsville USA base.
This 40th-anniversary edition features the remastered album along with the usual demos and outtakes – including the original pulled single of "What's Going On" itself, naked without strings, and with a flimsier call-and-response refrain – plus a second disc of jammed funk grooves recorded later in 1971, a blind alley abandoned as the singer delved deeper into the orchestral soul of Trouble Man. His symphonic-soul innovations here would map out the course of much 1970s soul music, while his use of multi-layered vocals – the happy result of an engineer accidentally running two vocal takes in the same mix – added an extra element to Gaye's vocal armoury which he would use extensively throughout the rest of his career.
The most intriguing of the outtakes are the three versions of "You're the Man", a prescient single about political inactivity which made no impression in the wake of What's Going On, and "I'm Going Home (Move)", a song about yearning to see family and friends again. This continues the familial theme running like a thread through Gaye's album masterpiece, in which the recurring appeals to "father, father", "mother, mother" etc, run like the spars holding together the singer's notion of social cohesion.
This aspect comes through more clearly in the third part of this package, a vinyl disc of the album's original "Detroit mix", which Gaye himself mixed in order to add extra string and vocal arrangements. These original mixes are grittier and rawer than the later ones, with more obvious separation between instruments, but Gaye's symphonic ambitions are still evident, particularly in the meticulously segued side-one suite, with its recurrent themes and echoes tying together the songs into one cohesive, powerful expression of social concern.
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