On What’s Going On (An Elegiacal Epitaph) . . .

All of you who know me know what a Marvin fan I am.

Next to Miles, he’s my favorite artist.

“What’s Going On” signaled a significant shift in the Soul music of the 70s.

Like Miles’ “Kind Of Blue”, it is both a Blues and a Modal record.

Tell me if “Wholy Holy” don’t remind you of “Flamenco Sketches”?!?

In fact, the alto player (Eli Fountain) makes several Cannonball Adderley references, whether intentionally or not.

By modal, I mean most of the chords are built on a series of notes, that when suspended, creates a mood rather than a tune.

It also was one of the first records that inspired the change of the fabled “Motown Sound”.

The thing cats my age or younger can’t get about that album is the impact it had at the time because we’re too young.

The fact that it holds up after all these years is a testament to it’s timelessness.
“What’s Going On” was also one of the first hit Soul recordings to heavily employ the use of my favorite chord, the Sus chord.
The Sus chord is the sound of Soul music in Seventies.
It’s interesting as it’s both happy and sexy at the same time.
A rare combination these days.
Of course, it was used earlier.
Gil Evans was one of the first to popularize it in Black American music.
He influenced both Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter whose compositions are always heavily laden with Sus chords.
Herbie cites his tune “Maiden Voyage” as his best piece and it’s progressions are all Sus chords.
For those who don’t know, a Sus chord the same one used in the guitar riff in the beginning of the Ramsey Lewis / EWF collabo “Sun Goddess”
Back to “What’s Going On” . . . .
The strings and background vox with the ooh and ahhs reminds me of Ray Ellis’ arrangements on ‘Lady In Satin” (quintessential break-up album).
Marvin would later do a quintessential break-up album of in own on his ode to Anna Gordy “Here, My Dear” (my personal fav of Marvin’s).
If you listen, pull out the CD or an album so you can dig the song cycle.
The song cycle fucks me up every time, how each tune morphs into the next.
I’ve had several conversations with friends lately on people’s purchases being more singles based now as opposed to albums as a result of iTunes, iPods, and other personal jukebox-like devices.
I see both sides of that argument.
As far a popular music goes, the recording industry was initially singles driven, so I think it’s kinda cool it’s going back to that.
“What’s Going On” was first released just as a single.
Not only was it rejected by Motown’s quality control department, but Berry Gordy said it was the worst record he’d ever heard.
Somehow the single got put out (probably due to Marvin’s then marriage to Anna Gordy, Berry’s sister) and it sold 100,000 copies on the first day!
At which point, it’s appeal was unquestionable.
Marvin was then asked to complete a whole album of likeminded material.
The rest is history.
At first glance, it may seem this record is about the Vietnam war and the post-Civil rights movement state of America.
Yes, Marvin does address these issues in a literal way, but to me, it’s much deeper.
A major source of inspiration were the war stories Marvin’s brother Frankie shared with him.
However, if you look at the lyrics another way, I believe he’s speaking of his own family but using the War as a larger metaphor.
He’s talking to his own mother crying, the ongoing fighting with his father, speaking to his biological brother and sisters, and the inner war that we all deal with.
As y’all know, that is where true peace must be found if we are ever to come to world peace.
Boy, do I love those bells!
On “What’s Happening Brother” I believe he’s talking to Frankie, but in the larger since, he’s speaking to us all.
It’s so personal, so Urban, and yet Universal at the same time.
By digging within, he found something to which we can all relate.
Peep the multiple leads on the title track.
They’re like different aspects of the same man being expressed simultaneously.
He pioneered, mastered, refined, and developed this multi-layering concept for the rest of his career.
Seven different guitar tracks on “Sexual Healing”.
Check out “Save The Children”, how it comes out of “Flying High”.
Shit, just that transition alone is a study in itself.
Back to “Save . . . .”
Call and Response with himself, first in speech then in vocals.
The drums are in 4, the bass in 3, and the congas in an uptempo 12.
4 and 3 are both factors of 12, dig?
Congas are kicking.
And I’ll be damned if the tenor sax (Wild Bill Moore) doesn’t quote Stan Getz in his solo on “Mercy Mercy Me”!
And his tone is reminiscent of “Lockjaw” Davis with shades of Ben Webster.
The guitar riffs create a trance-like vibe throughout the recording resembling the same feel Hip-Hop artists like Dilla would generate when using samples decades later.
This feel is perhaps most apparent on “Inner City Blues”.
This record was so far ahead of it’s time in so many ways.
The whole record keeps this thematic, repetitive thing throughout while never getting static.
An elegiacal epitaph.
Of the title track Berry Gordy once stated, “what’s that Dizzy Gillespie shit he’s doing at the bridge?”.
He went on to say, “it’s old and nobody wants to hear that”.
Boy, was he ever wrong!
From the sounds of the streets to the sounds of the concert hall, “What’s Going On” captures it all.
– Nicholas Payton
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