The Story of... 'What's Going On' by Marvin Gaye

3 June 2020, 14:07 | Updated: 4 June 2020, 09:25

The Story of... What's Going On by Marvin Gaye
The Story of... What's Going On by Marvin Gaye. Picture: Getty/Motown

By Tom Eames

Marvin Gaye's protest anthem 'What's Going On' was a powerful and groundbreaking song at the time of its release in 1971, but fast forward nearly 50 years later and it is sadly still just as relevant for the world in 2020.

With the huge spark of protests in the US and around the world against racism following the death of George Floyd, the subject of police brutality and racial injustice is just as big a problem today as it was then.

Marvin Gaye co-wrote 'What's Going On' about the issues of the time, but little did he know that over 30 years after his death, tragically it still sounds as if it could have been written yesterday.

Here's the history of one of the most important songs of the 20th century:

  1. Who wrote 'What's Going On'?

    Obie Benson (second from left) with The Four Tops
    Obie Benson (second from left) with The Four Tops. Picture: Getty

    The song was co-written by Renaldo 'Obie' Benson, Al Cleveland, and Marvin Gaye, and produced by Gaye himself.

    The song marked Gaye's departure from the Motown Sound of his previous output, towards more personal material.

    It was the title track of his album What's Going On?, released in May 1971.

    Marvin Gaye in 1970
    Marvin Gaye in 1970. Picture: Getty

    The album is a concept album, with most of its songs mixing into the next, and has been categorized as a song cycle.

    The narrative in the songs is told from the point of view of a Vietnam veteran returning to his home country to witness hatred, suffering, and injustice.

    Gaye's lyrics explore themes of racism, drug abuse, poverty, and the Vietnam War.

  2. What inspired the song?

    Anti-Vietnam War Demonstration in 1967
    Anti-Vietnam War Demonstration in 1967. Picture: Getty

    The song's inspiration came from Benson, a member of the Motown group the Four Tops, after their tour bus arrived at Berkeley on May 15, 1969.

    While there, Benson witnessed police brutality and violence in the city's People's Park during a protest held by anti-war activists, in what was described later as 'Bloody Thursday'.

    Upset by the incident, Benson told author Ben Edmonds the he asked, 'What is happening here?'. One question led to another. 'Why are they sending kids so far away from their families overseas? Why are they attacking their own children in the streets?'".

    He later discussed what he witnessed with friend and songwriter Al Cleveland, who soon wrote and composed a song to reflect Benson's worries.

    Benson wanted to give the song to his group, but the other Four Tops turned it down.

    "My partners told me it was a protest song", Benson said. "I said 'no man, it's a love song, about love and understanding. I'm not protesting, I want to know what's going on.'"

    In 1970, Benson gave the untitled song to Marvin Gaye, who added a new melody and changed the song and added his own lyrics.

    Benson later said Gaye "added some things that were more ghetto, more natural, which made it seem like a story than a song... we measured him for the suit and he tailored the hell out of it."

    Gaye called it 'What's Going On'. He initially thought the song's would be good for the group The Originals, Benson convinced Gaye to record it himself.

    Gaye was inspired by social injustices committed in the US, including the 1965 Watts riots. On August 11, 1965, Marquette Frye, an African-American motorist on parole for robbery, was pulled over for dangerous driving. A minor roadside argument escalated into a fight with police, and six days of civil unrest followed.

    National Guard And Fires In Watts Riots
    National Guard And Fires In Watts Riots. Picture: Getty
    1965 Watts Riot
    1965 Watts Riot. Picture: Getty

    Nearly 4,000 members of the California Army National Guard came into to control the situation, which resulted in 34 deaths and over $40 million in property damage. It was the city's worst unrest until the Rodney King riots of 1992.

    Gaye asked himself: "'With the world exploding around me, how am I supposed to keep singing love songs?'"

    He was also influenced by emotional conversations shared between him and his brother Frankie, who had returned from three years at the Vietnam War, and his cousin Marvin's death while serving troops.

    During phone conversations with Motown boss Berry Gordy, who was on holiday in the Bahamas at the time, Gaye told Gordy that he wanted to record a protest album, to which Gordy said: "Marvin, don't be ridiculous. That's taking things too far."

  3. How was the song made?

    Marvin Gaye was inspired by recent successes of his productions for The Originals, and decided to produce the song himself.

    He brought inoriginal Motown in-house studio musicians such as James Jamerson and Eddie Brown, with musicians he recruited himself.

    The opening saxophone line, by musician Eli Fontaine, was not originally intended for the song. Once Gaye heard Fontaine's riff, he told Fontaine to go home. When Fontaine protested that he was just "goofing around", Gaye replied: "you goof off exquisitely, thank you."

    The laid-back atmosphere in the studio was helped by constant marijuana smoking by Gaye and the musicians.

    Jamerson was brought in after Gaye saw him playing with a band at a local bar. Motown conductor David Van De Pitte said that Jamerson "always kept a bottle of [the Greek spirit] Metaxa in his bass case. He could really put that stuff away, and then sit down and still be able to play."

    James Jamerson
    James Jamerson. Picture: Getty

    However, the night Jamerson came to record the bass lines, he could not sit properly in his seat and laid on the floor playing his bass riffs.

    Wife Annie Jamerson later said that when he returned home that night, he declared that the song was a "masterpiece".

    Gaye also provided piano and keyboards, and also played a box drum to help alongside Chet Forest's drumming.

    Gaye also invited the Detroit Lions players Mel Farr and Lem Barney to the studio and, along with Gaye and the Funk Brothers, added in various vocal chatter in the background, in a mock conversation.

    Musician Elgie Stover, who was later a caterer for Bill Clinton, was the man who opened the song's track with the words, 'hey, man, what's happening?' and 'everything is everything'.

    Gaye asked engineer Kenneth Sands to give him his two vocal takes to compare which one he wanted to use, but Sands ended up mixing them together by accident.

    However, when he heard it, Gaye was impressed with the double-lead feel that he kept it.

  4. Berry Gordy hated it

    Berry Gordy in 1971
    Berry Gordy in 1971. Picture: Getty

    When Gordy heard the song, he turned down Gaye's request to release it, telling Gaye he felt it was "the worst thing I ever heard in my life".

    Gaye responded to this rejection by refusing to record anything else unless the song would be released, going on strike until Gordy saw sense.

    Read more: The 25 greatest Motown songs, ranked

    The song was released without Gordy's knowledge, and it sold over 200,000 copies within a week.

    It eventually became a huge success, reaching the top of the charts within a month, staying at number-one for five weeks on the Billboard R&B charts. On the main Billboard Hot 100, it reached number two.

    It eventually sold over two million copies, becoming then the fastest-selling Motown single ever. It forced Gordy to allow Gaye to produce his own music, giving him an ultimatum to complete an album by the end of March, resulting in What's Going On.

    Gordy later explained: "My reason for pushing back on Marvin wasn't to stop the single, just to determine whether or not this was another one of his wild ideas.

    "Motown was about music for all people—white and black, blue and green, cops and the robbers. I was reluctant to have our music alienate anyone. This was a big risk for his image."

  5. What are the lyrics?

    Mother, mother
    There's too many of you crying
    Brother, brother, brother
    There's far too many of you dying

    You know we've got to find a way
    To bring some lovin' here today, eh eh

    Father, father
    We don't need to escalate
    You see, war is not the answer
    For only love can conquer hate

    You know we've got to find a way
    To bring some lovin' here today, oh oh oh

    Picket lines and picket signs
    Don't punish me with brutality
    Talk to me, so you can see
    Oh, what's going on
    What's going on
    Yeah, what's going on
    Ah, what's going on

    Mother, mother, everybody thinks we're wrong
    Oh, but who are they to judge us
    Simply 'cause our hair is long

    Oh, you know we've got to find a way
    To bring some understanding here today

    Picket lines and picket signs
    Don't punish me with brutality
    C'mon talk to me
    So you can see
    What's going on
    Yeah, what's going on
    Tell me what's going on