On “What’s Going On” as you approach the end of ‘Right On’ you’re already in complete agreement with Marvin’s lament at society’s incremental dystopia caused by ideological factionism, and of his will not to be cowed into pessimism. You’ve been carried this far with a buoyancy that emphatically answers, or should, the question as to why this album endures. The pitiful prevailing political centre-right zeitgeist of the here and now, its nauseating rhetoric, laced with defeatism and fear, that stokes sectarian extremism, carried forth by the economically, intellectually or morally impoverished, ensures this album’s topical resonance. More than anything, it sounds right. Soul as it should be: honest, melodic and without pretention. Structurally the composition is continuous, where one track seamlessly becomes the next. Marvin Gaye’s dialogue within each track is of the impeccable earnestness, his tone is both idealistic and forlorn, suggesting that he’s aware that his search for truth and reconciliation won’t find a solution. But he’ll ask anyway.
You’ll already know about this album, and you should already own it. If you don’t, well, that’s daft, so be smart and rectify this gross mistake and get yourself a copy. But if you want to be truly smart, then you should get the Deluxe Edition released in 2001.
The reasons for getting the Deluxe Edition of “What’s Going On” aren’t immediately clear. Remastering, the usual motivation, is of marginal benefit here. There’s a remix version of the album, but the changes are slight and therefore mostly redundant. The one exception being the remixed version of ‘Inner City Blues’, which concentrates on the symbolic heartbeat that runs throughout it, its added punch provides an added depth to the song’s fable. The real appeal of this reissue is the live concert, performed at the Kennedy Center in 1972, where Gaye performs the entirety and more of “What’s Going On” on stage for the first time. It’s the symposium where he confirms his status a truly transcendent cultural figure.
And that’s important, particularly for those of us whose consciousnesses arrived after he departed. To us, Gaye, like some long dead Hollywood icon, has attained a mystique by virtue of distance. As such his career is consumed differently. It remains sequestered, safe from the jaundiced revisionism from a modern culture that has little original commentary to offer on any retrospective. You can ensure circumvention of this process by downloading all of Gaye’s music, as you can James Dean’s films say, but even so the wider consumption and subsequent over contextualisation of these figures, that inevitably occurs these days, is somewhat lacking. Gaye had a long career, but as he and it just ended, his body of work is complete and therefore there’s little scope to deface it. We’ve seen other transcendent figures of music, survivors let’s say, who have fallen foul of their own standards and the apathy towards their talents that time can induce. The various solo projects of the Beatles after they disbanded are perpetually overshadowed by our fixation with the greatness of their group dynamic. Gaye’s lack of longevity meant no later albums, which meant no perceived decline, like the Stones suffered, allowing derisive comparisons of how great they were to how average they became. There was no triumphant comeback after a long hiatus of live performing, as Kate Bush is currently enjoying, and even that’s been subject to superficial derisions, albeit mainly by insecure middle aged male scribes clearly jealous of their own relative infirmity.
This release is also important as many bootlegs of live shows, particularly before digital recording, can be poor. Some will pretentiously argue the niche benefits of a shitty sound board. There are dickheads who believe that bad mastering provides a vista of authenticity into what it’s really like to be present at a gig in such eras. Thankfully this live show is the antidote to that nonsense, it’s as clean as a whistle and it’s the least Gaye’s performance deserves.
Gaye warms up with a ‘Sixties Medley’. All Motown classics of course, even if by then they were only a decade (at most) old. They’re amalgamated in the same manner of “What’s Going On”, floating seamlessly from one to next over thirteen minutes. ‘Heard It Through The Grapevine’ seems like a must for the audience’s sake, just so they could say they were there to see it, and it gets the loudest cheer. However it’s his rendition of ‘That’s The Way Love Is’, which he opens with, that stands out. It’s easily better than the original because it’s reinterpreted in the contemporary soul sound that characterises “What’s Going On”. The sax starts with a solemn sultriness while Gaye giggles, clearly delighted to be back in the saddle. The first verse emphasizes immediately why Gaye’s one of the great performers, there’s no difference in the stability or strength of his voice between the studio recordings and live performance. If anything singing with a live band accentuates his voice, whether by design or otherwise, I’m going with design, the volume of the brass and the piano are blunted behind a combination of Gaye’s voice, retaining its potency on the mic, and the openness of a venue. The band in the absence of Gaye’s lyrics, prove their value, as the piano solo between ‘That’s The Way Love Is’ and ‘You’ mirrors the tenor of excellence that follows.
What does follow isn’t in the original order of the album. It starts with ‘Right On’, which comes third to last on the album. The key here, and it’s something you wouldn’t realise without the live show, is that these songs make sense in any order when performed live. It makes you feel silly for having projected your own comparative inadequacies of expecting safe adherence to a chronology, particularly when the observations and thoughts that constitute the album tend not to arrive as so; and of course Gaye can make music malleable, especially his own.
Starting with ‘Right On’ in a live show makes sense as it’s one of the album’s more vibrant offerings, ‘Inner City Blues’, one of its most emotive, comes third. And it’s the best version you’ll hear of it. The nagging suspicion at the beginning, to the untrained ear, is that it sounds a half octave slower. The crowd takes the bait and starts clapping along. This is confirmed when Gaye breaks off and announces he’s ‘determined to make this a groovy tune’. He announces his intention to start again, and you’re happy about that, but what you really want is for him not to stop. At the end of ‘Inner City Blues’ the pause by Gaye before that elongated exclamation of discontent, which elevates then evaporates flawlessly into the sax, is majestic. Before the pause the anticipation from the audience is palpable, yet even when it meets their expectations they’re still left to scramble for an honest reaction to seeing this performed so meticulously in front of them. They start clapping to a beat that’s supposed to be unobtrusive on its road to extinction, and yes that means that Marvin was good to his word, he succeeded in coercing the audience into helping him make it groovier.
Here ‘Right On’ and ‘Inner City Blues’, sandwich ‘Wholy Holy’. Wholy Holy, as the title suggests, is deigned to be preached. Preached, as a word, has been, in certain cases, fairly maligned and stigmatised, but Marvin’s softly delivered gospel and audibly passionate crescendo makes the sanguine emotiveness of Christian conventions accessible and benign, even to us agnostics. Due to its position in the live show, it becomes further purified, free from the blight of human cynicism and its attempts to oppress its narrator in the songs bookend it. The message: you don’t need to be a believer to believe in this.
Everyone can believe in the message behind ‘Save The Children’. As per usual Marvin asks that question, ‘who really cares?’ A woman in the audience can clearly be heard replying ‘I do’. In a live setting the start of this song carries within it an analogous subtext for Gaye’s sense of self worth, inexorably linked to his ability for authorial self determination. It meant his professional validation as a songwriter, and his success at delivering the album’s concept, had been confirmed by the people whose opinions matter the most, in the forum where he was at his best.
By this point Marvin’s clearly relieved that it had gone so well. Now relaxed, he can admit that he isn’t satisfied with the performance. Marvin asks if the crowd wants to hear anything again. It’s a leading question, and he knows the answer before it comes, but he wants to hear them say it. They say all of it, of course they do, and his laugh is disingenuously playful in response. Thankfully, he indulges them, with reprise versions of ‘What’s Going On’ and ‘Inner City Blues’. In this day and age of copious reissues, we can indulge ourselves again and again on greatness. But when it comes to “What’s Going On” you’ll gravitate to the live set every time. And it’s obvious why – it’s the purest restoration of a genius at the peak of his powers, performing his finest album, the most irresistible of combinations.