Forty years ago this month, Marvin Gaye released the album “What’s Going On,” long considered one of the greatest soul albums ever made. The song, “What’s Going On,” was one of the nine tracks on the album and was one of the first soul songs to tackle social issues head-on.
Today, the album is being re-released with a few studio outtakes and alternate mixes.
The song quickly became an anthem, speaking to a generation rocked by tumultuous events, from the war in Vietnam to the ongoing struggle for civil rights and the violence and upheaval shaking the nation’s cities.
That societal unrest profoundly affected Gaye.
“In 1969 or 1970, I began to re-evaluate my whole concept of what I wanted my music to say,” Gaye told Rolling Stone. “I was very much affected by letters my brother was sending me from Vietnam, as well as the social situation here at home. I realized that I had to put my own fantasies behind me if I wanted to write songs that would reach the souls of people. I wanted them to take a look at what was happening in the world.”
Gaye would also penned other topical songs, including “Abraham, Martin, and John.”
“What’s Going On” was both a commercial and critical success, though the tune did have its doubters. Motown founder Berry Gordy, for instance, panned it. “What’s Going On” was later issued as a single without Gordy’s knowledge, according to author Ben Edmonds.
In 2002, On Point talked with Edmonds and took a look at the famous song in the context of its time.