The Sound of Young America.
That’s the slogan Motown boldly printed on the sleeves of their singles, and who could argue with them? By 1971 the Motown sound—lushly orchestrated yet danceable R&B love songs— generated over 100 American Top 10 hits in the past decade, unifying Black and White folks to enjoy the same music in quantities never before seen. Motown founder and president Berry Gordy was the architect of its assembly-line hit-making process, often having different acts record the same song with different house producers to see who could craft the best performance. A qualifying Motown hit had to feature a strong backbeat, a happy melody, safe lyrics and a congenial attitude. It was so polished that you could take it home to meet your mother on your first date. And any song Gordy felt strayed from this audio template didn’t get released, period. This “golden ears, iron fist” approach created hundreds of happy, safe and congenial hits for Stevie Wonder, The Supremes, The Temptations, The Four Tops, and Marvin Gaye.
But Gaye, whose entire life could be could be generously described as “conflicted”, found the violent starkness of both the national civil rights battles and the Vietnam war shredded his desire to sing songs without a deeper consciousness. Working with The Four Tops’ Obie Benson, he finessed his anger into a new downbeat and jazzy composition, “What’s Going On”. Its haunted, unresolved bleakness was light years away from, oh, The Jackson 5’s benign “ABC”, which was precisely the point. Innovating the use of multiple lead vocals, jazz chords, and cocktail party chatter in a pop context, it instantly expanded the palette and expectations of himself, R&B, and protest music. Gaye considered it his “artistic triumph”.
However, when Gaye presented the recording to Gordy, the co-writer of The Jackson 5’s benign “ABC”, he was shocked that Gordy had a slightly different opinion, who proclaimed;
“[‘What’s Going On’ is] the worst thing I ever heard in my life”.
Sorrow? Death? And is Marvin scatting during the bridge like an old jazz dude? This was not “The Sound of Young America” and Gordy refused to release it, citing that this politicized audio fungus would damage Gaye’s career, and Motown’s by association. Gaye, in turn, refused to record for Motown until they put it out. This was a problem since everyone in Motown’s Quality Control department hated it too.
But Motown exec Harry Balk was different. He loved it and kept playing it for others at the label, all of whom didn’t get it. (Except for Stevie Wonder, who thought it was fantastic, but of course he would, right? Being Stevie Wonder and all). Balk was such a believer that he engaged in the potentially career-ending move of releasing and distributing 100,000 singles of “What’s Going On” to record stores completely behind Berry Gordy’s back. The entire run sold out so fast that he had another 100,000 singles produced within a week. By the time Berry Gordy found out, the worst thing he ever heard in his life had become the fastest-selling single in the history of Motown.
After it peaked #1 on the Soul chart, #2 on the Hot 100, and continued to sell over two million units, Gordy suddenly had a complete change of heart about the song. He told Gaye that Motown would now release an album of anything he wanted, provided he could finish it in 30 days. Gaye did it in 10, creating a song cycle that drew from the same bleak themes, laid-back instrumentation and sad tones that inspired the offer’s genesis. That album, also called What’s Going On, also became the fastest-selling album in Motown’s history, also selling two million units. It included “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)” and “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)”, two anthems of decay and loss that added to Motown’s haul of American Top 10 hits, redefining what was truly the sound of young America.
It also redefined Marvin Gaye in the eyes of musical tastemakers. BBC Music called What’s Going On “a masterpiece”. Rolling Stone proclaimed it “Album of the Year”. Billboard named him “Trendsetter of the Year.” All of which paled to his biggest coup, resigning with Motown for a historic $1 million and complete creative control of his music. In the span of one year Gaye’s music had transitioned from unreleasable to visionary, and the song that he refused to change, changed everything,
What’s Going On has been added to The Library of Congress’s National Recording Registry and the Grammy Hall of Fame. It’s also appeared on over 40 international critics’ lists of “Top 100 Records Ever Made” with The Guardian and NME ranking it #1. Berry Gordy has since gone on the record saying that What’s Going On was “probably the greatest piece of work that Motown has ever put out. I thought those records would ruin him. Instead, they made him an icon.”
Although he still didn’t say he actually liked it.