Asked why he had written the songs on the 1971 concept album What’s Going On, soul singer and composer Marvin Gaye told labelmate Smokey Robinson that the inspiration had come from a higher power. “I was just God’s instrument,” he said. “God did all the work.” Forty years later, universal/Motown has released an expanded edition that, for many, will be nothing short of revelatory.
The 12x12-inch portfolio includes two CDs, featuring the original album remastered, plus 28 bonus tracks (12 previously unreleased), and an LP (the first vinyl issue of the rare Detroit Mix). The discs hold a previously unreleased stripped-down version of the “What’s Going On” single and several rare funk instrumentals that foreshadow Let’s Get It On, as well as a colorful booklet with essays and rare photos. What’s Going On— one of the best soul music recordings to come out of Detroit—is a still compelling soul opera with a profound meditation on life and splashes of jazz instrumentation (compliments of the Funk Brothers). It offers a sweeping, street-level view of the horror of war and its impact on families, inner cities in turmoil, drug abuse, child welfare, and the environment in decline—subjects that sadly are still only too relevant after 40 more years of neglect. But What’s Going On is also about hope and faith and the promise of social and personal redemption.
Those rare funk jams are interesting, but the real gem is the earthy Detroit Mix—the original version of the album minus vocal layering, keyboard overdubs, and other production techniques added in L.A. just two weeks before the album’s release (a CD recording of the Detroit Mix was included in the 2001 Deluxe Edition). The differences are significant— the Detroit Mix production is sparse, the strings are less prominent, and there’s less sweetening overall. On Side 1, James Jamerson and Bob Babbitt’s soulful bass lines can be heard as connecting passages that were muted or absent on the final mix. In the junkie lament “Flying High (in the Friendly Sky),” Gaye’s background vocals are brought to the fore, emphasizing the call-and-response aspect of the songs. “Mercy Mercy Me (the Ecology)” sounds more contemplative and the song’s melodramatic coda is considerably subdued. As a result, these songs float wistfully on Gaye’s socially conscious lamentations and bring the work closer to the singer/songwriter convention.
On Side 2, the changes are evident from the get-go: the opening track, “Right On,” feels jazzier and more swinging. The piano, bass, and flute are more prominent, and the gimmicky ratcheted percussion, which dominates the final version, is placed lower in the mix, as are the strings. The track has a warm, inviting, intimate feel.
On “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler),” the closing track, the pumping bass line that drove the final mix is hushed. Fittingly, the song trails off with an extended take on the solitary conga beat, rather than the startlingly dramatic hosanna ending of the final version, allowing the song, not the production, to make the final statement.
Two powerful and unique versions of a great soul-music album, enhanced by a handful of assorted rarities—that’s what’s going on.