Released in 1971, Marvin Gaye’s 11th studio album is widely seen as the shy soul singer’s seminal effort. As the first album he ever produced alone, it’s one of a spate of early ’70s anti-war albums, and one of the very first to reach a sizable household audience. Originally a mere nine tracks of classic soul sung from the point of view of a disenfranchised Vietnam veteran, What’s Going On is downbeat yet beautifully sung as one continuously flowing piece of music that forms a cyclical loop (the final track is a reprise of the first), a subtle suggestion that Gaye believed the events of Vietnam were inevitably going to come around again. In many ways, history has proven him right.
Gaye, of course, went on to be shot dead by his own father at the tragically young age of 44 but What’s Going On remains a formative moment in pop culture, and this 40th anniversary version gives us just about every possible angle on the masterpiece. It opens with the well-recognised original nine tracks, from the haunting ‘Save The Children’ to the quick-fire passion of ‘God Is Love’. The original tracks have been given their customary going over for modern stereo, and while Gaye was never an artist who particularly needed adjusting to suit an era (he probably sounds at his best against the slightly crackly backdrop of a record player), the album’s sounding tightly wound and slides perfectly through the brief instrumentals that tie the tracks into one continuous flow. What makes this particular version of the album special, though, is both the quantity and sheer quality of the extras, which make up more than three quarters of the content on the whole.
Some of the extras will be a touch superfluous to the casual fan. There are two versions of most tracks on the original album, for example, but then again, at two hours long, you’d have to be having an extremely lazy Sunday to really sit down and listen hard from start to finish. The extras that really grab the attention are the lightly rock-infused instrumentals, such as ‘Doing My Thing’ and ‘Mandota’, which add far more to the record than any varied reprise is likely to. That’s despite the undoubted quality of, for example, the extended single version of ‘God Is Love’, or the standalone, unfused version of the title track.
Another nice touch is the six-song selection recorded with legendary soul producer and ‘arranger’ David Van DePitte, which still maintains Gaye’s vocal-heavy focus, but adds an entire orchestra as back up. ‘Checking Out (Double Clutch)’, which has a little of Gaye’s well-worn sexual undertone to it, and ‘Daybreak’ – which opens with a riff lifted straight from The Kinks ‘You Really Got Me’ – are great displays of the soul legend’s flexibility, adding an infectious new dimension. Perhaps the most impressive thing about an album like this, though, is that despite being stuffed to the brim with more than 40 tracks, the quality never really wanes.
If you’re a genuine soul lover, the new version of What’s Going On is the most definitive on offer, and might well be worth the expense despite the fact that you undoubtedly already own at least one of the earlier versions, if only for the half-dozen Van DePitte tracks. If you’re a newcomer, this might seem like overkill, but if all Marvin Gaye means to you is ‘Heard It Through The Grapevine’, why not start with a genuine, loaded classic?