Original v. Cover — #5 of a Series

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marvin gaye - whats going on Pictures, Images and Photos

As the first decade of the new millennium draws to a close, identifying that one song which captures the greatest challenges now threatening our nation was an exceedingly difficult task.  Two of the most daunting issues before us, and ultimately the rest of the world, are warfare and the environment.  I could not find a song that captured both. So this week’s selection will address the former; next week’s the latter.

The United States is arguably the primary aggressor in the world today, maintaining a “defense” budget that, by some accounts, exceeds that of the rest of the world combined.  Our country is currently embroiled in two major military actions on the opposite side of the globe, presumably to “keep us safe.”  

To the extent that the official accounts of 9/11 are valid, the 19 hijackers came from the following countries:  15 from Saudi Arabia, 2 from the United Arab Emirates, 1 from Egypt and 1 from Lebanon.  The United States immediately identified Usama bin Laden as the mastermind of these attacks, although to this day, even though bin Laden is included on the list of 10 Most Wanted Fugitives, the FBI website makes absolutely no mention of his being wanted in connection with the events of 9/11, as can be seen here.  

The United States, typically proceeding at a glacial pace in the face of emergent problems, launched military operations in Afghanistan on October 7, 2001, only 26 days after 9/11. As the United States prepares to send tens of thousands of additional soldiers into the “Graveyard of Empires”, we are currently in the ninth year of operations in Afghanistan.  The only tangible result has been increased death and destruction, and an immediate resurrection of the opium trade, which had had become almost non-existent under the rule of the Taliban, is graphically displayed in the number of hectares under cultivation per year (from 1994-2007), as can be seen at thislink.  

The United States soon began agitating for a military conflict with Iraq, seeking a casus belli, invading a country already crippled by severe sanctions pursuant to the 1991 Gulf War, quickly overthrowing their government, but finding the matter of ruling that country more difficult than we had been led to believe.  The United States invaded on March 20, 2003, and as we approach the conclusion of the seventh year in that country, no appreciable end to our occopation can be seen on the horizon.  

The future of our nation’s two century old experiment as a democratic republic hangs in the balance.  As we were reminded by one of the most remarkable Founding Fathers, James Madison, our fourth President:

“No nation can preserve its freedom in the midst of continual warfare.”

The featured song this week was the title track of a ground breaking album released in 1971, and became a crossover hit single that first appeared on the Billboard Top 40 on March 6, 1971, rising to the #2 slot, remaining at that level for three weeks, and in the Top 40 for thirteen weeks.  The album itself was ranked #6 in 2003 of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, according to Rolling Stone magazine. This song also reached #1 on the R&B charts, retaining that ranking for five consecutive weeks.  This number topped a Metro Times list of the 100 Greatest Detroit Songs of All Time and in 2004, Rolling Stone magazine ranked it as the fourth greatest song of all time.  

To simplify the background information that follows, it is perhaps prudent to now reveal the identity of this week’s feature hit:  Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On.”  

“What’s Going On” originated from an idea by Four Tops member Renaldo “Obie” Benson, who, having witnessed the stressful conditions of the day while on tour, began writing this number as a means of expressing his feelings. Benson collaborated with Motown songwriter Al Cleveland to create a rough version, and then invited Gaye as a third collaborator.  Gaye had become depressed following the death of his long-time singing partner, Tammi Terrell and had seriously considered retirement.  Gaye initially planned to produce this song for a group called The Originals, but Benson and Cleveland prevailed upon him to record it himself.  Motown chief Berry Gordy was convinced that this song did not have commercial appeal and initially attempted to block its release as a single.  He relented when Gaye threatened to stop recording altogether.  

The following excerpt from the relevant wikipedia article (a primary source for this diary), provides some interesting detail:

Designed with a somber jazz-inspired tone, “What’s Going On” addressed the political and social troubles of the world and black-on-black crime in a soulful, introspective way, contrasting to the more dramatic socially conscious records made by Sly & the Family Stone and The Temptations over the previous three years.

On the finished track, as Gaye musically ponders on the state of the world and the Vietnam war, a party can be heard going on in the background, from which Gaye’s voice is purposely detached. The partygoers are portrayed by a group of Detroit Lions players including Mel Farr and Lem Barney, whose acquaintances Gaye had made during his failed 1970 tryout with the team.

The song is notable for its heavy use of major seventh and minor seventh chords, a fairly uncommon occurrence in popular music of that era. Also, notably for this record, Marvin Gaye sings both lead and background vocals himself. The process had been used for many years to give parts of a recording extra strength (Motown themselves had used it on such tracks as The Supremes’ “You Keep Me Hangin’ On”), but Gaye took it a step further and sang each of his vocal passes in various harmony parts, creating an ethereal sound that became one of his trademarks.

All music other than the vocals on this song were performed by the Funk Brothers, a group of largely unrecognized studio musicians who, according to the commercial for the 2002 documentary film, “Standing in the Shadows of Motown”, performed on more #1 hits than the Beatles, Elvis Presley, the Beach Boys and the Rolling Stones combined.  If you haven’t seen the film yet, it is most definitely worth watching.  So, without further ado, here is Marvin Gaye and the Funk Brothers, performing “What’s Going On”, supplemented by some incredible photography capturing life as it existed in 1971:

Cindi Lauper was the only other performer to place this song on the charts, doing so in several countries. Her rendition reached the #12 slot on the Billboard Hot 100 in 1987. The album version of the song begins with a series of gunshots, in reference to Vietnam. The video aired heavily on MTV and was nominated for an award at the MTV Video Music Awards in 1987. Here is the album version:

Hall & Oates (1991) turn in a very respectable rendition of this song, adding some very nice personal touches:

Chaka Khan’s version of this song, performing alongside the aforementioned Funk Brothers in Standing in the Shadows of Motown, won the 2003 Grammy for Best Traditional Rhythm and Blues Performance.  There does not appear to be an embeddable version of their performance, however, you can view it at this link.  Chaka Khan’s considerable talent can still be enjoyed on this version:

The following version was performed by various artists at Quincy Jones’ 75th birthday celebration, featuring a very classy, tasteful jazz-inspired rendition of this great song:

Thank you for stopping by for a look.  I do hope it has been worth your while.

Please accept my best wishes for the current holiday season and the year that lies ahead!

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  1. I don’t think I could choose an absolute favorite song, however, this would easily rank in the top ten, if not higher.  

    “What’s Going On” gained further exposure in 2001, on an album which was essentially a compilation of cover versions of this song, as described in the following wikipedia excerpt:

    In October 2001, a group of popular recording artists under the name “Artists Against AIDS Worldwide” released an album containing multiple versions of “What’s Going On” to benefit AIDS programs in Africa and other impoverished regions.[1] Jermaine Dupri and Bono produced the radio single version, whose performers included Britney Spears, Christina Aguilera, Gwen Stefani, Nelly Furtado, Fred Durst of Limp Bizkit, Destiny’s Child, Wyclef Jean, Backstreet Boys, Monica, Gaye’s own daughter Nona, and many other popular artists. The album contained that single along with 8 additional remixes. The song was recorded shortly before the September 11, 2001 attacks, and it was decided afterwards that a portion of the song’s proceeds would benefit the American Red Cross’ September 11 fund, as well as Artists Against AIDS Worldwide.

    I just discovered another incredible cover version of this song that, had I found it sooner, would likely have included it in the final five of the original diary.  This rendition by Michael McDonald (formerly of Steely Dan and the Doobie Brothers) and Billy Preston, who performed in the past with The Beatles, combine their talents to great effect:

  2. like the utube photo collage — for one thing I’m not sure why MLK or Malcom X is in there, when they died years before (The BP Party would have at least been contemporary)

    • keefer55 on December 27, 2009 at 12:49 am

    Gil Scott Heron on my ipod that’s pretty good. But not as good as the original by Marvin. He was a class by himself.

    • justCal on December 27, 2009 at 1:27 am

    …you’ve really elevated your game for this one.Excellent!

    My download speed is glacial right now so I’ll have to try to listen later this evening.

    Until then here’s a live Marvin Gaye medley that I’ve posted before.I really like this one


  3. The infinity of conflicting stories in 911 truth leads to the search for what else is wrong with us.  Many of these are not trivial possibilities.

    Has cheap free abundant energy been supressed since it’s conception in the early 1900s?

    Has western medicine also supressed cheap available disease cures driven by capitalist profit potentials.

    Have we been lied to about the very nature of our origin, place in the universe and our future fate in 2012.

    What is going on indeed.

  4. Want to try your hand at imitating Marvin Gaye, but haven’t had the opportunity yet?  You need look no further.

    I’ve just found a virtual treasure trove — instrumental versions of Motown hits by the Funk Brothers, providing you with the same background music enjoyed by Marvin Gaye and many other Motown stars. Now, anyone who wants to sing along can do so.  

    Listening to this version provides a clearer sense of how vital the background music was, but also a better appreciation for how much the vocals added.  Personally, I confine myself to instrumental performance only and avoid vocals — considering it one of my gifts to the world.

    During my formative years on the farm, I used to sing along with top 40 songs on the radio while working alone in the barn, when no one else was around.  Unfortunately, and not just for me, one of our two dogs, a German shepherd-collie cross was usually near by, and would start howling when I sang.  I had thought for years that he was pleading with me to stop, but he never went away, so, perhaps…he was merely attempting to add a little two-part harmony.  If so, he tended to sing a little flat, but I didn’t want to be too critical, considering the possibility that he still sounded better than me. Well, I’ll never know for sure now.

    The Funk Brothers versoin even includes the background chorus of  “Brother…sister”, so you don’t have to recruit a bunch of friends for backing vocals. You can do this all by yourself, if that’s your preference.

    Self-conscious?  Just crank up the music, pull down the shades, make sure the neighbors are gone (if they’re avid churchgoers, there is no better time than Sunday morning) and you, too, can pretend that you are on stage with thousands of admiring fans hanging on to your every note.

    Don’t sing, but would still like to add the melody line?  Search through your closets, attic, etc. until you find that trumpet, saxophone, flute, etc. that you haven’t played since you were in the high school band and give it a try.  I’m primarily a keyboardist, but since my guitar is more portable, found my 1970-era acoustic guitar and made an attempt to play along, which had its good moments.

    Whatever you decide to do (or not), I hope you enjoy this instrumental by the incredible Funk Brothers.

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