Sep 272020

Where do I start? I haven’t attempted to throw the gauntlet down like this in ages, and I’m pretty sure I’ve made this argument ages ago: Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On album is overrated, especially by white folks who are trying to make an easy play for Blackredibility, for wokeness.


  22 Responses to “Blaxploitation: Rolling Stone and Other White Folks’ Undue Praise of Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On

  1. Thank you!

  2. Happiness Stan

    I listened to it once. I didn’t mind it while it was playing but apart from the title track, which features regularly on oldies shows on wonderful Radio One, can’t now remember anything about it. I’m with you on the hits, you’ll be unsurprised to hear.

    I probably downloaded it from Napster, actually, since the days of record store listening booths were long past, album tracks don’t get played on the radio here and no copy of it ever found its way into the music section if our local library. It was just about the only way to get to hear albums without buying them.

    What a strange musical desert those times were.

    I never made it as far as sides five and six of Sandinista, in fact I now wonder if I ever listened to any of it at all. The third time I saw the Clash was possibly the greatest indoor gig I ever saw, but London Calling, while better than Give Em Enough Rope in the sense that New Morning is preferable to Self Portrait, didn’t inspire confidence in a return to form.

    Genuine question, with usual waffly provisos. I adore Motown, but only ever got into the singles and greatest hits collections. I’ve tried the classic period Stevie Wonder albums and ended up with a similar reaction to yours. About a third, possibly approaching half, of the tracks are total knockout classics but the rest sound like the seventies equivalent of expanding foam.

    Did any Motown artist ever create a flawless, truly classic album?

    My hunch is the hit factory set up conspired against them, with so much focus on great hit singles nobody focused on albums in that climate, or had freedom to do so. Over here, glam was the last time such a clear distinction could be drawn between album bands and singles acts.

    I’ve no opinion on Rolling Stone, as I’ve said before, it doesn’t cut though here. The Radio Times did an audience poll recently of people’s favourite Doctor Who incarnations, which reminded me of why I don’t look at lists any more. It’s not that they’re always wrong, they’re just not aimed at my demographic. In my teens and twenties they meant something, like listening to the top thirty rundown every Tuesday lunchtime on a smuggled transistor radio at school. Our boys are 23 and 14 and they love YouTube videos of lists. I remember why, but they don’t talk to me any more.

  3. I think we asked the question, years ago, whether Motown turned out any great albums. Chances are, with people like Hrrundivbakshi in the mix back then, someone disagreed with my take that not even the “great” Stevie Wonder albums were “great.” I think Motown and most soul music of the ’60s and early ’70s was still a singles-driven genre. And there’s nothing wrong with that.

  4. I don’t know if they’ve really gone into the methodology of how that list was compiled, but I feel it’s important to note that they had a whole lot of new judges this time ’round, including what seems to be a pretty fair number of younger and/or artists of color. Which means you might not be responding to the wokeness of a bunch of aging white hippies but artists of color for whom What’s Going On and/or The Miseducation of Lauryn Hill were the kinds of touchstones for a generation or two of artists the way, say, Exile on Main Street and/or London Calling were for a generation or two of white male artists. Just a thought.

  5. 2000 Man

    I don’t have a problem with Gaye being ranked that high. NME had him at #1 in 1985.

  6. Happiness Stan

    That is such an NME list, a few years later the same journalists would be writing for Mojo and I just bet there’s a list from 1998 that’s got the same albums in just about the same order. Possibly Tom Waits at six might have dropped slightly, and I wonder about Plastic Ono Band at nine. Smoky Bacon and the Miracles in the thirties made me chuckle. That’s precisely the sort of list at the right time which would send me out looking to fill the gaps in my musical knowledge, and a pretty good snapshot and primer for anyone who wasn’t there trying to understand how music in Britain got to where it was in the mid eighties. But it’s the sort of music blokes who are now in their late fifties are into. My boys listen to music on their headphones and I just realised I’ve no idea what they’re listening to. Our eldest’s girlfriend is into Radiohead and Blur and Marilyn Manson, which timewise would have been like me only listening to Tommy Steele, Cliff and the Shadows and Gene Vincent when I was twenty.

    I’m with Scott here, who said what I meant in a lot fewer words.

  7. Fair point, Scott! I will stand by my horrible sense that there’s a mass delusion over this album that is, unintentionally, an insult to the man’s fuller body of work.

  8. I definitely see where you’re coming from, however, are you sure that the three songs you listed are really head and shoulders above the others, or were they the first ones you heard and the way they struck you can’t be replicated by the other six mining the same general vibe. Listening right now, I’m not really sure.

    Is there much of a song to “What’s Going On” or was the sound of that so sui generis that it stuck out in the framework of the sounds on the radio that surrounded it. When it slid into “What’s Happening Brother,” I found myself thinking that the melody was kind of interesting, that there might even have been more working in there than there was on the opener. “Right On” has a pretty nifty bass groove that works a lot like the one on “Inner City Blues.”

    Some of what you call filler is sort of an extended riff of a sermon by Gaye while the music swells answers and brings back themes from other sections. Flyin’ High//Save the Children/God is Love is basically one long set piece intro leading to the release of “Mercy Mercy Me,” which as the climax settles immediately ia repeated tight groove after the pseudo-extemporization that happens leading up to it. (Pseudo because, Christ, he has a whole orchestra answering back.) The album really doesn’t work as a collection of songs but more as an extended groove. The singles sound beautifully complete plucked from the whole album, but so are some little three minute sections of the Rite of Spring

    It’s probably Motown’s greatest album because it’s the first Motown album that aspired to be great. (Of course other than “The Temptations Sing Smokey.”)

    What other Motown album really challenges it. The “Songs in the Key of Life” EP?

    I also dig the Sexual Healing album, maybe even more, another album repeatedly mining one basic vibe with little specific song content. That one’s even cool because rather than leaning on the magnificently lush Motown army, it’s just down to Marvin and a few cheesy toys.

  9. I also dig the Sexual Healing album and I get the “extended groove” thing. We’re talking a #1 ranked album among 500 other albums. If an extended groove is the point of an album, then flesh out the list with things like Ornette Coleman’s Dancing in Your Head and Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians. Is the point of the supposed greatest album of all time to have the listeners be so chill that they don’t care that half the songs aren’t doing much beside helping to transition among the hits?

  10. Mr. Mod, I’m glad to know you resisted saying certain things. 😉

    In reading your post the thought that came to my mind was “Shocked, I’m shocked to learn there is gambling in Casablanca.”

    I only vaguely know what prompted this. I saw a headline about Rolling Stone revamping their top 500 but that’s all I know – I assume What’s Goin’ On came in first – so I’m speaking without a lot of knowledge. But I don’t think I need it.

    How many red lights did you go through in writing that post that you ignored so as to still post it? Not one time you thought “this is ridiculous”? Not when it was about a 50+ year old failing magazine coming out with a top 500 (not 5, not 50) list? I wouldn’t waste my time looking at it. Why? To get my record collection validated? To see how few post- 1983 albums I don’t recognize, let alone have? Or not when you said you loved Sandinista despite slagging a third of it? If you can love Sandinista then someone somewhere is entitled to love What’s Goin’ On without invoking wokeness.

    Can we look forward to another thread excoriating Paste for their Top 20 Fall TV shows?

    Those three songs make it a great fricking album! The rest could be duets with Yanni and it would still be a classic album. Does it matter if it’s the top one (or whatever it is)? Right now, I couldn’t name another song on it but no one is going to convince me it’s not a great album.

    What’s next, slagging Another Side Of Bob Dylan for “Ballad In Plain D”? Rubber Soul for “What Goes On”?

    Would it have been acceptable if they had put your 3 LP Anthology instead? Would that have been less of an easy play for Blackredibility? Oh, wait, maybe compilations aren’t legit and putting that one on would have smacked even more of Blackredibility.

    Oh, mercy, mercy me!

  11. I’ve been fooled a few times when Mercy Mercy Me comes on the radio, and for a full minute I think it’s What’s Going On. Aren’t they almost the same song?

  12. When I asked to be shot, Al, that wasn’t an acknowledgment of how ridiculous it was that I got worked up about this topic?

  13. So, I took a shot! Just following orders.

    Passive-aggressive begets passive-aggressive 😊

  14. I have no right whatsoever to comment on any of Rolling Stone’s choices I’ve never heard. Those recordings were created for an audience that obviously didn’t include an old fart like me. And I’m glad about all that. It’s a young person’s game, and that’s the way it should be.

    I laid down hard earned money for What’s Going On, listened to it as a young adult, still listen to it once a year or so, and have every right in the world to let all know that it’s really nothing special, except for those three songs. Like the Moderator said, most of it isn’t anything much more than Muzak.

    And chickenfrank is right. “Mercy, Mercy Me” sounds a lot like “What’s Going On.” That said, I’ll still say the album has three winners.

    Hell, I don’t even have a problem with the whole “vibe”argument.” You wanna take that angle? Fine. Explain what makes What’s Going On’s vibe so unique. Good luck.

    I’m willing to bet that every clown who chose What’s Going On for Rolling Stone’s list did so for one reason: to show how unbelievably hip and in tune they are. I guarantee that in their homes, What’s Going On is an lp that’s flopped on the turntable only when other folks are invited over. Trust me, there’s no hanging out alone with the headphones on, digging Marvin’s masterpiece.

    Can’t speak for everyone up here, but RTH is one of the few places where I can tell it like it is. I’m not here to be politically correct. Some music is great, some is whatever, and some is just downright boring no matter who creates it. And unfortunately, What’s Going On is pretty boring.

    I too own the Marvin Gaye 3 LP anthology. It would have been a much better choice for the #1 spot, but the truth of the matter is that it’s not three sides of great stuff. There’s a lot of yawners on there. Maybe it’s just me, but a #1 pick should be flawless, filled with stuff that sticks in one’s long term memory, even if that means the notes of a given flute solo that lasts 5 minutes.

    I’m no Prince fan, but I understand the inclusion of Purple Rain and wouldn’t even have bothered to bitch and complain had it been chosen to be at the top of Rolling Stone’s shitpile. It’s not my cup of tea, but it’s solid as a rock. The care that went into each of the songs is obvious. Prince certainly wasn’t walking away from the recording console, like Marvin during the What’s Going On sessions, to let someone like David Van De Pitte take over for a while.

    Had I been asked to be on Rolling Stone’s panel, my choice for the #1 lp would and will always be Revolver. Why? Because it’s the royal flush of popular music.

    When looking for perfection, race, creed, and color mean zilch. The work is there, or it isn’t. Motown, Stax, Okeh, Curtom, Sound of Philadelphia, Westbound, Vee Jay, Chess, etc. recorded loads of unbelievable records, but for some reason or another, none of their artists and/or producers could nail that which make a truly perfect lp. All came close, but that perfect lp is not there. If greatest hits lps could be a consideration, things would be different.

    And just for the record, Al, all this is a big deal. I loathe the idea that upcoming generations are going to hop on the internet, see that godawful Rolling Stone list, waste their time listening to a bunch of garbage, screw up their taste mechanisms, and become yet more pseudo musicologists who continue to get it wrong for further generations.

    Grow some balls. Step up to the plate, and take a full swing for that high school freshman who’s going to stumble upon the list, piss away allowance money on What’s Going On, and wonder what really indeed is going on.

  15. diskojoe

    In my usual Monday trawl through a couple of charity shops, I recently picked up the 2 CD set of Marvin Gaye’s Best Of, even though I already own the Master box set of his, because it was only $1.99 & it’s great to listen to in the car. One of the songs that got me while listening to it was “God Is Love”, which was the B side of “What’s Going On”.

    Speaking of said trawls, just today, I found & bought the Love Train The Sound of Philadelphia box set for a mere $3.00. Since most of the people here in this hall seem to be Philly guys, we’re any of you into it back in the day?

  16. I have that TSOP box set and love it. I few up with that stuff. I won’t use this sincere expression of love as an opportunity to insult anyone! 🙂

  17. BigSteve

    I subscribe to Robert Christgau’s newsletter, and he made this exact point last week in his response to the Rolling Stone list. He writes:

    I’m replaying the poll-topping What’s Going On as I write and as happens every fucking time I give it another chance am tuning out as the strings of the otherwise obscure David Van De Pitte swallow such mediocre songs as “Flyin’ High” and “Right On.” “What’s Going On,” “Mercy Mercy Me,” “Inner City Blues”? Stone masterpieces, all three—brilliant and even earth-shaking, I mean it. The rest? Well-meant filler.

  18. Diskojoe, I was about 10 at the height of TSOP and a burgeoning ROCKER so I had little interest or patience with it because it sounded too pop and disco for me. It took until sometime in my 20s or 30s, but I eventually came to appreciate the genre and the influence it had.

  19. cherguevara

    Wait – are you really discounting Stevie Wonder’s albums? Innervisions isn’t a great album? That’s crazy talk!

  20. Are you talking to me, cher? Innervisions is probably as great a Steve Wonder album as there is, but there are still a few long needle-lifters for my taste. That’s just my tastes – I don’t tend to like long, jazzy ballads praising god and beautiful women. That said, I would have had less of an issue with Innervisions topping this list, had that been the case.

  21. EPG, I know you are a dreamer and that it must be difficult for you to keep those idealistic, pie in the sky tendencies in check – “Ah, but a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, Or what’s a heaven for?” and all that – but I must say that if you think some “high school freshman” is “going to stumble upon the list, piss away allowance money on What’s Going On” you are crazy. Ditto if you think “upcoming generations are going to hop on the internet, see that godawful Rolling Stone list”, etc., etc.

    The allowance money is going to Spotify so there won’t be any extra expense to listen to Marvin. And I’ll wager that the intersection of those on TikTok and those checking out Rolling Stone is the null set.

    Better to worry about albums from 2019 making the list; anything on the list ought to have to stand some test of time.

  22. Well said, Al. Mister, you’re a better man than I. My temper got the better of me. The high praise for that thing has consistently pissed me off.

    Blame it on my better half. She showed me the list during dinner, and the entire meal went south in about 5 seconds.

    And I agree with the Moderator, Had one of Stevie Wonder’s records topped the list, I wouldn’t have felt the need to act like such a dick.

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