Marvin Gaye might have been best known for albums like I Heard It Through the Grapevine and What’s Going On, but when you look closer, you see an artist who struggled with depression yet somehow found a way through that to release some of the greatest soul music to come out of Motown.
At a glance, Gaye‘s life as a troubled recluse isn’t exactly something to aspire to. He struggled through two failed marriages, had a debilitating addiction to cocaine, and he attempted suicide at least three times before he was eventually murdered by his own father in 1984.
And yet Gaye was a master songwriter who broke rules to push R&B outside its limits while being fiercely political and dedicating a lot of time to figuring himself out. The time leading up to, and including, the recording of What’s Going On might be the best look we get at Gaye’s creative bursts. His approach to that record defined much of his future and music as a whole.
Failure Can Spur Innovation
What’s Going On shouldn’t have been released in the first place. Motown boss Berry Gordy had a strict no-politics rule, and the Gaye’s first single, “What’s Going On”, was clearly in violation of that. So, what did Gaye do? He waited it out:
Upon hearing the finished master, Gordy told Gaye point blank that he wouldn’t release the song. Gaye stormed out, and over the next several months composed an entire cycle of songs that, like “What’s Going On,” addressed a slate of political, environmental and social concerns. With the tunes rough sketched but not yet committed to tape, Gaye retreated to his Detroit estate and waited for Gordy to change his mind.
Gaye essentially went on strike until Gordy relented, refusing to release any music until “Whats Going On” was released. Gordy himself refutes the story, arguing that he was cautious and wanted Gaye to have a clear plan. Regardless of how it all went down, Gaye had a bit of time to figure it all out before eventually hitting the recording studio. Once he did, the album started to take shape, and again he embraced failure. The Wall Street Journal shares one story of how a recording accident shaped the overall sound of the record:
Interestingly, two of the most singular aspects of “What’s Going On” that were extended to the album began as errors. The opening alto-sax solo by Eli Fontaine actually was a warm-up phrase for an overdub that Gaye decided to keep. And Gaye’s harmonized duets with himself occurred when Ken Sands, the engineer, accidentally played back two of his vocal versions on one mono tape.
“Marvin would use that duet technique on many of his studio albums going forward,” said Mr. Gordy, after we relocated to his spacious home office. “We called his love of overdubbing ‘Marvin on top of Marvin on top of Marvin.’ We also had a name for Marvin at Motown, but I can’t remember it.”
Gaye embraced the idea to roll with the punches, before, after and during the recording of Let’s Get It On. That adaptation to failure and accidents is tougher than it seems when you’re in the moment, but it’s clearly something that can work out in the long term.
Take a Break and Walk Away
What’s Going On is not a classic solely because of its social awareness. It’s a classic because Gaye came back from a hiatus with a new approach to songwriting. He broke away from the Motown assembly line production methods and produced the record himself. He forcibly took creative control, which laid the groundwork for other Motown artists to do the same. He used new multi-tracking to layer several vocal lines to weave together a new sound that didn’t resemble anything he’d done before. The end result was an album that didn’t sound like anything before it.
Before What’s Going On, Gaye had essentially left the public eye to deal with his depression in a semi-retired state of exile. Speaking with journalist Phil Symes, Gaye revealed what this break was like:
It wasn’t a case of being big-headed or temperamental that kept me from doing interviews during the last three years. I was terribly disillusioned with a lot of things in life and life in general, and decided to take time out to try to do something about it.
In a sense the rumours suggesting I had quit were true; I had retired, but only from the personal-appearance end. I did that because I had always felt conspicuous onstage and I’m not the sort of person who likes to be an exhibitionist.
I spent the three years writing, producing and reflecting. Reflecting upon life and upon America especially — because that’s where I live — its injustices, its evils and its goods.
The result of this retirement was What’s Going On, one of the most influential R&B albums of all time. Three years of exile is an extreme, but Gaye applied this same approach in smaller ways, whether he realised it or not. Speaking with The Atlantic, guitarist and producer Gordon Banks talks about the recording session for Midnight Love:
The man was a genius. He would lie down on the couch in the studio and fall asleep while I was working on track after track. Then he would wake up and do a whole track like he wasn’t even asleep. He would lay back down and wake up to do another track. It wasn’t something he did for a living; it was truly a part of him.
It’s easy to beat your head against a problem for hours on end or to work until you simply can’t work any more. Stopping, walking away, taking a nap, and giving yourself that space is often the only way to work through a problem.
Find Inspiration Everywhere
When you listen to What’s Going On, there’s clear inspiration from Gaye’s brother’s time in Vietnam; the assassinations of Martin Luther King Jr, Malcolm X and Robert Kennedy; the Watts riots; and the general socioeconomic turmoil that fluttered throughout America in the ’60s and ’70s. What you don’t expect to hear is how two players from the Detroit Lions played a role in the creation of that album as well.
Gaye became friends with Lions players Mel Farr and Lem Barney in 1968, and he’d often pop in on Lions training camp practices. In turn, Farr and Barney would pop in on Gaye’s recording sessions. The timing was good for Gaye, who was still dealing with the death of his recording partner, Tammi Terrell. The new friendship helped lift his spirits and move him back towards writing and recording songs. It also gave Gaye an in with Lions and revealed a surprising fact about him: He wanted to play football.
As proof of that dream, Gaye committed himself to a workout and training regiment. He wasn’t a great athlete, but he stuck with it until he eventually got a tryout on the team. Obviously, this didn’t work out and he never made the team, but the whole experience influenced him moving forward. The two Lions players, Farr and Barney, even appear on “What’s Going On”. Undefeated digs into the story:
But he’d record the song only under one condition: If Farr and Barney, NFL offensive and defensive rookies of the year just three years earlier with the Lions, performed background vocals.
The request didn’t seem real initially, especially for Farr, who never hid his musical shortcomings. But Gaye’s ultimatum was serious. They had been in the studio with Gaye before as guests, but now he wanted to put them to work. “He says, ‘Lem, you take this part,’ ‘Mel, you take this part,’ ” Barney recalled, the excitement in his voice rising as he recounts the recording session. “The next time you listen to it, in the beginning when it says, ‘Hey, brother, what’s happening?! Solid! Right on! Mother, mother …’ We backgrounded him on the whole song, man!”
The two Lions helped revive Gaye’s spirit, battered through current events and all but dormant since Terrell’s passing. He came alive in the studio, conducting each portion of the session with an orchestra conductor’s precision and a mad scientist’s creativity. Where Malcolm and Martin inspired change through words, Gaye believed his could, too.
Two football players from Detroit probably don’t seem like an obvious place to find inspiration for a song like “What’s Going On”, but it’s clear they played a role in it, even if was an indirect one. Gaye consistently looked outside himself for inspiration, whether that was another musician or a couple of football players. It’s easy to get caught up in a small scene and find inspiration only in things inside that scene. Looking beyond that bubble is often necessary to move forward.