Treble 100, No. 20: Marvin Gaye – What’s Going On

Marvin Gaye What's Going On - Treble 100

This is a story about how a Christian rock band introduced me to Marvin Gaye.

Growing up in the ‘80s and ’90s, I had never heard about Gaye, and I probably never even knowingly heard his music. During my childhood and teenage years, my family only listened to safe children’s music, ‘80s country, or Christian music—including both Southern and Black gospel in the Pentecostal church I attended with my mom. I don’t even remember having exposure to his music during my first few years of college, as that was dominated by ‘90s alternative rock and ‘70s hard rock.

That changed when I started listening to Adam Again in 2000. They were an alternative Christian rock band from Southern California who released five full-length albums and three best-of collections between 1986 and 2001. In fact, I didn’t find their music until after I learned that Gene Eugene—the group’s leader—died in Spring 2000.

See, I knew who the guy was because he produced three consecutive records by Starflyer 59, one of my favorite bands of all time: Americana, The Fashion Focus, and Everybody Makes Mistakes. When reading all of the obituaries about him published in Christian music magazines, I learned the true depth of his body of work. He was a tireless creator, producer, and raconteur for the Christian alternative rock scene that never got played on Christian radio. But before he was an in-demand producer for underground Christian rock acts, he started a band called Adam Again.

The group borrowed equally from funk, post-punk, and New Wave, building equally upon the ideas of Television, Talking Heads, the Isley Brothers, and Earth, Wind & Fire. The bass and drums of Paul Valadez and Jon Knox respectively featured the sort of grooves I equated with the Black gospel music played in the Pentecostal churches of my youth. However, they were tied to angular guitar tones and metaphor-rich lyrics in ways that were new to my ears.

This was a revelation. As someone who devoured the liner notes on physical releases of music, I learned that track five on the band’s 1990 album Homeboys wasn’t original to the band. That slinky, sultry tune, “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler),” was written by a guy named Marvin Gaye. Since I’d never heard that name before, I simply assumed he was a songwriter friend of Gene’s who’d contributed to the record—and I didn’t think more about it. Until I watched High Fidelity for the first time later in 2001. 

Specifically, I’m talking about the Marvin Gaye references intoned by the Rob Gordon character toward the end of the movie, and especially the performance of “Let’s Get It On” by Barry Jive and the Uptown Five. In that literal light-bulb moment, I realized that Adam Again wasn’t performing just some song—they were covering the work of an iconic soul artist, and they were doing so as a Christian band. If this band that I respected was paying homage to this singer, then I needed to know more about him. I just didn’t know where to start. 

I soon found my entry point, thanks to a sale at Best Buy. I found a two-disc greatest hits compilation entitled The Very Best of Marvin Gaye: disc one held 19 tracks of ‘60s Motown goodness like “Stubborn Kind of Fellow” and “Pride and Joy,” while disc two featured his ‘70s and ‘80s material, including the aforementioned “Let’s Get It On” and “Sexual Healing. (A note: I will always vouch for the validity of a greatest hits compilation, as I owe a good chunk of my musical education in my twenties to such albums. Before the era of streaming music, they provided a convenient way to explore an overview of an artist’s music without having to buy multiple albums.)

So let’s talk about Marvin Gaye.

I had never heard someone sing with such passion and vulnerability before. His voice oozed sexuality, but it came across as sincere and authentic. Unlike the innuendo-laden R&B I remembered hearing in high school on the radio as I waited for the next chance to hear “California Love,” Marvin sang about sex in a way that was neither crass nor tawdry. His music openly acknowledged the fact that adults engage in physical pleasure with each other, but he did so in a manner that encouraged partners to enjoy each other fully and as equals. Granted, he wasn’t alone in these efforts, as peers like James Brown, Al Green, and Barry White made no apologies for creating songs that both talked about and encouraged people to copulate.

And that’s just the second half of his career! The first half comprised lighter tunes that married the vocal jazz of the ‘30s and ‘40s with the doo-wop of the ‘50s and introduced new-school pop textures. In fact, that made up the literal sound of Motown, the legendary record label founded in Detroit, Michigan, by Berry Gordy in 1959, and Marvin was a shining light for the imprint. 

Gaye was many things to many people in Motown throughout the ‘60s—drummer, arranger, occasional songwriter, singer, and more. He counted among his own favorite work from that the three albums of duets he recorded with Tammi Terrell. Songs such as “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough,” “If I Could Build My Whole World Around You,” and “You’re All I Need to Get Buy” overflowed with a deep artistic connection.

While Gaye and Terrell’s voices complemented each other effortlessly in terms of sheer vocal ability, they likewise set an entrancing emotional mood. It’s easy to pick up on their mutual admiration for each other and that they loved recording together. They created music that’s upbeat, jovial, and full of life, as it reflected the earnest and perpetually relatable topic of young love without coming across as cheesy or saccharine. 

Gordy used a controlling atmosphere to run Motown, and everyone typically did his bidding. Gaye didn’t enjoy his solo projects, as most of the ideas were foisted upon him by Gordy. Hence, he found his work with Terrell much more engaging and rewarding because the two were actively working together to make good music.  So when Terrell died tragically at the age of 24 in 1970 from complications with brain cancer, Gaye very nearly left the music business completely. He’d been with Motown for an entire decade as one of its most influential and hit-making artists, but Gordy still refused to give him creative control. Overwhelmed with grief over losing his musical partner, the current state of domestic life for Black people in America, and the state of his career, he decided to channel all those emotions into one singular project.

When Gaye released “What’s Going On” as a single in 1971, Gordy initially rejected it because of the song’s overt anti-war themes and politically charged imagery. However, the huge sales numbers for the single gave Gaye the influence to demand and receive complete autonomy for his own full-length album on his own terms. The result? Gaye’s seminal album What’s Going On. 

After more than 50 years it remains a tour de force of soul music, fusing political awareness and funk grooves with deep pathos. It featured the aching soul of an artist frustrated with his world because he knew it could be better. The record brought soul to fresh heights by updating gospel motifs and channeling Old Testament despair while also presaging elements of disco, fusion, and funk. 

The songs addressed the stark social ills of the late ‘60s and early ‘70s, from the Vietnam War abroad to the traumas of everyday life in ravaged inner city neighborhoods populated by people of color, including police brutality, unemployment, and poverty. “What’s Going On,” “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology),” and “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)” spoke to a world I knew nothing about and experiences that were completely foreign to me. 

Thus, Adam Again choosing to cover “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)” had to mean something. As a good Christian kid, that meant I had to examine the lyrics: “Rockets, moon shots/Spend it on the have-nots/Money, we make it/Before we see it you take it.”

As a fan of science fiction and space exploration, I feel that going to the Moon was a spectacular achievement. But when you’re stuck in a decrepit neighborhood or housing project without a job and an insufficient social safety net, the 1969 Moon Landing doesn’t seem quite as awe-inspiring.

Inflation no chance/To increase finance/Bills pile up sky high/Send that boy off to die.

Inflation was rampant in the late ‘60s. America tried to fund both the exponential expansion of the Vietnam War effort and the programs of LBJ’s Great Society at the same time. However, those attempts were being made without raising taxes or asking Americans to reduce spending and tighten their belts as was done during World War II. So, people found themselves increasingly unable to buy basic groceries while their sons, brothers, spouses, and friends were being conscripted to fight in the military.

Hang ups, let downs/Bad breaks, set backs/Natural fact is/I can’t pay my taxes.”

When you can’t seem to break even—much less get ahead—in your own life, everything else begins to feel pretty bleak.

Crime is increasing/Trigger happy policing/Panic is spreading/God know where we’re heading.”

Economic and sociocultural conditions in America reached a fever pitch when Marvin wrote this tune. Both Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy were assassinated in 1968, and Malcolm X was killed in 1965. Resistance to the Vietnam War grew with each new flight of recruits sent to Southeast Asia. Inflation meant less money for social services, infrastructure, jobs programs, and basic city resources. Even with the advances of the civil rights legislation signed into law in 1964, Black people across the country still faced unfair and harmful treatment from law enforcement officials. It was not a time of celebration for America.

It’s the Marvin Gaye of the ‘70s that I ultimately hold in highest regard. As a college-educated yet sheltered white kid from Texas, I was entranced by the power and heartbreak I heard in Gaye’s voice. I had never heard anyone sing like that, and I wanted to know more about what caused that pain. His deft mix of religious zeal and huge grooves gave me fond nostalgic memories of the passionate black gospel music we sang at the Pentecostal church of my youth. The songs also extol the virtues of sociopolitical consciousness—all while being sublimely righteous art.

It’s not hyperbolic to say that Marvin Gaye is a foundational element of who I am as a listener today. I was enthralled by the various sounds, textures, sensations, and sensibilities that Gaye brought to the table as a writer, producer, singer, and performer. If I hadn’t found him, I would have probably ignored the wide world of classic soul and R&B. I would have recognized decades of groundbreaking artists simply via a few big hits that permeated pop culture. 

And for this life-changing discovery, I owe a debt of gratitude to a long-gone Christian rock band from Southern California.

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