Before this album Marvin Gaye was just another pop artist in the Motown machine and it's Hitsville U.S.A factory pumped out hits like 'Heard It Through The Grapevine' and was considered more of a sexual icon than a political speaker. With this album that viewpoint changed all that.
What's Going On is a truly classic album that almost didn't happen. The title track 'What's Going On' was not originally suppose to go to Marvin Gaye, The Four Tops' Obie Benson wrote the base of the song and show it to them and they were not into it. Instead of giving it to them who thought it was more of a 'protest song' and then Joan Baez did not use it Marvin seemed like the perfect fit. Marvin and Obie did not like the injustices that were going on, protesters getting beat by police and in particular race riots like Detroit's in 1967 and with the war in Vietnam that his brother Frankie bad experiences he wanted to do something about it. Marvin, with this album, instead of singing ballads and love songs that was a mainstay at Motown, wanted to do something different and craft a new sound.
Instead of just using the Funk Brothers like a lot of other musicians he went with this unique sound. With this album it's tracks blended into one another to make more of a whole album. But Berry Gordy did not like this no sound and he was more focused on keeping what works and hated the title single and did not want to release it. This album also got opposition from the Quality Control department and wanted to put out something else and so he had to wait out. He began to grow out his hair and with arranger David Van DePitte, got with new studio musicians like Chet Forest, Earl Derouen, Jack Brokensha, Funk Brothers: Eddie Brown and Jack Ashford. On the title track he even used some Detroit Lion football players. After the eventual release he ended up selling 100,000 copies in the first day.
As someone in the industry I really enjoyed this album it was something fresh and had a laid back feel even though it was about serious problems. Also this was a great album musically with an eclectic sound that had jazz influences.