Marvin Gaye’s 1971 album What’s going on is a classic for the ages and has a poignant message as relevant 50 years ago as it is today.

The era of the Long Play (LP), aka the album, if not already dead, is dying. Lesser-known releases still upholding the album formula are often virtually ignored when compared to the streams and sales of modern pop giants like Drake, who release mammoth collections of songs from which one saves their favourites. 

Instant gratification culture, TikTok and streaming services seem to be the culprits, as they are in other areas of popular culture (for example, there are some claiming the 3-hour blockbuster Oppenheimer is far too long and that they’d rather wait for its release on streaming, wherein they can watch it in easier 1-hour chunks!). The victims are intelligent, insightful musicians, robbed of an audience with whom they can share their feelings, whether it be detached and witty musings on the British night out or the anxiety and disgust surrounding the climate crisis.

It is the latter that was touched upon for the first time by Marvin Gaye in his era-defining 1971 record What’s Going On. The lack of a question mark invites curiosity: is Gaye actually asking his audience, ‘what’s going on?’; is he chronicling the events of his time in the form of a statement; or is it merely an aesthetic choice to leave out punctuation?

What’s Going On is a concept album — in a time when albums seem to have been ‘concept’ more often than not — touching upon the Vietnam War, increasing drug abuse and the climate crisis. Lyrics like What about this overcrowded land? How much more abuse from man can she stand?’ feature heavily in this contemplation of humanity’s relationship to the Earth. 

Susan Sontag writes in On Photography that “Nature has ceased to be what it always had been — what people needed protection from. Now nature — tamed, endangered mortal — needs to be protected from people.”  We see this paralleled in the album’s peak, reached in its anthemic sixth track, Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology). As those gorgeous guitar chords enter the frame, Gaye sings:

“Woah, ah, mercy, mercy me
Ah, things ain’t what they used to be (ain’t what they used to be)
Where did all the blue skies go?
Poison is the wind that blows
From the north and south and east”

In the song, Gaye handles the climate crisis with remarkable sensitivity. His passionate cries, backed up by ecstatic melodies, ring painful and poignant. Gaye decries the destruction of the Earth, overturning the Abrahamic, anthropocentric view that we are masters over it with lines reminding us of the:

“Oil wasted on the ocean and upon our seas.
Fish full of mercury…
Radiation underground and in the sky
Animals and birds who live nearby are dying…”

In 2020, What’s Going On was ranked No.1 in Rolling Stone’s list of the 500 Greatest Albums of All Time, an important achievement for a ranking often considered to favour white male rock musicians. It is stunning, both in its depth and artistry; it is infused with hope and the optimistic possibility for change; it is a singular, unified artistic expression, intended by its creator to capture his heartfelt sorrow at the way we are living. 

Despite the long 52 years since the album’s release, Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On still holds true and is relevant. Clocking in at a short 35 minutes, it is a must-listen for all those hoping to prevent the death of the LP/album — oh, and the Earth too.