You know the cliche: chicken soup is good for the soul. And it sure is. After all, chicken soup is warm and filling. It is simple, but flavorful and delicious. It appeals to so many of our senses: it looks good, tastes good, smells good and makes us feel good. So what is a good pairing for chicken soup? Soul music, of course. And the greatest soul record of all time is Marvin Gaye’s What’s Going On. Indeed, “masterpiece” is one of those words like “classic” and “seminal” that get thrown about too easily in the world of music criticism, but this is one of those few albums that is actually a classic, is actually seminal, and is definitely a “masterpiece.”
It is pretty widely documented that What’s Going On almost didn’t exist. Gaye had recorded the track “What’s Going On” as a single, but the cut was initially rejected as unmarketable by Motown Records CEO Berry Gordy, Jr. Gordy was convinced the tune would be a flop, and only caved when Gaye refused to record any further material unless Gordy released the song. Of course, Gordy was wrong, and What’s Going On is considered one of the greatest albums of all time. Gaye intended What’s Going On as a concept album following a Vietnam War vet returning to the U.S. confronting the social injustice and drug abuse that he saw around him. This wasn’t an abstract or theoretical project for Gaye, who was deeply affected by the social and political troubles of the era. He was quoted in an interview with Rolling Stones as stating: “I was very much affected by letters my brother was sending me from Vietnam, as well as the social situation here at home. I realized that I had to put my own fantasies behind me if I wanted to write songs that would reach the souls of people.” It is hard to understate how significant this change was for Gaye’s career and soul music in general. Prior to that time, Gaye was best known for more commercially friendly tunes such as “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and the number one hit “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.” For folks most familiar with contemporary rock music, think: this was like Warner Brothers rejecting Wilco’s Yankee Hotel Foxtrot as commercially unviable; and Gaye’s creative shift was at least as commercially daring as Radiohead ditching guitars in favor of asymmetrical rhythms and electronica for Kid A. Gaye was seeking a more personally rewarding approach to his recording career, and was willing to gamble his commercial success to make music that actually mattered to him. What’s most amazing is that What’s Going On remains today as compelling and topical as ever. You should definitely have this album in your collection. Go to Amazon or Insound to pick up a copy on vinyl.
Head back to eating/sf to read Kasey’s recipe for poached chicken soup.