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Marvin Gaye, What's Going On - Marvin's Masterpiece       

03-17-2019 | By Claude Lemaire | Issue 102

Marvin Gaye What's Going On

Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab UD1S 2-008, Motown B0026761-01, Limited Edition, SuperVinyl, Box Set (2019, Jan.), # 6140 of 7500

  • Originally released on Tamla – TS-310 (1971, May)
  • Category: soul, jazz and spiritual undertones
  • Format: Vinyl (2x180 gram LPs at 45 rpm)


  • Global Appreciation: 9.9
  • Music: A+ (10)
  • Recording: 9.5
  • Remastering + Lacquer Cutting: 9.9
  • Pressing: 9.9
  • Packaging: Deluxe

Musicians (partial list):

  • Marvin Gaye – all lead vocals, background voices, piano, melotron, and box drum.
  • The Andantes – background voices.
  • Members of the Detroit Symphony Orchestra Arranged and Conducted by David Van DePitte.
  • Strings, Woodwings, and Brass conducted by Gordon Staples.

Instrumentation by The Funk Brothers:   

  • Eli Fontaine – alto sax Wild Bill Moore – tenor sax 
  • Earl Van Dyke – keyboards 
  • Joe Messina, Robert White – electric guitar 
  • James Jamerson – bass guitar
  • Bob Babbitt – bass guitar 
  • Chet Forest – drums
  • Jack Ashford – tambourine, percussion
  • Eddie "Bongo" Brown – bongos, congas
  • Bobbye Hall – bongo

Additional credits:

  • Produced by Marvin Gaye. 
  • Recorded from June to September 1970, and March to May 1971 at Hitsville U.S.A., Golden World, United Sound Studios, Detroit, and The Sound Factory, West Hollywood, CA.
  • Mixed at Hitsville West, Los Angeles.
  • Engineered by Steve Smith, Ken Sands, Cal Harris, Bob Olhsson, Joe Atkinson, James Green, Sam Ross, Lawrence Miles, and Art Stewart.
  • Remastered by Krieg Wunderlich and assisted by Rob LoVerde at Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab in Sebastopol, CA.
  • Lacquer cut by Krieg Wunderlich at Mobile Fidelity Sound Lab in Sebastopol, CA.
  • Plated and Pressed by RTI, CA, USA.
  • Photography (front and rear cover) – (Jim) Hendin.
  • Artwork (graphic supervision) – Tom Schlesinger.
  • Art direction – Curtis McNair.
  • Graphic Design – Ken Deardoff.
  • Liner notes – Marvin Gaye.

"Marvin, why do you want to ruin your career?"

Strange advice coming from Berry to his suave protégé—showing how the once visionary music innovator and industry leader of the 1960s proved so wrong and could be that out of touch with the times by the turn of the decade. Not only was What's Going On Motown's biggest successful album; it represents Marvin's musical masterpiece—in a sense, he delivered America's black Pepper to the world—justly earning the status of critically acclaimed all time best soul album.

Though an important part of the big Motown family, Gaye, through this LP, definitely departed from what was coined early on "The Motown Sound." To be clear, the latter term defines two different but related aspects: foremost the general description of the pop-oriented soul style manufactured by Tamla Motown from its inception in 1959 and more importantly during its peak commercial years between 1963 and 1967; and secondly, by the sound per say; i.e. the narrow trebly tonal balance and compressed dynamics chosen to sound loud and pierce through what was the two major music conduits of the day—AM radio and the ubiquitous jukebox; both boomy, mostly mono and treble-shy. By 1968-70, the tide slowly started to shift towards greater stereo releases, FM radio, longer album-oriented cuts, the dwindling popularity of jukeboxes replaced by the emergence of the first discothèques ushering in an awakening for a broader balance, greater dynamic range, and fuller frequency sound spectrum. But going back to the style, Berry ran the company as a hit factory based on his experience working at the Ford-Mercury plant, aptly naming it "Hitsville USA."

Operating the two-story Detroit headquarters 22 hours a day—saving two for routine maintenance—the ground floor Studio A was occupied nearly non-stop for rehearsing, recording, and mixing many musical acts from The Supremes, Temptations, Four Tops, Stevie Wonder, just to name a fraction of the immense pool of talent filling the small space with sounds. The black artists were coached, groomed, and dressed in stylish matching outfits in order to present a non-threathening look to the face of young white America—appearing regularly on the greatest entertainment TV program for over two decades, The Ed Sullivan Show. The song mold relied on short uptempo numbers crafted by the Funk Brothers' instrumentation, and brought to you by the letters H-D-H–Holland-Dozier-Holland—the head songwriting and production team.

Apologies to Sonny and Cher but by mid-1968, the "Baby, Baby" beat couldn't just go on forever as producer Norman Whitfield took over, playing a larger role in reshaping and modernizing Motown's sound. Influenced by Sly Stone's success fusing funk, soul, and psychedelic rock, he harnessed his brand of psychedelic soul, beginning with Gaye's version of "I Heard It Through the Grapevine", followed closely by The Temptations' "Cloud Nine" and "Runaway Child, Running Wild." This would continue entering 1970 with "Ball of Confusion" and Edwin Starr's "War" protest songs exploring and expressing the darker sides of the world's deep divide and war's sheer nonsense—both tracks a far cry from simply "Going to a Go-Go." Marvin moved in that direction as well.

"War is not the answer - For only love can conquer hate"

The weight of the Vietnam War, the worry over the environment and ecology, coupled with the tragic loss of singing collaborator and friend Tammi Terrell at only 24 years old in March 1970, collided into crafting this turn of the decade introspective album.

Originally conceived by Four Tops singer Renaldo "Obie" Benson and lyricist Al Cleveland—after the former's formation rejected it—"What's Going On" was first offered to folk protest icon Joan Baez but ultimately went to Gaye who highly tailored it to truly reflect his disconcertments with world events in and around. The recording took up five days spread between June, July, and September 1970. When first pitched as a single to Berry Gordy and the label's quality control panel, the head of Tamla tried his best to convince him otherwise, initially rejecting it, fearing it would be a monumental mistake for Motown and Marvin to release it. He found it too "old-fashioned" and jazz sounding with its scat singing—which seems so odd at first thought, given how ingrained the singer's incredible interpretation of the song sits with most of us. In spite of all of the above, executive Harry Balk happened to get his hands on an acetate by mistake, loved the track, and convinced sales vice president Barney Hales to order a pressing run of 100 thousand copies of the single for release to radio stations, deejays, and the public in mid-January 1971—becoming Motown's fastest-selling single—coincidentally the same month as Norman Lear's All in the Family premiered on network TV; itself a departure from past programs, visiting many of the same sensitive subjects throughout its long run.

"Picket lines and picket signs"

Similar to Stevie seeking more artistic freedom and socially-conscious content in his albums—such as Where I'm Coming from [Tamla TS308] released just a month prior to this LP—so was the case with Marvin. He entered Hitsville USA's Studio A—with its wooden floor, alternating reflective-absorptive side panels, and suspended ceiling—in early June, 1970 to record rhythm tracks and overdubs, the latter facilitated by three isolation rooms.

Engineer Steve Smith captured the maestro on piano along with a basic guide vocal and rhythm track to lead the session with Chet Forest on drums, Robert White on guitar, and the lengendary James Jamerson on his Fender Precision Bass, who on this occasion famously played the entire bass line laying down on the floor–being too drunk to sit down according to arranger and conductor David Van DePitte.

The smooth laid-back vibe of the sessions were helped in part by Scotch and marijuana infusing the studio. The typical topography of "Studio A"—aka "The Snake Pit" because of the cables dangling from the ceiling—would have the drums in the rear left corner where the acoustics were livelier whereas the Steinway grand piano on its short stick played in the near left corner with the guitar and bass approximately three feet to the right of it. Up until 1967, Tubed Neumann U67s microphones were the norm at Motown with one on the snare, another as overhead, and surprisingly a RCA DX77 ribbon mic for the kick drum; after which Neumann KM-85 and KM-86s took over. Jamerson's bass and any guitar went through a one of a kind DI unit: a custom-built five channel tube line (pre)amp with an Altec 605A Duplex coax speaker sitting at the bottom, driven by a McIntosh MC30 mono amp that double-dutied as a stage monitor made by Mike McLean. Incredibly it was the musicians and not the sound engineer that adjusted the levels on it relying on the big VU meters: firstly by setting their own instrument output level to peak at 0dB for max S/N ratio and dynamic range, and lastly using the respective channel pot for their preferred studio monitoring. With its fixed line-level outputs directly feeding the tape deck inputs—bypassing any mixing console for the cleanest sound—into an Ampex MM1000 16-track on two-inch format.

Lead and background vocals, as well as horns, and the string ensemble were recorded in "Studio B" at Golden World in Detroit, Michigan. The next step consisted of engineer Ken Sands mixing the overdubs from the bongos, congas, percussion, tambourines, and strangely not one but two unique lead tracks for Marvin's vocals utilising the solid-state Neumann U87. This was done from the get-go to provide a later choice between two different vocal deliveries; instead in the end, both vocal tracks were included and embedded within the final mix, giving the title track and the whole album a very special magical feel to it. When listening to an alternative mix–there are a few interesting ones circulating on the web worth hearing—using only one of the vocal tracks or alternatively the two tracks hard-panned instead of mono blended, that magic greatly vanishes and the song, though still excellent, sounds more bound to earth than heavenly divine. And it is perhaps by divine intervention that the sensual signature sax riff heard in the musical intro of the title-track was not only unrehearsed but merely musician Eli Fontaine warming up or "goofing around" in the studio while the tape was rolling. Preceding the latter, is the true intro found on the album version in the form of background chatter or laid-back party atmosphere which came from friends Lem Barney and Mel Farr, both part of the Detroit Lions whom Gaye wished to play for. 

"Brother, brother, brother - There's far too many of you dying"

The remaining eight tracks making up the album were astoundingly completed within two weeks in mid-March 1971, mostly following the same procedure as the title-track at the following venues: Hitsville Studio A; Golden World Studio B; and United Sound Studios in Detroit. The nine tracks form a concept album which was relatively new in that period though quite popular in prog and art rock records since 1967-68 but was a rarity and remained so in soul based music. Originally all the songs segue into the next except for the title-track which has a rather short fade-out before the second track "What's Happening Brother" based on his brother Frankie serving in Vietnam, starts up reprising the main hook—quite unfortunate given that the former's outro would perfectly blend with the latter's intro. [Having two old identical copies in my collection, I used to have fun seamlessly mixing both LPs exactly at that juncture and wishing one day that some reissue label would offer such a continuous version.] I'm guessing that the reason for this sole discontinuity was due to the title-track being done several months prior to the other songs and originally intended as a single only. Of course with this latest 45 rpm reissue, MoFi really didn't have much choice than to separate the album on four sides to not go over the approximate 10 minute per side recommended limits. As such the natural flow of the album is broken up and this can be a make it or break it decision to purchase for some music lovers. The only other alternative for improved sound would have been to still do the best remastering and cutting job using the one-step method but doing it at 33 1/3 instead of 45 rpm—surely some improvements over all past issues but accepting something under the ultimate possible. 

Musically the album contains no weaknesses: every song is carefully crafted; every note beautifully composed, arranged, and performed; every lyric lovingly inspired, written, and sung. Smith and/or Sands' album mix was done at the Motown Center on the top floor of the 10-story building on Woodward Avenue, Detroit, Michigan in April 1971 on an Electrodyne console monitored through Altec 604Es. That mix was not released until 2010 approximately and is now referred in deluxe reissue editions as the "Detroit Mix." The final mix that appears on the original May 1971 LP release was engineered by Lawrence Miles at Hitsville West in Los Angeles, and differs with the "Detroit Mix" as having the "party chatter" placed right in the intro of the title-track instead of towards the outro where it lasted and blended longer. Also the vocals are more centered and cohesively fused in the final mix, while some string sweeps plus many minor mix/track touches alter the ambiance in the "Detroit Mix." Both mixes are magnificent but I believe they made the right call in the end, conveying a more film-like, dreamy or otherwordly state instead of the crisper, dryer, more video version. The lasting impression is more of a Sinatra or Nat King Cole Capitol session feel than a Motown production even though the latter were employing strings and horns early on, be it with The Supremes or other formations. Being the early-1970s there are similitudes with what Isaac Hayes and Curtis Mayfield were bringing to cinematic soul in terms of string arrangements, vibe, and grandiosity, along with a shared social consciousness found in future Philly soul productions. Incredibly What's Going On was his 14th album—11th studio—and though he kept recording and releasing a few other big hits up until his untimely death in 1984 at age 44 from a gunshot from his father, he would never surpass it.

This is the fifth 'UltraDisc One-Step' 45rpm box set released by Mobile Fidelity and the third one in my collection after buying Santana's Abraxas [UD1S 2-001] followed by Bill Evans' Sunday at the Village Vanguard [UD1S 2-002]—I skipped Donald Fagen's The Nightfly [UD1S 2-003] and Simon and Garfunkel's Bridge... [UD1S 2-004], finding those selections less interesting to my musical tastes and somewhat odd for this premium format given so many incredible ground-sound-breaking albums instead. After Santana's stunning success selling out its 2500 copy run within its first month, the succeeding special editions kept gaining in limited numbers to now reach 7500—a three-fold increase, and once more they sold out in pre-order status! (As of writing there are 34 sealed copies for sale on Discogs starting at $135). As in all cases, the two LP's are housed, and presented in a deluxe one-inch thick, black carton box with gold-colored lettering and trimmings, framing the original cover art—by photogapher Jim Hendin–in a reduced 8 1/2 x 8 1/2 inch slightly sunken square.

Upon opening, a dark grey foam hides the inner jewels; under which, is a small card explaining MoFi's SuperVinyl compound developed by NEOTECH and RTI purpoted to reduce the noise floor and enhance the groove definition—a formula with a carbonless dye; followed by an 11 x 12 inch frame shot of the singer depicted on a giant billboard at the corner of Horn Ave and Holloway on the Sunset Strip.

Next in line is a thin cardboard with pictograms explaining in great detail the unique 'one-step' process. This is followed by a gatefold, full-sized cardboard printed replica of the original front, back, and inside cover art that included the lyrics and original credits, with MoFi's ubiquitous strip added at the top plus Universal Music Special Markets added below the Motown logo at the back which the former where not part of the landscape upon its original release.

Finally we reach the treasured vinyl, inserted in individual numbered cardboard sleeves similar to the box cover art, with the track titles printed on the back side, and the LP's further protected, by MoFi's inner HDPE sleeves inside a white folded cardboard. As usual with MoFi, no attempts were made to duplicate the original Tamla label, replaced instead with the same design as their other UD1S LPs.

Lastly a second foam, 'cushions the blow' of box handling. While other labels may 'throw in' a t-shirt, a CD or a free digital download card, MoFi sticks with the essentials, valued by demanding audiophiles: outstanding record protection mated with a classy refined presentation.

I do not have an original US pressing to compare with, but I've long owned a 1971 Canadian Tamla first pressing distributed by Ampex Music of Canada [Tamla Motown TS-310] which sounds generally excellent, rating it around an 8.7—good tonal balance but the bass lacking a bit of weight and precision and the top end a bit of finesse on both side's last track unsurprisingly. Nor do I have the MoFi 33 1/3 rpm 2009 remastering done by Rob LoVerde [MFSL 1-314] to compare with. All four sides of the MoFi were stunningly shiny, with no scratches, nor scuff marks. I did encounter some noise floor artifacts on the first record upon my first listening session, but it disappeared the second time leading me to believe it was mostly heavy static. I noticed some static charge removing it from its inner sleeve and the discharge noise removing it from my aluminum platter—the latter effectively acting as a discharge diode; the second record was noise and static-free. The new vinyl compound, though carbonless, retains a visually pleasant black dye as opposed to Classic Records' Clarity formula which ditched the black-dye altogether with the carbon making MoFi's formula easier to cue and more classic looking and subjectively warmer than clear vinyl. Even so with the MoFi, you will still see the glow of a light bulb passed through if held in front of it—similar to the first thinner JVC MoFi pressings. Without measuring them, all sides' groove area stayed far from the label area, leaving a good inch or more of dead wax so as to reduce any high frequency audible deterioration due to the pinch effect and smaller groove radius. 

In a nutshell, whereas a normal 'three-step' release utilizes the following chain: [lacquer + father + mother + stamper], the 'one-step' method skips the father and mother intermediary steps, going from lacquer directly to stamper or 'convert' in this case. Because of the limited number of pressings that the delicate convert can withstand in the typical press before audible deterioration creeps in—supposedly somewhere around 500 or so for 180g LP's–it implies that a minimum set of 15 converts per side must be created from a set of 15 lacquers per side to meet the expected target of 7500 copies. This not only takes the remastering/cutting job fifteen times longer to perform but also exposes the precious original master tape to more wear and tear—the iron oxide, binder (glue), and acetate, mylar or polyester carrier coming apart sometimes with time, aka 'binder breakdown', and remedied only by 'baking' the tapes for precise times and temperatures. Not to mention how boring it must become for the cutting engineer to doing over and over the same music master disc. Considering all of the above, the $125—up from $100 previously—asking price still seems well justified if the superb quality maintains its previous level.

It also suggest that there could very well be minor differences in sound among the 15 'plate' sets, and as such, differences in sound between box sets, relative to the 'batch' number that the consumer happens to get—more so than the usual MoFi release or any other label following the normal three-step process, all else being equal (which admittedly is rarely the case, especially regarding vinyl because of the multitude of variables from master tape before reaching your platter, and everything subsequent to that). One can also ponder if for example the 15th cutting run is either 'penalized' because of the tape wear or rather privileged for getting the EQ and groove-spacing 'spot-on'; then again are all the parameters/choices 'locked-in' for the total 'project run' to maximize uniformity? What about the cutting stylus—does it get changed for every set?

Following that logic, there are perhaps up to 15 sets of A, B, C, and D. Now one would presume that the first batch (#1 to 500) would be etched 'A1; B1; C1; D1' and the last batch (#7000 to 7500) would be 'A15; B15; C15; D15'. Strangely that is not the case for my #6140 copy bore the respective matrix / runout stamper etchings:

'UD1S2-008 A14; B6; C6; D10 KW@MoFi'

...whereas the copy entered in Discogs' database indicates: 'A4; B3; C2; D2'

The KW initials in the dead wax etchings as usual stands for engineer Krieg Wunderlich, who in this instance was assisted by Rob LoVerde. I was curious to find out if the level of superiority first encountered with the Santana and Bill Evans (see selection Part 1 of my Top 500 SuperSonic List HERE and HERE respectively would repeat itself this time to the same degree with a different recording.

"Mother, mother_There's too many of you crying"

Similar to the Santana and Bill Evans Trio UD1S editions, the tonal balance is full range while dynamic gradations appear non-compressed. Obviously because of the sheer nature of the musical genre, the dynamic range does not approach symphony-esque territory—the Santana leaned more in that direction—but do expect the dynamic expressiveness of the music to shine through as never before. When the first line of "Mother, mother - There's too many of you crying" comes on, I was taken aback by the realism of Marvin's voice embracing me through my system, I felt his breath flirting with my eardrum, the leading edge of the "M" and "T" perfectly defined, the minute vocal inflections reawakened after nearly five decades. I felt the emotion behind the lyric touching my soul—still intact on the Master Tape after all these years, now inscribed on the lacquer, and transferred for the very first time to the convert, and ultimately onto my pressing. The tone is exquisite with just the goldilocks ratio of analog warmth, bass solidity, and extra-refined top end detail—never overbearing, nor spicy hot as the Santana maybe hinted at times. The upper-mids are ever so slightly shaded back permitting louder listening levels if ones wishes without any ear discomfort, lending to a presentation more Master Tape sweet than direct-to-disc front and lean.

All four sides were pretty equal in sound quality. That said if having to choose only one side solely for "demo-bragging-show-stopper" material, I would go with side C which is perfection served on a platter—perhaps advantaged by its shorter side time of only seven and a half minutes for "Right On." The bass is so solid, deep, and full while the treble is dense, extended, and sublime, it is crazy how well Wunderlich nailed it! The album closer, "Inner City Blues" stands out a bit by bringing a mild touch of funk into the soul sauce, giving the track a grittier ghetto vibe vs the previous polished tracks before lastly, a reprise to the theme of "What's Going On" reappears for a minute or so before fading out. When all was over, I put on my old Canadian Tamla Motown first press to compare. Though not disappointing, it is evident that the new MoFi beats it in every aspect, especially in both frequency extremes—perhaps more so in the fullness and weight of the bass on every track, whereas the top end's superiority shows more on a track like "Mercy, Mercy Me (The Ecology)" that was at a disadvantage initially at side's end spinning only at 33 1/3 rpm. Naturally the new MoFi stays cleaner, less distorted or confused as the tonearm-cart advances through the sides. The upper mids of my old Tamla are also more upfront a bit, emphasizing the saxes plus certain percussive elements in the score. Finally the transparency, leading edge, and micro-dynamics of Marvin's vocals are quite superior on the MoFi; on par, though less overpowering, with my all time vocal reproduction reference—Analogue Productions' The Nat King Cole Story [AAPP 1613-45].    

To conclude, Mobile Fidelity's fifth UD1S release—Marvin Gaye's What's Going On—is along with Santana's Abraxas [UD1S 2-001] their two best musical and sonic releases ever and a worthy improvement over my Canadian first press. 'Master cutter' Krieg Wunderlich with Rob LoVerde form an incredible team just like Gray and Hoffman did in the past. These guys get it right, the vibe cuts through—at least most of the time—and now with the advances MoFi has brought with their superior mastering-cutting gear, 45 rpm releases, and UltraDisc One-Step pressings, they seem unbeatable. 

For more from Claude Lemaire go to his blog...