Nearly 50 years ago, Marvin Gaye released What’s Going On, an album that was not only an undeniable artistic leap forward for Gaye, but also a revolutionary statement of political agency and artistic freedom (especially for a Motown artist). Like Van Morrison’s Astral Weeks, Miles Davis’s Bitches Brew, or Joni Mitchell’s Hejira, What’s Going On is a singular, genre-defying expression of musical auteurship.
For the first time in his career, Gaye wrote or co-wrote every song. Blending pop, soul, jazz, and funk, Gaye created a flowing, interconnected suite of music that told the story of a black serviceman – loosely based on Gaye’s own brother, Frankie – coming back from Vietnam only to discover his city and country riven with segregation, poverty, and pollution.
Critically acclaimed and commercially successful at the time of its May 1971 release, What’s Going On has only gained in stature since. When Rolling Stone asked “271 artists, producers, industry executives and journalists to pick the greatest albums of all time” in 2003, What’s Going On landed at number six, making it the only album by an African American artist to crack the top ten.
This combination of consumer love and critical acclaim has led to a dizzying array of What’s Going On reissues, remasters, and anniversary editions, making the album a perfect candidate for the second installment of TBVO. Unlike the album analyzed in the first TBVO, Jefferson Airplane’s Surrealistic Pillow, What’s Going On is a clear and dynamic recording that ranks closer to the best-sounding albums of 1971 (Tapestry, Who’s Next, Every Picture Tells a Story, Blue) than the worst (Percy, Songs of Love and Hate, Byrdmaniax, High Time). And whereas Surrealistic Pillow suffered from a dearth of quality masterings, the digital offerings of What’s Going On are closer to an embarrassment of riches (albeit with a few sonic clunkers sprinkled in).
But What’s Going On almost became the sonic classic that never was.
By the end of the 1960s, Marvin Gaye was coming off a series of hits that had exposed the flaws in Motown head Berry Gordy’s charts-focused “Quality Control” system.
Gaye had been one of the first Motown artists to record the Norman Whitfield-Barrett Strong classic, “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.” But to the consternation of Gaye and Whitfield, who produced the track, Gaye’s smoldering, paranoid rendition was rejected by Quality Control. Whitfield cut a new, more upbeat arrangement of the song with Gladys Knight & the Pips, and it shot to number one on the R&B charts and number two on the pop charts.
Whitfield kept pushing for the release of the version he recorded with Gaye, which he felt could be an even bigger hit. Finally, Gordy relented, allowing it to be released not as a single, but as filler on Gaye’s 1967 album, In the Groove. Deejays started playing Gaye’s “Grapevine,” however, and it shot to number one on the pop and R&B charts, staying there for seven weeks, and becoming Motown’s biggest seller to date.
Even with the success of “Grapevine,” Gaye faced the same resistance from Motown with “Baby I’m for Real,” a song he wrote and produced for the Originals. Quality Control panned the track, preferring to put out the insipid “Green Grow the Lilacs” as a single instead. “Lilacs” promptly flopped. But the Originals convinced a disc jockey at Detroit’s WCHB to play “Baby I’m for Real.” It became a smash in Detroit, then went national, reaching number one on the R&B charts and number 14 on the pop charts.
Though Gaye had proved Quality Control wrong twice, Gordy had little desire to indulge the political turn Marvin would take with “What’s Going On.”
By the time the 1970s began, Marvin was neither emotionally nor intellectually inclined to continue churning out the love songs that had made him the “Prince of Motown” and the label’s bona fide sex symbol.
In October 1967, Tami Terrell – Gaye’s duet partner for hits like “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” and “You’re All I Need to Get By” – collapsed into his arms during a performance in Virginia. Terrell was diagnosed with a brain tumor and would pass away in March 1970 after eight unsuccessful surgeries.
Terrell’s death sent Gaye into a deep depression, one that was worsened by the death and destruction Marvin saw on the news and read about in Frankie’s letters.
“In 1969 or 1970, I began to reevaluate my whole concept of what I wanted my music to say,” Gaye would later say. “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. I wanted them to take a look at what was happening in the world.”
In one of the many instances of serendipity that would shape What’s Going On, it just so happened that another Motown artist, the Four Tops’ Renaldo “Obie” Benson, was seeking a home for a song-in-process that explicitly asked listeners to “take a look at what was happening in the world.”
Inspiration had struck Benson during a 1969 Four Tops tour stop in San Francisco, where he witnessed police clashing with Berkeley students over the fate of “People’s Park.” “They had Haight-Ashbury then,” Benson told Ben Edmonds, “all the kids up there with the long hair and everything. The police was beatin’ on them, but they weren’t bothering anybody. I saw this, and I started wondering what the fuck was going on. What is happening here? One question leads to another. Why are they sending kids so far away from their families overseas? Why are they attacking their own children in the streets here? And so on.”
Despite his enthusiasm, Benson’s fellow Tops weren’t interested in the tune. Benson then offered it to Joan Baez when the two met during a Top of the Pops filming. According to Benson, Baez seemed interested, but the collaboration never came to fruition.
It was then that Benson took his song to Gaye, who would ultimately receive one-third of the songwriting credit for “What’s Going On,” along with Benson and Motown songwriter Al Cleveland. But just how much of a hand Gaye had in writing “What’s Going On” is still unclear.
Detroit Lions running back Mel Farr claims that Gaye came up with the song’s title after a round of golf with Farr and fellow Lion Lem Barney. “We went back over Marvin’s house on Outer Drive,” Farr told Gaye’s biographer David Ritz. “We’d hit the ball especially good that day and we were all feeling good, sitting around and kibitzing, when I said, ‘Hey, what’s going on?’ Marvin said, ‘You know, that’d be a hip title for a song. I think I’ll write it for the Originals.’ He started fooling at the piano and when we dropped by to see him the next day he was still fooling with it.” But according to another version of the story, Benson came up with the title and hook for “What’s Going On” while driving along Lake Michigan.
Regardless of the specifics, Benson says that Gaye earned his third of the writing credits by finishing and reshaping the song that Benson had begun devising back in Berkeley. “Marvin Definitely put the finishing touches on it,” Benson explained to Edmonds in an interview for the latter’s excellent book on the album. “He added lyrics, and he added some spice to the melody. He fine-tuned the tune, in other words. He added different colors to it. He added some things that were more ghetto, more natural, which made it seem more like a story than a song.”
In “fine-tuning” “What’s Going On,” which Gaye would produce himself, Marvin pulled from a diverse set of influences, including the aforementioned Miles Davis and mellow singer-songwriter James Taylor. Bitches Brew and Sweet Baby James had been released just a few months before Gaye went into the studio on June 1, 1970, to begin work on “What’s Going On.” The former moved Gaye to adopt a looser, jazzier feel to the instrumentation for “What’s Going On,” while the latter convinced him to adopt a softer, more conversational singing style.
In yet another of the moments of serendipity that would shape the “What’s Going On” single and the album that followed, Gaye rolled tape on alto saxophonist Eli Fontaine’s warmups. When Gaye heard Fontaine play the lick that opens “What’s Going On,” he knew he had what we wanted and told Fontaine that his work was done. When Fontaine protested that he was just goofing around and wanted to do a proper take, Gaye replied “Well you goof exquisitely” and sent the saxophonist home.
Gaye’s unique layered vocals on “What’s Going On” were also the result of an accident. Whereas doubling the same vocal (often to cover up imperfections) was commonplace, each of Marvin’s multi-tracked vocals on “What’s Going On” represent a distinct delivery, creating the effect of Gaye duetting with himself.
“That double lead voice was a mistake on my part,” engineer Ken Sands told Edmonds. “Marvin had cut two lead vocals and wanted me to prepare a tape with the rhythm track up the middle and each of his vocals on separate tracks so he could compare them. Once I played that two-track on a mono machine, and he heard both voices at the same time.” (As with other parts of the What’s Going On story, though, the details of how Marvin came to hear both vocals at once is debated. According to Sands’s fellow engineer Bob Olhsson, “A couple of us think we were the first who Marvin asked to play the different tracks at once.”)
However it came about, the technique allowed Gaye to put his “three voices” – “a very rough voice, a falsetto, and my natural and smooth mid-range,” as he explained to one interviewer – into both tension and conversation with one another. It became Gaye’s signature sound, not only on What’s Going On, but also throughout the rest of his career.
But when Gaye turned the “What’s Going On” single in to Motown, Berry Gordy reportedly told Motown’s VP of sales, Barney Ales, “This is the worst record I’ve ever heard.”
“Berry just didn’t feel that it was the material that reflected Motown,” Motown’s Joe Schaffner has explained. “It wasn’t universal enough. It was a ghetto thing. It was very political at a time that Berry was promoting American music – music that sounded good, that everyone could dance to and appreciate and had no real message.”
As musicologist Mark Clague has noted, however, the notion that “What’s Going On” would have been unprecedentedly political for Motown is largely a myth. While overtly political songs had not predominated among the label’s releases, they’d been a part of Motown since at least 1961. Moreover, some nominally apolitical songs, like “Dancing in the Street,” took on a radical political valence once they were already out in the marketplace.
By 1970, Motown was becoming more, not less, political. In the six months before Gaye presented “What’s Going On” to the label, Motown released Martha and the Vandellas’ “I Should Be Proud,” the Temptations’ “Ball of Confusion,” and Edwin Starr’s “War.”
It’s possible, then, that Gordy wasn’t so much opposed to “message songs” as to the fact that Gaye, specifically, wanted to release a political single, given his status as Motown’s male heartthrob. Indeed, Gordy has admitted as much himself: “I said, ‘Marvin, why do you want to ruin your career? Why do you want to put out a song about the Vietnam War, police brutality and all of these things? You've got all these great love songs. You’re the hottest artist, the sex symbol of the sixties and seventies.’”
Part of the opposition to “What’s Going On” also seemingly had to do with with the song’s jazz-inflected style. Harry Balk – who’d been hired by Motown to oversee the label’s foray into the white rock market, Rare Earth Records – was one of the song’s few fans at the label. When he tried to persuade Gordy to put it out, the label head responded by saying, “Ah, that Dizzy Gillespie stuff in the middle, that scatting, it’s old.” Indeed, according to Balk, almost no one at the label liked it. “I played it for the hot producers – Norman Whitfield, Hank Cosby, Frank Wilson – and got nothing but negative opinions,” Balk told Edmonds. “The only one that was really knocked out with it, the only one, was Stevie Wonder.”
Whatever the reason for Motown’s refusal to release “What’s Going On,” Gaye wasn’t having it. He went on a de-facto strike in response, vowing not to turn over any more material to Motown until Gordy relented and put out “What’s Going On.”
Gaye’s strike worked.
Desperate for a new Gaye release, the label relented and put out the “What’s Going On” single on January 21, 1971, six months after most of the sessions for the song had been completed. According to some accounts, Gordy – who’d been spending most of his time in Los Angeles by the early-1970s – wasn’t consulted before the Detroit Motown office decided to release “What’s Going On.” “Berry went crazy when he found out we’d released ‘What’s Going On,’” according to Ales. “He didn’t like the record at all.” But when the single rocketed to number two on the pop charts and number three on the R&B charts, Berry changed his mind.
Suddenly, Gordy wanted a whole album from Gaye.
With only “What’s Going On” and B-side “God Is Love” completed and pieces of a few other songs, Gaye went on a songwriting binge that would turn the powerful, yet amorphous, protest of “What’s Going On” into the opening track of a suite of songs about a returning Vietnam veteran confronting an unjust and decaying United States.
“I felt that I had to write about Vietnam, because the brutality was so extreme. I knew that this record could in no way be light-hearted,” Gaye said later. “It had to be a concept album. At first I fought against that notion because the concept I had of America back then was so dark. The concept was depressing and, to be honest, I was seriously depressed.”
In crafting the remaining songs for What’s Going On, Gaye drew upon both his own frustrations with the state of domestic politics and what Frankie had told Marvin of his experiences overseas. “I cried a lot during our talks,” Frankie told Edmonds. “War is hell, believe me. The value of life is unbelievably low. Nothing you’ve ever experienced can prepare you for the terror.”
The album’s most literal expression of Marvin’s conversations with Frankie took the form of “What’s Happening Brother,” the album’s second track (following opener “What’s Going On”). With “What’s Happening Brother,” Gaye “link[ed] foreign hostility…to domestic suffering,” as scholar Michael Eric Dyson has written. “What’s Happening Brother” is a poignant indictment of a system that would both traumatize a solder by sending him to Vietnam (“War is hell, when will it end?”) and offer him few opportunities to rebuild his life when he returns home (“Can’t find no work, can’t find no job my friend / Money is tighter than it’s ever been”).
In crafting the words to “What’s Happening Brother,” Gaye turned to an unlikely collaborator. James Nyx was the elevator operator at Motown’s Woodward Avenue building in Detroit, but he was also an aspiring lyricist that few at the company took seriously. Instead of ignoring Nyx’s ambitions like most of his Motown brethren, Gaye turned to Nyx for help with “What’s Happening Brother,” “God Is Love,” and the album’s standout final cut, “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler).”
“Marvin had a good tune [for ‘Inner City Blues’], sort of blues-like, but he didn’t have any words for it,” Nyx remembered. “We started putting some stuff in there about how rough things were around town.” The memorable opening couplet Gaye and Nyx devised (“Rockets, moon shots / Spend it on the have-nots”) echoed the sentiments of Gil Scott-Heron’s “Whitey on the Moon” in contrasting the seemingly limitless government funding available for the military and space program with the country’s paltry safety net. By the end of the song Gaye and Nyx had addressed everything from taxes and inflation to police brutality and the Vietnam draft.
In between “What’s Happening Brother” and “Inner City Blues,” Gaye placed songs exploring drug addiction (“Flyin’ High (In the Friendly Sky)”), environmental degradation (“Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)”), and economic inequality (“Right On”). With “God Is Love” and “Wholy Holy,” Gaye brought the spiritual subcurrent that would run throughout What’s Going On to the surface. By weaving this naked spirituality between songs recounting more earthly concerns, Gaye “made it clear that social justice is what love sounds like when it speaks in public,” as Dyson put it.
Marvin put these new songs to tape (and heavily reworked both “What’s Going On” and “God Is Love”) in a flurry of studio sessions between March 17th and March 30th. Once again acting as his own producer, Marvin was determined to made What’s Going On sound different from other Motown releases.
Rather than having the drums drive the songs, as with most Motown releases, Gaye brought in Eddie Brown, Earl DeRouen, and Bobbye Hall on bongos and congas, Jack Ashford on tambourine and wood block, and Jack Brokensha on vibes. Together, their polyrhythmic tapestry floats above jazz drummer Chet Forest’s kit, ensuring that What’s Going On’s rhythmic foundation is closer to the heavens than the earth (at least until the startling-yet-powerful opening thumps of “Inner City Blues”). Bassists Bob Babbit and James Jamerson reinforce the album’s ethereal vibe with their sinuous basslines, which seem to dart and weave through the songs.
And instead of using all of Motown’s legendary “Funk Brothers” on the sessions, Gaye combined some of the Funk Brothers with outside musicians. After seeing him perform in a Detroit night club, Gaye asked tenor saxophonist “Wild Bill” Moore to improvise across the album’s tracks, and Moore’s horn became one of the album’s signature sounds, most memorably on “Mercy Mercy Me.” Gaye also asked teenaged flautist Dayna Hartwick – who had performed on songs like the Four Tops’ “Reach Out (I’ll Be There),” but who wasn’t a jazz flautist – to play over the funky “Right On.” Though Hartwick was apprehensive, her soaring flute is one of the albums sonic highlights.
The final touch to the album came in the form of a score by Motown arranger David Van De Pitte. Gaye provided Van De Pitte with general directions about how he wanted strings to sound, but gave the arranger a wider berth than most artists. The result was a subtle, flowing score that helped give the album a sonic unity that mirrored its conceptual coherence. “The strings really completed the character of the whole thing,” Ohlsson, who engineered the string sessions, told Edmonds. “Dave was out in the studio conducting. Marvin came into the booth and sat down. Halfway through the first run-through, I saw that his eyes were a little moist. Soon the tears were streaming down. I think that was the first moment that he understood how well Van De Pitte had captured the musical thoughts in his head, and that this album was really going to be everything he’d wanted it to be.”
Gaye mixed the album with Steve Smith in Detroit on April 5th, then left for Los Angeles, where he was scheduled to shoot the forgettable grindhouse revenge flick “Chrome and Hot Leather.” But while Gaye was in California he decided that he wasn’t done with the album and had Motown fly the tapes to L.A., where he added more overdubs and remixed the album with Lawrence Miles at Motown’s “Hitsville West” studios on May 6th.
Less than three weeks later, on May 21, 1971, What’s Going On would be in stores.
Even its packaging would be unique for Motown. Whereas most of the label’s packaging was bare bones and the studio musicians were anonymous, What’s Going On’s stylish gatefold sleeve included complete lyrics and credited Van De Pette, the “Funk Brothers,” and the rest of the studio musicians.
What’s Going On few off of the shelves, reaching number one on the R&B albums charts, number six on the pop albums charts, and becoming Motown’s best-selling album to date.
The first digital release of What’s Going On occurred in 1986. Since then, it’s been subjected to numerous remasterings and reissues. Not surprisingly, given What’s Going On’s lofty status, there’s been heated debate on the interwebs regarding the best-sounding mastering of the album.
There are at least eight digital masterings of What’s Going On. The first is the John Matousek mastering from the mid-1980s, which is most often (though not always) found on the “Motown Compact Classic” CD releases. The second is another mid-1980s mastering, this time by Tom Baker, found on the What’s Going On/Let’s Get It On twofer. The third is a Scooby-Doo mastering, in that its source is a mystery. It’s found on a 1993 CD release with a “530 022-2 03 +” matrix. (Confusingly, editions of the same CD with a “5300222/H 01” matrix have the Matousek mastering.) But despite the mystery surrounding this mastering, it’s fairly common. The fourth mastering was done by Gavin Lurssen in the early-1990s for the “Motown Master Series” and has been reissued (sometimes with slight volume differences) several times since. The fifth is the first mastering by Kevin Reeves – done at 24/96 resolution at Universal Mastering Studios-East in the early-2000s – found on the two-CD “Deluxe” edition of the album, as well as a few single-disc releases. The sixth is the mid-2000s Mobile Fidelity DSD mastering done by Rob LoVerde and released as a 2008 MoFi SACD (as well as, apparently, two Japanese SACD releases.) The seventh is an anonymous mastering – billed as an “HR cutting from the DSD master which was newly flat transferred from US original analogue master tapes in 2013” – found on several Japanese SHM CD releases. The eighth is a second Kevin Reeves mastering, done in the early 2010s at Sterling Sound NYC and advertised as “using the original masters from the Motown Records vault...played on a modified Studer A820 with Wolke Butterfly heads and converted to digital at 192khz/24bit resolution using the DCS 904 converter and...the most direct signal path[.]” This mastering is used for the 2012 high-resolution downloads of the album and the Blu-Ray of the album released a year later. Finally, there’s what might be another Kevin Reeves mastering on the 2011 “40th Anniversary Super Deluxe” edition of the album. According to the booklet, this mastering was done at Universal Mastering Studios-East, like the 2002 “Deluxe” release. However, it sounds nothing like the 2002 “Deluxe” release and instead more closely resembles a heavily compressed version of Reeve’s high-resolution transfer, which was supposedly done at Sterling Sound NYC.
More so than many other classic albums, a flat transfer of the What’s Going On master tape should be the ideal mastering. According to Ohlsson, “In the Detroit era at Motown we kept mixing until the mix could go across virtually unprocessed in mastering.” “If a flat transfer didn’t sound good,” Olhsson told me in an interview, “we did another mix.” However, there’s no doubt that many of the CDs weren’t a flat transfer, based on the often wildly divergent sonics of the various masterings.
Let’s wade into this morass of masterings by crossing off a few of the weakest links.
The first to get thrown out is the Matousek “Compact Classic” mastering. While the Matousek masterings has its fans, it’s far too bass shy for an album that showcases the masterful work of Funk Brothers Babbitt and Jamerson. For example, take a look at a comparison of “Inner City Blues” from the “Compact Classic” (red line) and MoFi (purple line) releases using Har-Bal mastering software1:
While (as we’ll see) the MoFi has the most low end of any What’s Going On remaster, the “Compact Classic” release has anemic bass even when compared to another relatively bass-light mastering, as the comparison of the “Right On” from the “Compact Classic” (red line) and the mystery 1993 mastering (pink line) shows:
Some fans of the Matousek mastering have argued that it sounds the same as the master tape, which is supposedly also bass-shy. However, various sources over the years have suggested that both the Baker and Matousek masterings were sourced from EQ’d tape copies, and rips of early vinyl pressings possess more bass than that found on the Matousek CD.
The Baker mastering also was allegedly sourced from EQ’d second- or third-generation master tapes. In terms of frequency balance, the Baker mastering has slightly more low end than the Matousek, but is otherwise identical, as a Har-Bal graph of “Inner City Blues” from from each version (Matousek in red, Baker in orange) reveals:
Compared to other masterings, however, the Baker is still too bright, a fact that a comparison of Baker’s mastering (orange) and Reeve’s HiRes mastering (blue), which isn’t even the most bass-focused mastering, makes clear:
Critical listening bears out the Baker mastering’s superior low-end, relative to the Matousek mastering. But it also reveals more tape hiss and a lack of clarity relative to other masterings, a sonic reality that perhaps supports the idea that it’s sourced from a tape copy. As a result, we can cross the Baker mastering off of our list, too.
The next version that can be discarded easily is the Lurssen “Motown Master Series” mastering. Whether measured by crest factor DR score or R128 dynamic range, the Lurssen mastering is squashed, receiving the lowest or second lowest scores on both metrics of any What’s Going On mastering. A waveform2 comparison of “What’s Going On” from the Lurssen (green waveform) mastering against the HiRes download (blue waveform) makes the difference clear:
(click on image to see the animated comparison)
Another mastering that can be junked due to squashed dynamics is the “40th Anniversary Super Deluxe” edition. While the track times indicate that this edition could be sourced from the same digital transfer used for the HiRes download, the “Super Deluxe” mastering sounds brighter and harsher and frequency comparisons bear this out. It’s possible that its brightness is the result of different EQ choices, or that the songs are so radically compressed that it meaningfully affects the timbre of the songs. In either case, we can safely dismiss the “Super Deluxe” mastering, which is an even worse “Loudness War” offender than the aforementioned Lurssen mastering, as a comparison of “What’s Going On” from the Lurssen (green waveform) mastering and the “Super Deluxe” mastering (black waveform) shows clearly:
(click on image to see the animated comparison)
Unfortunately, in tossing out the “Super Deluxe” edition of What’s Going On due to its atrocious level of compression, we’re also tossing out three versions of Gaye’s excellent (and forgotten) commentary on the ‘72 presidential election, “You’re the Man,” which was released as a single in April 1972. While there’s little else to recommend the “Super Deluxe” edition, those bonus cuts alone make it worth tracking down for serious Gaye fans.
The final mastering that we can reject quickly is the 2013 Japanese “DSD master” edition. While some might describe it as “warm,” the Japanese transfer significantly rolls off What’s Going On’s top end, as these frequency graphs of “Right On” (“Deluxe” in yellow, Japanese in grey) from Har-Bal demonstrate:
The difference is even more apparent in listening tests, where the Japanese edition lacks “air.”3
This winnowing down leaves us with four masterings: 1) the 1993 mystery mastering with the “530 022-2 03 +” matrix, 2) the early-2000s Kevin Reeves mastering found on the 2CD “Deluxe” editions, 3) the mid-2000s Mobile Fidelity mastering by Rob LoVerde, and 4) the early-2010s Reeves mastering used for the 2012 HiRes download and the 2013 Blu-Ray release.
Each of the remaining four has its virtues and arguably any of them is a solid choice for someone looking for a great mastering of What’s Going On. Unlike some of the already-rejected masterings, each has sufficient dynamic range:
1993: DR 11, R128 7.1 dB
Deluxe (excluding bonus tracks): DR 10, R128 7.5 dB
MoFi: DR 11, R128 6.7 dB
HiRes (excluding bonus tracks): DR13, R128 5.9 dB
In my view, the weakest link of the bunch is the 1993 mystery mastering, which comes across as just a little too bright relative to the other masterings. On certain songs (such as “Mercy Mercy Me”) this brightness works. On others (such as the title track) it results in unnecessary sibilance on the vocals. Compare “Right On” from the 1993 release (pink) and the MoFi release (purple):
In purely sonic terms, the second weakest is probably the Reeve’s mastering on the “Deluxe” edition. On many tracks, it’s only very slightly less bright than the 1993 mastering, as this graph of “Inner City Blues” from the 1993 release (pink) and “Deluxe” (yellow) shows:
However, the bonus tracks on the 2CD “Deluxe” edition make it worth owning. It’s the only digital release to feature the original “Detroit Mix” of the album, and it also includes Gaye’s long-awaited return to the stage on D.C.’s “Marvin Gaye Day” at the Kennedy Center on May 1, 1972, which features a captivating performance of What’s Going On (despite the fact that a terrified – and stoned – Gaye accidentally played the album out of order). To top it off, the “Deluxe” edition also includes the single versions of “What’s Going On” and “God Is Love,” as well as the B-side to the “Mercy Mercy Me” single, “Sad Tomorrows.”
Putting aside bonus content, however, that leaves LoVerde’s MoFi SACD mastering and Reeve’s HiRes mastering to fight it out for the TBVO crown.
Both are clean, dynamic masterings. The main difference between the two is the bass, with the MoFi release (purple line) consistently featuring more bass energy than the HiRes release (blue line), as the comparisons of “Right On” (top) and “Inner City Blues” (bottom) demonstrate:
While Reeves’s HiRes mastering sounds a touch smoother and sweeter up top, MoFi’s extra bass works well on some tracks. Unfortunately, it can sound bloated on others, particularly “Mercy Mercy Me,” a song that consistently sounds better on masterings with more high end, even when listening on brighter gear.
Ultimately, Reeves’s HiRes mastering wins the TBVO crown by the slightest margin. Not only does it avoid the bass bloat on songs like “Mercy Mercy Me,” it also includes “Sad Tomorrows” and the single mixes of “What’s Going On” and “God Is Love” as bonus tracks.
Fans would do well with either the HiRes or MoFi version, however, and anyone who prefers a CD-compatible release to a digital download shouldn’t hesitate to pick up the MoFo SACD. (Indeed, owners of bass-light systems – bookshelf speakers without subwoofers, bright headphones, etc. – might ultimately prefer the MoFi mastering.)
Regardless of which edition you choose, pick one up and listen closely. The concerns that motivated Gaye to create What’s Going On are more relevant than ever.
2. Audacity was used for waveforms.
3. For the subjective analyses, all editions were ripped with XLD and played Audirvana Plus. The DAC/Amp combo was a Schiit Yggdrasil/Ragnarok stack. Most critical listening was done on a diverse set of headphones: NAD HP50, Sennheiser/Massdrop HD6XX, and Focal Clear.
About the Author
Josh Mound has been an audiophile since age 14, when his father played Spirit's "Natures Way" through his Boston Acoustics floorstanders and told Josh to listen closely. Since then, Josh has listened to lots of music, owned lots of gear, and done lots of book learnin'. He's written about music for publications like Filter and Under the Radar and about politics for publications like New Republic, Jacobin, and Dissent. Josh is currently a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Virginia, where he teaches classes on modern U.S. politics and the history of popular music. He lives in Charlottesville, Virginia, with his wife and two cats.