The title track to Marvin Gaye's 1971 album, released on Motown. The song was originally penned by Obie Benson of the Four Tops with the help of lyricist Al Cleveland; Gaye put the finishing touches on it. Benson was inspired to write What's Going On while watching police and protesters clash over People's Park, San Francisco:

"The police was beatin' on the kids, but they wasn't bothering anybody. I saw this, and 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. And so on."


  • The alto saxophone figure that opens the song was Eli Fontaine's warm-up. When he tried to explain he'd just been goofing around, Gaye said, "Well, you goof exquisitely. Thank you."
  • The track's multi-layered lead vocal originated with a mistake on engineer Ken Sand's part: "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 stereo mix on a mono machine and he heard both voices at the same time by accident." The mistake was retained for the song, applied to the rest of the album, and became a hallmark of Gaye's style.
  • The backing vocalists ("This is a groovy party, man") were friends of Gaye's from the Detroit Lions. Gaye would later briefly take the field for the Lions.
  • Gaye chain-smoked grass throughout the recording of the song; at 3:18 is a sound effect suspiciously like a joint being inhaled.
  • Motown chief Berry Gordy initially refused to release What's Going On, reportedly calling it "the worst thing I've ever heard in my life." The song was eventually released behind Gordy's back. It made number 2 on the pop charts and number 3 on the R & B charts.
Frankie Gay, brother of Marvin Gaye:

"I was approached once by a guy I didn't know who said he had a story he had to tell me," Frankie Gay says slowly. He is recovered from a recent cranial operation, but still tends to lean on each word for support as he goes. "He said that one time he was intent on hurting somebody, hurting them bad. But as he was on his way out the door to commit this violence he heard Marvin singing What's Going On over the radio, and it stopped him in his tracks. Something in that song touched him, and he didn't go. He understood that he had choices. My first thought was, 'Wow, man, if Marvin only knew...' I'd always been proud of my brother, but this made me overflow with pride. He was trying to find a way to talk about issues between people that brought them love. He did it, man. He did it, and it changed the world."
Quotes and info from an article by Ben Edmonds in the March 99 issue of Mojo magazine.

Mother, mother, there's too many of you crying
Brother, brother, brother, there's far too many of you dying
You know we've got to find a way
To bring some lovin' here today

Father, father, we don't need to escalate
You see, war is not the answer
For only love can conquer hate
You know we've got to find a way
To bring some lovin' here today

Picket lines and picket signs
Don't punish me with brutality
Talk to me, so you can see
Oh, what's going on, what's going on
Yeah, what's going on
Ah, what's going on

Mother, mother, everybody thinks we're wrong
Oh, but who are they to judge us
Simply 'cause our hair is long?
Oh, you know we've got to find a way
To bring some understanding here today

Picket lines and picket signs
Don't punish me with brutality
Come on, talk to me, so you can see
Ah, what's going on, yeah what's going on
Tell me what's going on
I'll tell you what's going on