This was written by three golfing buddies who also happened to be Motown hitmakers: songwriter Al Cleveland, Four Tops member Renaldo "Obie" Benson and singer Marvin Gaye, who added lyrics and worked on the arrangement. Gaye wanted the Originals to record the song, but Benson and Cleveland prevailed upon Gaye to do it himself.
Until this song, Gaye rarely participated in the songwriting process. For this album, he took control of the production so he could make a statement as an artist. Motown management was skeptical, but Gaye was an established star and had enough power to pull it off, going so far as to use an orchestra on this track.
Gaye's lyrics in this song were inspired by the stories his brother Frankie told him when he came back from the Vietnam War.
This was one of the first Motown songs to make a powerful political statement. Stevie Wonder and the Temptations were also recording more serious and challenging material, which was a radical departure from the Motown hits of the '60s. The song had a tremendous impact because listeners weren't used to hearing social commentary from Gaye. As Jackson Browne said in a 2008 interview with Rolling Stone: "No one was expecting an anti-war song from him. But it was a moment in time when people were willing to hear it from anybody, if it was heartfelt. And who better than the person who has talked to you about love and desire?"
Gaye worked hard to become a talented football player, and while he never played in the NFL, he was good friends with Detroit Lions Mel Farr and Lem Barney. "What's Going On" was an expression they used to greet each other, and Gaye used it as the title. Farr and Barney sang backup on the track.
Gaye was deeply affected by the death of his partner Tammi Terrell, who succumbed to a brain tumor a year earlier. This led him to take charge of his career and infuse messages in his songs.
The What's Going On album takes on many issues, including the environment ("Mercy Mercy Me") and poverty ("Inner City Blues"). It was the first album Gaye released that sold a lot of copies. Until then, like most Motown artists, he had lots of hit singles but album sales were secondary.
According to the book Mercy, Mercy Me: The Art, Loves & Demons of Marvin Gaye, Motown head Berry Gordy initially refused to release this song, calling it the "worst record I ever heard in my life." The song was slipped out by the man in charge while Gordy was on vacation and, of course, he was furious... until he found out the single sold 100,000 copies in the US upon its release. Needless to say, he soon changed his mind about this song.
At the end of the single version, the song fades out, then suddenly rises in volume again. This was Gaye's way of giving a "nice F-you" to Berry Gordy, as in "you think this song you hate so much is about to end?...PSYCHE!"
Although Berry Gordy admits he had reservations about "What's Going On," he claims all of the stories surrounding his refusal to release the song are false. He explained to the Wall Street Journal: "For years, people have written that I stood in the way of this song's release and that Marvin had threatened never to record for me again if I didn't put it out," he said. "That must make for great reading, but none of it is true."
He went on to explain the potential ramifications of the song: "My reason for pushing back on Marvin wasn't to stop the single, just to determine whether or not this was another one of his wild ideas," Gordy said. "Motown was about music for all people - white and black, blue and green, cops and the robbers. I was reluctant to have our music alienate anyone. This was a big risk for his image."
Gaye wrote this when he could no longer take refuge in his love songs. His marriage to Anna Gordy was in shambles (although the divorce wouldn't be final until 1977), his duet partner and friend Tammi Terrell collapsed into his arms during a concert and died in 1970, drug use was pervading the inner city culture and Malcolm X, Martin Luther King and Robert Kennedy were all gunned down.