Music is the soundtrack to our lives. And on Christmas Day 2012, four days after the world was supposed to end, GuysNation columnist Bryan Lienesch was given the book ‘1001 Albums You Must Hear Before You Die’. As he flipped through it, an idea dawned on him right then and there: he would attempt to knock all 1,001 albums off his list. Not just before he dies, but as fast as life would allow.
This is the Bucket Beats List.
Only a man with as much slow-jam sophistication backed by a soothing voice could pull off such a politically-charged album and make it relatively uncontroversial.
In 1971’s ‘What’s Going On’, Gaye is on a warpath of progressiveness and he’s taking no prisoners. Civil Rights. The environment. Religion. Social inequality. The abuse of government. It’s all there and, strangely, no one’s questioning it. Why? Because no one ever won a battle they picked with such a soulful peace warrior.
Interestingly enough, it’s the record’s final track, ‘Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)’ that is the gauntlet being thrown at society. There’s not one issue being addressed but a handful. Over the course of some five minutes and change, Gaye serenades us with a patchwork quilt of dark lyrics, starting with “Money, we make it, ‘fore we see it, you’ll take it” and “Send that boy off to die” and ending with lines like “Natural fact is, Honey, that I can’t pay my taxes” and “trigger happy policing”. The song doesn’t address an issue in life, but rather, addresses the issue that IS life.
Only one song is longer on the album, ‘Right On’, and, unfortunately, in my estimation it’s the one song that misses its mark. The powerful writing is all there, but the beauty of the tracks on ‘What’s Going On’ is there brevity. They’re short, sharp jabs to your moral compass. The drawn-out — almost unnecessarily so — ‘Right On’ doesn’t accomplish this nearly as well.
But that’s really the only bad part of the record. There’s ‘Mercy, Mercy Me (The Ecology)’ that comes across as a Green Peace call to arms and ‘God is love’, Gaye’s retort to those who have become cynical over the concept of faith.
Even earlier in the album is ‘Save the Children’, which spoken word overlay makes it comes across as slam poetry in a seedy coffee club instead of the soulful jazz bar we’ll forever picture Gaye singing in. ‘Save the Children’ touches on a concept that, ironically, occurs within every generation, which is, are we ruining the world for our future kin? Considering it’s been forty years since the record’s release and, all in all, the world is still okay, the song sort of hits a flat note in its foreshadowing message (like reading ‘1984’ on an iPad).
The one song that does have a message that is every bit as relevant today as it was then is ‘What’s Happening Brother’. With lines like, “War is hell, when will it end, when will people start gettin’ together again” and “Can’t find no work, can’t find no job my friend, money is tighter than it’s ever been”, ‘What’s Happening Brother’ sounds like it could’ve been written in 2011, not 1971. Here’s some food for thought though: does the prevalence of this song’s message today speak to other societal issue altogether?
As is the case with most legendary artists, once Gaye stepped away from what he was truly comfortable with, he ended up creating his ultimate masterpiece. The difference here is we enjoy the sexy, groovy Gaye of the 1960’s, but we APPRECIATE the political tour de force he helped open up the 1970’s with.
‘What’s Going On’, in some ways, was the summation of Gaye’s life’s work. Of course, thirteen years later, Gaye would be shot dead by his father as he tried to dissipate a heated argument between his parents. And for that, there’s no other song to bring up than the album’s titular and most famous track. In it, of course, Gaye chimes to an ironically upbeat rhythm this harrowing stanza:
We don’t need to escalate
You see, war is not the answer
For only love can conquer hate
A stark ballad that forever reminds us that Gaye understood the ebbs and flows of American society more than anyone ever has or ever will.
3. Mercy, Mercy Me (The Ecology)
2. What’s Happening Brother
1. What’s Going On
Least favorite tracks?
3. God Is Love
2. Flyin’ High
1. Right On
Do you really need to listen to this album before you die?
Absolutely. This album is the reason why this list exists.
When Bryan isn’t writing or listening to music, he is on Twitter! Make sure to give him a follow @bclienesch for social media shenanigans!