"In 1969 or 1970, I began to re-evaluate my whole concept of what I wanted my music to say," Marvin Gaye said. "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." The masterpiece that followed Gaye's awakening revolutionized black music. From its rich, string-suffused grooves to its boundless sense of possibility, What's Going On is the Sgt. Pepper of soul.
Gaye was determined to shatter Motown's pop formula and address pressing social issues. Motown founder Berry Gordy was not pleased. He claimed that "What's Going On" was the worst song he had ever heard. As for "Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)," Gordy asserted that he didn't even know what the word "ecology" meant. Gaye responded that he would never record for Motown again unless "What's Going On" was released as a single. After initially being rejected by Motown's quality-control committee, it was; when the song became a Top Five hit, the album – and a burst of socially conscious music from Motown – followed soon after. Working amid a haze of marijuana smoke, Gaye made one intuitively brilliant decision after another – from letting the tapes roll as his friends mingled to recording the rehearsal exercises of saxophonist Eli Fontaine. When Fontaine told Gaye that he had just been goofing around, Gaye replied, "Well, you goof exquisitely. Thank you." And that's how the plaintive saxophone line that announces What's Going On came to be.