Certain songs are timeless in unexpected ways, which is surely the case with Marvin Gaye’s “What’s Going On.”
Recorded 50 years ago this June, the song — written by Gaye, Al Cleveland and Renaldo Benson — touched obliquely on the Vietnam War, civil rights, anti-war protests and those who “judge us simply because our hair is long.” It seems very much of its time — and yet, as Michael McDonald demonstrates on a new single, it’s never been more relevant.
As he prepares to return to the road with the Doobie Brothers for the first time in decades (and an induction into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame), McDonald is simultaneously returning to another old love, R&B. Soul covers are nothing new to McDonald, who once cut an entire album of Motown remakes. Over the next few months, he’s planning to release a series of singles, and the first is his cover of “What’s Going On.”
The recording is part of what McDonald called “a very simple project” to Rolling Stone a few months ago. “It’s just live. A couple of tracks are with local musicians in Santa Barbara, just musicians I play with in the different local haunts there. I decided to pull them in for a little project. Everything is live. I’m playing live and singing live.”
From its lyrics to its keyboard-centered arrangement, McDonald’s take on “What’s Going On” is faithful to the original, and the sax solo is very much in the yacht-jazz tradition that McDonald has immortalized. But it’s a few of the song’s opening lines —“There’s too many of you crying … There’s far too many of you dying”— that take on added timeliness in light of the COVID-19 outbreak. With images of hospitals and body bags swamping the news, those words now cut deep; they literally could have been written yesterday or last week.
“It’s uncanny and somewhat amazing how great songs or poems relevant to a specific time frame in which they’re written only seem to grow in their profound resonance with the years,” McDonald says, “‘What’s Going On’ is one of those.”
Add in McDonald’s delivery — raspier and more guttural than we expect of him — and we get a soul classic remake that’s more than just a lazy retread. “What’s Going On” remains a pained cry over a world in tumult, but it’s now reborn for an even more challenging and dangerous point in history.