I have a fair bit of respect and admiration for Marvin Gaye–he’s not even my favorite R&B singer from the sixties or seventies, but I recognize that he wrote some fantastic social commentary that still resonates today. Bono, however–Bono must be a pretty big fan of the late singer-songwriter. At least, he really likes the song “What’s Going On,” a song which was originally released by Gaye in early 1971, and which Bono has covered twice–first, as part of the Artists Against AIDS Worldwide, a group of popular artists that the voice of U2 organized in 2001, and most recently as the front-man in the greatest rock group that the world has ever known. Yes, U2 recorded what has quickly become my favorite version of this classic soul song toward the end of last year for Spotify, and so the song that was originally written as a response to an act of police brutality continues to speak its message today, forty-seven years after the song was first released. It comes as no surprise to me that U2, and Bono in particular, has an interest in songs that try to affect lasting change. After all, they themselves have written more than a few songs with that kind of staying power, and the band has made a career out of the belief that music can change the world, because it changes individuals.
Perhaps the greatest thing about this newest cover of “What’s Going On” is the restrained vocal delivery that Bono uses throughout almost the entire recording. I kept waiting for him to unleash his trademark wail, especially on the titular line at the end of the choruses, but the singer plays it cool until the very end of the song, when he at last uncorks with a moving volley of the title phrase, fired in succession as the rest of the song is winding down. Firstly, this has the effect of holding the listener’s attention because they are waiting for the big payoff. It forces one to pay attention to the song’s lyric, its message, which is, after all, the point. Secondly, by letting go at the very end, Bono is rewarding the listener for their scrutiny through the rest of the song.
Musically, this version of “What’s Going On” is quite nice. Edge leads the way with a jangly, rhythm guitar part, and Adam backs him up with some appropriately soulful bass that sounds like it could have been recorded during Motown’s hey-day, when Gaye was putting the finishing touches on this song originally. There isn’t a lot of percussion in this cover–in fact, there isn’t any–but, as I hinted above, Edge and Adam combine nicely to set the tempo. I do miss Larry’s powerful, propulsive drumming, but I think that his clout might have unbalanced the smooth and mellow flow that the others have established. I’m glad that Larry is willing to take a back-seat when the song requires it, without getting his ego in the way. All the members of U2 seem to have that mindset, and I appreciate it.
U2 has actually performed “What’s Going On” live on stage before, back during the third leg of the Elevation Tour, often accompanied by Gwen Stefani, formerly of the pop/ska band No Doubt. On one hand, it wouldn’t surprise me terribly if U2 decided to revisit this song on the upcoming tour, but, on the other hand, they might decide that they’ve already “been there, done that.” Besides, there’s so much goodness on Songs of Experience that I think that I might disappointed if they skip one of the new songs in favor of a cover. With the opening night of the tour coming up in less than two months (and rehearsals due in even less time) it’s only a matter of time before all of our burning set-list questions are answered.