The suite as a musical form began in the Baroque era (1600-1750). It was a group of instrumental dances where each piece within the suite was an independent piece of music, but was linked to the others by key. Musical ideas could also be reprised in later movements. The form was largely abandoned until the 19th century, when it was revived, but with much more freedom which was indicative of the time. By that time, the suite wasn’t necessarily dances, and were often character pieces, ballet music, incidental music, or extracts from larger forms, like opera. The form was taken to new heights in the twentieth century by popular musical artists. There is a Youtube playlist with all the songs here. You can also click on the each title for the link to each individual suite.
Duke Ellington “A Tone Parallel to Harlem”
The most sophisticated and prolific composer of suites in the twentieth century was Duke Ellington. He formed his jazz orchestra in the 1920s, and had a majority of his hit songs in the 1930s. His first extended work was “Creole Rhapsody” in 1931 which at just over six minutes was in two parts, one on each side of a 10” record. In 1935, he wrote “Reminiscing in Tempo” for his mother which took up four 10” sides. Also in 1935, he composed “Symphony in Black: A Rhapsody of Negro Life” which was as a suite with accompanying film featuring Billie Holiday in her film debut. It won an Academy Award for best musical short subject. Duke began working with Billy Strayhorn in 1939. Billy was classically-trained and often subbed for Duke conducting the band, or playing piano. Duke considered him his right-hand man, and was encouraged to continue exploring longer forms of “serious music”. Billy helped Duke refine many of his works. Some of the suites of the 1940s included “Black, Brown and Beige” (1943), “The Perfume Suite” (1944), “The Deep South Suite” (1946).
Many of his works were about the Black American experience and perhaps the finest of all his suites is “A Tone Parallel to Harlem” recorded in 1951. It begins with a Ray Nance on muted trumpet playing a two-note motif (“Har-lem”) which is a descending minor third interval. The descending minor third is the source of all melodic material for the entire piece. After the first two notes, the saxes answer with one chord. The next answer is with three chords in a half note triplet. The third answer is four chords in quarter notes. This call and response structure continues with variations seemingly walking the streets in conversation. At 2:24 another soloist (Jimmy Hamilton) starts to appear on clarinet. At 3:08, there’s a bass cadenza which uses the half note triplets to lead into a tempo change. At 3:58 Harry Carney gets the lead on baritone saxophone. We then hear the half note triplets by Harry Carney echoed by Jimmy Hamilton. Then, at 4:38 a jungle beat starts. Then at 5:14 a new swing rhythm begins. The jungle beat plays over the swing at 5:35. At 6:30 a bebop rhythm begins. The changes become quicker leading to a dramatic climax. Then, at 7:20 Harry Carney returns with the clarinet for a cadenza which is still swinging the half note triplet, but gradually turns the mood more somber. This begins the funeral section, which starts as a slow dirge, then it starts to hint at “When the Saints Go Marching In” as applied to the “Har-lem” motif. At 9:55 Ray Nance’s muted trumpet returns. By 10:15 it’s become more of an uplifting march, though still reflective. All three soloists are have interspersed lines. At 12:00 the march has become a decisively upbeat dance. This leads to a Tchaikovskly-like ending (written by Billy Strayhorn) when the drums start repeating the “Har-lem” motif, leading to an explosion of drumming, with the full range of the jazz orchestra hitting the lowest and highest notes for the climactic conclusion.
This type of motivic development in this piece is very similar to what Beethoven did in Symphony no.5 with the same motif being the rhythmic and melodic source for the entire piece. Wagner also similarly created leit-motifs which personified a particular character in his operas. Naturally Duke and Strayhorn also made arrangements of the classical suites “Peer Gynt” by Grieg, and “The Nutcracker Suite” by Tchaikovsky. Duke continued writing suites throughout the 50s,60s and 70s.
John Coltrane “A Love Supreme”
In 1964, John Coltrane released what many consider to be his greatest work “A Love Supreme”. At this time in his career as a composer and saxophonist, he was a pioneer in modal improvisation and free jazz. Different from the bebop style with fast, complicated chord changes which required intense concentration in addition to advanced harmonic knowledge, the changes were simplified to one or a few chords. This approach dates back to the earliest sacred music (Gregorian chant), and the centering of one chord/mode naturally lends itself to creating a meditative state of mind. Here, Coltrane brings together his spirituality, and musical expression into one being. The piece takes up the entire “A Love Supreme” album and is divided into four parts:
In the liner notes of the album Coltrane describes key spiritual development in 1957:
“I experienced, by the grace of God, a spiritual awakening which was to lead me to a richer, fuller, more productive life. At that time, in gratitude, I humbly asked to be given the means and privilege to make others happy through music.”
The first movement (“Acknowledgement”), begins with a gong, and a brief saxophone burst. The “busy noise” drops out, and the meditation begins with Jimmy Garrion on the bass playing the four note motif “A-Love-Su-Preme” in E flat minor. When Coltrane’s saxophone begins again, the bass begins to wander freely. At 1:39 the sax hit the lower register. At 2:02 and roughly every 30 seconds or so, Coltrane starts a new variation. High notes begin at 3:51 and peak at 4:20. He explores the motif in all keys, then settles back to E flat minor for the vocal chant of the motif which is his voice, along with overdubs at 6:05. The bass (Jimmy Garrison) begins repeating the chant along with the drums at 6:43, and a bass solo begins t 7:22. The movement draws to a close with bowing.
The second movement (“Resolution”) begins just afer the bowing with the bass. The bass, again leading, begins a new blues groove in the dominant key of B flat minor. This eight bar blues contains a theme played by Coltrane three times. This is followed by eight measures of variation, and a return to the theme played another three times. Next is a piano solo at 9:31 by McCoy Tyner. Here, the groove starts to swing as the tension eases. Coltrane then takes a solo at 11:38. At 13:15 high notes surface, and reach a peak at 13:56. At 14:08, he returns to the 8 measure them. At 14:58 the movement ends which corresponds to the end of Side One on the record.
The third movement (“Pursuance”), begins with a drum solo by Elvin Jones. The sax enters at 16:34 with the next theme, followed by a piano solo at 16:58, and Trane’s solo at 19:18. The drums and piano are not just accompanying him. The whole group is freely improvising. This reaches a peak with high notes at 21:45 as the drum begin to erupt, and Coltrane returns to the theme, followed by a drum solo, and then a bass solo to end the movement.
The fourth movement (“Psalm”), begins with one C minor chord played by the piano, followed by timpani. Coltrane then closes the piece with a wordless recitation of the devotional poem (“A Love Supreme”) that is included in the album’s liner notes. The last words are “Elation. Elegance. Exaltation. All from God. Thank you God. Amen.”. The final “Amen” is overdubbed, like the response in a Mass. Coltrane plays the same line he began the piece with to end. There is a link to the poem “A Love Supreme” here.
Coltrane would continue other similar works throughout the remainder of his life, which ended much too soon in 1967. In addition to his vast influence on many musicians, he also inspired the St. John Coltrane African Orthodox Church in San Francisco, which actually incorporates his music and lyrics into the prayers in its liturgy.
The Who “A Quick One While He’s Away”
In 1966, The Who became the first rock band to explore the suite form. “A Quick One While He’s Away” ties together individual songs into one story, or “mini-opera”. Pete Townsend and The Who would later release two full-length rock operas with “Tommy” and “Quadrophenia”. An attempt at a third rock opera (“Lighthouse”) was abandoned with “Who’s Next” put out in its place. Though Townsend later would complete “Lighthouse” as a solo project, he still hasn’t considered it finished. Of all these extended works, the earliest one “A Quick One While He’s Away” is more accessible and coherent. Though I disagree, some critics have declared it to be superior to both rock operas. It tells the story of a girl whose man goes away. She cheats on him with Ivor the Engine Driver. He returns, she confesses, and he forgives her. All this happens within six songs all in just over nine minutes total. There are six songs/sections:
I. “Her Man’s Been Gone”
II. “Crying Town”
III. “We Have a Remedy”
IV. “Ivor the Engine Driver”
V. “Soon Be Home”
VI. “You Are Forgiven”
The first movement “Her Man’s Been Gone” is a brief a cappella vocal from the whole band. “Crying Town” is sung in a lower register by Roger Daltrey to signify a different character. He returns to his more commonly known register in “We Have a Remedy”. There are harmony vocals as this is supposed to be voice of her friends. John Entwistle (bass) sings as “Ivor”. The band does harmony vocals again in “Soon Be Home”, and Pete Townsend takes the lead vocal in “You Are Forgiven”. The band wanted to add cellos, but they couldn’t afford the expense in the studio, so the band sings “cello, cello, cello” in their place.
Crosby, Stills, and Nash “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes”
In 1969, “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes” was written by Steven Stills, which tells the story of his brief, two-year relationship and breakup with singer/songwriter Judy Collins. It is driven mainly by one acoustic guitar with Bruce Palmer modal tuning (EBEEBE), and the vocal harmonies of Crosby, Stills and Nash. The song has four distinct sections, which are essentially four songs within one song. The first section begins “It’s getting to the point…”, and is an uptempo very uplifting tune. Next, there is a brief transition leading to a laid-back, slow section beginning with “Friday evening…”. The next transition comes from using the guitar as a percussive instrument. The closing section brings the song to a jubilant ending with the “do do do do do….” along with Spanish lyrics sung by Stills.
Yes “And You and I”
Progressive rock bands of the 1970s not only wrote long, extended songs, but often would put together larger multi-movement suites as well. Yes wrote several of these including “Starship Trooper” (1971), and the title-track to the album “Close to the Edge” (1972). Also on the “Close to the Edge” album is a four-part suite entitled “And You and I”. This work, like most progressive rock, showcases the instrumental virtuosity of the musicians. This particular work is notable for its focus, continuity and refined development. The sections are as follows:
- Cord of Life
- The Preacher, The Teacher
The first movement, “Cord of Life” begins with Steve Howe talking briefly playing natural harmonics on a 12-string acoustic guitar, with faint organ in the background. This is figuratively “planting the (musical) seeds of the epic work to follow. The guitar hints at the medoldy, then gradually builds into a rhythmic strumming followed by a brief solo on a mellotron keyboard , before the first verse begins with “A man conceived a moment’s answers to the dream”, with just the guitar and keyboard. The first verse ends with the line “All complete in the sight of seeds of life with you”. This line returns throughout the piece. Drums enter at 2:54 along with a different melody harmonized by Jon Anderson with bassist Chris Squire and Steve Howe singing a different line through a Leslie speaker. It breaks back down to guitar and faint organ as the line with the title appears for the first time with “And you and I climb over the sea to the valley”.
The second movement, “Eclipse” begins abruptly with a dramatic new theme and instrumental passage. This is followed by the line “Coming quickly to terms of all expression laid”, with the verse ending with “All complete in the sight of seeds of life with you”. This movement also modulates in fifths from D to A, then E, and B, where it remains until the end. After an instrumental peak passage which minimoog keyboard producing orchestral-like strings, the dynamics again drop to just guitar and faint keys, and transitions into the next movement.
The third movement, “The Preacher, The Teacher” begins like “Cord of Life” with 12-string acoustic guitar and a brief mellotron keyboard solo. The verse begins with “Sad preacher nailed upon the colored door of time”, contains the line “They’ll be no mutant enemy we shall certify” and ends with the line “Reach out as forward tastes begin to enter you”. The “mutant enemy” line inspired TV/Film writer Joss Whedon to name his production company Mutant Enemy Productions. The second verse ends again with the line “All complete in the sight of seeds of life with you”. The instrumental transistion from “Eclipse” then returns again with mellotron and minimoog, before a long sustained chord fades, followed by the 12-string acoustic guitar returning on it’s own for the last verse.
And you and I climb, crossing the shapes of the morning
And you and I reach over the sun for the river
And you and I climb, clearer, towards the movement
And you and I called over valleys of endless seas
Emerson, Lake and Palmer “Karn Evil 9”
Emerson, Lake and Palmer’s 1971 album “Brain Salad Surgery” features a suite that at just under thirty minutes begins as the closing track on side one, and takes up all of side two. “Karn Evil 9” features the virtuoso keyboard playing of Keith Emerson, drums of Carl Palmer, and bass, guitar and expressive vocals of Greg Lake. “Karn Evil” is actually a play on the word “carnival”. In this context, the story takes place in a future where all decadent behavior is banned, and kept alive by a “carnival” which contains not only things like “seven virgins and a mule”, but also the rare sight of a “real blade of grass”. We are introduced to this world in the First Impression, which is divided into parts one and two. The second part begins the second side of the album, so the original release faded out at the end of the first side, and back in to begin the second side. Subsequent CD and digital releases seamlessly blend the parts together. As this one movement (impression), was over thirteen minutes long, typically the radio has only played the second part, and that part remains the most popular and recognizable of the entire work. It begins with the famous line which has been used in many contexts since then including sporting events (“Welcome back my friends to the show that never ends….”).
The second impression, often the most overlooked (and excluded from some performances) contains some virtuosic playing of merely three instruments (piano, bass, and drums). It has a modern jazz feel, before descending into the avant garde, and back to upbeat jazz. It depicts the machines taking over with humans unaware of what’s going on.
The Third Impression closes the piece with man (‘the creator’) defeating the machine, though with use of the machine. So, while man appears to be triumphant, in his moment of victory the computers/machines take over. Thus, man and machine have essentially become one.
Dystopian stories have long fascinated musicians through the years. One of the best examples of this is the title-track to the Rush album “2112”, which is divided into seven sections as follows:
II. Temples of Syrinx
V. Oracle: The Dream
VII. Grand Finale].
This tells the story of the Solar Federation, which is an alliance of all planets. This federation has outlawed all forms of art to, in their thinking, keep peace and order. They are the Temples of Syrinx, and are introduced in the second movement. Throughout the entire piece the protagonist is depicted with clean vocals and clean guitar, and the Federation with screaming vocals and distorted guitar. When one man in the third section discovers a guitar, and learns to play it, he decides to share his beautiful discovery with the Federation. They scoff at his presentation, and set the guitar on fire. The flames are depicted musically by the chaotic instrumental passage which features the “Temple of Syrinx” chord progression over wailing guitar solo. He then flees, slips into depression, and a dream. In his dream, he see the world as it once was, and see a vision of the Elder Race overthrowing the Federation. He commits suicide to bring about peace within himself. The Grand Finale of the piece depicts the Elder Race overthrowing the Federation, and the words “Attention all planets of the Solar Federation. We have assumed control.”
Genesis “Duke Suite”
Genesis in their first albums became known for long, sprawling works characterized by extended instrumental passages. The arrangements typically came together with band improvisations that developed through practice. Once the basic structure was in place, Peter Gabriel would add lyrics. In live performances, he would go through several wardrobe changes to add further drama to the music. A popular early work, considered by many to be their best is the nearly half-hour long suite “Supper’s Ready”. In live performances, Peter Gabriel would introduce the work with a story.
Peter Gabriel left the band, and a couple albums later, guitarist Steve Hackett left as well. At that point drummer Phil Collins suggested they eliminate vocals altogether. Fortunately, they abandoned that idea and when auditions for a singer didn’t work out, it was decided Collins would take over lead voals for the band. Tony Banks considers “Duke” (1980) to be his favorite Genesis album, and in many ways it’s the last truly progressive album they released. It contained songs which formed a suite, though it was decided to make the album more accessible and not group them all together. The “Duke Suite” thus begins with the first three tracks on the album, includes the first track on the second side, and the last two tracks on the second side. It tells the story of Albert, his meeting a Diva, Duchess, their romance and eventual break-up. The whole suite contains many musical and lyrical themes which are presented in varying forms from beginning to end.
- Behind the Lines
- Guide Vocal
- Turn it On Again
- Duke’s Travels
- Duke’s End
“Behind the Lines” begins with a big fanfare-like instrumental theme in the tension-filled 7/8 measures, a quieter diversion in 4/4, and return to the theme which settles into 4/4 for the verse beginning with “Held the books so tightly in my hand”. For this album, Phil Collins started to incorporate a drum machine into arrangements. A quiet percussion pattern begins “Duchess”, and the lyrics begin with “Times were good. But she never thought about the future”. The lyrics tell of how she lives for the music, and love from her audience until one day the love went away, and she longed for that look from the audience once more, which was now gone. The dynamics drop, and the drum machine’s percussion resurfaces, smoothly transitioning to the keyboard/piano on it’s own accompanying “Guide Vocal”, which begins with the lyric “I am the one who guided you this far…”, and ends “Take what’s yours, and be damned”. So ends the first half of the suite.
The story begins again on the second side of the album with “Turn it On Again”, which was a minor hit for the band. It tells the story of the feeling of loneliness and isolation, while getting lost in the distractions of television and radio. Later, the suite continues with “Duke’s Travels”, which begins with a blanket of keyboard sounds, gradually leading into a dominant, rolling drum beat, and keyboard meanderings over a series of changes with bass and drums. Then, “Guide Vocal” lyrics return with the faster, more energetic tempo. It gradually slows down to half time, and breaks down to to a keyboard “flute” cadenza, then “Duke’s End” begins with the “Behind the Lines” fanfare theme, some variations with more energetic drums and further embellishment, and a grand ending for the piece and the album.
Chicago “Ballet for a Girl in Buchannon”
Chicago Transit Authority was formed in the late 60s. Producer James William Guercio took them under his wing, and brought them out to L.A., where they continued to refine their sound, and work out new material. Guercio shortly after was hired to produce the second album for Blood, Sweat & Tears. After it was a success, he had enough clout to persuade Columbia Records to not only sign Chicago Transit Authority, but release their debut album as a two-record set. Though they liked to consider themselves a “rock band with horns”, there were a lot of jazz and classical influences, and Guercio encouraged them to create more ambitious, lengthy works. By their second album released in January 1970, their name was shortened to Chicago, and this album (also a double set, along with their third album) contained two extended multi-movement works. One was “It Better End Soon”, which was really a long song with four different sections. The other, a suite, and widely considered trombonist James Pankow’s masterpiece is “Ballet for a Girl in Buchannon”. He claims it was the piece where he learned to write transitions to bridge sections together. It contained two songs (both sung by guitarist/bandleader Terry Kath) which were hit singles (“Make Me Smile” and “Colour My World”). “Buchannon” is actually a misspelling of “Buckhannon, Virginia”. It tells the story of a man’s love for a girl who he loses, and is searching for her to rekindle their love. After the opening song “Make Me Smile”, they smoothly transition into “So Much to Say, So Much to Give” with Robert Lamm on vocals (Peter Cetera and Terry Kath on backing vocals). Then, there are two instrumental passages entitled “Anxiety’s Moment” (featuring a trumpet solo by Lee Loughane) and “West Virginia Fantasies”. The latter, a trumpet/flute duet (with Pankow picking up the tambourine) has a theme based on Frank Zappa’s “Uncle Meat” main theme. Terry Kath’s flowing guitar lines add a counterpoint similar to Bach’s “Brandenberg Concertos”. Next, the dynamics are taken down with “Colour My World”, arguably one of the best love songs ever written. Part of it’s beauty is in it’s simplicity. A simple piano arpeggio figure makes up the introduction. There is only one verse. Pankow was pressured to write another verse or more, but he resisted. After the verse, a flute solo closes the song. Next, the pace is picked back up with the instrumental “To Be Free”, which features the horn section as an ensemble, and drum fills by Danny Seraphane. It concludes with a brief trombone solo by Pankow. The suite concludes with “Now More Than Ever” which is basically a reprise of “Make Me Smile” with a drum solo at the end, and long sustained chord to end the masterpiece. Chicago often closed their sets with this suite before returning for an encore. They have continued to perform it through the years and it has been referred to as “The Ballet” or “Make Me Smile Medley”.
- Make Me Smile
- So Much to Say, So Much to Give
- Anxiety’s Moment
- West Virginia Fantasies
- Colour My World
- To Be Free
- Now More Than Ever
Beatles “Abbey Road Medley”
On the Beatles swan song album “Abbey Road” is a collection of songs often referred to as the “Golden Slumbers Suite” or “Abbey Road Medley”. A medley is actually different from a suite in that it contains excerpts from different songs linked together into one single piece. This particular group is considered “unfinished songs”. However, these songs seem to almost all have at least three different sections, which for the Beatles may be a bit unfinished, though in terms of pop music is often one or two more ideas than go into a standard song. There is such a natural flow to all of these songs that they all seem to belong together as one piece of music.
- You Never Give Me Your Money
- Sun King
- Mean Mr. Mustard
- Polythene Pam
- She Came in Through the Bathroom Window
- Golden Slumbers
- Carry That Weight
- Carry That Weight
- The End
- Her Majesty
The longest song of this set is the first one “You Never Give Me Your Money”. It begins with gentle piano dominating with some guitar and bass accents. The drums start with just a few cymbals transitioning into the second distinct section of the song, as the drums set the beat, the second section beginning with the lyric “Out of college, money spent. See no future, pay no rent. All the money’s gone, nowhere to go.” A third section begins with “But oh that magic feelng, nowhere to go”. The fourth section in this song begins with a transition, and the lyrics “One sweet dream..”, ending with “one, two, three, four, five, six, seven. All good children go to heaven..” which then fades.
Next, “Sun King” begins with some beautiful guitar work. This dreamy song features beautiful vocal harmonies. There is then a brief drum fill, and it goes right into the verse for “Mean Mr. Mustard”. This song ends with eight measures of 3/8 which slows down the pace, and only pick back up with the next song “Polythene Pam”. This tune just contains one verse, and a guitar solo (with drums featuring cowbell), and after a brief descending line on the guitar goes right into “She Came in Through the Bathroom Window” which ends gracefully. Then the piano leads to the next song “Golden Slumbers”. The lyrics are from Thomas Dekker’s 17-century poem, which became a lullaby. “Carry That Weight” follows like a chorus of “Golden Slumbers” as orchestral strings and horns start to surface, and they return back to the first section of “You Never Give Me Your Money” with the lyrics “I never gave you my pillow…”, then right back into the chorus “Carry That Weight” followed by a brief reprise of the “one, two, three, four..” section of “You Never Give Me Your Money”, and then “The End” begins with just the orchestra disappearing, and the band takes over with “Oh yeah, alright. Are you gonna be in my dreams, tonight?”. Next, Ringo Starr plays what would be his only recorded drum solo with the Beatles. Then, they begin a two-chord vamp with their harmonized vocals “Love you, love you”. Next, John, George, and Paul all wanted to play a guitar solo. They decided that they could all play by taking turns. First, we hear Paul play the first line, followed by George’s clean, eloquent phrasing, and finally John’s howling screaches. They each take three turns, then it returns to the piano with the final, famous lyric (“And in the end, the love you take is equal to the love you make”), and the final orchestral ending. As sort of a bookend, “Her Majesty” ends the album with Paul accompanied only by one acoustic guitar. This was originally going to be placed after “Polythene Pam”, but it disrupted the flow too much, so it was moved to the end. The last chord was accidentally cut off in editing, though it seems to fit the very brief, whimsical tune.
Marvin Gaye “What’s Going On”
In 1970, Marvin Gaye took a very risky move which did not have support from the founder and head of Motown, Barry Gordy. He wanted Marvin to stick with love songs, and discouraged him from attacking political and social issues. Smokey Robinson liked the music, encouraged Marvin to follow his instincts, and, Motown executives Barney Ales and Harry Balk released “What’s Going On” as a single without Gordy’s knowledge or approval on January 17, 1971. After hitting #2 on the pop charts and #1 on the soul charts, Gordy gave Marvin the freedom to produce the album himself (by the end of March) and continue to explore social and political themes on what would turn out to be a beautiful suite which took the form of a concept album. The album was recorded in a mere ten days (between March 1 though March 10) and was released on May 21, 1971. For Motown, it was the first gatefold cover single album, the first to credit the orchestra arranger/conductor David Van DaPitte, and the first to credit the individual studio musicians known collectively as the Funk Brothers. Smokey Robinson has gone on to say “I have listened to, recorded and produced many, many albums in my lifetime. And I still say What’s Going On is my favorite album of all time. More than that, it is the greatest album of all time.”
The album begins with chatter containing within it the first spoken variation of the title theme, as someone says “what’s happening”, and we also here “what’s up, brother”. Then, the song “What’s Going On” music starts which brings together the Funk Brothers groove with classical orchestration, tribal percussion, and a brief (jazz) alto saxophone solo by Eli Fountain. Here, Marvin gives us a newspaper headline / TV news rundown of the events on people’s minds (war, protests, strikes, street violence). He’s speaking of all American families as he speaks personally to his own father and mother about his brothers, and differing views. Marvin is on the side of the hippies who prefer peace, long hair, and marijuana. In the middle section, the chatter returns and stays until the end of the song, and Marvin employs another jazz element: scat singing (ay, yi, yi, yi , do doot doot do,etc.). The seamless blending of all these elements (funk, classical, jazz, pop) is what makes this song, and album such a masterpiece. At the end of the this song, among the chatter, you hear talk of a football. At the time of this recording, Marvin was working out, and had a dream of playing professional football. The intentional abrupt fade out ending on this song tells you that the story doesn’t end there. The groove picks up again (E to C#minor chords), and modulates for the next song “What’s Happening Brother”. Here, the narrator is a returning war veteran (like his brother Frankie) struggling to find work and figure out exactly what’s going on, or what’s gone wrong with the world, which doesn’t seem to correlate with things “getting better like the newspaper said”.
Next, the mood mellows, as Marvin references an airline commercial tag with “Flying High (In the Friendly Sky)”. With the mood sounding like a little break, and the reference to flying “without ever leaving the ground”, we may think this is the marijuana smoking he’s referring to personally. Though, as the working title (“The Junkie”) suggests and lyrics of struggle with addiction, it seems he’s speaking of heroin addiction, as was common with many war veterans. There is also a lyrical reference to “boy” which was a street name for heroin. As we hear, though, it only brings him to deeper thought and reflection of all the world’s troubles.
The next track seamlessly begins as the music continues, and Marvin narrates spoken passages beginning with “I just want to ask a question. Who really cares?” This is the beginning of “Save the Children”. In this, the spoken narrative continues, as his voice is is echoed via overdubs singing the lines. Towards the end, the groove turns to fast jazz, before breaking down once again, and the “What’s Going On” groove returns. With a piano glissando, we stay in the same groove, this time with the two chords (Asus4 and Dmaj7). for “God is Love”. Here, he speaks of the Golden Rule (“to love one another”), and of God’s mercy. Next, the groove continues in a new key, which is back to the original E of the title track. Though, this time there is more of a jazz groove, and the chords suitably have added sevenths (Emaj7 and C#min7). This is the second hit single from the album, “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)”. Here Marvin is speaking of the ecological ruin that man has inflicted on the planet with pollution, chemicals, and overpopulation which is causing suffering and death for people, animals, and of course, the earth itself. It ends with a tenor saxophone solo by William “Wild Bill” Moore, as Part One/Side One comes to a graceful close.
The piano begins Side Two and “Right On”. This song is about unifying everyone together on the planet with one thing: love. A reference to a line in the title track returns with “love can conquer hate”. As this seems to be the most important of all the themes on the album, appropriately, this track features the Funk Brothers stretching out, and more scat singing, sax lines, and a flute solo at the end making this the longest track on the album at 7:32. The track gracefully slows down with the piano which takes the tempo down, and modulates to G for the next song “Wholy Holy”. It further expands on the theme of unifying people through love and once again proclaims “We can conquer hate forever, yes we can”. It features Johnny Griffith on celeste, which is a soft, high pitched keyboard instrument.
The suite / album closes with the third hit single from the album “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler)”. It begins with the piano, celeste, Eddie “Bongo” Brown, and Earl DeRouen on congas. Marvin referred to the percussion as “black bottoms”. Bob Babbit played bass on this track as well as “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology)”, while James Jamerson played bass on all the other tracks. Here, Marvin has taken the narrative back to his own home, and his personal struggles. He reflects on how he feels about all the issues brought up on the album, and includes his own anxiety over his IRS problems at the time, saying “Natural fact is I can’t pay my taxes”. It begins and ends with more scat singing (“dah, dah, dah, dah…”) before reprising a line again from the title track with slight variation:
“ Mother, Mother. Everybody thinks we’re wrong. But, who are they to judge us simply cause our hair is long”.
Marvin said of this album “Something happened to me during that period. I felt the strong urge to write music and to write lyrics that would touch the souls of men. And in that way I thought I could help.” One year after the album was released, it was still on the Billboard charts , and was the biggest selling Motown album to date. Marvin returned to Washington D.C., where he went to his alma mater Cardoso High School, was given the keys to the city, and performed for the first time in four years at the recently opened Kennedy Center.
Considering the artistic achievement and commercial success of these works, it is a curious fact that there have not been any other significant suites released in more recent years that have achieved commercial success. Perhaps if there was, it could raise what I feel are currently very low artistic standards in contemporary popular music.