- Written by Randal C. Hill Randal C. Hill
Well-respected rock-music critic and historian Dave Marsh is normally quite sparing in his praise, but Marsh once could barely contain his enthusiasm when he reviewed a Marvin Gaye single and proclaimed it to be “the greatest piece of music ever written in favor of the survival of the environment on the greatest Black pop album ever made.”
That 45 was the now-classic “Mercy Mercy Me (The Ecology),” which was lifted from Gaye’s legendary 1971 LP What’s Going On, the first album in his extensive Motown catalog to sell a million copies.
When Motown owner Berry Gordy Jr. was approached about “Mercy Mercy Me,” he was unfamiliar with the term ecology and had to have it explained to him.
Gordy was always a tough sell about including anything political or controversial on his records and always kept an eye on the mainstream sales charts in seeking as wide an audience as possible.
Initially, Gordy argued against releasing Gaye’s thought-provoking What’s Going On? He feared it could run the risk of alienating Gaye’s fans, who would be expecting Gaye’s usual pop/soul product, such as “How Sweet It Is (To Be Loved by You)” and “I Heard It Through the Grapevine.”
But Gaye was growing as an artist, and he wanted to go deeper than his previous releases.
“I began to reevaluate my whole concept of what I wanted my music to say,” he explained later to Rolling Stone. “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.”
Industrialization, corporate greed, and a lack of environmental concern all fueled Gaye’s interest in creating a thoughtful message rather than another commercial ballad.
Gaye’s offering arrived a year after the first Earth Day brought concern about our stewardship of the Earth, so his tune served as a clarion call for us to face responsibilities to our home.
In an interview with Sounds magazine, Gaye said, “I’d love to become only interested in knowledge and power that this Earth will give us, if we’re only willing to put in the time and effort … The power’s here. It’s in the rocks, it’s in the air, it’s in the animals … I would like to become a man of power.”
Contrary to Gordy’s fears, “Mercy Mercy Me” peaked at No. 4 on Billboard’s Hot 100; Gaye was the sole composer of a work considered by many to be the most meaningful anthem ever in regards to pollution, global warming, and our deteriorating environment.
In 2002, his creation won a prestigious Grammy Hall of Fame Award.
Gaye’s lyrics pulled no punches when he delivered his ethereal, thought-provoking lament of polluted skies, poisonous winds, oceanic oil slicks, and mercury-contaminated fish, as well as the realization that, sadly, far too many creatures had become endangered.
Those elements, and the increasing overpopulation of our planet, inspired Gaye’s tough rhetorical question:
“How much more abuse from man can she stand?”
How much more indeed, Mr. Gaye!
Randal C. Hill is a rock ’n’ roll historian who lives at the Oregon coast. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.