In 1971, Marvin Gaye released What’s Goin’ On?, an album of unprecedented ambition for soul music, which addressed real issues – poverty, the state of the nation, the economy – and did so with thick, complex arrangements and, of course, smooth, emotional, inspirational singing. It has since been described, often, as the greatest album of all time. It was nothing less than a new birth of soul, the coccoon from which would hatch a wonderful butterfly: a mature, album-based music which would last forever.

By, oh, 1976 or so, soul music was in a bad way: within another five years, soul was creatively dead and commercially wounded, floundering in a quicksand of overcooked bedroom schlock . What had happened? Most critics and commentators blamed the rise of disco, a bastardised kind of black music, production-line funk which had attracted multiracial and polysexual dancers to clubs where they could dance and have fun. They didn’t ask why disco had become necessary in the first place, didn’t ask why people were buying these repetitive, ultra-catchy songs and – relatively speaking – spurning bloated albums like the Temptations’ Masterpiece or the O’Jays’ Ship Ahoy, with its thirteen-minute ‘soul opera’ title track on the subject of slavery. They certainly didn’t look across the way to rock, where the album was King and where monstrously over-extended records were causing an intense critical backlash against overweening ambition and in favour of – yes – simplicity and acceptability. Disco was the black punk, simple as that.

It’s often said that it’s wrong to blame Sgt. Pepper’s for progressive rock: is it wrong to blame Marvin Gaye for the pomposity of album-based soul? No, because What’s Goin’ On is no work of genius – it has all the faults its successors did. A vagueness at its centre, an unwillingness to offer analysis and a reliance instead on vocal technique and empty empathy. Critics ever since have swooned over how ‘brave’ it was of Gaye to tackle social issues – but why was it brave? The message of the title track boils down to “It is bad that bad things happen”, not something anyone could disagree with, but equally not likely to have an effect, to change people’s minds. Disco was attacked for its vacuity, but at least it was an honest vacuity, whereas most social-issue soul, Gaye’s opus included, hid its lack of real commentary under a parade of platitudes and the occasional sob or melismatic howl. The will to comment was there, sure – some singers, like Curtis Mayfield, even had the verbal felicity to do something with it – but it would take hip-hop to open up a space where truly substantive things could be said and thought. Gaye’s brand of soul was just sound and technique and signified nothing: it was no surprise at all that it was this stuff that became the bible for ‘serious’ 80s pop music, with even the horrendous Spandau Ballet crooning smugly about “Lis’nin’ to Maaaaarvin all night long….”.

Motown boss Berry Gordy tried to stop the release of What’s Goin’ On?, and he’s been painted as a cloth-eared villain ever since. But Gordy was not a stupid man, and certainly not a philistine: over ten years before he’d written “Money”, after all, which said more intelligent things in a slyer fashion than anything on Gaye’s hand-wringing epic. That was the problem: the worst thing about What’s Goin’ On? wasn’t what it caused but what it replaced – the old Motown had been a place where songwriters, their skills honed by hectic competition, would turn out three-minute gems with polished (and insightful!) lyrics, brilliant high-impact arrangements and absolutely irresistible beats. By 1971 that version of the company was on the wane anyway, but What’s Goin’ On was one big nail in its coffin. So Marvin Gaye helped destroy the best pop label the world ever saw, and in doing so turned soul music into a gigantic supper club. Greatness indeed, I’m sure you’ll agree.