Irons in the Fire – Teena Marie

I’ve written before about the greatness of I Need Your Lovin’ by Teena Marie. It’s an amazing record. Astonishingly well played, particularly by bassist Allen McGrier, engineered with incredible clarity and lucidity, performed with passion and verve and soul by Teena – it’s a perfect record, as good as late disco (for that’s what we’re dealing with here) gets.

But what of the song’s parent album, Irons in the Fire, which I Need Your Lovin’ begins in such tremendous style? How does it measure up in comparison?

Irons in the Fire is a product of its time. Motown moved from Detroit to Los Angeles in 1972, after which time (and as a result of the increased autonomy for Motown artists won by trailblazers like Stevie Wonder and Marvin Gaye) the immediately identifiable “Motown sound” created by its house band the Funk Brothers and engineer/producers like Bob Ohlsson had fallen into disuse. Irons in the Fire pays tribute to the heritage of Motown and R&B more general with the presence of veteran musicians James Jamerson and Earl Palmer on a couple of tracks, but if you’re a liner-notes reader, you’ll recognise a lot of the names on the credits list from any number of LA rock and soul records: keyboard/synth player Michael Boddicker; percussion session king Paulinho da Costa.

By the end of the seventies the sound of black LA bore the same anonymous muso sheen as many of the AOR records pumped out across the nation’s airwaves. The fact that Quincy Jones, for example, employed many of the white sessionmen who were playing on hits by Toto, Steely Dan and Boz Scaggs went some way to explaining the homogenous rock-soul feel of so many ‘black’ LA records of the period.

Barney Hoskyns, Waiting for the Sun

Without quite saying so, Hoskyns description of the LA sound of the late 1970s and early 1980s is clearly pejorative as much as it is descriptive. As someone who’s spent many hundreds of hours listening to records as much for their sonic as musical content, I find this era fascinating. Even at my lowly level, I’ve played enough sessions and recorded and mixed enough music to be awed by the technical achievements of this stuff. Listen to Jojo from Boz Scaggs’s contemporaneous Middle Man – listen to that drum sound – and tell me that this stuff isn’t the apex of the analogue recording era, before digital equipment and MIDI really poke their noses in 1983-4.

But for all the technical and artistic accomplishment of this music, and while I’ll gladly listen to any track from Irons in the Fire that your care to put on the stereo, Hoskyns’ observations/criticisms do seem valid when applied to the album as a whole: there’s something simultaneously by-the-numbers about it, and more troublingly something a little over-ripe about it, a little decadent. For all its exuberance, all its joy and passion and soul, it’s airless. The perfectionism of the early 1980s LA studio aesthetic* just doesn’t sound natural, and as I suggested in my previous Teena Marie post, one can’t help but think that the corporatisation of the industry, hand in hand with the notorious cocaine use of that era, had something to with it. How widespread was the latter? Consider this:

By the end of 1975 there’d be a weekly marketing meeting in a big conference room and people would get up and leave the room all the way through the meeting. Everybody was doing it. I thought it was devastating.

Bud Scoppa, A&M executive, quoted in Hoskyns’s Hotel California: Singer-Songwriters and Cocaine Cowboys in the LA Canyons, 1967-1976

That was just the executives. So yeah, that unnaturally giddy quality in Marie’s vocal performances may have been chemically aided. It’s not that, though, that makes Irons in the Fire a little bit too much when listened to in full. Having revisited it heavily this week, I think it’s a combination of the dense, dry, close, separated, hyper-real nature of the mixes (and I say that as someone who loves the 1970s production aesthetic generally) coupled with the protracted nature of some of the songs. Chains, probably the album’s weakest cut, is over seven minutes long – and on a record that already has I Need Your Lovin’ and First Class Love, it’s the definition of diminishing returns.

As you’ve probably guessed, Irons in the Fire is a record I’m conflicted about. The first side is basically flawless, but it’s a high-calorie confection of an album. Marshmallowy, with no roughage. It’s well worth having in your collection, but possibly not something you’d want to experience all that frequently.

teena-marie

*It’s amazing to think at the same time this came out the same month as Joy Division’s Closer and the Bunnymen’s Crocodiles, as well as Back in Black, which displays a whole other kind of obsessive attention to sonic detail.

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