Tag Archives: Fender Rhodes

I’ve Never Heard… Talking Book by Stevie Wonder

Or, truth to tell, any Stevie Wonder record. Not all the way through. I’ve heard large tracts of the one I’m most familiar with, Songs in the Key of Life (I have my mother’s old vinyl copy at home), but none of them in their entirety.

So I decided to pick one, and ended up with Talking Book, though it was almost Innervisions. But Talking Book has Superstition on it, so that was that.

Like the Eagles and Pink Floyd, the two bands I looked at last year for posts in this series, Stevie Wonder occupies such a huge place in the canon of English-language pop music that you (or, more specifically, I) can have heard none of his albums in their entirety yet still feel pretty au fait with the man’s oeuvre. I’ve known music by Stevie Wonder for almost literally as long as I can remember; I Just Called to Say I Love You came out when I was around three, and I remember hearing it in my parents’ house in Maldon, which we moved from when I was four and a half.

But as I got older, I began to find a lot about Wonder’s music that I didn’t like. The floridity of his vocal style was at odds with the much simpler approaches taken by my favourite singers. The maximalism of his sensibility was counter to my preference for more minimally arranged and produced music. I found myself irritated by his sometimes clumsy lyrics that messed with syntax or stress to force a rhyme. Too many of his songs, particularly those on Songs in the Key of Life, go on far too long.

So as I acquired many albums by his peers in 1970s soul and R&B – Sly Stone, Marvin Gaye, Curtis Mayfield and Al Green – I picked up none by Stevie. I’d essentially decided that he was never going to be my guy, even as I had a couple of dozen songs by him, and listened to them and enjoyed them, and would never have argued with anyone proclaiming his greatness. Or even his genius.

So that’s my background with the great man. Let’s dive in.

You Are the Sunshine of My Life, which opens Talking Book, is a classic. There’ll be no contrarian take from me on this one. His inversion of the natural stress of the word “rescue” is an example of the kind of bone I find myself constantly picking with Wonder the lyricist (the clumsiness takes me out of the song as surely as an out-of-time backbeat, a bad edit or an egregiously flat note would do), but still, there’s so much to love here, from the gorgeous Fender Rhodes sounds to the buoyant congas, and the lovely, inclusive touch of having backing singers Jim Gilstrap and Lani Groves sing the first two verses.

Maybe Your Baby is for me the weakest track on the album by a distance, so it’s a shame that it comes so early in the album. It’s not exactly bad – the verse groove is compelling enough, and the multitracked and varispeeded backing vocals are a creative arrangemental touch – but at nearly seven minutes, the track goes on far, far too long. Ray Parker’s soloing is a pretty major mark against for me, too. His tone, like an amplified bee buzzing around your head, is annoying, and without wishing to be cruel, he’s not the player you want pouring it out at this length. Wonder should have used Jeff Beck. But we’ll get back to him.

You and I moves back to ballad territory, with Wonder this time accompanying himself on piano, with a Theremin-like sound from TONTO (something else we’ll come back to). It’s a lovely performance, one of Wonder’s more restrained vocals, largely in the lower-middle of his wide range, where for me his voice sounds richest and most full. The use of delay on his voice gives it a slightly trippy, spacey touch that I think works brilliantly for the song.

Tuesday Heartbreak is a showcase for Wonder’s use of interweaving keyboards (Fender Rhodes and a prominent Clavinet), but something’s a bit off kilter about the vocal. It sounds nasal and pitchy, so much so that I wonder if something was awry with the tape speed when Wonder tracked his vocal. Whatever it is, something’s off, as I’ve never felt that Wonder was out of tune on any other other song. The backing vocals of Deniece Williams and Shirley Brewer could have been a touch higher in the mix, and I’m seldom well disposed towards David Sanborn’s alto (always so bright and hard-sounding), but the extended voicings Wonder plays are cool, and I love that change to Bb diminished in the verse.

Side one ends with You’ve Got It Bad Girl, one of the record’s most attractive pieces, and a song that illustrates the creative potency of Wonder’s partnership with engineers and co-producers Malcolm Cecil and Robert Margouleff.

Cecil and Margouleff were the owners-operators of TONTO (The Original New Timbral Orchestra). TONTO was, and still is, the largest analogue synthesiser ever constructed – a room-sized behemoth of old-school analogue synthesis. Its many, many modules allowed its operators to construct new instrumental textures in real time, or produce credible simulations of real-world instruments.

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On the jazzy You’ve Got It Bad Girl, Wonder, Cecil and Margouleff created a layer cake of keyboard timbres: Moog bass, Fender Rhodes chords and TONTO melody lines, several of which are instantly recognisable to anyone as “Stevie Wonder” synth sounds. Electronic it may be, but it’s also a wonderfully human and lyrical sound, so it beautifully complements the record’s acoustic elements: Wonder’s impressive drum performance (not “and-a-1, and-a-2” swing, looser and more impressionistic than that, but still clearly drawing on jazz), his gentle and intimate lead vocal, and the backing vocals of Gilstrap and Groves. A singular creation, but it works amazingly well.

Before the sessions for Talking Book began, Jeff Beck’s people at CBS told Wonder that Beck was a big fan, and would be keen to work with him in some capacity. Wonder did not need a vast pool of players to call on, as he was capable of playing almost everything himself, but he did tend to call in lead guitarists, so was open to playing with Beck. An agreement was made that Beck would play on Talking Book and in return Wonder would write him a song.

Superstition was the result of a jam session between Beck and Wonder that took place before the album sessions. Beck, apparently, came up with the opening drum pattern and Wonder improvised the Clavinet riff over the top. The two tracked a demo there and then, which Wonder took away to finish. In some versions of the story, Wonder loved it too much to give it to Beck without cutting his own version too; others say Motown told Wonder it was too good to give away and insisted that Stevie’s version came out first. Whichever is true, we’re lucky that Wonder did record it*, as the Beck, Bogert and Appice version is a sludgy mess with no verve or bounce, whereas Wonder’s version is the finest thing he ever recorded. Bar nothing.

A final word about the Superstition drum track. It’s a little sketchy in a couple of places, but Wonder’s drum performance on Superstition can stand alongside literally anything in the funk canon. Even if Jeff Beck came up with it.

Superstition crossfades into Big Brother. Wonder’s use of his Clavinet to create an acoustic guitar-like tone, coupled with the African-style percussion (djembe, I think), give this song a different feel to anything else on the record. It’s really cool, as is his harmonica playing. Lyrically, it’s probably the angriest song on the record (“I live in the ghetto/You just come to visit me ’round election time”; “You’ve killed all our leaders”), and a little blunter and sharper than I was expecting. On this song at least, anger sharpened Wonder’s lyrics into something cold and hard, with no syllable wasted.

Blame it on the Sun repeats the acoustic-guitar keyboard trick even more credibly (I guess from the sleevenotes, it’s the instrument referred to as a “harpsichord”, but Wonder plays it like lead acoustic guitar). It’s the arrangement’s most notable feature, but it’s hard not to be swept away by the song itself, which may be my favourite of the Talking Book tracks I didn’t already know. Those diminished chords in the choruses (under “the wind and the trees”) are heartbreaking, and the backing vocals by Gilstrap and Groves are sumptuous

Looking for Another Pure Love features the twin guitars of Jeff Beck and Howard “Buzz” Feiten. Over another of Wonder’s one-man-band arrangements of drums, Moog bass and Fender Rhodes, the pair play harmonised scalar lines, shadowing Wonder’s vocal melody. It’s a gentle and intimate production, with every nuance of Beck’s lead playing audible in the mix. Once again, the backing vocals – this time by Debra Wilson, Shirley Brewer and Loris Harvin – lift every chorus.

Final track I Believe (When I Fall in Love) is the third of the album’s masterpieces. Another of Wonder’s one-man sonic fantasias, its dreamy verses (carried by keyboards and a vaguely threatening Moog bass) are paid off by a slowly rising bridge and a chorus of cautious optimism that only gives way to anything close of celebration at the very end of the song.

As a recap of many of the moods explored by the album’s other songs, it’s a fitting end to a record that’s very good indeed, if not always quite at the level of its three most famous songs. After familiarising myself thoroughly with Talking Book over the last couple of weeks, I feel like it’s obviously the classic it’s always held to be. It has a couple of weaker moments, but Wonder’s sense of quality control was pretty tight on this one. And anyway, one or two lightweight songs or failed sonic experiments are understandable when you factor in that Wonder was making one record a year in the first half of the seventies. I’ve learned things, too, about the craft that went into these records: the creativity of Stevie’s arrangements and his work layering keyboard textures and harmonic parts, as well as his partnership with Cecil and Margouleff, which led to the creation of wonderful new timbres and atmospheres. While I do prefer the low end sound of the Stevie Wonder records that feature a bass guitarist, I’ve also got more of an appreciation for how he built rhythm tracks from Moog bass and his own drum performances.

Stevie Wonder’s records are probably never going to be among my very favourites – I’ve come around to more decorative singers in the last five or 10 years, but his sensibility is still a long way from that of the artists I tend to love most – but getting to know his albums was probably overdue for me. Having got to grips with Talking Book, I’ve already got Innervisions on my iPod**, and who knows, one day I may even get through the whole of Songs in the Key of Life without skipping the codas.

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*The incident strained the realtionship between the two considerably, and Beck remains convinced that his version would have been a huge hit had it come out first. It wouldn’t. It’s not even a tenth of the record that Stevie’s is.

**Yes, I still use an iPod Classic. 120gb. I work a lot on my music and Mel’s, and projects for folks like James McKean and Yo Zushi, so I don’t want to have to listen to them as MP3s.

 

 

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Long as I Can See the Light – Creedence Clearwater Revival

Creedence Clearwater Revival remain as cool as they come. I’ve never met anyone with a bad word to say about them. They managed to make something hugely difficult look very easy: they had an instantly recognisable core sound, built on the most basic garage-band foundations, but their music reached out in all kinds of directions – to the blues, to soul, country, psychedelia, hard rock – all at the same time. They could be anything they wanted, yet were always themselves too. Down on the Corner, one of the band’s most exuberant moments, was a double A side with Fortunate Son, probably the group’s angriest. Think on that pair of songs for a moment.*

John Fogerty’s vision for his music was clear-headed and allied to a single-minded, relentless work ethic that, at least initially, the whole band shared: four albums in two years, three in 1969 alone (one of them called, not coincidentally, Cosmo’s Factory). Their singles were always hits, and in an almost unique achievement for a white rock band, they were R&B hits as well as pop hits. As Marcello Carlin put it in his write-up of Cosmo’s Factory, “Fogerty’s men spoke to the working man but the beauty about Creedence’s brief fire is that they were everyone’s group; the truck drivers, the waitresses, the troops, the students – none could find anything in their music that didn’t communicate with them or stir up something deep and important within them.”

The more I listen to Creedence, the more I hear Long as I Can See the Light as the quintessential CCR song, in that best it demonstrates the band’s soulfulness and their resourcefulness, their ability to realise their vision all by themselves. Slow and bluesy, its arrangement is dominated by Fogerty’s Fender Rhodes, moaning horns and his white-soul holler (which gets into stratospheric Robert Plant territory during the third verse: “But I won’t, won’t…“), but contains a delightful surprise in a saxophone solo halfway through, played of course by Fogerty, showing his skill on the instrument went further than the sustained notes he holds in the verses (or the endearingly out of tune honks on Travelin’ Band). Like everything else about Fogerty’s music – which constitutes, as Carlin argued, some sort of Grand Unifying Theory of American music – it’s just so entirely without bullshit or fuss.

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Creedence: John Fogerty left

*Possibly only Yellow Submarine/Eleanor Rigby contains a wider emotional range than this double A.

Underrated Drum Tracks I Have Loved, Part 5

9) What You Won’t Do For Love – Bobby Caldwell

I wish I knew which of the three credited drummers on the album actually played the drums on What You Won’t Do For Love (which, as regular readers know, is one of my favourite songs). Alas, I haven’t been able to find out. Andy Newmark is one of the drummers listed on the sleeve, and it could be him, but I’m not going to take that leap here.

Still, the drum track is great. 16th-note hats, cool semi-quaver bass drum, the most damped, low-tuned toms in the history of popular music and some great fills in the extended outro, which (as with Careless Whisper) seems to have been extended just because the drummer caught a groove that was so undeniable it needed to be heard. And all of this while playing so tight the track could almost pass as programmed.

10 Mars, the Bringer of War – Gustav Holst

To all the percussionists who’ve had the pleasure of hammering out the brutally exciting quintuple-metre drum pattern to Mars, from Holst’s The Planets, you lucky, lucky, lucky drummers, you!

A combination of reading material, current interest in odd metres and topicality (yesterday was the 95th anniversary of the Armistice) has recently led me to listen to The Planets, and Mars in particular, for the first time since my teens. So many allusions to it, quotes from it, uses of it on soundtracks and so on haven’t yet robbed it of its power to overwhelm. When two-thirds of the way through, the opening rhythmic pattern reasserts itself, louder than ever before, as if the downed Mars had suddenly sprung back to his feet, ready to finish things off this time, and the tympani and snare drums take a good battering, it’s hard to think of a more brutal, terrifying evocation of war.

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What You Won’t Do For Love – Bobby Caldwell

There’s a strain of music that came into existence around 1975 and began to disappear in around 1985. It sits on the opposite end of the fidelity spectrum to the messy lo-fi singer-songwriter stuff that entranced me as a teenager. Not a genre so much as a sensibility, it’s principally American (although copied all over the world) and could only exist in a booming industry. Its creation required the spending of a great deal of money, both on studio time and top-flight musicians; pillow-soft but steady as machine, it is, crucially, not machine-made. When hardware sequencing became a dominant studio resource in the mid-1980s, this music was finished commercially within a year or so and done altogether by the mid-nineties. Not black or white, not rock or pop, not funk or soul, it was instead all of these and none of these.

To make it, you needed electric pianos, jazz chords, dampened drums and vocals mixed dry and close. It was made by adults, for adults. To this day, it doesn’t have a satisfactory name. Some call it yacht rock, which speaks to its opulence but says nothing about the music itself, relatively little of which was rock. It lacks the aggression, the emphasis on power and backbeat, of rock music.

Bobby Caldwell made an enduring classic of this kind of music called What You Won’t Do for Love. Of course, it’s a great song, sung brilliantly by an underrated vocal talent. But that’s not all it is. Produced and engineered by Ann Holloway Masters (rare indeed in the late 1970s for a woman to not only produce but engineer a session), it’s a wonderful sounding record, too, with a glorious low-end richness (the bass guitar is gorgeously thick, the toms have been damped and tuned low) and a beautiful sleepy horn sound. The guitar plays Curtis Mayfield-esque soul licks, and Caldwell holds the whole thing together with his electric piano. Late in the song, during the long outro, a nocturnal synth comes in of the sort that would be sampled endlessly in 1990s hip-hop. The band hangs on to the groove for a few minutes after Caldwell stops singing, and frankly, if they’d have kept going for hours I wouldn’t skip it.

What You Won’t Do for Love hit big, deservedly, on the pop, R&B and Adult Contemporary charts. It’s been covered by Boyz II Men, Roy Ayers, Goldie and Go West and sampled by 2Pac (three times!), Biggie Smalls, Aaliyah, Kool G Rap and the Luniz. Caldwell will have a comfortable retirement off that little lot. Good on him.

But the style he worked in is a thing of the past now. As the record-making process became more computerised, the precision of the drum machine became more highly valued than the feel of a steady human drummer. Yet the feel of this style of music was the result of asking gifted musicians to play understatedly, without obvious shows of virtuosity, in service of the song. While the programmed rhythm and the MIDI keyboard might have seemed like shortcuts to a professional-sounding sheen, they led instead to the brashness and gigantism that we now associate with the 1980s (but which didn’t begin at the start of the decade – it crept in instead, becoming the dominant aesthetic around 1984 and 1985) and the rigidity and uniformity of today’s Pro-Tooled world.

 

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Just to clear things up…

bobby-caldwell

This is Bobby Caldwell, funky white guy.

Bobby-Caldwell drums

This is Bobby Caldwell, drummer

bobby caldwell

This is Dr Bobby Caldwell, plastic surgeon on St Elsewhere

Can I trouble you to listen to my new EP, Last Swallow?
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