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.
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.
*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.