Category Archives: Stevie Wonder

Rocks In The Attic #801: Stevie Wonder – ‘The Woman In Red (O.S.T.)’ (1984)

RITA#801Crikey, I’m not sure this film would get made these days. It wouldn’t fare well in the #metoo era.

A remake of the French film, Pardon Mon Affaire Gene Wilder writes and directs himself in a male super-fantasy where he attempts to start an extra-marital affair with a model at the advertising agency he works at. It’s a super-fantasy because he’s Gene Wilder and she’s Kelly LeBrock. It’s supposed to be a comedy, but it just comes off tasting bad.

Gene Wilder is one of my favourite comedic actors. He’s easily the best thing about Willy Wonka’s Chocolate Factory, fantastic in the early Mel Brooks films, and his partnership with Richard Pryor is wonderful from Silver Streak (featuring a pre-The Spy Who Loved Me Richard Kiel playing a besuited henchman with steel teeth) to Stir Crazy (“I can’t feel my legs!”) and See No Evil Hear No Evil (“Fuzzy Wuzzy was a woman?”). This film feels like a bit of a mis-step though. I’m sure it was very amusing back in 1984, and I certainly enjoyed it in my youth when I didn’t know any better, but hindsight is a wonderful thing.

It has its moments – mainly from the supporting cast of Gilda Radner and Charles Grodin – but the whole thing just feels awful. Somehow, I always remember that collection of inner-city vignettes (including a man copping a feel of a woman whose shoe gets stuck in a grate) to be from the opening section of this film, but that’s from Stir Crazy. I must mix up Gene Wilder films in my mind.

RITA#801aThe music is brilliant though; the film’s saving grace. Essentially a Stevie Wonder album (it comes four years after the brilliant Hotter Than July), all but one song was written by him. He shares vocal duties with Dionne Warwick on two songs, and Warwick sings lead on one track. Officially, I’m not sure if it would be credited to ‘Various Artists’, or to Stevie Wonder & Dionne Warwick, but I like to see it as a Stevie Wonder album, with a guest singer.

Like Hotter Than July, the album has its moments of pure synth gold – from the funky title song, to Love Light In Flight to Don’t Drive Drunk. The last song ended up being used in an educational video for the Department of Transportation’s drunk-driving prevention PSA. I’m not sure if Stevie Wonder is the kind of person to take driving advice from, but I appreciate any promotion for such a great cause.

But like Hotter Than July, The Woman In Red also has its one startling moment of pure cheese. Mega-hit I Just Called To Say I Love You echoes the horrible feel of the previous album’s Happy Birthday, not to mention 1982’s clanger with Paul McCartney, Ebony And Ivory. These songs feel like the technology starting to detract from the songwriting, and the trouble is that the synths Stevie was using in the early ‘80s were starting to become widely available. As a result, these songs sound like everything bad about ‘80s music that followed after.

Hit: I Just Called To Say I Love You – Stevie Wonder

Hidden Gem: The Woman In Red – Stevie Wonder

RITA#801b

Rocks In The Attic #461: Stevie Wonder – ‘Songs In The Key Of Life’ (1976)

RITA#461Songs In The Key Of Life is one of those double albums that’s like an entire Desert Island Discs episode in one package. There aren’t many double albums that I’d be happy listening to over and over again as I grew my beard out and learned how to spear fish, but this is one of them. I just hope there’s a lady on the island that I can dance with when I’m blasting out As or Sir Duke.

It’s interesting looking at the singles that were released off this album to promote the album – only I Wish, Sir Duke, Another Star and As. So that means no 7” releases for either Pasttime Paradise – famous more for its use by Coolio in Gangsta’s Paradise – or Isn’t She Lovely – undoubtedly the most famous song off the record – but denied a single release by Stevie himself who wouldn’t allow Motown to release a shortened edit of the six and a half minute song.

It’s a testament to Stevie’s talent and sheer dedication to his craft that he was able to pull a double-album’s worth of such strong material together, and that’s not including the bonus 7” record which adds a further four songs onto the running time. Soul music and R&B isn’t known for its double albums. The genre is borne out of dancing and partying, and who wants to flip a record over that many times? In fact, for almost the same reason, the other genre that tends to eschew the double album format is punk. Well, until London Calling came along – a genre-spanning collection similar in scope and confidence to Songs In The Key Of Life.

Speaking of flipping the record over, Songs In The Key Of Life is one of those weird records with the A/D B/C format, built for record changers. I still haven’t seen one of those near-mythical machines so I’m yet to experience one in action, but I always think it would be better to order the sides A/C B/D and then if you had two turntables and a mixer you could seamlessly play the album without stopping.

Isn’t She Lovely reminds me of the times I used to visit friends in Wexford, Ireland. We used to go and see a covers band called the Dylan Bible Band, who used to do a great cover of the song. It’s built to be played endlessly, when you have the right players (which Dylan Bible did), and it sounded great just going around and around as a seemingly infinite chord progression, just like Stevie’s version.

Hit: Isn’t She Lovely

Hidden Gem: Contusion

Rocks In The Attic #271: Stevie Wonder – ‘Journey Through The Secret Life Of Plants’ (1979)

RITA#271A soundtrack album for a nature documentary that nobody saw, featuring music composed by a blind musician in an attempt to provide an aural accompaniment to the visuals on screen that he obviously couldn’t see, this album should be a dud.

It’s not – largely due to the fact that it was released just at the cusp of Stevie’s classic period, a year before Hotter Than July, which for me will always be the bookend to his great run of albums. A couple of years later and it would have been awash with horrible ‘80s synths.

Neither is the album a quickly rushed off piece of fluff. There’s a fair amount of instrumentals present – seven out of twenty tracks – but you’d expect this from a soundtrack to a nature documentary, wouldn’t you? And anyway, Stevie still likes the album and rates it as one of his three favourite albums.

A Seed’s A Star And Tree Medley, a track on the album’s fourth side, sounds musically very similar to what you’d expect from a James Bond theme, highlighting a lost opportunity. If Stevie had scored a Bond film instead of this documentary, this would have been around the time of Moonraker. Imagine that – “Balls, Q?”, “Bolas, 007!” – to the strains of Stevie’s funky synths. It’s actually not too much of a stretch considering that Marvin Hamlisch had just recorded a disco-tinted soundtrack to 1977’s The Spy Who Loved Me.

Wikipedia, the font of all knowledge, states that Journey Through The Secret Life Of Plants was an early digital recording, released just three months after Ry Cooder’s Bop Til You Drop (generally considered to be the first digitally recorded pop album). I guess that shows just how cutting edge Stevie Wonder was before the ‘80s came along and put all keyboard players on the same level. On paper, you’d expect a blind musician to struggle with the technology everybody else was using, but here he is cutting a new path (through the overgrown plants).

Hit: Power Flower

Hidden Gem: Venus’ Flytrap And The Bug

Rocks In The Attic #222: Stevie Wonder – ‘Talking Book’ (1972)

RITA#222This is my favourite Stevie Wonder album, because it has Superstition on it, and that song is for me the pinnacle of Stevie’s career; and I like that song so much, I’m prepared to put up with a lot of the slower material which otherwise blights this album.

If Stevie Wonder only wrote funky, upbeat, melodic music (a la Superstition, Higher Ground, Sir Duke, etc) I’d be the happiest man in the world. But he compliments these types of songs with slower ballads – the kind of which always sound like he’s writing them for lesser talents. The perfect example of this type of song is You And I (We Can Conquer The World), from Talking Book. A nice song, if that’s your sort of thing – but for me it holds no interest. It’s a million miles away from the likes of Superstition, and there’s a very bare melody, so it also stands out from his better slower songs like You Are The Sunshine Of My Life.

Songs In The Key Of Life is usually held up as his greatest achievement, and although there’s a lot of great material on there, like most double albums it’s filled with a fair but of fluff too.

I love how this album starts, almost like a freeform jam. Stevie’s the third person to sing a line of You Are The Sunshine Of My Life – and in this current climate where corporate record companies dictate everything, I can’t imagine a record that would come out in the 21st century by a well known singer, where the vocals on the opening track would start by someone other than that particular artist.

Hit: Superstition

Hidden Gem: I Believe (When I Fall In Love It Will Be Forever)

Rocks In The Attic #148: Peter Frampton – ‘I’m In You’ (1977)

Rocks In The Attic #148: Peter Frampton - ‘I’m In You’ (1977)This is a pretty star-studded recording – Stevie Wonder, Mick Jagger and Ringo Starr all pop on this album in various guises. I guess when you release a successful album like Frampton Comes Alive!, your next album is always going to attract attention from certain quarters.

Frampton Comes Alive! was one of the first records I ‘borrowed’ from my Dad’s collection – and like most people, I know that album much better than his studio albums.

It seems that …Alive! was Frampton’s peak – and all that remained for his solo career was a slippery slope downhill. The cover of this album says it all – his career is no longer aimed at fans of Humble Pie and classic rock in general; it’s now aimed at the bedroom walls of pubescent teenage girls.

Hit: Signed, Sealed, Delivered (I’m Yours)

Hidden Gem: Won’t You Be My Friend

Rocks In The Attic #88: Stevie Wonder – ‘Music Of My Mind’ (1972)

Rocks In The Attic #88: Stevie Wonder - ‘Music Of My Mind’ (1972)The first of Stevie’s classic period, this is actually the second album where he was given full artistic freedom. There’s still a feel of him regarded as a Motown novelty on the album before this, Where I’m Coming From, but on Music Of My Mind you can start to hear him branching out.

This album doesn’t have any of the big hits that his follow-up albums have, so it always tends to get overlooked. It arguably has the best cover of any of his classis albums – a close up photograph of Stevie wearing mirrored Aviators, with a couple of random images in the reflection of each glass. Unfortunately, some of the covers of his later, more well-renowned albums have dated quite badly – (and obviously he isn’t responsible for that aspect of his career).

Hit: Superwoman (Where Were You When I Needed You)

Hidden Gem: I Love Every Thing About You

Rocks In The Attic #51: Lenny Kravitz – ‘Mama Said’ (1991)

Rocks In The Attic #51: Lenny Kravitz - ‘Mama Said’ (1991)Record company executives must have been creaming in their pants when Lenny Kravitz came along. Here was somebody who looked and sounded like a cloning experiment between Jimi Hendrix and Stevie Wonder had gone exceedingly well, and an artist that could successfully cross racial boundaries, appealing to white and black audiences alike.

One of my greatest regrets at Glastonbury – and I have quite a few – is walking past Lenny Kravitz playing on the Pyramid Stage on the Sunday afternoon of my first time at the festival, and not really noticing. I had forgotten how much I loved his earlier stuff, because by that time he was very much in the pop buyer’s market with his cover of American Woman. I probably didn’t stop and listen as I had Sunday fatigue at Glastonbury – when you get tired of seeing so bands play that your eyes and ears stop registering. I wouldn’t mind if he was the sort of artist who tours – but he isn’t, and that might have been my only chance to see him. Fuck!

This album is his last record below the radar before its follow-up Are You Gonna Go My Way catapulted him into the mainstream. It has a very nice appearance by Slash on Always On The Run, the standout track on the album aside from the radio-friendly It Ain’t Over ‘Til It’s Over.

Hit: It Ain’t Over ‘Til It’s Over

Hidden Gem: Stop Draggin’ Around