Tag 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


Rocks In The Attic #745: Jeff Beck – ‘Blow By Blow’ (1975)

RITA#745I’ve been getting my funk back, these last few months. Something I’ve been meaning to listen to again was this, Blow By Blow, Jeff Beck’s head-first dive into funk from 1975.

It’s a stunning album. Produced by George Martin (at his AIR studios in London), it’s a fully instrumental record – aside from a few appearances by a talk-box on the almost unrecognisable cover of the Beatles’ She’s A Woman, and the funk workout, Thelonius.

What’s this honky doing, recording a funk album in the middle of the 1970s, you might ask. In fact, only the drummer of the group, Richard Bailey, is black. The bass player, Phil Chen, is Chinese, while Beck and keyboardist Max Middleton are as white as you can get. And that’s not even mentioning George Martin, who’s so white, he’s almost transparent.

RITA#745aStill, Stevie Wonder was heavily involved with this record, which gives it more than an air of authenticity. Two of Wonder’s unrecorded songs, Cause We’ve Ended As Lovers and Thelonius were gifted to Beck, with Stevie even playing a FUNKY (but uncredited) clavinet line on the latter.

Of course, I shouldn’t be so glib. It shouldn’t be about race. Anybody can be funky. It’s just that the common misconception is that white man can’t funk. But try telling that to the Average White Band. Or the Goodies.

Hit: Cause We’ve Ended As Lovers

Hidden Gem: You Know What I Mean

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 #410: Michael Jackson – ‘Off The Wall’ (1979)

RITA#410For many people, this is Michael’s debut record; in reality, it’s very far from that, being solo album number five. But just like Stevie Wonder’s Where I’m Coming From (and the later Music Of My Mind), it marked a departure away from the Motown hit machine – a kind of talent school / youth prison for both performers.

The big three Michael Jackson albums – Off The Wall, Thriller and Bad – are really the three pop albums of my childhood. My Dad was a big fan of his – introducing Thriller to me, and hungry for more I greedily consumer the two albums bookending it. Of the three it’s clearly the least adventurous – with one foot firmly placed in the disco camp, Michael isn’t a superstar yet but you can hear the DNA of his songwriting and melodies that would come to the fore on Thriller.

I would classify Off The Wall as ‘not quite enough’, Thriller as ‘perfect’ and Bad as ‘too much’. The three work great together to show his progression from a talented black singer to a white oddball superstar – and I loved every step of the journey. I could never get into his post-Bad material though; his version of reality went askew extremely rapidly and aside a few highlights like Scream with his sister Janet, I couldn’t really care less if he recorded anything after 1987.

I still miss his pop genius. There’s nobody who can write a bridge / middle eight with so much passion it makes it sound like he’s singing about the end of the world.

Hit: Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough

Hidden Gem: Off The Wall

Rocks In The Attic #336: Various Artists – ‘Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band (O.S.T.)’ (1978)

RITA#336The one person who should be stood up against a wall and shot for this travesty of an album is George Martin. In just eighty three minutes, Martin manages to avoid all traces of innovation he was known for in the previous decade, and produces an album full of schlocky middle-of-the-road Beatles covers. With very few exceptions, each song sounds like it was recorded with Murph and the Magictones (in the Armada Room at the Holiday Inn, “Quando Quando Quando…”).

I’ve never seen the film that this album soundtracks, and I don’t think I ever want to. I’ve seen the segment where Aerosmith perform Come Together on YouTube – the highlight of the album (and while you might think I would say that, being a diehard and unapologetic Aerosmith fan, Robert Christgau earmarked it at the time as being the best of a very bad bunch, along with Earth, Wind & Fire’s Got To Get You Into My Life); but the farcical stuff that was going on around Aerosmith, involving Frankie Howerd, was very hard to watch.

Who would ever want to listen to Donald Pleasance sing (or rather, say) I Want You (She’s So Heavy)? While Peter Sellers doing A Hard Day’s Night in the ‘60s raised a smile, this just sounds bad. And Frankie Howerd singing When I’m Sixty-Four and Mean Mr. Mustard? Are you fucking joking?

Just to make things ever worse, the album is one of those annoying ‘70s double albums where sides A and D are on one disc, and B and C share the other disc. I’m prepared to forgive certain double albums for this (Electric Ladyland, Songs In The Key Of Life, for example), but with this album being so unlistenable I really resent the inconvenience. Did anybody ever even see one of those turntables that would play this sequence of sides? I’m sure it was just a record company conspiracy to confuse stoned people in the 1970s: “Hey man, as well as being blind, Stevie Wonder doesn’t seem to be able to spell. What gives, dude?”

Hit: Got To Get You Into My Life – Earth, Wind & Fire

Hidden Gem: Get Back – Billy Preston

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 #249: John Coltrane – ‘Soultrane’ (1958)

RITA#249I like jazz. I like the word ‘jazz’. I like the instrumentation and musicianship. I like the fact that on a landmark jazz album, all of the players can play. I mean, really play. I like the fact that each musician gets to solo. I like the fact that the music played is mostly – if not always – impossibly cool. It’s the only true American art form, and the sound of it always brings to mind that other art form, that although not invented in America, was made an American institution – cinema.

The word ‘jazz’ means a lot to me. I probably first heard it as the name of an Autobot Porsche in Transformers (surely it isn’t a coincidence that one of the coolest Transformers was called Jazz?), and then no doubt it came onto my radar as the name of a musical genre, generally played by black musicians, that old people like to listen to.

More recently, seeing a jazz band play in a bar in Manchester – led by an extremely gifted guitarist – prompted me to stop playing guitar for a while (there was just no point when other people were that skilled). That minor infatuation with jazz in the mid-2000s then led to my most amusing association with the word jazz – watching a drunken Moo stagger around a late-night Amsterdam bar asking the clientele, in hushed tones, if they knew anywhere that he could get some hot jazz.

What I don’t like about jazz is the freneticism in playing that sometimes spoils the genre. Good Bait, the opening track off Soultrane, starts off really nicely. It swings like a motherfucker. But then Coltrane’s later passages, in which he tries to play every note under the sun as speedily as possible, really spoil the mood. I know he can play, but does he have to sound like he’s trying to blow an unwanted insect out of his saxophone? Whilst having a seizure?

And it isn’t just Coltrane. Miles Davis is the key suspect in this style of playing. I remember once reading an interview with a pre-fame Amy Winehouse (promoting her first album, Frank), where she claimed she had a hard time listening to Miles Davis because his music was so intense. I know exactly what she meant – but that didn’t stop a raft of complaints coming through to the letters page of the same publication the following month: How dare this young wannabe sully the name of the great Miles Davis? As if, once an artist is considered great, it becomes outrageous to claim anything to the contrary. Recently, a post on Stevie Wonder’s Talking Book prompted a reader to tell me that I wasn’t a Stevie Wonder fan – presumably because I mentioned in the post how I prefer Stevie’s upbeat, funky output to his dull-as-dishwater ballads. A pretty extensive Stevie Wonder collection in my record collection would point otherwise, but maybe I’m just holding onto these for a real Stevie Wonder fan, somebody without the nerve to have a preference or an opinion?

There’s an old joke I love, the subject of which you can interchange with any jazz bandleader, but I probably heard first about Ray Charles: That Ray Charles mustn’t pay his band very well, I caught two of his musicians in the toilet and they were so hard-up, they were sharing a cigarette!

Hit: Good Bait

Hidden Gem: I Want To Talk About You

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 #184: Red Hot Chili Peppers – ‘Mother’s Milk’ (1989)

RITA#184I still hold this up as a fantastic album, over Blood Sugar Sex Magik any day, and proof at just how much a band that was dangerously cutting-edge had descended into mediocrity and the middle of the road.

When I was first getting into music in the early ‘90s, the Chili Peppers were promoting Blood Sugar Sex Magik, and this was generally considered to be their masterpiece. There’s a raft of great songs on that album – but they really over-stretched themselves (the album has a running time of 74 minutes, which I think was one of the longest single albums around on CD at the time). Mother’s Milk, on the other hand, is far more compact. It’s their first album with John Frusciante and Chad Smith, and their choice (and subsequent performance) of covers – Hendrix’s Fire and Stevie Wonder’s Higher Ground is outstanding.

The only negative point I now hear in the album is one moment in the otherwise sublime Hendrix-esque Pretty Little Ditty, later used heavily as the sample in the song Butterfly, by one-hit wonder rock/rap act Crazy Town. The world needs fewer bands like Crazy Town, where image – tattoos and baseball caps – matters more than originality.

Of all the bands in the world playing to the masses in aircraft hangar-sized arenas, it’s the Chili Peppers I wish I could turn backwards. Nearly every other band at that level has had a generally understandable progression from where they came from, into what they are now, but the Chili Peppers are like a completely different band. They used to take risks – now they just write songs for rich American college kids. What a shame.

Hit: Knock Me Down

Hidden Gem: Johnny, Kick A Hole In The Sky