Songs In The Key Of Life
MusicRadar’s second Classic Album Of The Month is widely regarded as one of the greatest ever recorded. And with its creator about to hit Worthy Farm, Pilton, what better time to revisit it?
The story goes that Songs In The Key Of Life is an album that nearly didn’t get made. In 1975, Stevie Wonder was reported to be seriously considering leaving the music industry to go and work with handicapped children in Ghana; a noble idea, certainly, but surely few who’ve heard his double-LP (plus bonus EP) opus would deny that philanthropy’s loss was very much music’s gain.
Prior to completing Songs’, Wonder’s contract with Motown was up and, according to label boss Berry Gordy, it took $13 million of his company’s money to make him sign a new one. Gordy initially baulked at having to pay what, at the time, was a huge sum, but was quickly appeased after the album’s much-delayed release. It debuted at number one in the Billboard chart on 8 October 1976, spent 13 consecutive weeks there and went on to sell over ten million copies in the US the following year.
Looking back, Songs In The Key Of Life marks a pivotal point in Wonder’s career. It turned out to be the last in a series of classic ‘70s albums (following Music of My Mind, Talking Book, Innervisions and Fulfillingness’ First Finale) and simultaneously heralded the arrival of a patchier period. Suffice to say, its 1979 follow up Stevie Wonder's Journey Through The Secret Life of Plants is unlikely to be featured in our Classic Album series any time soon, and there are moments during Songs In The Key Of Life when the schmaltzier side of Stevie that would frustrate fans during the ‘80s starts to rear its saccharine head.
But this is an album about all that life has to offer, so perhaps it’s fitting that we take the rough with the smooth. The highs, when they come, are still incredible, and the fact that Stevie’s Glastonbury set on Sunday is likely to draw heavily on Songs’ tracklisting is testament to its quality.
We’ll be following the original double-LP running order for our track-by-track review, turning to the A Something’s Extra EP (which was included as a bonus disc) at the end. Let's get started...
Love's In Need Of Love Today
If there’s one consistent lyrical theme that runs through Stevie Wonder’s music, it’s that we should look after each other. And so it is here: following the semi-choral opening, Stevie’s trusty Fender Rhodes kicks in and he plays the messenger: love’s in danger, and only you and everyone else can save it.
Funk Brother Eddie ‘Bongo’ Brown pops up with some percussion, but otherwise, it’s a Wonder-only performance, including the playing of the phased Clavinet. Funky on Superstition and Higher Ground, the instrument adds another touch of sweetness here.
Have A Talk With God
While the preceding song sounds like it came from the church, this one attempts to take you there. Only God, says Stevie, has the answers.
Whether you believe that or not, you have to admire the easy flow of the melody. Like so many of Wonder’s songs, this one feels like its composition took no effort at all and just flowed out of him fully formed, though it should be said that Songs In The Key Of Life was actually two and a half years in the making and the result of round-the-clock studio sessions.
Stevie plays everything, including the chirruping chromatic harmonica parts.
Village Ghetto Land
Village Ghetto Land marks the first appearance of Songs In The Key Of Life’s second star: Yamaha’s GX-1.
Produced between 1974 and 1977, less than 10 of these super-huge, super-expensive polyphonic synths were ever made, and Stevie’s had a profound effect on Songs’ sound. Instead of having to layer-up monophonic synth lines, he was able to create complex arrangements in one take.
The stately orchestral-style strings here are a case in point, and are brilliant juxtaposed with Shatema Byrd’s doom-laden lyrics. Byrd spent three months writing what he believed was the full song, and when he phoned it in, Stevie loved it. However, Wonder quickly called back and casually told Byrd that he’d forgotten to mention that’d he’d planned another verse - could he write lyrics for that and get them back to him in ten minutes?
Such demands weren’t unusual during the making of the album, leading some collaborators to remark that, when they were working with Stevie, the clock was set to ‘Wonder Time’.
The first band performance of the album is a blistering, Steely Dan-esque instrumental workout on which Stevie’s musicians are let off the leash.
There’s more than a whiff of jazz-funk/fusion here - if your favourite Stevie Wonder number is I Just Called To Say I Love You, look away now (in fact, just go away) - but its writer’s pop sensibilities ensure that it remains thoroughly listenable, and there’s some fine lead guitar playing from Mike Sembello.
Like some other tracks on Songs’, Contusion was written some time before the album was recorded. If you’re looking for evidence, check out this gritty live performance, which is said to date from 1973.
If Contusion was the sound of Stevie’s band warming up, Sir Duke captures them fully engaged. It’s a joyous celebration of not just the greats of jazz (Duke Ellington being the ‘Sir’ in question), but music itself.
It’s a fun-filled romp throughout: from the opening horn riff through to the hook-loaded chorus and sing-along breakdown. Sir Duke got hit single written all over it, so it’s hardly surprising that it topped the US charts in 1977. As Wonder prepares for his headline Glastonbury appearance, it must be comforting to know that he’s got material like this in his locker.
Interestingly, Sir Duke was recorded on both 16- and 24-track machines - Stevie wanted to hear which sounded better. It was the 24-track version that eventually made the album.
I Wish picks up where Sir Duke left off - indeed, the two songs frequently segue into each other during Stevie’s live shows.
We’re in altogether funkier territory here, though. To get things going, Nathan Watts’ walking bass is matched note for note by Stevie’s Rhodes, and then three separately recorded staccato Arp synth parts join the fray. By the time the drums drop, you realise that you’re listening to one of the finest grooves in popular music - something Will Smith knew only too well - and one of Stevie’s greatest songs to boot.
The lyric sees Stevie taking a nostalgic, rose-tinted look back at his childhood; his ‘wish’ - that he could go back to those days - is one that was bound to resonate with record-buyers. Choosing this as Songs in the Key of Life’s lead single was surely a no-brainer and, predictably, it was a chart-topper.
For those listening to the album in its entirety, the only downside is that, just a quarter of the way through, its high watermark has already been reached.
Knocks Me Off My Feet
No Stevie Wonder album would be complete without a picture postcard ballad - indeed, some have more than their fair share - and this is one of Songs’.
Some writers spend a lifetime trying to craft a song like this, but Stevie seems able to knock them up at will. This one is notable for its “I don’t want to bore you with it” refrain and clever ‘musical tumble’ that accompanies the moment when Wonder is knocked from his feet (cutely, it’s even noted in the lyric sheet that comes with the album).
One of Songs in the Key of Life’s key tracks, and another on which Yamaha’s GX-1 features prominently. Like Village Ghetto Land, Pastime Paradise encourages the world to get its act together, yet it has a haunting lilt that suggests Stevie knows he’s fighting a losing battle.
Wonder was shooting for an Eleanor Rigby vibe with the synthesized strings, and originally recorded a straighter version with drums. However, he eventually decided to go with percussion only - cowbells, congas and stick ‘claps’.
The result is a Latin feel, with the incessant Hare Krishna bells serving as an eerie accompaniment. Their players also chant towards the end, before a gong indicates that time has run out - not only for the song, but perhaps also for us. After this was added, Stevie decided that he’d like a reversed version to appear at the start of the song - listen out for it just before the vocal begins.
A signature Stevie mid-tempo ballad: this would have fitted on any of his classic albums. You’ve got the Moog bassline, rising key changes towards the end and soaring vocal.
Lyrically, it’s fluffy - and the tweeting birds in the intro might be considered a step too far - but additional musical interest comes courtesy of Ronnie Foster’s fine organ work.
It’s a song of two halves, Brian - in fact, it even says as much on the lyric sheet.
Part one almost feels like it could have come off the Motown production line (something that Stevie spent the ‘70s moving away from), as Stevie bemoans the ending of a relationship and confides that the pain he’s feeling is anything but ordinary. Backing vocals come courtesy of Minnie Riper ton, Mary Lee Whitney and Syreeta Wright, Stevie’s ex-wife (they married in 1970 but divorced in 1972).
Part two gives the girl her right to reply and, over a funky synthesized bassline, she (Shirley Brewer) doesn’t hold back. “You’re cryin big crocodile tears/Don’t match the ones I’ve cried for years,” is just one of many barbs thrown in Stevie’s direction. Ouch.
Isn't She Lovely
If you write a song about your daughter called Isn’t She Lovely, accusations of cloying sentimentality are bound to follow, but you’d have to be a pretty cynical and cold-hearted being not to smile along with Stevie as he celebrates the birth of little Aisha.
It’s a common misconception that the baby crying at the start of the song is Stevie’s eldest daughter, but it’s actually a different newborn. However, the gurgling child who you can hear Stevie chatting to is Aisha.
The lengthy harmonica solo takes the running time of this one out to 6:34 - Motown wanted to release the song as a single edit (radio’s eagerness to play it suggested that it would have been another number one), but Stevie said no.
Joy Inside My Tears
Whereas much of Songs in the Key of Life skips along, Joy Inside My Tears feels a little like it has its legs stuck in treacle. If you were trying to edit the tracklisting down to single album length, it’s reasonable to suggest that this is one of the songs that would be culled.
That said, it’s by no means a failure; the synths feel like they have the breadth of an orchestra at times, which, given the technology Stevie was working with, is impressive. Herbie Hancock has said that one of Wonder’s great talents is that he doesn’t try and make synths sound acoustic and instead lets them be what they are (ie, not real). He’s right.
A slice of taught funk that celebrates not just the achievements of black men, but those of all races. Once again, the message is that we’re all equal and that “This world was made for all”.
Check out the bassline, which sounds sequenced but was actually recorded in real-time. The flanging on the toms (and other instruments), meanwhile, comes via Marshall’s Time Modulator, another toy that Stevie and engineers John Fischbach and Gary Olazabal were playing with at the time (a plug-in version from Intelligent Devices was released in 2009, if you’re interested).
The questions and answers at the end come from the teachers and students of All Fann Theatrical Ensemble in Harlem, New York.
Ngiculela - Es Una Historia - I Am Singing
Ngiculela - Es Una Historia - I Am Singing gets its title from the three vocal sections that are in Zulu, Spanish and English. There’s a bit of Latin swing here and some rhythmic broken synth chords help to keep things pulsing along.
It’s only in the last half that the song really comes alive though, as Stevie takes his vocal up an octave and the “I am singing/Let’s start singing” refrains soar. Wonder pulled the same trick on Don't You Worry 'bout a Thing, from 1973’s Innervisions, but it’s a good one, showing off his impressive range, so we won’t begrudge him using it again.
If It's Magic
Songs’ most delicate moment is a charming ballad with shifting time signatures. Magic, in this case, is love, but Stevie didn’t want to use the word again so chose something different.
The arrangement makes the song: If It’s Magic was composed and originally recorded with Stevie at the piano, but he later decided to let harpist Dorothy Ashby, who he considered much underrated, take over, and her playing takes the song somewhere almost heavenly.
Strangely, though, the harmonica outro sounds like a piece of incidental music from just-cancelled geriatric Brit-com Last of the Summer Wine.
Vintage Stevie, this, with an easy-going melody in the verses, classic call and response chorus and gripping post-chorus bridge. Herbie Hancock plays keyboards, and also helps out with the background handclaps.
There’s a real swagger and confidence about As, which just keeps building and, as befits a song that’s about a man professing his love for all eternity, occasionally feels like it’s going to go on forever. George Michael and Mary J. Blige’s 1999 cover is respectful enough, but in trying to add more groove, somehow manages to lose it.
The album proper closes with a big production that has an Afro-disco feel (it actually reached number 2 on Billboard’s Dance/Disco chart).
Arrangement-wise, it feels like a kitchen sink job, which is appropriate given the song’s grand finale status. George Benson pops up on rhythm guitar and backing vocals, while jazz flautist Bobbi Humphrey plays us out with a solo that would make Ron Burgundy proud. Elsewhere, there are horns, percussion, and a sense that Songs in the Key of Life is refusing to go quietly.
A Something’s Extra EP: Side one
It’s not clear how it was decided which tracks would be ‘relegated’ to Songs’ companion EP, but surely Saturn was unlucky not to be considered worthy of a place on the main record.
This space-age ballad paints our Solar System’s second-largest planet in a utopian light - the place to escape all the misery we’ve created on Earth. A triumphant synth line heralds the start of the song, taking us into a regal march that’s part celebratory, part funereal.
But of course, the song was never actually intended to be about Saturn at all. Stevie played a version of it to eventual lyricist Mike Sembello in which he sang about going back to Saginaw, Michigan; Sembello misheard it as Saturn, so went away and wrote a song about that. With all due respect to the good people of Saginaw, we’re glad he did.
Barroom piano meets the vocoder in this curious song that’s akin to a quasi-futuristic Knees-up Mother Brown.
Stevie bangs away on his honky-tonk, there’s a sax solo from the appropriately named Jim Horn, and Flying Burrito Brother Peter “Sneaky Pete” Kleinow lends his steel guitar skills. It’s a bit of a hotchpotch, but you sense fun being had in the studio, and it’s easy to be drawn into it.
All Day Sucker
A Something’s Extra EP: Side two
All Day Sucker is arguably the most downright funky thing to come off the whole of Songs’, though the stop-start rhythm and vocal-tracking bassline mean that it’s not exactly danceable.
It’s all about the Clavinets here, and the Marshall Time Modulator gets another showing, too.
Easy Goin' Evening (My Mama's Call)
Stevie’s opus closes with an instrumental that features a heavily chorused/flanged Fender Rhodes, Nathan Watts’ laid-back bassline and multi-tracked harmonica.
Though it’s pretty enough, you’d be hard-pushed to call this a highlight; in fact, it almost feels like the main event and encores are over, the lights have been turned on and they’re playing the music that tells you it’s time to go home.
Songs in the Key of Life is regarded by many as Stevie Wonder’s finest album, and there’s plenty on it to justify that claim. Others, however, see it as an over-indulgence - the tracklisting could be shorter, and the running times’ of certain songs seem excessive. When you compare Songs’ with the shorter, more focused albums that preceded it, you can’t help but think that the critics’ points are valid.
But ultimately, it’s a triumph - the work of a man at the peak of his powers. In hindsight, there’s a tinge of sadness that it would never get this good again (though the school of thought that says Stevie hasn’t done anything of note since 1976 lacks credibility), but when you’ve achieved greatness on this level, it’s almost impossible to sustain.
Liked this? Now check out Stevie Wonder turns 60!
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