Stevie Wonder – ‘Songs In The Key Of Life’

Stevie Wonder. Where do you start? I think I remember my first vinyl purchase was The Jazz Soul of Little Stevie. At 12 years-old Little Stevie Wonder was an absolute dude, shining like a star on drums, bongos, keyboard and harmonica. Having binged on soul and Motown for a few years, I was totally aware of Stevie’s genius, and had worn out the grooves on Looking Back, his triple LP anthology that was a thorough compilation of ‘60s Stevie. Next was another comp, Original Musiquarium I, which upped the ante, showcasing his golden era during the ‘70s. But still the best was yet to come.

Songs In The Key Of Life was Stevie’s masterpiece. Preceded in the ‘70s by four absolute classic albums, it was an almost impossible ask to go one better, but Songs In The Key Of Life is more than an album, it’s a work of art, a visceral musical discovery, a perfect illumination into melody and musicality. Two years in the making, Stevie was still just 26 years old when it was released, and whilst the likes of George Benson, Herbie Hancock and dozens of jazz and soul musicians contributed, this was totally Stevie, having written, arranged and composed everything and performed more than one man should ever be capable.

Songs In The Key Of Life covers the same kaleidoscopic range of musical styles and it does human emotions, but you’re never in doubt as to Stevie’s sentiment; an appeal for love and humanity in a world of growing inequality and injustice. Stevie is at his absolute best in all senses. I Wish, Sir Duke and As show Stevie at his funkiest and most soulful, but whatever the song or style here it’s sense of joy and grace are completely overwhelming. Love is ever present, and whilst the whole double-album is an uplifting euphonic rollercoaster, I remember the LP one, side two just blew me away, and hey, Stevie’s drums are the highlight, oozing effortless soul.

Now, I Wish is a stone cold classic, and Summer Soft is an absolute beauty but I just couldn’t get enough of Knocks Me Off My Feet. There are three tracks on the album on which Stevie plays everything, and this is one.

“I see us in the park
Strolling the summer days of imaginings in my head
And words from our hearts
Told only to the wind felt even without being said
I don’t want to bore you with my trouble
But there’s sumptin’ about your love
That makes me weak and
Knocks me off my feet”

I love everything about this song, but what killed me was Stevie’s drumming; it feels like he’s making love to the hi-hat, caressing it with such perfect subtlety… “I don’t wanna bore you with it oh but I love you, I love you, I love you”. Oh Stevie, you got me.

Songs In The Key Of Life was, and still is one of my all-time favourite albums. There are artists who inspire you to become a better person simply through their music. Stevie Wonder does that more than any other.

Elvis Costello – live at Glastonbury CND Festival 1987

I’ve been to the Glastonbury Festival twice, first in 1987 and again in 1990. 1987 brings back much better memories due to the music, the sheer excitement and the love I felt amongst 60,000 mud-soaked revellers, in particular my comrades and fellow peacenicks, Gary and Simon. The latter supplied the transport. A 2CV. A cool choice, even when being gang-pushed up a muddy hill upon exit. In ’87 it was still the Glastonbury CND Festival, by ’90 the acronym was dropped, and that year I have no magical musical memories, although I do remember the Happy Mondays being shit and our total festival hash fund being wasted (not in a good way) on day one. That lump of rubber looked so real!

It intermittently lashed down both years, but the mud was nothing compared to the memory of the gut-wrenching stench emanating from the trenched pits of piss and crap (see shit pic below). On the plus side, in ’87 we parked a few hundred metres directly in front of the Pyramid Stage, just because we could. I was yet to discover the magnificence of Van Morrison, so he passed me by, but I loved World Party’s album, Private Revolution. Karl Wallinger radiated much needed warmth and positivity, with Ship Of Fools sounding like a glorious stream of sunshine as the rain fell relentlessly. Julian Cope was at it too, aboard his climbing frame mic, rocking out World Shut Your Mouth, Trampolene and Teardrop’s Bouncing Babies.

toilets-glasto

So, Elvis Costello. We were fans. I owned Armed Forces and Get Happy and he was clearly an all round dude de force having produced The Specials’ iconic debut album. I played him plenty at Charivari and of all the acts playing at Glastonbury, he was the only one not to be missed. Here’s what I remember. He played solo, a mixture of classics and albums tracks, including a spine-tingling version of Shipbuilding. Mostly acoustic, never less than totally captivating he finished after about ninety minutes. A great gig, almost worthy of the entry money alone.

Encore one. Encore two. Encore three! A boombox assisted Pump It Up / Sign Of The Times mash-up. I’d have very happily walked away there. But, behind Elvis were large drapes covering the width of the stage. He pulled a cord, the curtains parted, and there were the Attractions who immediately launched into Oliver’s Army! What’s the sound of about 30,000 people deliriously gobsmacked? Oliver’s Army was followed by an hour or more of full band action, including Watching The Detectives and climaxing with Instant Karma. Three hours of pure joy.

I loved Elvis Costello’s early stuff, Spike in ’89 was a big favourite, and ten years later came my most played Elvis album, his stunning collaboration with Burt Bacharach, Painted From Memory. An absolute masterpiece of classic songwriting. But, that evening, THAT moment as the band appeared and that classic piano intro kicked in… Oliver’s Army will always mean Glastonbury 1987.

Pink Floyd – ‘Wish You Were Here’

The Wall was my Pink Floyd debut, and I loved it; dark, disturbing, intense and beautiful in equal measures, albeit a bit of a slog. More Floyd had to come, and it was probably Wish You Were Here before Dark Side Of The Moon simply due to what was in the racks at Snu-Peas on a particular day. The Piper At The Gates Of Dawn was also imminent too, but that’s a whole different kettle of far-out fish. Now, there are albums that simply have to be listened to in their entirety to be fully appreciated, with headphones on, eyes closed and mind open. Wish You Were Here is a perfect example.

With Syd Barrett seemingly ever present, the album is heavy with emotion. The effect of repeat listening was intense. The deeper you sank into its expanse, the more impelling and sensorial it become. Like a drug, and with this one the more the better. It demanded discovery. Scathing of the music industry that chewed and spat out Syd Barrett, it’s Wish You Were Here and Shine On You Crazy Diamond that cut the deepest; pure musical paradise with Gilmour’s guitar crying above a myriad of vocal and textural layers. Absolute heaven.

Well into my teens I had a dislike of synths in music, the blame for which sits squarely on the shoulders of the new romantics. As a youngster I needed music that hit me emotionally. I needed REAL music; nothing fake, I felt and needed passion and sincerity and so the synth pop bands of the late ‘70s and early ‘80s earned my blanket disapproval. It’s okay to be musically naïve through your teens, and thankfully over the years my mind and senses opened, and listening to Wish You Were Here was a huge part of that realisation. How could I dislike synths when they could be used so beautifully, creatively and yes, emotionally?

Wish You Were Here is a gut-wrenching homage to Syd Barrett. It’s four men pouring their hearts out. It’s deeply evocative, soulful and Pink Floyd’s second best album. Dark Side Of The Moon was next for me and would just nudge this from the Floyd’s musical summit. Just. It took me to be 20 years old to be able to put on my big boy trousers and love and obsess over an album heavy on electronics. That said, it’s Gilmour’s guitars and the impassioned vocals and sentiment that make Wish You Were Here a work of absolute genius.