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.

Jackie Wilson – ‘The Soul Years’

I’d been a soul obsessive since picking up This Is Soul at Snu-Peas in 1981. Soul was the staple of my DJ set at Charivari, and intensified by my love of The Agency. By 1986 my ears had been focussed on the classic artists: Otis Redding, Aretha Franklin, Marvin Gaye, Sam & Dave, Wilson Pickett, Curtis Mayfield and James Brown. Also heavy on my turntable rotation was War & Peace by Edwin Starr, a glorious soul-stomper with hints of psychedelia that like Grease, had copious amounts of groove and meaning.

War & Peace also dipped into northern soul, and these tracks, plus the prompting of Pete Young guided me towards some new sounds and new labels. Pete made me a mixtape. They were a thing. The cassette was littered with northern soul classics and some stompers from the Kent label by the likes of Young Holt Unlimited and Johnny Otis, and best of all it turned me on to ‘Mr. Excitement’, the R&B and soul legend, Jackie Wilson.

My Top 5 all-time soul singers:

1. Jackie Wilson
2. Marvin Gaye
3. Aretha Franklin
4. Al Green
5. Otis Redding

Pete’s tape motivated me to check out a load of new, mostly northern soul singers, but it was Jackie Wilson’s The Soul Years that was my first post-tape purchase. Jackie Wilson is best known for the classic Higher and Higher and the 1957 single Reet Petite, a rock n roll staple nowhere to be seen on The Soul Years, which showcases Wilson’s vocal flair and prowess. Jackie Wilson’s stage performance was up there with the very best, but I was just blown away by the sincerity and sheer depth of soul on the likes of I’m The One To Do It, You Got Me Walking and the euphoric northern soul floor-filler, Because Of You.

Of the 16 tracks on Soul Galore, all but a few I’d play in a DJ set. But this was no ‘best of’. Jackie Wilson had huge success for ten years before these gems were recorded, but in 1966 he joined forces with Chicago soul producer Carl Davis, and began recording with Motown musicians including the legendary Funk Brothers. An absolute match made in heaven and this album is perfect proof. If there’s a singer who gives me goosebumps way beyond the norm, it’s Jackie Wilson. But on The Soul Years it’s the energy, the strings, the production, the songs, along side those stunning vocals. It’s all there. The complete package.

The Jam – ‘The Gift’

If I had to pick my favourite album by The Jam I’d have to go for All Mod Cons, but as a pre-pubescent 12-year old it came a few years too early. By 1982 and with my schooldays coming to an end, The Gift was The Jam’s sixth and final long-player and whilst not their finest, there were new sounds and new influences that felt fresh, leading to a voyage way beyond its eleven tracks.

Soul and Motown had already become regular visitors to my turntable, but The Gift introduced me to a whole new scene. I was about to discover northern soul. Weller was never shy of nicking a riff, and with Trans-Global Express he could be accused of daylight robbery. I had little knowledge of northern, and much less than that of World Column’s pounding So Is The Sun, but I, like many others I sourced Weller’s inspiration and used it as my own.

The Gift, in patches, was heavy on the funk, none more so than on Precious, a double A-side single with soul-stomper Town Called Malice and the band’s third UK No.1 single. With northern, funk and stabs of jazz appearing for the first time, it was an album less immediate than its predecessor Sound Affects, but more an exciting, eclectic mix of new, old sounds. Weller was clearly getting into his early mod roots, seeking out the jazz riffs and digging the French café culture. This was Weller’s first foray into a different kind of early 80s new romantic.

Whilst Weller was delving further into his mod roots and broadening The Jam’s sound he was still a master of writing a classic, and Carnation was up there with his best. Beautiful, inward looking and riddled with self-doubt, it struck a chord with my ever-growing shy and introverted softer side. Then, to counter that emotion I would crank up the volume to the max to bring in the album’s rousing finale, The Gift. Then I’d play it again, and again almost as if to instil its positive message and can do attitude to ward off my self-doubt and shyness. Not for the first time and certainly not the last Weller was shaping my outlook on life and the way I lived it.

“Move – move – I’ve got the gift of life
Can’t you see it in the twinkle of my eye
I can’t stand up and I can’t sit down
I gotta keep movin’ – I gotta keep movin’
All the time that gets wasted hating
Why don’t you move together and make your heart feel better”

– The Gift

The Who – ‘Quadrophenia’

Emotionally, as a soon to turn 16 year-old, my internal thoughts, insecurities and voyage of discovery were just about to go into overdrive. The usual teenage dramas were prominent, fuelled and fanned by the music and lyrics that I was consuming daily with fevered gusto. Over thirty years on and I would say with some certainty that the one album that has done more to develop and change, to challenge and question, to confuse and ultimately to inspire me is Quadrophenia, The Who’s glorious homage to the Mod scene of the 1960s and Pete Townshend’s story of Jimmy’s own tortuous voyage of discovery.

I wasn’t and never have been a Mod, but emotionally, musically and stylistically I felt a connection, a solid bond, initially through The Jam and ensuing influences, but primarily through Quadrophenia, the film and this incredible album. By the time I saw the film I’d developed a love of soul, motown and much of the mod influenced sixties. Watching, and then listening to Quadrophenia was musically majestic, from the sound of the first waves crashing and Entwhistle’s thunderous bass, but emotionally it acted as a catalyst for an introspective discovery that I was already struggling to keep pace with. I devoured it. It challenged me, changed me and for all the questions it asked, it gave me an identity and in Jimmy a character to empathise with and to be inspired by.

67_quadrophenia

Lyrically the album is full of confusion, of inner turmoil and insecurities. It’s about fitting in and the journey into adulthood, from the mind of a troubled soul, disillusioned by society, by people and friends he was desperate to identify with and gain respect from. At times it’s heartbreaking, at others brilliantly provocative, and as a shy 16 year-old wannabe cool-kid exactly what I wanted from an album.

Why do I have to be different to them? Just to earn the respect of a dance hall friend. We have the same old row, again and again. Why do I have to move with a crowd of kids that hardly notice I’m around? I have to work myself to death just to fit in. – ‘Cut My Hair’

Girls of fifteen sexually knowing, the ushers are sniffing eau-de-cologning. The seats are seductive, celibate sitting. Pretty girls digging, prettier women. – ‘5:15’

And amongst the angst, at times it was simply beautiful…

The beach is a place where a man can feel he’s the only soul in the world that’s real. – ‘Bell Boy’

Only love can make it rain the way the beach is kissed by the sea. Only love can make it rain like the sweat of lovers laying in the fields. – ‘Love Reign O’er Me’

The music is as affecting and constantly stimulating as the lyrics. From gentle strings and atmospheric coastal sound waves, into synthesised head-fucks and thunderous, climactic melodic orgasms. And Roger’s screaming… pleading, searching. The combination of Moon and Entwhistle’s monstrous rhythms and Townshend’s screeching guitars has never been more dynamic and impactful, whilst the perfect use of synths and sound effects adds depth and theatre.

If there is essential listening for a 16 year-old, this is it. Fuck X-Factor and The Voice, fuck Miley fucking Cyrus, fuck Justin Bieber and Wrong Direction. Fuck piss-weak manufactured bullshit… stick Quadrophenia on your ipod and go on a beautiful, intense and all-consuming departure from mindless banality into your real, emotional inner-self. Be inspired.