It took me a long while to get to Stevie Wonder. When I was growing up everything I ever heard of his in the charts was just so lightweight and schmaltzy* and his earlier Motown stuff just wasn’t my thing. In fact I didn’t even remotely consider him until I learned that the, ‘Get in that cell, nigger!’ line sampled at the beginning of my fave Public Enemy track came from him and then I discovered ‘Superstition’ and bought Talking Book and a couple of others from his classic period.
Just a quick pause for thought, Stevie Wonder was 22 years old when Talking Book was released. It was his 15th album.
Anyhow, right from the off Talking Book hits me up with contradictory doo-dahs. I love that incredibly funky sound of the Fender Rhodes on ‘You Are The Sunshine Of My Life’ and the rich warmth of the production BUT it all sounds a bit, well, bossa nova easy listening to me – I hear it and I see Hollywood montage shots of couples driving along coast roads and sipping Mai Tais at a beachfront bar. Hey, I do understand that he practically invented all this but I always skip straight to track 2.
… and who wouldn’t when that second track is as blindingly excellent as ‘Maybe Your Baby’, just short of 7 minutes of absolute genius ripped up towards the end by Ray Parker Jr’s guitaring^. As a Welshman I am inherently funky and this ticks all my boxes. The Moog bass and Hohner Clavinet sound is nothing short of incredible, apparently they used to multi-multi track it to build up to that sound. What I also particularly dig is all Wonder’s backing vocals where he appears to have altered the pitch and tone of his voice, I was quite surprised to read that there were no female backing singers on this one; a diminutive purple man in Minneapolis was surely making notes. Best of all for me though is the gnawing doubt and vulnerability that lurks beneath the strut here, I do like a touch of bitters in my glass:
I’m feelin’ down and some kind of lonely,
Cause’ my baby done left me here,
Heart’s blazing like a five alarm fire
And I don’t even give a care
I feel like the world is turnin’ on me,
My dreams turnin’ to ashes right in front of my face,
And I’m gettin’ kind of worried,
And I feel so out of place,
Maybe your baby done made some other plans,
Maybe your baby done made some other plans
Again at the risk of having to go into hiding with my family to escape the vengeful Wonder Massive I’m afraid the next couple of tracks really don’t jiggle my jigglys, or at least not until we reach side closer ‘You’ve Got It Bad Girl’. There’s something delightfully wrong and even cleverly off-key in places here, the melody plays with you never quite going where you think it should, a semitone or so off. I have absolutely no idea at all what a T.O.N.T.O synthesizer is (kemo sabe) but this one gets tinkled to great effect here.
But the big shot on Talking Book for me will always be ‘Superstitious’, a song which just hits the 1537 description of perfection – there’s absolutely nothing you could add, or takeaway from ‘Superstition’ to make it any better at all. I simply can’t sit still with this song playing, not at all – surely no-one can? best of all, the rhythm is so idiosyncratic and strong that it dictates the way you dance and roll to it too. Proof? just try not to wiggle your shoulders when that horn section cuts in. Maybe it’s just my Welsh blood coming to the boil (yet) again. I was rather intrigued to learn that Jeff beck had more than a slight hand in the genesis of the track too, although he doesn’t play on the Talking Book version, or get any writing credit at all^^.
One of the most intriguing tracks is ‘Big Brother’ where, from what I can tell, Stevie Wonder invents the Godawful reality TV show of the same name twenty years before it hit our screens. True story. Witness: ‘Your name is big brother / You say that you’re watching me on the tele’. He does go a bit over the top: ‘You’ve killed all our leaders / I don’t even have to do nothin’ to you / You’ll cause your own country to fall’, I don’t remember that in the programme Stevie! It is almost as though Mr Wonder sees the TV bosses as running some kind of nationwide dystopia, remotely controlling the whole populace. Hmm, Kinda reminds me of a book I read once … you know, the one with Lenny Kravitz in … The Hunger Games, that’s it. It’s a really good change of pace, a bit of salt in the sugar bowl, I know I’m a hopeless case, brim-full of adolescent rage, but I like songs with an edge of anger to them, especially when sung as sweetly as this.
Then just to completely contradict myself, because that’s the kinda guy I am, I do really rather like the LP closer because it’s a bit smooch and heartfelt, ‘I Believe (When I Fall In Love It Will Be Forever)’. It manages to stay very contemporary sounding, no mean feat after 43 years – hell, I’m the same age and my production sounds very dated these days.
Blasphemous it may be but I do have to say, still, that I can’t give all my love to Stevie. There are times that I can just stop swimming against the current and happily let myself get washed downstream on his funky muse, but I do occasionally still founder on the rocks of his sentimentality. Actually, I suspect that its simply the case that I’m just a soulless rockboy spending my time looking for cheap thrills and Mr Wonder reminds me of decades of proper grown-up emotion and feeling that I’ve walled up inside myself to die. Maybe. Nobody ever made a Hohner Clavinet sound that good again though.
*’Ebony & Ivory’ I’m calling you out here!**
**ok, I know he didn’t write it, but bear with me, I believe in guilt by association.
^yup, that one.
^^although he does get to spank his plank on the gloopy ‘Looking For Another Pure Love’.