The Classics Series:
Stevie Wonder- Innervisions
IT is amazing to look at today’s musicians and see how many…
were inspired by Stevie Wonder. I say ‘were’- he is, luckily, still with us; ignore my bad grammar- but his influence is felt to the current-day. I get tired of bands/artists are citing the same inspirations: The U.S. Indie-Rock groups and classic Pop bands. When presented with such a task- putting on an original spin (into a review) for a group with little originality- it always makes the shoulders shrug. I feel as though there is that over-dependence to fit into a ‘mould’: Some pre-mandated bar graph set-out by the record companies and mainstream radio. Occasionally- and I mean that in bold type- you see artists that are unique and have their own voice. These musicians have quality and a real drive to differentiate themselves from the crowd. My hat goes out to them, for sure: You do not find many new musicians that are confident enough to push against the tyranny of mediocrity.
Setting aside these quarrels- I didn’t even touch on the mainstream Pop music of Zayn, for instance- and there is potential to be found. Soul is a genre that finds its way into all corners of music. In the ‘60s and ‘70s, it had its own genre: We all know the artists and legends that made it what it was. Today, music has developed and evolved, somewhat. Soul is not confined in its own right: It can be mixed with Pop, Rock and Indie; dash of Electronica and Folk, perhaps? That essential Soul core is a potent spirit: When infused with other components: It can elicit a heady and head-spinning reaction. If you think about the ‘other’ Soul greats of the past- James Brown, Marvin Gaye; Aretha Franklin etc. - their voices are still being heard in today’s artists. Stevie Wonder is a musician who seems to occupy his own throne- in the Soul genre. I am a big fan of Brown and Franklin- two of the most powerful voices that have ever lived- yet Stevie Wonder (in my view) tops them both. Since the early’-60s- Wonder’s first few albums were met with muted appreciation- this rare and phenomenal voice came to be.
Stevie Wonder is an artist whose most-celebrated albums did not arrive until fairly late on- well into the teens by the early-‘70s- but that is not to say there was little promise. Up-Tight- released in 1966- saw Wonder tackle Bob Dylan (Blowin’ in the Wind) alongside his own compositions (or songs he wrote with others). It was at this point Wonder threw off his ‘Little Stevie’ tag- his moniker in the early days; given his sweetness and tender years- and was developing into a mature song-writing proposition. By the early-‘70s, Wonder was hitting his stride and throwing off the past: Blossoming into a wonderful voice with few equals. Signed, Sealed & Delivered was a 1970-produced album that was celebrated by critics of the time. Not every number lived up to the promise of the title track- which Wonder co-wrote- which is not to say (the album itself) was flawed- far from it, in fact. Breaking out of Motown boundaries- Wonder starting to cross boundaries and show his diversity- the album signalled a statement of intent.
Talking Book was released in 1972 and signalled yet ANOTHER step forward. No doubting how assured Wonder was by this point. The U.S. legend had critics in his hand and was already chiselling his name in the history books. Aside from a few songs- four of the ten- Talking Book was a Wonder-written original. Less inclined to tackle others’ songs- although he could own and transform any track- Wonder was wholly confident with his own vision. In the 1970s, it was assumed Soul and R ‘n’ B artist were incapable of cross-genre appeal: Making music that appealed to Rock and Punk audiences. If music suffered some sonic segregation- snootiness and elitism among the risklessness- Wonder broke walls down and inspired change. Talking Book was a sleek, richly-textured and ambitious work that brimmed with confidence, hits and genius. You Are the Sunshine of My Life became Wonder’s third number one in the U.S.: It was Grammy-nominated (Best Male Pop Vocal Performance; it would go on to win that award) and opened the album with pure heart and beauty. Considered one of the greatest songs ever- as assertion that many publications share- it was not the best song on Talking Book- showing just what quality was on display. Superstition is the song everyone remembers from that time. It was a Grammy-nominated bedfellow- the song picked up two awards: Best Male R&B Vocal and Best R&B Song. Jeff Beck- an admirer of Wonder’s work- collaborated on this track and inspired its creation. Beck originally came up with the opening drum beat- on the recorded version, Wonder plays the part- and the two would create the first demo of Superstition. Originally, Beck was going to release the song- for his group Beck, Boggert and Aprice- but knowing this song would be huge, Wonder released it. The rest, they say, is a cliché.
The ebullience and passion (of the songs) were hotly-received by listeners and critics. It was at this juncture, Wonder- more sternly than ever- mixed societal issues alongside love songs. In previous albums- and common for Motown/Soul albums- Wonder’s love songs fitted into templates and expectations. More simplistic and well-worn- samey platitudes and easy-to-digest familiarities- Talking Book saw personal insight and experience come into the music. Wonder’s songs looked the potential and conception of love- being as potent as love itself- and addressed political themes. Big Brother eviscerated politicians who puppeteered the social underclass in order to obtain votes: The nefariousness of electioneering at the time (and today for that matter). Talking Book’s thematic bravery- heartache and love sitting alongside stories of societal ills- was give colour and variation by a range of performers- Jeff Beck added guitars to Lookin’ For Another Pure Love; Ray Parker Jr. appeared on Maybe Your Baby. All of this- the wonderful songs and confidence- set the stage for 1973’s finest album.
Innervisions arrived and took the music world by storm. The 16th album from Wonder: It was another progressive step that saw societal themes fully embraced and represented. The nine-track album ranges from drug abuse and drug abuse; systemic racism and a presidential attack- upon then-president, Richard Nixon. The A.R.P. synthesiser- used by a host of musicians at the time- was employed throughout the album: Giving the songs a range of sounds and textures. Innervisions was the album that saw Wonder take full control: The instrumentation and musical direction is almost all his. Few other bodies and players can be heard throughout Innervisions: It is very much a Stevie Wonder solo album, cut and dry. It is hardly a coincident Innervisions sounds completely natural and personal. Wonder’s maturity and social consciousness- his spirituality and devotion to God- was channelled into an album that remains one of the greatest creations in music history. TONTO synth inventor Malcolm Cecil- who worked with Wonder throughout Innervisions- recalls the experience and day-to-day recording process. Speaking with Wax Poetics- in 2013: 40 years after the album’s release- Cecil explained how everyone was on “Stevie time”. Wonder would arrive when he felt like it- whilst Cecil and producers would jot down ideas and prepare tracks- and there were no strict deadlines and demands- no record bosses tutting and demanding time scales. Because of Wonder’s limitations- his blindness meant he could not read lyrics during recording- Cecil would read/talk the lyrics to Wonder. On a couple of spots on Innervisions, you can hear Cecil’s direction: Headphone leakage was a problem they tried to mix out (unsuccessfully). Cecil was conscious- between History Book and Innervisions- and influential in expanding Wonder’s lyrical direction. Encouraging the singer to become more socially conscious and deeper: The two would chat about Eastern philosophy and the Federal Reserve. Perhaps it was Cecil’s influence- or Wonder angered by the political turmoil of the time- but Innervisions is one of the most direct and conscientious albums of the time. Wonder ensured love mixed alongside accusation in a varied and deep masterpiece.
Too High- originally called Too High to Touch the Sky- is a cautionary tale of drug-taking and recreational abuse. With Stevie playing the harmonicas- and doing all the lead vocals- female singers were brought in to provide backing. On a sixteen-track recorder- where only one track remained free- you get layers of voices and building chords. It is Wonder’s interpretation and instincts that push the song to rare heights. Although (the likes of) Cecil was providing suggestions: Wonder’s natural intuition ensured Too High kicked Innervisions off with an immense bang. Living for the City talks about the stark realities of city life. Electric piano, Moog bass, harps and drums mixed with Wonder’s voice in an extraordinary musical moment. Background vocals- created by Wonder- were slowed down and altered- to sound like other people. During recorded, the tape would be slowed down (according to Cecil). Wonder would sing in that key- the slowed-down version- and then sped-up again- so the vocal had a different sound. Tensions grew during recording. Cecil would stop the tape during Living for the City- Wonder was angry at this- fearing (Wonder) was not sounding angry enough. Perhaps exerting too much control: The bond between the two was straining and Wonder took umbrage. In spite of some minor spats: Living for the City was one of Wonder’s most successful songs. Mixing systematic racism with urban realities: Street sounds and sirens blending into the song to give reality and tangibility. The album’s second single: Wonder was on fire and determined to make HIS album (not anyone else’s).
Golden Lady and All in Love is Fair are among the most lovely and memorable moments on the album. The latter is a Johnny Mathis-nodding track that looks at the bittersweet nature of love and so-called ‘fate’. With lines such as “The future no-one can see/the road you leave behind” and “But all in war is so cold”: Resonating with maturity, wisdom and loss. Higher Ground is Innervisions’ funkiest track- and debatable- stand-out statement. Quickly recorded- a song that flowed and gelled naturally- clavinet, backing vocals- some of the most arresting on the record- fused with an insatiable chorus: Resulting in a legendary song that is inspiring musicians to this day. Another lauded song- Rolling Stone ranked it one of the all-time greats; it reached number four on the U.S. charts- it looked at reincarnation and spiritual consciousness. Wonder- interviewed shortly after the track’s release- wanted to believe in a second life. It is at this point I have to mention an elephant in the room: A near-fatal road accident that left Wonder in a coma. Three days after Innervisions’ commercial release, Wonder played a concert in South Carolina. Whilst driving from the gig- in a car driven by a friend, John Harris- they were behind a truck transporting logs. Snaking along the road, the truck suddenly slammed to a halt. A log dislodged and smashes through (Wonder and Harris’) car. The log struck Wonder on the forehead and he would remain in a coma for several days. Fearing the worst- the injuries were horrific and life-threatening- Higher Ground was a song that evoked a reaction from Wonder. The song was played by his bedside- by his tour manager, Ira Tucker- and Wonder would tap his finger in time to the music. It was at this point people knew he would recover and pull through. In a strange way, High Ground was an ominous foreshadowing- a musical near-death experience mixed with a real-life scrape with death- and resonated with Wonder. Fearing something would happen- Wonder mentioned in a subsequent interview- Higher Ground was Wonder’s sub-consciousness telling him something.
Don’t You Worry ‘bout a Thing and He’s Misstra Know-It-All concluded the album with two, if quite different, tales. The former is one of the busiest and most musically adventurous songs on Innervisions. Originally conceived as a vocal-and-piano track: It would incorporate Moog bass, bongos and cowbells- a veritable carnival of instruments and genres. Latin elements mixed with Soul and Motown. The TONTO (synthesiser) had large cables that connected all the various elements: Cases and cabinets had to be built to accommodate synthesisers and keyboards during recording. The entire process took a year-and-a-half: The result is a one of the most positive and life-affirming songs from Wonder. It looks at accentuating life’s positives: Taking everything in stride and just relaxing. On an album that sees political accusation and urban decay mingle: Don’t You Worry ‘bout a Thing is one of the lighter and most celebratory cuts.
If Higher Ground is Innervisions’ most-spiritual statement: He’s Misstra Know-It-All is (the album’s) most-political one. With Richard Nixon in office- facing impeachment following the Watergate scandal- Wonder was concerned about slick-cheating smooth-talkers intent on ripping people off. Those with a “counterfeit dollar” in hand- Nixon and his cronies for one- displayed honour among thieves. The greasy and slimy political machinations of the time compelled Wonder to write one of his most angered and socially representative song. It is a track that speaks for America as a whole. While the song’s lyrics do not name-check Nixon directly- they are more general and less slanderous- you cannot picture anyone else. Another song that came together purely and expeditiously- the entire record took three days- Wonder was at his very peak. He’s Misstra Know-It-All brought Innervisions to a triumphant- and hugely memorable- close.
Wonder was an artist very much in his ‘classic period’: Innervisions was the most assured and stunning record of his career (to that point). Wonder would follow Innervisions with Fulfillingness' First Finale. Juxtaposing Innervisions’ sweeping and uplifting vibes: Fulfillingness’ set a more sombre and stripped-back tone. One of those albums that contain few memorable hits- compared with Innervisions- it was Wonder’s first album to top the charts. Given the fact Wonder suffered a near-fatal accident a year previous: It is remarkable the album got made in the first place. An unstoppable and inspired musician: He would follow-up Fulfillingness' First Finale with the phenomenal, Songs in the Key of Life. Stevie Wonder fans often debate the question: Innervisions vs. Songs’: Which is best? For me- and the reason for this blog- is to fight the corner of Innervisions. A more taut, tight and focused album: Songs in the Key of Life is a sprawling, ambitious double-album. Seen as Wonder’s ‘signature album’ it scooped Grammy awards and accolades upon its release. From Pastime Paradise- paraphrased and covered by Coolio- to Isn’t She Lovely- across to As and Sir Duke. Musicians such as Elton John took huge inspiration from an album that is widely-regarded as one of music’s finest records. But what of Innervisions?
Innervisions was an album that saw Wonder take command and control. Without that confidence and artistic vision: It is debatable whether Songs in the Key of Life would have sounded like it did. The texture-blend and genre ambitions- Funk and Latin sound alongside traditional Soul- inspired musicians throughout the world. In the 1970s, Soul was a genre dominated by black artists. It was a genre that gave (black artists) a voice. The Pop scene at the time did have black artists but scant few: Even by today’s standards there was homogenisation and very little diversity. Wonder was one of the first artists to truly crossover and reach wider audiences. Innervisions was an accessible and life-affirming album that broke conventions and moulds: The author wanted to bring his music to as many people as possible. In today’s music, you can hear shades of Innervisions. Modern Soul acts- black and white- are more adventurous with their sounds. Prior to Innervisions, most Soul/Motown albums were predictable and defined: Wonder ripped up the rule book and showed what was truly possible. Soul music- and elements of Innervisions- can be found along a wide range of genres and music. From upcoming Rock bands and female Folk acts; U.S. Soul queens and Australian Indie duos: You can hear how far and wide the album has resonated. Electronic music was brought fully into the realm- and has impacted on the importance of modern-day Electronic music- and compelled the likes of Michael Jackson- albums like Bad and Dangerous have templates and shades of Innervisions (in terms of sounds certainly). Perhaps one of the most important results (of Innervisions) was Wonder’s assertion: Music could change the world for the better. It provided the stepping-stone for Wonder’s- assertion among critics- magnum opus, Songs in the Key of Life. While Stevie Wonder has passed his best days- 1980’s Hotter Than July was his last ‘truly great’ album- let’s be thankful for such an extraordinary artist.
Whether you are a fan of Innervisions or Songs in the Key of Life- two different albums that can divide fans- I will always root for Innervisions. It was the album that saw Wonder hit his peak and asset creative control. Without literal visions: Innervisions’ title is apt in the extreme. Wonder’s soul, consciousness and spirituality were channelled through ten songs of immense potency, power and soul. Will we ever see a modern-day equivalent of Innervisions? You cannot deny how inspiring the album has been: Transforming Soul and changing-up what is possible in music. Among our modern days artists- variable of quality and potential- there is a lot of scope and potential lacking. You do not need to rip-off Innervisions wholesale: Dip into the album and realise just what you can achieve. Take individual songs and deconstruct them: How does Higher Ground speak to me? I love Living for the City but what can I learn from it? You cannot beat the instancy of Too High: Can I write a song like this? Only when you have an answer to these questions can you obtain a higher plateau. I feel musicians need to study Innervisions more and realise just what a creation it was. Only when Wonder’s genius is fully appreciated and realised can we witness an unfolding music scene with…
Living for the City
Jesus Children of America
All in Love Is Fair
Don’t You Worry ‘bout a Thing
He’s Misstra Know-It-All
Too High; Living for the City; Higher Ground; Don’t You Worry ‘bout a Thing; He’s Misstra Know-It-All