FEATURE: Vinyl Corner: Stevie Wonder – Songs in the Key of Life




Vinyl Corner

Stevie Wonder – Songs in the Key of Life


AS the legendary Stevie Wonder is...

 IN THIS PHOTO: Stevie Wonder in 1995/PHOTO CREDIT: Jeff Christensen/Reuters

exciting the crowds at Hyde Park right now, it seemed only fair to bring one of his albums into Vinyl Corner. I have already covered Innervisions so, when we think of the best Stevie Wonder album, is Songs in the Key of Life far from our minds?! (Make sure you buy it on vinyl). Wonder released Fulfillingness' First Finale in 1974 and, in this classic period, he was simply unstoppable. By the time 1976’s Songs in the Key of Life was released (on 28th September), Stevie Wonder was one of the most revered artists in R&B. He was scoring these chart successes and winning critical applause all around the world. Actually, by the time 1975 came to an end, Wonder was actually considering working with disadvantaged children in Africa and quitting music. Maybe there was a sense of expectation and weight around him…that it was getting a bit too much or, after such a busy creative time, it would provide a perfect contrast. Instead of emigrating to Africa for a bit, Wonder signed with Motown and, by 1976, he had created a signature album; a work that was instantly loved and respected. Over one-hundred-and-thirty people worked on Songs in the Key of Life and the sheer depth of the material is staggering. Wonder has, in interviews after the album’s released, claimed the period around Songs in the Key of Life was especially happy and he was in a very good place.

One can hear that freedom and inventive spirit running right through Songs in the Key of Life. At the time, the album was a big success but it has since gone on to inspire legions of artists. Everyone from Elton John, Michael Jackson and Mariah Carey have name-checked the album and have cited it as an influence. Not only has the album’s power and depth moved artists in terms of their own material; tracks from Songs in the Key of Life have been sampled and appropriated by other acts. Pastime Paradise was adapted by Coolio for Gangster’s Paradise; Will Smith used I Wish as the base for the hit, Wild Wild West, and (the album) continues to impact and resonate. Upon its release, sales exceeded expectations and Songs in the Key of Life became a blockbuster. It was certified diamond in the U.S. alone and was the biggest-selling album of 1977 behind Fleetwood Mac’s Rumours. It was not a shock that Songs in the Key of Life was a success. Think about some of the reviews that have arrived since 1976; the effusive words that have been paid to this masterpiece. I will borrow the words of two much-trusted sources on this blog: AllMusic and Pitchfork. The former, in their review, discuss the balance of love songs and social commentary:

Though they didn't necessarily appear in order, Songs in the Key of Life contains nearly a full album on love and relationships, along with another full album on issues social and spiritual. Fans of the love album Talking Book can marvel that he sets the bar even higher here, with brilliant material like the tenderly cathartic and gloriously redemptive "Joy Inside My Tears," the two-part, smooth-and-rough "Ordinary Pain," the bitterly ironic "All Day Sucker," or another classic heartbreaker, "Summer Soft."

Those inclined toward Stevie Wonder the social-issues artist had quite a few songs to focus on as well: "Black Man" was a Bicentennial school lesson on remembering the vastly different people who helped build America; "Pastime Paradise" examined the plight of those who live in the past and have little hope for the future; "Village Ghetto Land" brought listeners to a nightmare of urban wasteland; and "Saturn" found Steviequestioning his kinship with the rest of humanity and amusingly imagining paradise as a residency on a distant planet. If all this sounds overwhelming, it is; Stevie Wonder had talent to spare during the mid-'70s, and instead of letting the reserve trickle out during the rest of the decade, he let it all go with one massive burst. (His only subsequent record of the '70s was the similarly gargantuan but largely instrumental soundtrack Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants.)”.

Pitchfork talked about Songs in the Key of Life’s success and how some objected to the sheer size and ambition of the record – and how the magnitude and cohesiveness of the album won big sales and awards:

Almost everyone understood the magnitude of Wonder’s achievement, but there were some objections, mostly having to do with the length and sprawl of the record. “[I]t has no focus or coherence,” wrote Vince Aletti in a wildly mixed but mostly favorable review in Rolling Stone. “The eclecticism is rich and welcome, but the overall effect is haphazard, turning what might have been a stunning, exotic feast into a hastily organized potluck supper.”

But to complain about the excess was to miss the point—any great double-album (The White AlbumExile on Main Street) could easily be edited into something tighter and more consistent, but the all-encompassing aspiration is the whole idea, the desire to contain multitudes and to cover as much ground as possible during a revved-up creative groove. Sometimes, more is more.

Certainly, the public understood. Songs in the Key of Life entered the album charts at No. 1, only the third record to hit that spot straight out of the gate (after Elton John’s two previous releases). It then stayed there for the rest of the year; to understand just how ubiquitous the music of the mid-’70s could be, consider that it knocked Frampton Comes Alive! out of the No. 1 slot, and was finally bested in January of 1977 by Hotel California. Inevitably, Wonder won his third straight Album of the Year award at the Grammys (he missed the ceremony because he was visiting Nigeria at the time)”.

There are countless highlights on Songs in the Key of Life but, to me, Pastime Paradise, As and Another Star are the finest tracks. To be honest, there is an embarrassment of riches and everybody is justified to argue with me. If the album sounds radical and truly breathtaking now, Songs in the Key of Life transformed R&B back in 1976 – as this article explores:

Broadening the genre: The record was influential because it completely blew apart the confines of R&B. It features a tremendous amount of experimentation that dig into striking new sonic and lyrical territory. The meter-defying "Contusion" is essentially a jazz fusion standard. "Village Ghetto Land" is a slice of Baroque classical that presents an uncomfortably visceral exploration of ghetto life — "Families buying dog food now / Starvation roams the streets / Babies die before they're born / Infected by the grief." And "Black Man" is essentially a master class in race relations and alternative history set to surging funk.

It was a near miracle, and Wonder did it almost entirely on his own. Wonder wrote dedications and thank yous to more than 150 people, but he alone wrote, produced, arranged and composed pretty much everything on the album himself. That idea of the R&B auteur has left a significant legacy in modern music — you can see it clearly in artists like Prince and D'Angelo”.

It is obvious Wonder was on a mission in 1976. Buoyed by the success of previous albums, Songs in the Key of Life shattered predictions and any notions of what Wonder was capable of. Not only was his eighteenth studio album a revelation in terms of quality and scope but, in composition terms, it was a chance to broaden his range. Here, as Rolling Stone write, Wonder was definitely aiming high:

For Wonder, the banner was a personal dare to expand his compositional range. “I challenged myself [to write] as many different things as I could, to cover as many topics as I could, in dealing with the title and representing what it was about,” he says in Classic Albums. “The title would give me a challenge, but equally as important as a challenge it would give me an opportunity to express my feelings as a songwriter and as an artist.”

It was a challenge he met head on, working to the point of obsession. Nonstop sessions stretched across two-and-a-half years, two coasts, and four studios: Crystal Sound in Hollywood, New York City’s Hit Factory, and the Record Plant outposts in Los Angeles and Sausalito. More often than not, he could be found in one of those spaces, sometimes for 48 hours at a time, chasing his muse with a rotating crew of engineers and support musicians. Over 130 people were involved in the recording, including Herbie Hancock, George Benson, “Sneaky Pete” Kleinow and Minnie Riperton. “If my flow is goin’, I keep on until I peak” became Wonder’s mantra”.

 PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

In terms of the songs and how they make you feel…are there any other albums that contain the same powers, scenes and effects?! It is amazing experience listening to Songs in the Key of Life now because the songs sound so fresh and relevant. I love the fact that he is playing in Hyde Park now and many people will get to hear moments from Songs in the Key of Life for the very first time – almost forty-three years after its release! It is hard to believe that any album would endure for so many years. Maybe that is me being sceptical in a digital age but, when one mentions Stevie Wonder, naturally people will talk about Songs in the Key of Life. Different people have their own reasons for adoring the album. I love the sheer width of the material and the fact there is so much happening! I have already noted how Wonder’s magnum opus affected musicians after the fact and, in this article from The Daily Beast one can hear Stevie Wonder impact modern icons and true legends:

You can hear Stevie’s legacy throughout music today. Pharrell’s Stevie-isms come through all the time, from his approach to drumming to his melodies. Kanye’s early soul-driven productions owe a lot to Stevie (the bass on the intro to Common’s Be album) and ‘Ye himself admitted in 2005 that Stevie was his barometer for greatness: “I'm not trying to compete with what’s out there now. I’m really trying to compete with Innervisions and Songs in the Key of Life.”

Even Paul McCartney hailed Stevie’s “genius” after enlisting him for a song on his 2012 album Kisses on the Bottom, 30 years after the pair created No. 1 hit “Ebony and Ivory”: “Stevie came along to the studio in L.A. and he listened to the track for about 10 minutes and he totally got it. He just went to the mic and within 20 minutes had nailed this dynamite solo. When you listen you just think, ‘How do you come up with that?’ But it’s because he is a genius, that’s why”.

Stevie Wonder’s most-recent studio album is 2005’s A Time to Love and, one hopes, there will be more albums from him. There was this golden period from Stevie Wonder that, to many, sort of ended after Songs in the Key of Life. Here, The Quietus explain how material post-Songs in the Key of Life was not quite in the same league:

Still, this was 1976, this was Stevie Wonder, this was Songs In The Key Of Life, and there was no reason to think he would only step up to even higher ground from here. And yet . . . that was pretty much it. Next up, two years later, was the largely instrumental album Secret Life Of The Plants, which made a good pitch for the affections of Prince Charles but otherwise baffled critics. 

1980 saw a partial return to form with Hotter Than July, and the bountiful, bouncing ‘Master Blaster’, which optimistically heralded a bright future to come for newly free Zimbabwe. But thereafter? He attained even greater commercial success in the 1980s but on the back of more sporadic and distinctly weaker material; ‘Ebony And Ivory’, his facepalm duet with Paul McCartney which marked the decline of two towering artists into granny-friendly balladry long before their time and ‘I Just Called To Say I Love You’ are but two examples of how he’d cooled from black hot to tepid. ‘Happy Birthday’, meanwhile, calling for a National Holiday in honour of Martin Luther King. It’s as if Stevie Wonder himself had passed from innovator to national institution, answerable to nobody, retired from the responsibility of making decent records. Songs In The Key Of Life would turn out to be his last major stand”.

One can argue, perhaps, Stevie Wonder peaked in 1976 - but Songs in the Key of Life was not the last remarkable album he put out. Many switch between Innversions (1973) and Songs in the Key of Life as his finest moment. To me, the sheer beauty, intensity and ambition of Songs in the Key of Life wins the day! You can put the album on any day with any weather behind you and you are instantly transformed and immersed. It is a hugely powerful creation and, decades after its release, the songs keep on revealing fresh secrets and qualities. That is the mark of a genius album and, if you can get it on vinyl and spend some time with it, then I am sure you will agree. The staggering Stevie Wonder is in London right now and I know those who are watching him tonight will take away memories they will never forget! He is this timeless hero whose music has touched and enriched…

SO many lives.