Stevie Wonder | Songs in the Key of Life – 1976

A beginning and an end – ahh, school days – I wish

This review may tend to ramble and be wordy, it is from a time where my memory begins to deteriorate.

There is a theory that the most memorable and influential music of your life occurs in the later years of High School. The songs and albums you hear from ages 16 to 19 are the ones that stay with you for the rest of your life. It is a theory that annoys me. There is music being made today that will stay with me:  for example Come on feel the Illinois | Sufjan Stevens -2005 and For Emma, Forever Ago | Bon Iver -2008 and The Moon and Antarctica | Modest Mouse -2000 are albums I will continue to visit, Songs in the Key of Life maybe less so.

1976 was the year I left school. After 12 years I felt that I was just getting into the swing of things. I was at Barker College in Waitara, working through my HSC. I was fit and healthy, playing rugby for the school and a suburban club, training three nights a week with the teams and two games on Saturdays. It was also the year I had glandular fever. I was sent to Walget in country NSW for a while to recover, no idea why. It was a time when my real interest in music was rapidly developing. I was living in Gum Grove Place in West Pennant Hill, I requested this album as a present from my family. It was either Christmas ’76 or my birthday in Feb ’77.

Unfortunately a rapidly developing interest didn’t coincide with a rapidly developing taste in music. I remember walking the fence line on a Walgett property, listening to Silly Love Songs by Wings and thinking that music couldn’t get more complex and interesting than this.

Stevland Hardaway Judkins (surname changed to Morris at aged 4) was born in 1950, blind due to premature birth. He became Little Stevie Wonder and released his first hit by the time he was 13. By 1972 he dropped the ‘little’ and was beginning negotiations for a $13m recording contract with Motown, the biggest recording contract in history. He was beginning artistic control of his life. He was 26 years old when he released Songs in the Key of Life.

He released 5 albums in 39 months prior to beginning work on Songs …, all of them good, some of them great (think Innervisions and Talking Books). His next 8 albums took 35 years to be released, not all of them fantastic (think Lady in Red or the Secret Life of Plants)

This album was listed as #56 in Rolling Stones magazine list of the 500 Greatest Albums of all time. It was also voted Top Album of All Time by Yahoo’s music blog. Lists tend to be bias and misleading. I’ll have more to say about these lists on another blog post.

This is a dense album of jazz and funk, saved by singles  – or is it that you listen to it because of the singles and then discover the complexity and depth of this album? And not just an album, this is a double album plus an ep. (that’s an extended play single for the younger ones.) This album is two and a half hours long.

This isn’t an album I would recommend. There are some great sections and singles, and it is a huge technical achievement. Remember that he is blind. He sang the lead vocals by having someone read the lyric through headphones as he was singing. He played the majority of the instruments and many tracks he played all instruments, keyboards, drums, bass, synth, and multi-tracked his vocals. He wrote the songs.

There are great and amazing tracks. ‘Sir Duke’ is the first time I’d really heard of Duke Ellington (although it would be a few decades before I’d begin to appreciate his talent as a composer and arranger). I remember cruising with friends from a previous school, banging on the steering wheel in time with ‘Sir Duke’. The other singles from the album are ‘I Wish’ and ‘Isn’t She Lovely’. Songs overflowing with joy.

There are also great musical segments. Amongst those contributing to the album are George Benson, Herbie Hancock and Minnie Riperton. But on the whole this long album leaves me bored and begins the end of my interest in Stevie Wonder. There are places in this album where you can imagine Paul McCartney singing harmony, or echoes of ‘I just called to say I love you’ mixing with snipets from ‘The Lady in Red’.

Marg saw Stevie in concert performing songs from this album at the Horden Pavillion, possibly in 1980. Maybe that was the way to hear all of this.

It is good to do this review, for the past 35 years I’ve regarded this as one of the masterpiece albums of my life. It may be a technical masterpiece of depth and complexity, but it is not something I will revisit with much joy. There is so much more music being made, there is no need to hold onto our fading heydays and past heroes.

Top 100 songs in Australia – 1976
1. Silly Love Songs, Paul McCartney and Wings
2. Don’t Go Breaking My Heart, Elton John and Kiki Dee
3. Disco Lady, Johnnie Taylor
4. December, 1963 (Oh, What A Night), Four Seasons
5. Play That Funky Music, Wild Cherry
6. Kiss And Say Goodbye, Manhattans
7. Love Machine (Part 1), The Miracles
8. 50 Ways To Leave Your Lover, Paul Simon
9. Love Is Alive, Gary Wright
10. A Fifth Of Beethoven, Walter Murphy and The Big Apple Band
11. Sara Smile, Daryl Hall and John Oates
12. Afternoon Delight, Starland Vocal Band
13. I Write The Songs, Barry Manilow
14. Fly, Robin, Fly, Silver Convention
15. Love Hangover, Diana Ross
16. Get Close, Seals and Crofts
17. More, More, More, Andrea True Connection
18. Bohemian Rhapsody, Queen
19. Misty Blue, Dorothy Moore
20. Boogie Fever, Sylvers
21. I’d Really Love To See You Tonight, England Dan and John Ford Coley
22. You Sexy Thing, Hot Chocolate
23. Love Hurts, Nazareth
24. Get Up And Boogie, Silver Convention
25. Take It To The Limit, Eagles
26. (Shake, Shake, Shake) Shake Your Booty, K.C. and The Sunshine Band
27. Sweet Love, Commodores
28. Right Back Where We Started From, Maxine Nightingale
29. Theme From “S.W.A.T”, Rhythm Heritage
30. Love Rollercoaster, Ohio Players
31. You Should Be Dancing, Bee Gees
32. You’ll Never Find Antoher Love Like Mine, Lou Rawls
33. Golden Years, David Bowie
34. Moonlight Feels Right, Starbuck
35. Only Sixteen, Dr. Hook
36. Let Your Love Flow, Bellamy Brothers
37. Dreamweaver, Gary Wright
38. Turn The Beat Around, Vicki Sue Robinson
39. Lonely Night (Angel Face), The Captain and Tennille
40. All By Myself, Eric Carmen
41. Love To Love You Baby, Donna Summer
42. Deep Purple, Donny and Marie Osmond
43. Theme From “Mahogany”, Diana Ross
44. Sweet Thing, Rufus
45. That’s The Way I Like It, K.C. and The Sunshine Band
46. A Little Bit More, Dr. Hook
47. Shannon, Henry Gross
48. If You Leave Me Now, Chicago
49. Lowdown, Boz Scaggs
50. Show Me The Way, Peter Frampton
51. Dream On, Aerosmith
52. I Love Music (Pt. 1), O’Jays
53. Say You Love Me, Fleetwood Mac
54. Times Of Your Life, Paul Anka
55. Devil Woman, Cliff Richard
56. Fooled Around And Fell In Love, Elvin Bishop
57. Convoy, C.W. McCall
58. Welcome Back, John Sebastian
59. Sing A Song, Earth, Wind and Fire
60. Heaven Must Be Missing An Angel, Tavares
61. I’ll Be Good To You, Brothers Johnson
63. Shop Around, The Captain and Tennille
64. Saturday Night, Bay City Rollers
65. Island Girl, Elton John
66. Let’s Do It Again, Staple Singers
67. Let ‘Em In, Paul McCartney and Wings
68. Baby Face, Wing and A Prayer Fife and Drum Corps
69. This Masquerade, George Benson
70. Evil Woman, Electric Light Orchestra
71. Wham Bam, Silver
72. I’m Easy, Keith Carradine
73. Wake Up Everybody (Pt. 1), Harold Melvin and The Bluenotes
74. Summer, War
75. Let Her In, John Travolta
76. Fox On The Run, Sweet
77. Rhiannon, Fleetwood Mac
78. Got To Get You Into My Life, Beatles
79. Fanny (Be Tender With My Love), Bee Gees
80. Getaway, Earth, Wind and Fire
81. She’s Gone, Daryl Hall and John Oates
82. Rock And Roll Music, Beach Boys
82. Still The One, Orleans
83. You’re My Best Friend, Queen
84. With Your Love, Jefferson Starship
85. Slow Ride, Foghat
86. Who’d She Coo, Ohio Players
88. Walk Away From Love, David Ruffin
89. Baby, I Love Your Way, Peter Frampton
90. Young Hearts Sun Free, Candi Staton
91. Breaking Up’s Hard To Do, Neil Sedaka
92. Money Honey, Bay City Rollers
93. Tear The Roof Off The Sucker, Parliament
94. Junk Food Junkie, Larry Groce
95. Tryin’ To Get The Feeling Again, Barry Manilow
96. Rock And Roll All Nite, Kiss
97. Disco Duck, Rick Dees
97. The Boys Are Back In Town, Thin Lizzy
98. Take The Money And Run, Steve Miller Band
99. Squeeze Box, The Who
100. Country Boy (You Got Your Feet In L.A.), Glen Campbell
Track listing for Songs in the Key of Life:
Disc: 1
1. Love’s in Need of Love Today
2. Have a Talk with God
3. Village Ghetto Land
4. Contusion
5. Sir Duke
6. I Wish
7. Knocks Me off My Feet
8. Pastime Paradise
9. Summer Soft
10. Ordinary Pain
Disc: 2
1. Isn’t She Lovely
2. Joy Inside My Tears
3. Black Man
4. Ngiculela — Es Una Historia — I Am Singing
5. If It’s Magic
6. As
7. Another Star
8. Saturn
9. Ebony Eyes
10. All Day Sucker
11. Easy Goin’ Evening (My Mama’s Call)
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2 Responses to Stevie Wonder | Songs in the Key of Life – 1976

  1. Pingback: A life in albums | michaelsprott

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