Stevie Wonder – “Songs In The Key Of Life” At (Nearly) 40!

Most really seminal rock artists seem to produce 3 really good albums then go a bit off the boil after that.  The 3 stunners from Stevie Wonder were Talking Book, Innervisions and the culmination, Songs In The Key Of Life. Recording began in 1974 and ended up being about a year late. It was released at the end of September 1976. It was a phenomenal success, and yielded many hits and cover versions, as well as countless samples on other artists’ songs.  Now that “Songs In The Key Of Life”  is coming up to 40 years old this year, it deserves a revisit.

LP1 is the poppiest, whilst LP2 contains the soul/disco workouts. Side 1 of LP2, for example just contains 3 songs, Isn’t She Lovely, Joy Inside My Tears and Black Man. The Something’s Extra Bonus is surprisingly good – not just a throwaway disc with take-it-or-leave-it songs on!

Play LOUD!

LP1 Side 1

Love’s In Need Of Love Today – A radio DJ bemoans the lack of love in society. Love is something to be treasured, but in danger of being buried amidst hate. A choir start off the LP and it’s a bit radio jingle-ish. (I have heard this arrangement on something recent, not sure what, might be a Kylie song!) After the second verse & chorus, the choir sing a truncated version of the chorus ad infinitum. Stevie improvises over this backing. Well it sounds like improvising, but it could be very planned. All the lyrics are printed in the booklet, down to the very last letter! The purpose of this repetition is just to drive the message home, in the way that a radio advert would. The song ends quietly, “..just give the world love.”
Have A Talk With God – A somewhat glib recommendation for prayer, this! The cause of the world’s ills is simple, we don’t pray enough. If we did, He would solve all our problems! God as a somewhat petulant magician/shrink! But it sounds as if Stevie only half believes this. The tell-tale is not this song, it’s the song that follows. This is an example of, I believe of how carefully the songs on the album are planned.
Village Ghetto Land – A tour of a ghetto. The thrust of the matter is, “Do you know what life is like for some of the world’s poorest? The issues are not easy to solve, and anyone who thinks they are obviously has not thought through all of the issues.” I get the sense that this song is placed after “Have A Talk..” because it’s like replying, “Do you think these people have not prayed enough?” The backing is played on one of the first polyphonic synthesizers ever. Prior to this, synths were monophonic, that is, they couldn’t play chords. Here we are emulating a string quartet – block out the words and it could be Schubert! Therein lies the tension of the song. The contrast between the cultured “haves” (the classical-esque backing) and the “have nots” (the lyrics).
Contusion – A funk/jazz workout. Although there is only one drummer credited, there appear to be 2 drum kits, panned left and right. The interplay between them is quite amazing.
Sir Duke – Continuing the jazz theme, a homage to the greats, Satchmo, Duke Ellington, Ella Fitzgerald etc… The solos are typical Stevie, loads of instruments playing in unison. See also “Master Blaster (Jammin’)” from his 1980 LP “Hotter Than July”.

LP2 Side 2

I Wish – A truly standout track here, with humorous lyrics about boyhood. Whether this was really Stevie’s boyhood, I don’t know. Interesting fact – ABBA used a slight reworking of the bass riff, slowed down, for their song, “The Name Of The Game”.
Knocks Me Off My Feet – A bit of a sappy love song, really.
Pastime Paradise – This is my favourite from the LP. It starts with a percussion build up of guiro, cowbell and Krishna bells. At 0:11 & 0:19 you can hear 2 shouts (these are anomalies I think). From 0:18-0:24 you can hear a backwards gong, leading to verse 1. Stevie (single tracked here) sings about the backwardness of those who believe that one way to lead a nation is to racially discriminate – a Pastime (Past Time) Paradise, in fact. I think this must be a play on the theme of “ignorance is bliss”. At 0:48, Stevie is joined by someone singing upper harmonies, and verse 2 at 1:24 is double tracked vocals. This is essentially describing as visionary those who believe in working towards an inclusive society that judges people by individual merits rather than race/colour etc… At 2:37 a group of Hare Krishna devotees intones the Maha Mantra – Hare Krishna, Hare Krishna – Krishna Krishna, Hare Hare. Hare Rama, Hare Rama, Rama Rama Hare Hare. At 2:52 this is joined by a Christian gospel choir who sing “We Shall Overcome”. Essentially this is a fusing of Islam (the idea of future paradise is quite Islamic I think) Christianity & Hinduism. At 3:18 the song finishes with a gong, played forwards this time. So a gong is the element that tops & tails the song, so that it starts & ends the same way.
Summer Soft – Not as sappy, in my opinion as Knocks Me Off My Feet. This sounds to me like a couple who are on one minute and off the next. Tension is built up via the melodic verse, against the pained, “She’s gone———-” of the chorus, a not so tuneful anguished cry. Syncopation in the rhythm adds to the drama.
Ordinary Pain (Parts 1&2) – A masterwork! Here we have a his ‘n’ hers point of view on a break-up. Again Parts 1&2 each convey different sides to the truth, a bit like “Have A Talk/Village Ghetto Land”.

Part 1: Him – The wounded. It’s over, and it’s dreadful – “more than just an ordinary pain” in fact. He is singing a girly ballad here, but there is an attempt to display the male bravado – “Don’t fool yourself, but tell no-one else, that it’s more than just an ordinary pain.”

Part 2: Her – The wounded, though now we are getting somewhere closer to the truth about this relationship. This is aggression personified – it makes ABBA’s “So Long” seem like Noddy in Toyland by comparison! Musically, we have a repeated 2-line melodic phrase repeated over & over, with the words “Ordinary Pain” intoned by the backing vocalists. And each repetition is a hammering of the nails in the coffin for this relationship. His boastfulness that he could have her was countered when she deprived him of sex, something he thought of as his right. He therefore played away, leaving her home every night in tears, until she got off with his best mate. The final line is really telling – “Since one ain’t good enough for you, then do yourself see how you do”. Essentially she is saying “go fuck yourself”, an odd place for a natural break, given the sentiment of the first song on side 1!

LP2 Side 3.

Isn’t She Lovely? – This song was, strangely, not a single in the UK. It was covered by someone else in an edited form, and made the top of the charts for several centuries in 1977. I actually remember it. This song includes Stevie’s daughter Aisha, as she is the “she” in the song’s title. They borrowed a friend’s baby to record the bathroom scene. But the girl shouting “beat me” is their daughter. In a documentary c.2000 Stevie felt he had to reassure viewers that he never once smacked his daughter! This song sounds a lot better on vinyl – it is overly bright on CD, especially the remaster.

Joy Inside My Tears – This song really needs the benefits of a top notch system (such as I haven’t got!) to bring out the nuances of that slidey bass. The iMac I am listening on now does it no justice whatsoever. This song is nice, but it is 3 minutes too long for me.
Black Man – An iconic track! It’s about equality. All have contributed to America, but the message comes through in the middle 8. “We pledge allegiance to the colours of the flag, but the “flag” (i.e. Powers that be,) doesn’t recognise the real colours of humanity.” About halfway through, a “class teacher” asks the “class” the names of those people of colour who have contributed important things to American civilisation and civilisation in general. Most of the responses are men. In other words, the system treats men of colour like shit. But just before the song fades out, our attention is drawn to “Harriet Tubman – a black woman”. As if to say, “If men are treated badly, how do the men treat the women?” During the “lesson”, the first part of the song starts again, Stevie’s voice being processed via a vocoder.

LP1 Side 4

Es Una Historia (I Am Singing) – Pleasant song, no more no less.
If It’s Magic – Beautiful.
As – This was covered by Mary J. Blige & George Michael a few years ago. If it were not for the rap towards the end of the song, this could be an ordinary love song. But the message is totally altered with it. A lot of Christians like to prove themselves as a cut above the rest by saying they are “in the world but not of it”. Stevie Wonder, I think, is reminding them that this does not mean just criticising the morals of the so-called ungodly, but actually doing something purposeful to relieve the hell that is life for many people. He says “God knew exactly where he wanted you,” in other words exactly what contribution is needed from you:

We all know sometimes life’s hates and troubles
Can make you wish you were born in another time and space
But you can bet you life times that and twice its double
That God knew exactly where he wanted you to be placed
so make sure when you say you’re in it but not of it
You’re not helping to make this earth a place sometimes called Hell
Change your words into truths and then change that truth into love
And maybe our children’s grandchildren
And their great-great grandchildren will tell
I’ll be loving you

Another Star – An up tempo workout to finish! I think the song compares the love of God with the fallible love of a human being.

The EP (A 7” single that plays at 33 and a third!)

Saturn – An alien points out the foolishness in human ways….
Ebony Eyes – Reminds me of “Would you like to wish on a star, carry moonbeams home in a jar…”
All Day Sucker – “Play as funky as you can…”
Easy Going Evening – Delicious

Most artistes would struggle to find songs that are the quality of the songs on this EP. For Stevie these are bonus tracks.

Mark Pearce July 2009, revised April 2016

By Mark Pearce

Mark Pearce is the author of the YouTube Channel MarkPMus. Check it out if you're interested in Hi Fi, songwriting and music reviews. Nuggets include 2 series of ABBA Gold Anomalies / More ABBA Gold Anomalies, the Magical Musical Moments series and Hi Fi 101. You'll also find examples of the author's songwriting and photography.

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