Versions: 'I don't know why' Stevie Wonder (For Once in My Life, Tamla, 1968) Jackson 5, Thelma Houston, plus live performance

Forming a kind of flawless constellation, three points in triangle, that arguably represents the pinnacle of achievement Black American Music in the 60s/70s: Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson and Thelma Houston.       

This song with its highly complex lyrics, describing an addictive state of desire that makes no sense, was written by a sixteen-year-old Stevie Wonder. There is something so arresting about the music, with its heavy atmosphere of portent – those descending notes and the dramatic build – but what I like best about it is Wonder’s surprising (and idiosyncratic) vocal performance. Before the two-minute mark there is separation between Wonder’s vocal line and the music itself where he breaks away almost, sounding hazy and drugged; you can hear his breathing as it all falls apart and yet the music maintains its forward movement.

You throw my heart down in the dirt
You made me crawl on 
This cold black earth, baby
No I never, I never knew 
How much love could hurt
Until I loved you baby
Till I loved you baby, baby
Oh baby, I can’t stop 
I can’t stop crying can’t you see
Here I’m pleadin’ on my knees
I’m on my knees
Won’t you help me, help me please
Cause I love you, I love you baby
Sure enough, baby, yeah

Here’s a live performance from 1969 from the Hollywood Palace; check out the ever so hip “thank you” at the start, in acknowledgment of the brief applause from the audience (other listeners appreciate his little knowing laugh later on; I like the opening curtain effect behind Stevie that happens for no reason, as he is in front of it, at the start).

Second star in the constellation …

This gem was recorded when Michael Jackson was eleven years old, or maybe 12. There’s not much to write here, as it’s all there the artistry so obvious clear from first listen, the intensity of his delivery all the extremely cute ad-libs/Soul additions, from the opening drama of the, “sure enough baby, baby …” The “darling, darling, darling” and especially the “baby dear” added to the original “You made me crawl on/This cold black earth, baby” is so sweet.

The Jackson 5 released this version on their 1970 ABC album   

The third …

Thelma Houston, as a vocalist, has a lovely quality of restraint, of singing just behind the musical line and never over-stating and exaggerating things for effect. I like the way she sings in such a controlled, but sensual way: there are no playful additions here, no need. But this version is special, surely for the wonderful grace of the musicianship. Listening to this I can’t help but hear the continuum with the past, where current and earlier hip-hop feeds off this heritage. Obvious to say, I know, but listening to this it’s made so explicit the way the various elements play with notions of fusion, similarity and difference.

Other well-known artists have covered the Stevie Wonder classic then and since, including the Rolling Stones in 1969 with this out-of-synch honky tonk version that has certain charm. 

According to Wik

"The Rolling Stones released a 1969 cover of the song in 1975 on their ABKCO outtake album Metamorphosis. It was recorded on 3 July 1969 during the sessions for Let It Bleed, the night that news broke of Brian Jones' death. It was also used as the b-side for their 1975 single." 

Related article: Versions: “Sunny” Bobby Hebb (Sunny, Philips, 1966) 

 

‘New York’s Movin’ Ahzz (instrumental/single - Land of Hits, 1981)

Next to nothing available online about the artist or track, even if me writing this might be getting a bit boring/redundant now as it is the case for x-percent of the music featured here, nothing outside the artist/track info from AllMusic written by Andy Kellman: 

While just about any garage rock band that merely thought about recording a single has had their history documented in some form, the same cannot be said for countless disco and funk outfits that existed for short periods of time during the ‘70s. Ahzz would be one of those outfits for which little is known. A gliding, shimmering, dancefloor instrumental with lots of dub-style knob tweakings and a heart-stopping breakdown, the eight-minute “New York Moving” is one of the finest nuggets in the archive of Peter Brown and Patrick Adams’ numerous label catalogues. Released on the producers’ Land of Hits label in 1980, the song has thankfully remained in circulation thanks to Counterpoint’s Disco Juice, Vol. 2 compilation, which – like the first volume – documented Adams’ and Brown’s independent output.

(“dub-style knob tweakings and a heart-stopping breakdown”)

Happiness music that is so easy to appreciate, perfect in its construction with all the necessary elements: the deep drum/bass, the higher transcendent notes and hand-clap effects. Just a few seconds before the three-minute mark it becomes more complex, leaving the heartbeat of the drum exposed. And then at the end it becomes so clean and repetitive to end with a flourish. Producer Osborne Hunter appears to be only remembered for his work here, nothing else comes up when you search for his name.    

Live Recordings: ‘Gouge Away’/’Is She Weird?’ Pixies (1990)

Comment below the video from Einzack : “The video is taken from a newly surfaced pro-shot from Vredenburg, Utrecht, The Netherlands (1990-09-25). The audio is taken from the Death To The Pixies live disc which was from the same concert. The audio on the video is not of a quality of the official release so I synched the two sources up.”

Three seconds before the two-minute mark, to live inside that guitar sound … Kim Deal’s “ooh-ooh" and "sha-la-la” and the final cheerful “thanks a lot” so out of synch with the preceding music, basically the whole thing. I love the green video with the numbers scrolling on the screen. Now, I haven’t listened to “guitar-based music” for such a long time as I try shake off those scales, so I’m far from an expert here, but few nasty-guitar bands since have been able to evoke the deep Romanticism of being tied to the rack/the raft and essential, pure emotion as the Pixies, let alone the sexiness of it all.

Something to be thankful for, especially now as white America eats itself; but then, if the US could spawn a band the calibre of the Pixies with their own indescribable sensibility, all is not lost surely?  

Gouge away
You can gouge away
Stay all day
If you want to

Chained to the pillars
A three day party
I break the walls
And kill us all
With holy fingers

Gouge away
You can gouge away
Stay all day
If you want to

Apparently, this song is about Samson/Delilah, I adore the way Black Francis adds the demure “if you want to” after all the blood and gore, and angst and all the rest. He is such a wonder.  

Arguably Pixies were better live than on record, this is true with “Is She Weird?” a song that sounds so denuded on the studio version. These two live versions are both great, starting with this one “live in the studio” (1990) where Black Francis stands so straight and earnest to sing, looking upward like an angel in a Rococo painting.  

And this song has some of the greatest lines, sung so seriously, the unusual paired compliment: “Your mind is fancy (and your car is bitchin')” and later when he sings, ever so earnest, “no more of this girl cryin'/I’m here, your big man/you're mine” it kills me every time.

This version recorded by the BBC is much cleaner and pretty special as well.

‘I am your mind’ parts 1 & 2, Roy Ayers Ubiquity II (Virgin Ubiquity II: Unreleased Recordings, 1976-1981, Rapster Records, 2005)

Part one, originally released on Ayers’ 1973 Virgo Red album (Polydor)  

with its rich, almost excessive bassline and the vocals hidden, almost totally with Ayers doing his best to teach, to tell and inform. (I always feel sorry for his paramour at the time of these recordings, as he can be so harsh and so open about the failures in their relationship, alongside his lack of feeling and desire to escape, while being ever so genteel and elegant in his expression. “Dippy doo, run, run, run/Dippy doo, run, run, run.”)  

Many of the reactions to ‘I am your mind, part II’ below the video are excited by what they see to be the persona Ayers takes on and his apparent domination, manipulation of a woman. But when I first heard it I somehow skipped the ‘sister’ and thought he was speaking to other men, speaking of the need for self-determination in a psychological sense; in other words, I thought it was something much more collective and political. I still think that you can respond to the lyrics in this way, even if it is apparently directed to a lover, a woman he is criticising, while calling her his good friend, before saying that he will leave her, or she will leave him. It remains ambiguous, they are both running away. 

Whatever, it doesn’t matter. This is extraordinary on every level. That line ‘tell me something to make me feel better’ is extremely honest and self-revealing.  

If you believe in yourself
You'll know the real you
It's coming from within
Sincerely, sincerely
You subject yourself to being vulnerable
Not knowing why you fall in love
And so you become
What you are made to become
It's not at all fair that I feel as I do
Tell me something to make me feel better

My sister, I am your mind. Within you there's a never-ending magnitude of infinite strength, wisdom and will. You travel my roads through life never knowing your own true reality because my thoughts remain like distant quasars. You abuse me by never letting me say and do as I feel. Our thoughts split from love affairs to choice of friends. We argue like two enemies, yet we are good friends.

Now, there are moments when we harmonize with each other, and become one with nature and reality. But these times are few. When after you have replenished yourself, the fear of the truth sets in. We split, and you start to run again. Running, running, running. Running through women, men, jobs, people and life looking for the answer when I had it all along. But I smile... because I am your mind.

I was your mind yesterday; I am your mind today; and I'll be your mind tomorrow. And as our end draws near we will become closer. But you and I, you and I, we will never be one, for I will part from you and you will part from me; you finding another mind and I another soul. And we'll travel on and on.

By the way, I need more than sex to nourish my equilibrium. But I do need sex. I also need sun, trees, stars, creativity and love. But you saturate my soul with too much of one and not enough of the other. Therefore, I cry. But why do we cry? Because tears cleanse the windows of our minds. I am your mind.

Tell me something to make me feel better
All your thoughts inside your mind wanting to be free

Well, now you've got the chance to let your mind grow... and be free. Because the music is just trying to say things to free your mind. And if you let your mind be free, then you can understand mine. There's no need to be afraid of me. I want to be your friend. I'm just trying to give you music from deep, deep, deep within.

And on and on, and on and on

Tell me something to make me feel better

All of your dreams can become reality. My dial reaches full, but you've only been turning me halfway. Turn me up, and alpha and theta waves will spew from your pores. Knowledge, peace, happiness and prosperity will be placed at your feet. Let's, let's create. Solve. Love. Accomplish. And unify. As-Salaam-Alaikum.

Coda:

‘I’d like to walk around in your mind,’ Vashti Bunyan (Some things just stick in your mind: Singles and demos, 1964-1967, Fat Cat, 2007)  

I’d like to walk around in your mind someday
I’d like to walk all over the things you say to me

I’d like to run and jump on your solitude
I’d like to rearrange your attitude to me

You say you just want peace and to never hurt anyone
You see the end before the beginning has ever begun

I would disturb your easy tranquillity
I’d turn away the sad impossibility of your smile

I’d sit there in the sun of the things I like about you
I’d sing my songs and find out just what they mean to you

But most of all I’d like you to be unaware
Then I’d just wander away, trailing palm leaves behind me
So you don’t even know I’ve been there

The quotation below comes from an appreciation by Mike Wojciechowski, published in Tiny Mix Tapes in 2012, yes, it is a bit explicit and literal and I'm not sure how you can be passive and vicious, but there is some interest here. At the end of his article he suggests that the song might in some way act as a premonition about Bunyan's lack of success - she received critical acclaim, but apparently didn't sell many records - but I cut that part.      

"The one song that has always stuck out for me in Bunyan’s catalog is 1967’s “I’d Like To Walk Around in Your Mind.” Produced by Mike Hurst (who also worked with Cat Stevens and the Spencer Davis Group) and intended to be a single for Immediate Records, it’s a sparse arrangement — double bass, cello, acoustic guitar, voice, and light percussion. Her voice is as beautiful as ever; floating calmly over the gently fingerpicked guitar.

The song appeals to me for many reasons, but primarily it seems to offer a raw line of communication into the mindset of a British female songwriter during the late 60s. Despite sounding sweet and folky, the lyrics are still passively vicious. “I’d like to walk all over the things you say to me/ I’d like to run and jump on your solitude… I would disturb your easy tranquility…”

You can read the rest of the article here. 

'Center of Attention’ Instrumental, Pete Rock/InI (reissue: Center of Attention, Lost and Found – Hip Hop Underground Soul Classics, Rapster Records/BBE, 2003)

(Apologies for the fan-video put up by some connoisseur of moon-pix and other corny stuff like this. I really wish artists would pay someone to put up their music hq/hd online).

There seems to be some kind of back story relating to this release and the earlier (2000) Center of Attention album that had this track with vocals, but let’s leave this for a moment to really listen to this beautiful piece of music.

Hip-Hop producers inevitably are drawn to creating certain kinds of beats that then become their trademark, this instrumental along with a handful of others for me, embodies what I like about Pete Rock’s production, in a pure, essential sense.

First there is the drum sound, which starts on-call, just after 20 seconds. On a most basic level, you can appreciate the sound purely in terms of its quality - how good it sounds - but if you follow it from beginning and end you also notice how clever it is in terms of how it operates within the music.  

Just like in jazz, the drum sound has a dual purpose: it provides the bedrock, the foundation, but also offers commentary on the music. It is never neutral, there are always other dimensions to its presence and this fascinates me. Sometimes the drums separate, unfold (say, just before and after 1’50”). Twenty seconds after it first appears, it stops/starts like a question mark.    

But then, there are also all the details, see, for example, as one listener noted, the little ‘guitar slide’ that continues throughout, at the beginning having more prominence than the other elements and later becoming just one more aspect of the music. From 3’20” til the end the instrumental has everything happening at once, juggling the sonic features, but it never becomes busy, it just continues on its way duplicating a very elegant, delicate mania.

This music impresses me so much each time I hear it as you can hear how it set the tone for all the other producers working in this vein, though few if any are bothered with the same subtlety to the same degree. The hip-hop instrumental made up of a gentle piano sample/the essential beat is so-well known, it’s become a cliché today, but the mathematical precision of the way Pete Rock manipulates his samples is of another class. It is so full of feeling.

Here’s the track with vocals, which is pretty sublime as well.

'Set it’ 421 (In House Entertainment, 1994)

“1993 steppin’ into 1994, know what I’m sayin’ …”

This 12-inch has slipped into the ether, the only reference to it I came across online is from a blog called ‘Hip Hop – The Golden Era':

Not a lot of info about this wax released in 1994 on the label, In House Entertainment by 421, a crew from the Bronx composed of Greyson, Jasun and Raquel. Raquel seems to be unknown, but she also did a feature on the Hard 2 Obtain’s track, ‘A L’il Sumthing’ with Artifacts in 1994. ‘Set it’ is produced by Gambino the Music Man and featured MCs like Naabu from the indie group Niyabingy.

(Nyabingy).

Lots to appreciate here, though, starting with the extended ugly sound that does a two-step like a crazed police siren and upsets the musical peace, without a break. There’s a nice kind of warmth to the music, which is offset by the very loose verses from the MCs. Their voices impress on me, all these years later, as if they’re coming straight from the heart.

That discordant note reminds me of the synth sound in Capital STEEZ’s ‘Dead Prez’, an all-time favourite of mine, one of those talismanic songs (see my piece from December last year on the late, lamented MC) – the use of both are clever in the way they unsettle and offer a contrast to rest of the music, adding definition.

Here’s a video of the group – echt-90s NYC indie all of this. Sweet thing.

‘Won’t Catch Me Runnin’/’Remain Anonymous’ Ras Kass (PatchWerk Recordings, 1994)

Embodying all the key elements of the dirtier aspect of the ‘90s production sound – that exaggerated beat which includes a kind of in-built foundation of a meandering bassline, the tinkling keyboard sound and screechy, hard-to-work-out female vocal sample – the a/side ‘Won’t Catch Me Runnin’ sees Ras Kass present a familiar narrative of hard times.

But the b/side, ‘Remain Anonymous’ takes it to another level.

With an amazing rhyme that tackles well-trawled territory – about how Ras Kass lords over all others – it has an unextinguished energy, while capturing perfectly a kind of urgent paranoia in the delivery even if it sounds supremely confident, as it opens:

Western Hemisfear, stand clear ock
Cause now the sun sets across six-hundred and six septillion tons
Come correct, I project like a telepathic caption
Four meters over soundwaves
I comes off with positions like pornographics
Twenty questions - animal, vegetable, or mineral
What am I? Atom - amphibian, invertebrate, or mammal?

Name-checking his peers (Western Hemisfear), apparently questioning himself, while making a pop culture reference to a TV show, but also as comments on the lyrics page note, Ras Kass is also suggesting that he holds the Earth on its axis: ‘six-hundred and six septillion tons’ is the literal weight of the planet, he carries on his back like Atlas.

Much of the lyrical content in ‘Remain Anonymous’ is extremely dense (littered with references to public figures from the time, filled with puns and plays on words) but on the basis of its poetics it’s equally impressive. Notice the repeated phonemes, some offering an exact rhyme some partial in the line: ‘Cause/now/sun/across/hundred/tons’ which is then carried over into the following lines and the joke about the word ‘come’. 

I scribble incredible rhymes to rhythm, nepotism
Your prism couldn’t invent
Too many MC’s get deals from who ya down with, or where ya represent
But since I house more niggas than section eight
State statements about your state
Although my state of mind fornicates breaks
Your magazine ad got you souped up
Test-y like two nuts, marketing gimmicks
Catch wreck like Sam Kinison, convincingly
Cause what nigga got props in the industry don’t really interest me
My motto is: the bigger they are, the more politics involved
And I revolve at a rate to make your occipital skull plate dissolve
Techniques delve deep..
(Slick Rick sample: “How much you’ll never knooow”)

That moment around 1’30 with the Slick Rick sample is so cool as the producer, Vooodu – apparently this was his first release – steps back from the previous high-intensity maelstrom of sound effect to let it seem a bit patch-work, to change in mood again ten seconds later.

There’s a wild and beautiful intensity here – made up from the lyrics/delivery and music – that makes this track hard to ignore, decades on.

Two important tracks from the 80s are sampled on the track: Doug E. Fresh and Slick Rick’s ‘La Di Da Di’ (aka ‘This might be the most sampled/interpolated hip hop song ever,’ according to one YouTube poster having been sampled on 500 different hip-hop releases); ‘Part-Time Suckers’ from Boogie Down Productions

alongside Pete Rock/CL Smooth’s ‘The Basement’ from 1992 and Wu-Tang Clan’s ‘Method Man’ (1993). 

I seen the scene from the outside lookin in through a window pane
Pain; hypertension ruptured the varicose vein
The vainglorious breaks I be, perpetratin omnipotent reign
I rain acid, grate your crew to steak meat
The stakes increase on break beats, your fleet fleets run
When I'm rippin ya Kubrick's, meaning deceased, rest in peace
Pieces of my nebulous flex paralyzes oblongatas
To witness my linguistics like a Muslim takes jihad or not
Since A&R only sign gangster rap acts
Don't get it twisted stereotypin by geography West coast syntax
I signify for C-Arson
The city North of Long Beach, Southwest of Compton ...

All this juice evaporates - what it boils down to
Is the "yes yes y'all," and only that makes a rapper great
Fuck rhetoric and repertoire, demographics and heavy rotation
Slowly the lyrication makes sense
Fuck fame; I snuff that ass out the frame
It ain't Snoop Dogg, so what's my motherfuckin name?
"The arra-arra-R, A, ella-ella-S" (keep it goin)

"You don't know me and you don't know my style" - Method Man (x6)

Yo, wack MC's - it's O-V... E-R
I be R, the nigga who killed your P.R
For the brothers with skills who can't get a record deal
Remain anonymous.. (*fades out echoing*)

Fades out echoing