'Keep on Running' Stevie Wonder (Music of my mind, Tamla, 1972)

Some gonna get you
Some gonna grab you
Some gonna jump out of the bushes and grab you
Whole lotta folks, you better run faster.

Some gonna grab you
Some gonna jump out of the bushes and grab you
Some gonna grab you
Oh You need this thing to grab you, ha.
Yea, yea

Keep on running
Keep on running from my love
Keep on running, yea
Keep on running from my love

Disco precursor, some say that this almost seven minute sparkle and joy, where Stevie Wonder's exuberance comes to full effect could be taken from the template of the later work of Moroder, but also black echo, and radical reinvention - though there is nothing to suggest that Stevie Wonder did this consciously - of a key track from the 1960s rock canon. 

Whereas the Spencer Davis group tune from 1965 is extremely accessible, comfortably fitting itself into familiar conventions of rhythm and message, Stevie Wonder's track is playful, mercurial and hard to pin down. (There's an entire back story behind the rock version of 'Keep on running' first written and recorded by Jackie Edwards, an artist who played a key role in the invention of ska, first via his recordings for Studio One and then the songs he wrote for artists at Island Records: let's hope he got those royalties).    

'One fine day I'm gonna be the one,' sings the rather stolid teenage Steve Winwood, as he makes his way through the tune, his straight-up delivery set off by the fuzz effects on the guitar. In contrast, Stevie Wonder plays around with ambiguity; starting with the 'some gonna get you' (who is that subject talking there?) and sounds like he's having a ball, smiling at the ruse.

Opening with a 'single repeated pitch in the synthesizer and piano along with unpredictable percussion accentuations,' to use the words of James E Perone, who has written a book on the artist, The Sound of Stevie Wonder: His Words and Music.  Perone writes that the track is carried along by a 'harder-edged version of keyboard-based funk, particularly because of Wonder's synthesized version of pedal-laden electric rhythm guitar' (that he says marks the influence of other musicians from the era, such as Curtis Mayfield).

'Wonder's dissonant piano links at the end of the stanzas add significantly to the "scary" nature of the song,' Perone writes. But it is this 'scariness' that Perone has problems with, as he writes that while the track 'finds Stevie Wonder expanding his expressive range, (it) also presents him as a bit of an unsympathetic figure' - the problem being what Perone sees to be Wonder taking on a 'macho "superbad" persona' that is like a 'scary ... Superfly-like sex machine'.

The problem with the song is that the lead character is so foreign to anything Wonder had done before (or after for that matter) that it stretches the limits of believability for the listener ... (It is) almost like a song that was written and arranged for another singer.

Perone cites the song's lack of commercial success - it reached no. 36 on the Billboard R&B chart and no. 90 on the Billboard pop charts - and that it was one of Stevie Wonder's worst performing singles as evidence that the audience didn't know what to make of the song,

Now, it's not really my interest to defend or explain or locate Stevie Wonder, as if, but even a cursory look at the lyrics makes it clear that taking such a literal stance is a bit problematic, especially since the (female) backing vocalists have such an important role in the song's structure (and are ones repeating the essential refrain). 

What's interesting for me when listening to the greats of this era and this genre, perhaps, is the way they understood the importance of music as being made up of distinct elements and that their genius came through the way they played around with these elements, allowing some to come forward or recede, or keep them constant. This is where their creativity lies. For this reason I'm not listening to relate to the singer, or what he/she is singing, as this music is not an expression of Stevie Wonder's feelings. It's self-conscious and manufactured, intentionally: the lyrics are not the whole, just another element.  

Other than that my preference is to see the 'some' as intentionally vague; potentially referring to internal/external devils, ready to play havoc and attack your peace of mind, rather than a literal bad guy waiting to take a leap 'from the bushes'. Wonder, too, seems to be encouraging such a perspective ie that the lyrics should not be taken literally: at one point he shifts it to talking about his friend, rather than himself ('Some folks say that you're really, really fine/But all you want to be is just a friend of mine/But I know I'm gonna get you with him - real soon').

Anyway, whatever your take on the lyrics, this track is magic in itself, even the sceptical Perone can't help but recognise this:

Some of the synthesiser links are more showy than what Wonder would later allow himself in his more commercial funk pieces. The piece slows down approximately 4-1/2 minutes into a 6-minute-40 second performance. The subsequent re-crescendo in the repetition of “keep on running, running from my love” chorus sound like what a fine funky soul band might do in a live concert performance, or a studio jam.

And better sound quality, though am not 100 % sure it's the same live performance (or even if Stevie Wonder is playing in the video above ... he seems to be missing just a few musicians). 

It's commonplace for critics to note that Music of my mind marked an important development in Stevie Wonder's career, as a statement of independence (as his first record freed of the shackles of Motown) and musical intent. Penny Valentine in her review for UK magazine, Sounds praised Wonder's arrangement of 'intriguing vocal patterns" on what she deemed "an album of explosive genius and unshackled self-expression.'

Check out this interview between Valentine and Wonder on the album's release, where Stevie Wonder rhapsodises about the Moog synthesiser and how liberated he felt to be doing his own thing. Indeed, the use of synthesiser is key to Wonder's musical development, to quote a more recent Sputnik review: Wonder 'makes a small job of transposing the passion of soul music into a synthesized world, turning his army of electronics into delicate digital emotions.' Here's another assessment, running along the same lines:

What resulted was a cohesive album where the songs fit together well. It was his first album to make the synthesizer the dominant instrument, which resulted in the dramatic use of chord and key changes, which quickly became a consistent part of his style and sound.

And yet another that begins with a quote from the album liner notes ...

The sounds themselves come from inside his mind. The man is his own instrument. The instrument is an orchestra.”
Music of My Mind was also the first to bear the fruits of his increased focus on Moog and Arp synthesizers, though the songs never sound synthetic, due in great part to Stevie’s reliance on a parade of real instruments — organic drum work, harmonica, organs and pianos — as well as his mastery of traditional song structure and his immense musical personality.

 

But to close I like this quote best, from a super-enthusiastic contemporary review from Rolling Stone that captures my own point of view regarding this piece of music four decades on:  

‘Keep On Running’ is a knockout. The cut begins with a kind of ominous tangle of electronic squiggles, piano, nervous cymbal clashes and dark bassy threats as Stevie sings, “Something gonna get you/Something gonna grab you/Something gonna jump out of the bushes and grab you.” After two verses and a few anticipatory beats, the song breaks out in earnest, the beat picks up and Stevie repeats, “Keep on running/Keep on running from my love.” I can’t remember hearing a synthesizer sound so exciting and alive. Later, as the music gets hotter, and Stevie more mock-threatening, a girls’ chorus comes in and all build together on a relentless repetition of “Keep on running, running from my love” that takes up the better part of the song’s more than six minutes. If you can listen to this sitting very still in your chair, something is wrong.