“You” - Bill Withers
Written by Bill Withers
From +‘Justments, Sussex Records, 1974
The lead-off track to an oft-forgotten album by master songwriter Bill Withers, “You” is an indignant and accusatory piece of work, wherein Withers lets loose a series of quips and cutting remarks suitable for a serious game of the dozens. Though quite a few Withers songs could be called dark or brooding, there is really nothing in his catalog quite like “You”.
You would have to be completely new to pop music to call yourself unfamiliar with Bill Withers’ work; his songs are well-worn in the American pop canon. Lovingly revered, frequently covered, and noted as an influence on countless important artists of varying genres, Withers’ biggest hits (“Lean on Me”, “Ain’t No Sunshine”, “Grandma’s Hands”, “Use Me”, “Lovely Day”), continue to have a huge impact on listeners and young musicians alike. Withers’ to-the-point writing style, working man’s shout, and distinctive rhythmic approach all make for a singular, engaging style. The intelligence in his intent, the focus he gives to small details, and his succinct way with a catchy phrase make many of his songs almost zen-like in their simple yet precise observations of life, love, and relationships.
Maybe you have to be a jazz aficionado to get excited by an album cover, but come on: How can you not love this? How can an album that looks like this not be brilliant? And here’s the thing: Yes, it was the ’70s (1971 to be exact) and yes, plenty of musicians (and artists) outside of the jazz idiom were fully, if superficially, embracing Eastern (in general) and African (in particular, particularly within jazz) culture. Then, and now, whenever an opportunistic interloper tries to straddle the line between the exotic and the trendy, it’s simple to see through the charade and the results are accordingly painful—for all involved.
Suffice it to say, in Pharoah Sanders’ case, this eastward glance was neither cursory nor commercially-minded. Continuing along the path his mentor John Coltrane strode in the previous decade, Sanders focused less on the shrieking and more on his cerebral side. Although there are some obligatory saxophonic fireworks on Thembi, there are also some extraordinarily peaceful and meditative moments. Arguably, he reached an ideal balance on this effort, which some hail as his masterpiece and others decry as an uneven mess. But even the haters have to recognize that the title track, the ethereal “Astral Travelling” (below) and the astonishing Cecil McBee bass solo “Love” are some of the better recorded moments of the ’70s.
Part Two: Augustus Pablo
Art imitating art (or, to be more precise, album cover imitating album cover)? Perhaps. But just as Thembi is arguably better but less known than Sanders’ enduring classic Karma (which, of course, featured Leon Thomas singing and yodeling and is either hopelessly aged or ageless, depending on one’s tolerance for that peace and love late ’60s vibe; the music, on the other hand, is unassailable), the late, great Augustus Pablo (Horace Swaby) is best known for the masterful King Tubby Meets Rockers Uptown. But as hardcore reggae enthusiasts are well aware, his shining hour may well be East of the River Nile. Like Thembi (and, again, like a great deal of jazz and reggae from this era) the fascination with African roots is front and center. One reason these albums remain convincing, aside from the obvious genius of the assembled musicians, is the lack of words: the invocation of other places is purely sonic, and is able to impart an authenticity based on acumen and not affectation. You can hear it, as well as feel it. It’s never forced and it’s utterly honest. This is music that these men had to make, and that is how the best art is always created.
Aside from the obvious (and, to me, delightful) similarities of the two album covers, these albums seem to accrue additional layers of meaning and applicability during the summer months. Perhaps that is because I always associate them with the great summer of 2000, when I finally acquired CD versions of both after having made due with crappy cassette copies for entirely too long. To be certain, this is 365-day-a-year music, but if you are going to discover either of these albums for the first time, now is an ideal time to experience some upfull living, summer-style.
In 1985, Paul Hardcastle, a talented jazz musician, released a single that topped the dance chart, reached #15 on the Billboard Hot 100, and spent five weeks as the number one song in the United Kingdom. And his inspiration was an ABC television documentary on the Vietnam War.
It’s hard to imagine a more unlikely hit. Hardcastle combined an instrumental track with Peter Thomas discussing post-traumatic stress disorder, added a disco beat and a group of women singing, “All those who remember the war, they won’t forget what they’ve seen,” and had a massive hit. More amazingly, he took what could have been a cheesy or disrespectful disaster and ended up with a compelling recording that reminded a younger generation that war comes at an incredibly high price.
Although Paul Hardcastle never had another track chart on the Billboard Hot 100, he recently won the Billboard Smooth Jazz “Artist of the Year” award for 2008 and continues to be a well-respected artist. Hardcastle’s producer back in 1985, Simon Fuller (creator of American Idol), named his management company 19 Entertainment after the song.
And 24 years later, teenagers are still fighting in wars and dying thousands of miles from home.
Like the US, the UK has its own such lists of musical geniuses, though their fates are far less hopeful in general. This affect is caused perhaps by the UK’s post-war culture seemingly backward turning from Macmillan’s “white heat of technology” towards Thomas’s “damp smoky coal fire”. This confusedly anti-progressive nature is wonderfully elucidated in Pete Shelley’s “Nostalgia”:
I always used to dream of the past
But like they say yesterday never comes
Sometimes there’s a song in my brain
And I feel that my heart knows the refrain
I guess its just the music that brings on nostalgia for an age yet to come
First up in our run through the early musical geniuses of UK popdom is uniquely someone who is not a star performer but rather a producer first and foremost. What Preston Sturges was to ‘30s Hollywood, Joe Meek was to the late ‘50s/early ‘60s UK music scene: a prolific, wildly successful sui generis auteur, who burned bright but flamed out soon thereafter. Meek’s brightest flame was his first, the hit single of 1962: The Tornados, “Telstar”:
Recently dubbed the new “princess of Pop”, Rolling Stone has said that Lady Gaga is on the verge of being the “defining Pop Star of the year”, and earlier offered her the cover of the coveted annual Hot List Edition. The honour is arguably a well-deserved one, considering that the singer’s ‘80s flavoured dance songs have been smash hits across both sides of the pond—helping secure the former cocaine-addict a devoted fan base.
Personally, it isn’t Gaga’s music that I find most intriguing. Rather, it is her dramatic rise, and her unabashed obsession with fame and her penchant for discussing it. Surely, the title of her first album, The Fame professes this explicitly, while Brian Hiatt’s report in RS reveals that the young starlet is a workaholic, who is devoted to the continued rise of her stardom. These musings were interspersed with quips by Gaga who regaled readers with stories about “kissing girls” and how she “doesn’t look like the other perfect pop singers”, i.e. she aims to surprise with her lack of convention.
Pop music aficionados will note that there is nothing particularly fresh about Gaga’s approach. We all know how Madonna exploited the minds of the MTV generation, and that her sole intent at the time was (arguably) to usurp convention, through reinvention.