"What did I do that was wrong?"
That’s the insistent refrain of this classic Isleys title track, and you gotta wonder whether this hedonistic guilt acquired a shady significance when the LP dropped into racks one week after Nixon’s resignation. Probably not. You can have your Watergate, just gives the Isleys some love (plus a clavinet) and they’ll be straight.
Live It Up was released just 10 months after the eternal 3 + 3, which transformed the band from a trio to a sextet (thus the title) and was keyed with the astonishing single “That Lady”, plus a superior cover of Seals & Crofts’ “Summer Breeze”. This was an exuberant album that cartwheeled across your Sunday-morning sunbeam den (unlike their late ‘70s LPs, which crawled between your sheets round midnight). The blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice, but let’s not forget Ernie Isley’s lava-seam of guitar pyrotechnics.
Live It Up might seem at first listen like a replication of the 3 + 3 formula, but beneath the heady funk jams which open both sides lurks an ocean of lust, sadness, and bitterness. Even the obligatory white-boy cover (Todd Rundgren’s “Hello It’s Me”) is chosen and molded to fit this mood. In the end you’re seduced by the quiet storm, but it’s the storm of a loner either scowling at relationships, or begging for reconciliation. The bedsheets are far, far away.
And so, with “Live It Up”, which opens side A, we are funkified with chants and beats and the glorious clavinet (recently discovered by Chris Jasper), all in service of Me-decade cognitive dissonance. Why feel guilty for attributed sins, when you can dance, make romance, sing, and swing? Both the clavinet and the lyrical theme foretold the onset of disco, though let’s not attribute too much historical weight to this fact. This jam doth rock, just check out the explosive Dinah Shore Show performance appended to the CD reissue, which features Dinah herself exclaiming “I could really feel that!”
The album then slows down and brightens up for “Brown-Eyed Girl”, a smitten melodic seduction emerging from darkness, which has since become a Quiet Storm classic. But the real treasure on side A is “Lover’s Eve”, one of the saddest songs the Isleys ever recorded. Ronald Isley begins on hands and knees, a beggar for love, and then spends the rest of the song sending out wave after wave of tear-drenched melismas. Although you never actually sympathize with Ronald, you still want to pack the song away for a future foothold on sanity when your own love life goes to hell.
Side B opens with “Midnight Sky (Part 1 & 2)”, another epic funk jam with a lusty undertow. Ronald hungers after the usual “Lay with me / Stay with me” theme while Ernie’s flash solos illuminate the landscape like white lightning. Just like “Live It Up”, it’s a fiery tune with no obvious hook, which actually makes it endlessly listenable and danceable.
Then the sadness begins. “Hello It’s Me” is an early example of Ronald’s talent for transforming a song by singing and moaning around the melody. I wouldn’t call this a particularly classic interpretation, more like a slow-jam version inflected with Ronald’s soulful quirks, brimming with that lover’s-eve sadness, and (curiously) fading out with the insistent refrain “don’t change, don’t change, girl”.
The album goes out with another unheralded Isleys classic, “Ain’t I Been Good to You”, eight minutes of pleading and hectoring with aggressive tempo changes and an astonishingly Zeppelin-esque guitar-vocal dialogue at the end. Don’t get me wrong: it ain’t heavy, but it’ll suck you in like heavenly quicksand.
Although the common trope about the Isleys’ T-Neck years is that you can’t tell the albums apart, give ‘em enough time and you’ll see real differences. Live It Up is the album where Ronald’s love life is falling apart, and the rest of the band tries to dance him out of his blues. Highly recommended.