Songs In The Key Of Life is that thing they call the magnum opus, and not just because of its impressive length. Hop on, let‘s ride this
Stevie Wonder’s eighteenth — eighteenth — studio set was released by Motown Records in 1976. A double album, it’s his longest, most ambitious collection of songs, and after spending 13 weeks atop the American Billboard chart, would go on to become the second-best selling album of 1977 in the US (behind only the Fleetwood Mac juggernaut that was Rumours).
Extracted piecemeal over the course of a Thriller-like year, Songs In The Key Of Life features some of Wonder’s most famous hits such as I Wish, Sir Duke, As, Another Star and the sweetly schmaltz of Isn’t She Lovely; though, contrary to your memory banks, that one wasn’t issued as a 45 in the UK or US, due to Wonder being unwilling to shorten the six-minute ode to his daughter Aisha to fit the 7” format.
Here’s a thing. You know Love’s In Need Of Love Today, or Village Ghetto Land — the one George Michael sang for Nelson Mandela with an unmistakable cacophony of boos coming from the less liberal sections of the crowd — or what about the picture postcard ballad Knocks Me Off My Feet, or haunting Latino lilt of Pastime Paradise? You know kit, but perhaps not in its 1970s iteration.
Built initially from synth tracks rather than from a drummer setting the basic rhythm, the doomy epic that was one of the first tracks to use a synthesizer (the super-huge, polyphonic Yamaha GX-1, as opposed to fellow tech-head Vangelis’s beloved but similarly hefty Yamaha CS-80) to sound like a full string section, and which orchestral hit sound was propagated by the use of early samplers, particularly the Australian Fairlight CMI.
Propelled by a riff based on Bach’s Prelude No. 2 in C Minor, the overall feel is an edgy, anxious atmosphere, substantiated by the lyrics acting as a double threat that bemoans a preoccupation with ‘glory days’ nostalgia and a plea to focus on serious issues like race relations in the present.
The whole unsettling affair is augmented with a persistent “chinging” bell pattern by Hare Krishna musicians, and a gorgeous-sounding gospel choir from West Angeles Church of God and a Hare Krishna-chanting group culminating in its multicultural finale.
For all their revered reputation, however, none of those golden nuggets were issued as singles. Not a one. Well, OK, with the exception of Pastime Paradise, which made it out on 45… in Panama.
That wasn’t the last we heard of it though, oh no, siree. Associates CEO Billy Mackenzie dashed off a surprisingly faithful 45 of it in 1992, but there was something far far bigger just around the corner.
1995 was something of a banner year for R&B and Hip-Hop, in commercial terms at least. Boyz II Men, TLC and Seal were sewing up the singles charts, occasionally punctuated by white fluff from the likes of telly tie-ins Robson & Jerome and Canadian cretins Céline Dion and Bryan Adams, the latter inflicting his tepid tribute to Elton John on the world with the impertinent Have You Ever Really Loved A Woman?
Sitting pretty as the year’s best-seller in whole swathes of the western world was Coolio, kicking open numerous doors with the brilliant Gangsta’s Paradise. Only I was a bit of a latecomer to that particular pop party.
For much of September and October I was on my debut visit to the USA, which was centred around the first legs of shows on the Outside co-headlining tour undertaken by new best friends Nine Inch Nails and David Bowie.
I stayed long enough that I, regrettably, missed the start of my media studies course at the University Of Westminster in Maida Vale.
Once I did finally make it back, on one of the first tutorials I found myself sat next to an American girl, as you do. Her name was Kerry, and naturally, having just flown in from her homeland, we bonded over all things Stateside as I regaled her with a potted recap of my travels.
At some point in the lesson I noticed she had scribbled a seven-letter word I didn’t recognise on to her notepad.
It wasn’t easy to read as she’d written the mystery moniker in sort of pseudo-computerised form, with squared off lettering and infills and everything.
Naturally, I asked her what it meant.
“You don’t know Coolio?”, she asked politely?
“No, what is it?”
“He’s a West Coast rapper. I really like his new song.”
I had to admit, I’d never heard of him.
Not at all embarrassing for a fledgling music journalist then.
“It‘s OK, I like David Bowie too.”
God, aren‘t Americans full of shit! I‘m deliberately generalising, obviously.
Even more shamefully, it turned out Coolio’s current single, a rap reimagining of Pastime Paradise where he’d ingeniously swapped the title word Pastime for Gangsta’s, went to No. 1 the very week we arrived in the States, and clung on to pole position for the entire duration of our trip.
In my defence I do recall that we listened to American radio seldomly, preferring the comfort blankets of our own cassettes. Remember them?
By the end of October, Gangsta’s Paradise had miraculously shot straight in at No. 1 in Britain too, where it took up residence for a fortnight — enough time to keep hoary old rockers Meatloaf and a new-old thing from Queen off the top, thankfully.
In time, I liked it enough I bought, if not the company then at the very least the UK CD single.
Devastatingly effective in its execution, the modified lyrics are basically hopelessness and despair in the inner city. Moreover, Coolio’s take was written for the Michelle Pfeiffer movie Dangerous Minds. It is a not totally brilliant thing about kids struggling to find their way at a school riddled with crime and neglect — and his biting lyrics are written from the perspective of the students. Though it has to be said, “white woman saves kids in the inner city through the power of poetry” somehow makes the whole shebang a little less badass.
The first version of Gangsta’s Paradise didn’t meet with Stevie Wonder’s approval, as it contained “curse words”. After Coolio cleaned it up a bit, the Motown legend jumped on board, and even joined the rapper to perform a surprise mash-up of the two songs at the 1995 Billboard Music Awards (above) where, naturally, the audience go a bit bonkers.
On the actual studio recording, doing a “Stevie”, the chorus vocals are sung by Larry J. Sanders aka LV. LV means Large Variety because he’s a bit hefty, in fact, he’s basically Sylvester after alopecia.
No matter. It’s still a brilliant record and a superb snapshot of the times. In September last year, Coolio got to walk through the valley of the shadow of death one last time as he succumbed to the celebrity holocaust of 2022.
As he said himself, death ain’t nothin’ but a heartbeat away.