The Grammy awards were on last Sunday and I didn’t watch them. I haven’t watched them in ages. It’s not that I have anything against the Grammies themselves; it has more to do with the state of modern music. I don’t like very much of it.
Yes, I know, it’s generational thing and everyone get off my lawn. It’s the same battle every aging person has with the generations that follow. “No one makes good music like they used to any more.”
It hurts me to say that because I dedicated a giant portion of my life to popular music. I worked 13 years in the record business for the sole reason of staying involved with music. (It sure wasn’t because of the pay or the hours.) Before that, I hung out at record stores for hours, devouring every detail that the record covers and backs could show me. I was always the kid in the neighborhood who knew who sang what song, even when the DJ didn’t mention it. So I take my music cred pretty seriously.
I think it all started to get away from me in the late 80s. Even when I was working in the business, my tastes separated from what was popular to those things for which I had cultivated a taste. I may have been able to wheel and deal in Top 40, but I rarely listened to it. Instead I followed the blues and remained on the lookout for good old no frills rock and roll, the louder the better. But it had to have a hook.
I turn on the radio these days and it disgusts me. All I hear are talentless auto-tuned star wannabees clamoring for their time on TV or YouTube, backed by programmed beats and atonal keyboards… I have issues with any album that says in the credits: “Drums programmed by…” Drums should be beaten, not programmed. And in my day, if you couldn’t sing, you screamed. (See Tyler, Steven.) And if you couldn’t at least do that, then you didn’t make freakin’ records!
It doesn’t get any better when I listen to rock radio. Seems to be all thrashing and wailing, but no hooks. I hear a big indistinguishable wash of guitar noise, but no groove.
In my later years in the business, the Grammies only mattered when it came to our store promotions. Whoever won a Grammy, or looked good performing, would be a big seller that week. So we had to be on our toes.
I think I gave up actually watching the show the year after the famous Jethro Tull debacle. That was the first year they had a “Heavy Metal” category and the geniuses in the Academy voted for Jethro Tull as the winner, who were neither heavy, nor metal. Tull beat out Metallica, AC/DC and other legitimate metal bands. I can only imagine what the voters’ thought process was there…
“Hey, remember that song “Bungle in the Jungle?” I liked that; I’ll vote for Jethro Tull.”
It wasn’t always like that for me. Back in my formative years in the early 70s, the Grammies were still relevant. In fact, they were vital! It was the one reliable way that you could see the popular groups perform.
Time check: No cable TV, no MTV, no SNL, no computers or YouTube. There were very few avenues to see the top stars. You had American Bandstand or Soul Train. You had the Midnight Special (for which I was not allowed to stay up, until my teenage years.) You had the afternoon talk shows like Dinah Shore or Mike Douglas. You saw in the TV Guide that someone was performing on one of those shows, or you had to go to a concert. (No one I knew ever went to concerts, again, until I was well into teenhood.)
So Grammy night was a big deal because not only were the top artists going to perform, but also present, which meant you got to see what they looked and talked like. Remember, if there wasn’t a good picture on an album cover, you might not know anything about how an artist looked. (Unless they were from the Tiger Beat/Girls fanzine crowd.)
I remember watching the American Music Awards one night (or some non-Grammy music award show) and Elton John hosted. At that time, I was a huge EJ fan and was eating up his first Greatest Hits album. But it wasn’t until I saw that show that I even knew he was English! Seeing up standing up there being all clever and witty with his British accent just impressed the hell out of me and probably laid the groundwork for my future appreciation of Monty Python.
OK, back to the Grammies and the story I intended to tell with this post. (Yes, I know I do take the long way ‘round sometimes.)
I will never forget the night I first saw Stevie Wonder play: Grammy night, 1975. The prior summer Stevie Wonder release “Fulfillingness’ First Finale” and the single “You Haven’t Done Nothin’” reached #1. While it’s not his most recognized single now, it was my gateway to The Funk. I loved that sound he had. I had no idea if it was a guitar or a keyboard or what… (which I now know to be a synthesizer).
So Stevie took the stage and played “You Haven’t Done Nothin’” and just rocked the place. I was in awe. Stevie was up there with his dark shades on, his shoulders rockin and beads in his hair swingin’. The entire audience was on their feet, dancing in their seats. I remember the camera panning over to show Gladys Knight and the Pips and the Pips looked like they were doing their act. They were getting D.O.W.N. I went out and used my meager allowance money that next week to go buy the single.
Eyes newly opened, I began paying attention to some of the other Stevie Wonder songs that the radio started playing again. Both “Higher Ground” and “Superstition” were getting airplay, even though they came from his prior two albums. Both had that same plucky synthesizer sound I loved. I couldn’t find either one as a single though, so one afternoon when we were out shopping I whined and pleaded so unrelentingly to my mother, she gave me the money to buy the full album “Talking Book,” which contained “Superstition.” That was my first record album. Not AC/DC, not BTO, not Aerosmith… freakin’ Stevie Wonder.
After that, it seemed like every year, Stevie Wonder was on TV winning Grammies and playing his ass off. “Songs in the Key of Life” came next, which produced two more #1 singles, “Sir Duke,” and the incredible “I Wish.”
“I Wish” was the Shit. What a groove! From the opening that layers synth line upon synth line to the down home slice of life lyrics, when it comes on, you can’t help but start to move your shoulders.
Not too many years ago I saw a show on the making of that album, which featured various other stars and musicians talking about the songs. I remember the rap artist Coolio talking about being at junior high school dance, with the boys holding up one wall the girls holding up the other. But he said when the DJ put on “I Wish,” the groove defeated the inherent awkwardness of the situation and everyone just had to get off the wall and dance.
In fact, I just found that clip… check it out if you’d like to see how the song was made and hear some people talking about it.
I know that there are still talented musicians working out there. Sure would be nice to hear some funk that was more than a bass beat. Or a rock song that didn’t sound like it was produced by factory machinery.
This is me, not holding my breath.