It’s probably tough work sitting through Delirious now – the endless use of the word ‘faggot’ as a taunt. And, nearly as offensive, that appalling red leather suit. But Delirious – for better and worse – shaped my childhood. And that line about Stevie Wonder, well, it’s funny in the context of the show, as part of the set-up for a crude, basic joke, a joke that was a knockout in and of its time.
But also, it gave me a phrase to use, one that summed up my own feelings about Stevie Wonder. I had, by the time I was 9 or 10 or whenever I first saw Delirious, been listening to Stevie Wonder my whole life.
My parents reckon that Songs In The Key of Life was the soundtrack to rock me to sleep. That album was so fascinating for me. Right from when I first started checking out the records in mum and dad’s collection. That was one of the ones that stood out, its cover – the songbook and bonus EP marking it as different from the rest.
There are half a dozen Stevie Wonder albums that are must-have as far as I’m concerned. And probably you know that already – four of them arrived in just over two years, and it’s hard to pick a favourite between Music of My Mind, Talking Book, Innervisions and Fulfillingess’ First Finale. A lot of people go for Talking Book. Innervisions too. I’ve always held Fulfillingess’ First Finale among my absolute favourites – for You Haven’t Done Nothin’ alone – because it wasn’t quite as stacked with hits as the others, made it more interesting in some ways, but Innervisions is perfect. Talking Book is faultless. And just lately I’ve spent more time with Music of My Mind, the start of that golden run. Back when I first heard all of those albums – it seemed best to just hear them all together, brothers, sisters, a litter of records – Music of My Mind was the standout. It seemed like the mission-statement. The start of something. The true announcement of Wonder – as musical genius, as visionary, virtuoso.
He also made Stevie Wonder presents: Syreeta around this time too, a parting gift for his ex-wife. He composed and produced the music, played on the album too. It presents the original version of Cause We’ve Ended as Lovers, the summation of their marriage and a song that Jeff Beck recorded as part of his Blow by Blow album.
No time to come up for air, Key of Life followed swiftly. Then there was a break. And a misfire – though you should always check out the misfires. I couldn’t go recommending Stevie Wonder’s soundtrack for a documentary about plants as a must-have record, but I like it. There’s a few good tracks hiding in there. It’s mostly fascinating though for the brutal – weird – change in pace. And direction. Questlove will tell you too (in his book) that Secret Life of Plants is unfairly maligned, is magical and a bit bonkers and therefore worth hearing).
Hotter Than July isn’t up there with Key of Life and the four albums recorded between 1972-1974 but I’ve always liked it for its best songs. Master Blaster, the Bob Marley tribute, is as good as anything off the earlier albums – and as with Songs in the Key of Life it’s an album I remember from my childhood. It’s probably the Stevie Wonder album I heard the most – one of my mum’s Housework Albums. School holiday sleep-ins ruined with the sound of the vacuum cleaner fighting its way over the volume of this record. Sometimes I could hear All I Do blasting down the road as I was walking home from school. Six, seven, eight houses away from my house I could hear the windows rattling. This, or Master Blaster or even Happy Birthday belting out, filling the street.
Hotter Than July is the last great album from Stevie Wonder. Doesn’t mean I stopped buying his records – if he released a new one tomorrow I’d line up for it. Well, no one does that anymore, but you know what I mean.
Hotter Than July isn’t up there with the five other great records – but my association with the album is what allows it to rub shoulders with Key of Life and Talking Book and those other masterpieces. I still have the copy that we used to blast when I was a kid; the one the whole neighbourhood got to hear (whether they wanted to or not).
Walking home from primary school I seemed to be guided by whatever record mum was playing. It was the arly 1980s, the pap-era of Stevie Wonder’s radio hits was creeping in, that was the time I first saw Beverly Hills Cop, Eddie Murphy the big breakout star. It was the very first VHS tape we rented – for a family Saturday night film. The guy in the store warned my mum that the first 10 minutes featured a lot of swearing. I had to go out of the room while my mum, dad and brother watched the start of the tape and made the decision that it would be fine for me to see it too. No sex or violence, just profanity. Words are only words. They rewound the tape, called me back in. Beverly Hills Cop was my favourite film as soon as I saw it.
A week or so after seeing it I was on my first watch of Delirious. Someone’s older sibling had rented it, it was still lying around the house…
And before I would return to Delirious to pick out all of the great pop-culture references, to revel in the spot-on impersonations and feed off the visceral energy of that rock-star performance I would take home the phrase, “Stevie Wonder is a musical genius”.
We had a poster in our classroom with Stevie Wonder proclaiming that he’d sooner drive the car himself than ride with a drunk. That was part of Eddie Murphy’s act, he was commenting on that ad-campaign. Or maybe he had pre-empted the campaign even. Anyway, while people seemed to get a kick out of Stevie Wonder’s blindness – see it as punchlines for comedy acts and ad-copy I was just in awe of all this music. This guy, one guy, a one-man-band, making perfect music. This musical genius.
The world needs new Eddie Murphy films like it needs new Stevie Wonder albums.
Eddie Murphy was a comedic genius. Stevie Wonder is a musical genius. I don’t ever need to see Delirious again. I wouldn’t be without a dozen Stevie Wonder albums (I’m sold on Journey Through The Secret Life of Plants – the fascinating misfire), I love some of those early records too – Down To Earth, For Once In My Life, My Cherie Amour and Signed, Sealed & Delivered. I have a fondness, too, for the soundtrack from Jungle Fever.
But the six records that sum up an incredible run across the 1970s… those are the ones you just can’t deny. Any of the cheese that followed is forgiven.