I have a love affair with simplicity. Being able to take the simple and leave it simple without getting repetitive and redundant is a solid gold skill, remedy especially in music. This 1968 recording from Sly & the Family Stone is a perfect simplicity, no rx so come on and check it out with me.
The smooth sweet flavor is set by the piano, dosage bass, and drummer. What caught my ear and made me want to analyze this recording was the fact that the piano and the bass are slightly out of tune. (Bass is a little sharp from the piano) This is one of those magical things that would almost never happen in 2014 because we rely so heavily on electronic tuners and very rarely tune by ear anymore. There is an artful quality in this micro-tuning which I’m sure is completely accidental but gives this song a heart and human feel that I assure you would be absent if these two instruments were perfectly tuned.
I digress. The bass heavily swings (almost syncopates) the eighths while the piano sustains a really simple voicing of the top of the chord. The bass and the piano here rely on each other because neither has a complete chord without the other. (Kind of poetic given the lyrical theme of the song)
The complete drum kit is on the right while the piano and bass are down the middle. A pickup phrase to the vocal is played by a heavily distorted (guitar or keyboard, hard to to tell). Beautiful distortion. Would be hard to play any complex melody with whatever that signal chain is, but the harmonics it gives are just gorgeous. They give it a rock & roll attitude while leaving the song as a ballad. After this note on the left side we get a clean guitar doubling the piano phrase and a cowbell, 4 on the floor. This percussive element balances out the rhythm across the stereo field while leaving the mix open for the ripping chorus vocals we’ll be getting soon.
After these first few bars along with our new rhythm elements we have our lead vocal. The recording of this is cool, it’s missing low end that you’d often find today and it has a crispy warm texture to it. The first phrase where he’s singing about himself he’s solo and then we get an almost imperceptible doubled background when he starts talking about the butcher and the banker.
I LOVE the ripping background chorus singers in the left channel. I mean these guys are singing the part OUT. Nothing holding them back.
2nd verse brings us in the right channel female singers who are singing an almost nursery rhyme. The original verse melody is embellished and maintained by our new horn section mixed beautifully in stereo. I love that the vocals sound like name calling and break down into “and so on, and so on and scooby doo bee doo.”
Our ripping chorus singers are tamed for the time being with some “ooh, shah, shah” while Sly busts out “we’ve got to live together!” – such a cool dichotomy.
This arrangement sort of repeats but damn what a beautiful combination. It’s like a round. With the horns giving an almost orchestral legitimacy to nursery rhyme name calling sung soulfully beyond compare.
I usually don’t remark on anything lyrically in my blog, but I just have to say this: the melodies and the message is almost childlike being sung to grown adults being told to behave and get along. I absolutely love it. It’s like “let me tell you in simple language you can easily understand: let’s play nice and work it out- life has too much opportunity to waste being negative with one another.”
Amen Sly, amen.