Monday, October 3, 2011

Stevie Wonder "Living For The City" Song Analysis

Reader Christian Hendl asked for a song analysis of Stevie Wonder's masterpiece "Living For The City." I must admit I was a bit overwhelmed at just how great this song is after not hearing it for many years. The tune is off Stevie's 1973 number 1 album Innervisions and was groundbreaking in many ways, from it's story from a black man's perspective (something rare in the 70's), to the synthesizer use, the the time of the song (7:21). As in all song analysis, we'll look at the song form, the arrangement, the sound and the production.

The Song
The interesting thing about "Living For The City" is that it's really just 12 bar blues, but the addition of an instrumental interlude and 2 additional sections make you think you're listening to a different song form. This is the genius of the song. The form looks like this:

Verse, Verse, Interlude, Verse, Verse, Interlude, Chorus, Interlude, Bridge, Verse, Verse, Interlude, Interlude, Interlude, Ending

Two additional interesting points about the song form is that there only a single "chorus," and the bridge has virtually no instruments; it's all dialog.

The Arrangement
Like all hit songs, this one develops and builds as it goes along. The first verse is fairly sparse with only the vocal, stereo Rhodes electric piano, and synth bass. The drums enter in the second verse and the lead line synth during the first interlude, which is doubled with a vocal. On the next verse, the bass begins to vary from it's original line, then the synth fills enter on the next verse. On the second interlude, the synth lines are doubled.

On the verse after the bridge, the drums are much more active with fills, the vocal varies from the original melody and harmonies enter at the end of the line, as well as anticipations and accents from the rhythm section (which are all played by Stevie). This continues on the next verse, followed by an extended drum fill. The outro interludes have a lot more movement from all the instruments as well as vocal harmonies.

  * The Foundation: The drums and bass

  * The Pad: Electric piano double in the interludes

  * The Rhythm: The electric piano in the verses

  * The Lead: The Vocal, synthesizers in the interlude

  * The Fills: Synths, drums, vocals

The Sound
This is a good example of almost a bone-dry song, with only a slight bit of delayed reverb on the vocal. It's so slight that the only time you can hear it is in the beginning of the song when there's only the bass and electric piano playing. The vocal is a little sibilant, and the snare drum is pretty top-end heavy, but neither detracts from the song.

This is also one of the first examples of a song using a synthesizer for the bass line instead of a bass guitar. Stevie proved that it could work, and many, many songs followed his lead thereafter.

The Production
While the concept of the song is brilliant and groundbreaking, the production point that really strikes me is how the arrangement develops, as previously stated. It's one of the best examples of how to do this ever.

The other thing worth mentioning is the two verses after the bridge where Stevie is singing in a much more aggressive tone. According to co-engineer Malcolm Cecil (along with my friend Bob Margouleff), "We had to get find a way to get the vocal rougher and harder, sound like someone who'd been through some real shit, so we decided the only thing to do was try and get Steve real angry and get his voice hoarse, so when we were recording that vocal for the last verse again we kept on doing stuff that would get him angry and one of the things he hates is stopping the tape, you know if he doesn't say stop the tape in the middle of a vocal then... well, we broke that rule! We kept on stopping the tape, "Come on Steve, you can do better than that, this is shit" and I was really shitty with him, and we got him hoarse, we wouldn't give him tea, he likes this tea with no milk in it, with the lemon to clear the throat, We didn't give him the tea. (Laughs) He was getting real upset; I think he's still upset with me about that, but we got a great track!"



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2 comments:

Michael A Lyric said...

The whole album is a masterpiece, and definitely one of my desert island discs. It is a stunning portrayal of a place and time. This is not an album to dip into, it sucks you in from the first track and pulls you right through to the end.

Rand Bliss said...

Very enlightening critique and history lesson Bobby. By the way, Stevie Wonder is a god; ask Jeff Beck to verify.

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