Wednesday, March 22, 2017

A Road That Sometimes Bends: The Stylistics: "You Make Me Feel Brand New"

First, a short explanation as to why there has been a pause here – apart from various holidays and birthdays, there was the rather traumatic Saturday when I came home from work, to find Marcello agitated.  By now I am used to the misery and agitation upon the announcement of a death of a musician, and a song produced by Thom Bell was playing in the background, so I naturally assumed the worst, only to be told no, Mr. Bell was very much alive.  It was only after a bit of prodding that he told me that a man who had been inspired to blog (in part) due to Marcello’s own blogging had died the previous day, by his own hand.  That man was Mark Fisher, a man I had only met once, and then only briefly, at that.  I had attended the Deep Listening Club, noting coolly that I was the only woman there, and was nearly the only woman another gathering where I half-whimsically suggested the next Deep Listening Club be Charles Spearin’s The HappinessProject. 

There was no second Deep Listening Club though.  I can relate only a few impressions of what he was like here:  nervous, enthusiastic, sensitive.  I got the idea he had his own tastes and views that had very little to do with my own (I am not especially interested in the eerie or weird, for instance).  His creating the website Dissensus and then leaving it behind are both noble gestures however, and unlike others in the circles he was in he was not “one of us” in the sense that he went to a public school, Oxbridge and/or “just happened to be” related to someone of money and importance.*

 If you live in a culture like this day in and day out, you have to be extremely careful, distanced, self-aware and self-protective.  I could not tell, from just meeting him once, how good Fisher was at this, or whether he was capable of it.  This in part is why his loss is so tough.  Marcello decided right then to end Then Play Long, for many different reasons, including the general sense that the "one of us" types have no interest in it whatsoever.

Music Sounds Better With Two, however, has never been about wanting or even really needing too much acceptance for me; it is something I do mostly (though not wholly) for my own understanding of things, with the hopeful by-product of helping others to learn things as well.   

And so, we return to the number two song behind “When Will I See You Again”:  “You Make Me Feel Brand New” by The Stylistics. 

Here we are in August 1974 and for many reasons, which (if you’re an American, especially) the Long National Nightmares are over, or nearly so.  The Fog still exists in the UK however, but look how the charts have shifted.  The Glam Slam is fading away (to be replaced by Queen in the popularity stakes, though Slade and Mud and the chart-observant Rubettes still around), and dance music – of the sort that is now apparently immovable from the Radio Two schedule – is taking over.  The word disco has yet to really become known, but it is well on its way  The beginning of the 70s is over; the Fog still exists as I said, but there are welcoming beams of something else coming from Philadelphia....

To help explain Thom Bell and why he is a genius, you have to understand that he was classically trained and indeed wanted to become a concert pianist/conductor.  He went to New York City with this ambition only to be rejected and told to go to Harlem and the Apollo and find work there.  This was a disappointing turn of events (there were black conductors in the US, but as ever one or two were seen as being “enough” by the Man) and so he went back to Philadelphia and worked as a conductor for Chubby Checker.  After tiring of the Twist, he got to work with a group he refashioned as The Delfonics, writing songs for them as the ones he tried to get for them from labels were so bad, he figured he could do better himself; so he taught himself composition, straight from books.  He had some small successes at first, but with “La-La (Means I Love You)” he had a huge hit**, and became a known figure, winning a Grammy and (along with his friends and work associates Gamble and Huff) began to define the Philadelphia sound. 

After producing and writing for the The Delfonics he then in 1971 moved along to The Stylistics, who he accepted as the voice of Russell Thompkins Jr. was (and is) so strikingly high and distinctive – pure and naive and sharp all at the same time.  And he constructed the near-classical pieces to feature that voice ,though on “You Make Me Feel Brand New” you also hear the voice of Airrion Love.  It is the great contrast between the two that in part makes the song so special.  It is a song of two voices– to have it sung by only one voice seems odd (Mick Hucknall tried and failed, spectacularly).  It is also a song of vulnerability and gratitude, utterly calm and even if Linda Creed does rhyme “friend” with “friend” this just adds to the realism.  That a sitar is in the mix should not be seen as anything other than Bell’s own determination to make his songs sound different (and he knew about the sitar from way before the Beatles made them famous; his West Indies background and experience with exchange students at an early age gave him a musical knowledge others didn’t have). 
This moment of calm and vaguely exotic and strikingly modern bliss was a number two hit on both sides of the Atlantic; it feels utterly grounded in a way and yet soars (due to the two voices) and both Love and Thompkins take it slowly, not showily, somehow fitting in as voices in the general palette but also instruments.  It is a hymn; solemn,  stately and melodic enough to have a reggae cover version (I can only imagine there is one). 
Thom Bell won the very first Producer of the Year Grammy award in 1974 - and I am sure whoever has won it since has looked up to him in some way.***  His genius was to keep pushing ahead and teach himself things when others wouldn't, and to know what he wanted and with the lyrics of Linda Creed in this case, bring a delicate and genuine moment to the charts.  The Stylistics suffered once Bell left them to Hugo & Luigi and worked with The Spinners instead; but along with Charles Stepney (a very different producer, but underrated I feel****) and Maurice White he made some of the very best music of the 70s.  It is music that speaks to the spirit and to the heart.  
Next:  we go back to go forward, so to speak.
And:  thanks for waiting, everyone!


*It may be obvious, but it needs stating:  the “one of us” types who feel entitled to everything have pretty much ruined the UK and everything good about it.  The worst ones are those who act as if they are not “one of us” but actually very much are. 

**He won a Grammy but was only able to see this in person as somehow he wangled his way to get a seat in the room – he wasn’t invited.  The president of the company, not him, accepted the award.  He hasn’t been to a Grammy ceremony since.
*** I can just imagine the temper tantrums in certain quarters when (cough) certain big-headed producers didn't get the award, and weren't even thought of to give it to first. 
****Even if Stepney had only produced this, he would be one of the greatest of all time (also co-wrote it, of course):  Rotary Connection's "I Am The Black Gold Of The Sun."