Wednesday, 23 June 2010

English Soul: Steve Winwood

BBC4 has been building up a superb library of documentaries about rock ‘n’ roll music, and has just aired another one, English Soul, devoted to the career of Steve Winwood. Still, I’m struck by how many of these docs tell the same sociological story, i.e. how in 1960s England a lot of young lads – mainly working class or petit bourgeois, mainly from the north and the midlands (or, yes, the outskirts of London) – wanted very much not to do what their Dads had done. That willed difference is an old story, yes, but in the 1960s it had a brand new outlet in popular music.
Moreover, these lads’ Dads (or Mums) quite often had musical instruments about the house – the working-class way of making your own entertainment and all that. But whereas Mum & Dad were raised on music-hall and might conceivably have appreciated Lonnie Donegan or Cliff Richard, the key to the needful difference was these lads' youthful worship of black American music and musicians, the love of blues and R&B, the desire to imitate its sentiment, its feel, its authenticity. Thus Eric Clapton in the BBC4 doc, remembering how he marvelled at the vocal skill of the young Steve Winwood – that he could sing like that, as opposed to what must have been his actual life experience. He ‘sounded black’, ‘like Ray Charles.’ (The doc went on to reveal that 60-ish Steve now talks with the clipped vowels of a long-time multi-millionaire country gent, whereas his brother Muff is still a cast-iron Brummie.)
When I was at the age (17) that one has a ‘favourite song’, quite often something a bit moody/melancholy, the one for me was ‘Can’t Find My Way Home’ by Blind Faith (which I first heard over the end credits of Kevin Reynold’s terrific movie Fandango, sadly neglected now as it was then.) The song was written and sung by Steve Winwood. When Winwood was 17? Well, he was enjoying knocking The Beatles off the top of the pop charts with ‘Keep On Running’, recorded with The Spencer Davis Group. And – you get my theme – when I was 17 Winwood was enjoying a solo US number one with ‘Higher Love’, a pop-'soul'/dance tune that rhymed ‘fire’ and ‘desire’ and was packaged in the Arif Mardin mode of the day whereby everything – keyboards, horns, drums – sounded programmed and spring-loaded and utterly inorganic… except for the voice.
After ‘Higher Love’ for Winwood came ‘Roll With It’, another sing-a-long hit that, if I remember right, was licensed to advertise Michelob beer. I well remember Keith Richard giving his hoarse opinion of the ambition of that record to Rolling Stone at that time: ‘Ahh, come on, Steve...’ In English Soul Winwood talks half-apologetically about ‘going along with things’ for commercial reasons at various points in his career. He was a prodigy, so he was doubtless offered at least as much as he could initiate creatively. What size of an artist has he been? The definitive answer is presumably in the new box set Revolutions. For my part I confess I prefer a master songwriter/musician who sings his/her own stuff, however flawed (cf. Warren Zevon, who actually covered Winwood’s 'Back in the High Life', albeit a little awkwardly) to a great singer who settles too much into familiar grooves and co-authored lyrical clichés. But for Winwood’s Blind Faith songs alone – also ‘Sea of Joy’ and ‘Had to Cry Today’ – on top of all the Traffic stuff and the solo material – I admit I remain a keen fan.

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