Stevie Wonder’s Psychedelic Botanical Masterpiece

Staff Picks: Stevie Wonder, Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants (1979).

Secret LifeHere’s a formula for a hit record: provide a second-by-second description of an obscure film adaptation of a book about plants to a blind man and ask him to create a mostly instrumental double-album soundtrack.

Well, Motown wasn’t too jazzed about this idea either.

From 1971 to 1976 Stevie Wonder produced a string of six records that were each huge commercial successes and bold artistic leaps forward for R&B and pop music, in general. Following this “classic era,” Stevie took a three year hiatus (the longest of his illustrious career), and by 1979, his fans were clamoring for a follow-up to 1976’s brilliant “Songs in the Key of Life”. In October of 1979, Stevie finally released a double-LP soundtrack titled “Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants.” Riding the wave of his previous successes and the long wait for a new record, ‘Journey’ debuted at number four on Billboard, but due to the film’s limited release and the initial negative reaction from critics, it quickly plummeted off the charts, making it one of Stevie’s least commercially successful records of his career.

Since that time, however, this surprising and experimental record has gone on to become somewhat of a cult classic among Stevie fans.  In his recent memoir Mo Meta Blues Roots drummer and ubiquitous afro sporter ?uestlove calls ‘Journey’ “[his] Dark Side of the Moon, [his] psychedelic masterpiece.” And, in a 2004 interview, when asked to list the three albums that most represent him, Stevie listed “Songs in the Key of Life,” “Journey Through the Secret Life of Plants” and a tossup between “Talking Book” and “Innervisions.”

The album begins with an instrumental track Stevietitled ‘Earth’s Creation’, an eerie sonic approximation of primordial earth’s beginnings that sounds like electric clouds circling above a pool of lava. On track two, ‘The First Garden,’ Stevie’s familiar harmonica provides a sweet melodic interpretation of the blooming of the earth’s first plants. And things get weirder from there. In “Venus Fly Trap and the Bug” a slightly terrifying robot voice narrates the perspective of a bug being tricked and devoured by a plant. Other tracks include screaming children, Japanese poetry, thunder claps and rain sounds, random crowd noise, orchestral strings over proto-Prince disco grooves,  and lots of not-quite-placeable synthesizer sounds. Perhaps my favorite track is the sentimental Side 3 closer about being reincarnated as a flower, “Come Back As a Flower” which features lead vocals by Stevie’s one time wife and long time collaborator Syreeta Wright. At Motown’s nervous request, Stevie did end up including more pop friendly songs like the catchy and sweet ballad “Send One Your Love” and the traditional-Stevie-sounding ‘Outside My Window.’

Aside from its experimental edge and poor commercial performance, the album is notable for a few other reasons, as well.  The album’s cover included the title and artist printed in braille along the bottom and in the original pressings, the inside of the cover was sprayed with a flower scented perfume (still faintly detectable in one of the archive’s copies), until it was discovered to be eating away at the vinyl records. Many consider ‘Journey’ to be one of the first New Age albums and truly if Stevie Wonder’s name wasn’t printed at the top, the cover would look right at home next to some crystals and incense at your local New Age gift shop.   ‘Journey’ also features the first use of the Computer Music Melodian, a digital sampling synthesizer, and is one of the earliest known albums recorded entirely digitally.

Here’s the charming music video for the album’s title track:

I’ve loved Stevie Wonder since I was a toddler blaring Oldies 95 on the kitchen radio and  jumping around to ‘Uptight’. And as I’ve been exposed to more and more Stevie over the years, I keep uncovering deeper levels to his genius. Starting with the poppy radio hits and then delving into the classic album cuts from ‘Music of My Mind’ to ‘Innervisions’ and ‘Songs in The Key of Life’, Stevie seems to have an answer for every mood, every passing feeling. At the suggestion of a friend, I only recently discovered this classic weird Stevie album and now, finally, I have Stevie’s answer for when I feel like just another carbon-based, multi-cellular organism.

UMKC students and staff can listen to the entire album for free on the American Song Database. Give it a listen!

Innovations on the B-side: The Tim Gillesse Collection of Caribbean Music, Part 2

Tim Gillesse

Tim Gillesse

Tim Gillesse, a long-time resident of Lawrence, Kansas and avid reggae enthusiast, made his first of many trips to Jamaica in the early 1970s. During these trips he scoured small record shops and sound studios in Kingston in search of rare reggae 45s and LPs. Upon Mr. Gillesse’s passing in April of 2013, his estate donated nearly 1000 of these recordings to the Marr Sound Archives. Dating from the early 70’s to the late 90’s, the Gillesse Collection of Caribbean Music showcases some rare and exciting moments in the history of the reggae sub-genre known as dub.
The Gillesse collection of 45s varies in origin from famed labels like Duke Reid’s Treasure Isle to lesser known, hand-printed labels like African Museum and Zippy, and features the work of many of the most important and innovative figures in the history of “dub”. The collection of reggae and “dub” records provides an invaluable sonic snapshot of an influential and often overlooked development in the history of not just Caribbean music, but popular music in general.

For a quintessential example of Dub style, compare the Lee Perry produced B-side, “Dub of Parliament” to the Meditations’ original A-side “House of Parliament.” Dub of Parliament

First, listen to the original: [audio:]

Now compare this to the Lee Perry “Dub” version: [audio:]

Perry recorded these tracks at his Black Ark Studios, which was well-known as a site of eccentric and experimental techniques, like covering the drum studio in chicken wire, recording and sampling shattering glass, and burying microphones under palm trees.

One of my personal favorites from the collection is Joe Gibbs and Errol T.’s reworking of Ranking Joe’s “Drunken Master” titled “Silver Fox.” Drunken Master

The Original: [audio:|titles=Drunken Master|artists=Ranking Joe and Errol T.]

Joe Gibb and Errol T’s Dub Version: [audio:]

The original song begins with 30 seconds of belligerent, drunken rambling, which in the B-side dub version is spliced up and masterfully reworked into the rhythm track.

Perhaps the most well-known and influential artist in dub was Osbourne “King Tubby” Ruddock. King Tubby is generally credited as the inventor of the “remix” and the man who turned sound engineering into a true art form. Tubby's at the ControlOne of the many “Versions” titled “Tubby’s at the Control,” this track produced for the Pantomine label, features signature King Tubby style, reducing the rhythm to a basic drum and bass pattern while splicing in stabs of melodic instrumentation.

Tubby’s At the Control: [audio:]


King Tubby, before his murder in 1989, began focusing most of his energy on managing his Jammy Versionnewly built studios and developing his musical protégés, among whom were included “Scientist” and “Prince Jammy” (or depending on the stage of his career “King Jammy”). Prince Jammy is largely credited with ushering in the “dancehall” generation of dub and was an early innovator of using digital and electronic effects. This 1986 “Version” of King Kong’s “Trouble Again” is typical of dub’s turn towards the “ragga” dancehall sound.

[audio:|titles=Trouble Again (Version)|artists=Prince Jammy]

Other highlights include dub recordings from such famed labeled as the Hoo-Kim Brothers’ Channel One, Errol T. Records, Ja Man, Impact!, Techniques, Treasure Isle , Bob Marley’s 56 Hope Road studio, famed vocalist Gregory Isaac’s African Museum label, Selector Henry ‘Junjo’ Lawes’ Volcano label (named after his renowned Volcano Sound System), and Sly and Robbie’s label, Taxi Records. It also includes tracks from legendary producers like Coxsone Dodd, Bunny Lee, Augustus Pablo, and many, many more.

With the donation of these records to the Marr Sound Archive, the estate of Tim Gillesse has preserved an important piece of music history and created a valuable resource for scholars, reggae enthusiasts and music lovers in general. While the names of producers like Scientist or King Tubby may not be as recognizable as Tosh or Marley, nevertheless, the influence of their “dub” studio innovations can be seen everywhere in popular music today. These early “dub” records have influenced everything from reggaeton and dancehall to British punk, post-punk and new wave, to the last 30 years of hip-hop, to the entire concept of a remix.

Innovations on the B-side: The Tim Gillesse Collection of Caribbean Music, Part 1

A Typical Jamaican Sound System

A typical Jamaican Sound System

These days we are all familiar with the concept of a “remix”. Listen to any pop radio station for more than 30 minutes and you’re likely to hear one. An increased tempo turns a slow country ballad into a dance club hit. A Jay-Z verse turns an R&B song into a radio-friendly single. R. Kelly even turns the last 30 seconds of his “Ignition” into a preview of its own remix.  But according to many music scholars, the roots of the “remix” can be traced back to the innovators and artists in the Jamaican music scene of the late 1960s. The newly established Tim Gillesse Collection of Caribbean Music at the Marr Sound Archive showcases some of the earliest instances of these recording innovations, which eventually led to the development of the reggae sub-genre known as “dub” and the ever-growing remix culture in popular music today.

In his exhaustive study titled Dub: Soundscapes and Shattered Songs in Jamaican Reggae, Michael E. Veal explains that in order to trace the development of dub, one must understand the broader context of the Kingston music scene, specifically the importance of “sound system” culture. In economically depressed Kingston, Jamaica, few people could actually afford to purchase recordings, so music was experienced mostly in communal settings around mobile entertainment centers known as “sound systems.” In order to attract larger audiences and stand out from their competitors, the sound system DJs (known as “selectors”) were driven to consistently supply new and unique songs. To fulfill this need, sound system operators and studio engineers began to push the local recording studios to produce new material at a torrid pace.


Lee “Scratch” Perry in his famed Black Ark Studio

As a result of the fierce competition and drive for new music, studio engineers began to experiment with new mixing techniques, dropping out vocals or looping certain sound patterns from already popular reggae songs in order to create new recordings for the eager sound system operators. The engineers then began to record these versions onto 10-inch acetate discs known as “dub plates,” which normally were used only for test pressings and sent to record manufacturing plants. However, now, instead of waiting to send these acetate recordings to a manufacturer for pressing, engineers began to simply supply these “dub plates” directly to the sound system operators, thereby cutting out turn-around time and blurring the lines between the musicians, engineers, and the “selectors”. These discs were generally expensive one-off recordings and could only be played a limited number of times before wearing out. Initially, the dub-plates contained song versions in which merely the vocals or instrumentals were absent or would drop out, but as the dancehall crowds responded enthusiastically to these new unique song sound system versions, recording engineers began to experiment with more complex mixing techniques. Initially this practice was called “versioning” but it eventually evolved in to what became known as dub.

As studio recording technology advanced,  engineers and producers in Jamaica began to experiment with their new-found creative freedoms. Through the use of mixing board sound effects like reverb, looping, equalization, filtering, tape splicing, tape speed manipulation and other forms of editing, the pioneers of “dub” such as Lee “Scratch” Perry and Errol Thompson transformed the mixing board from a mere tool of soundrecording into a creative site of musical composition and arrangement. By stripping familiar reggae songs down to their most minimal elements, and then building new sound textures through studio effects, dub producers created new, raw and mesmerizing pseudo-electronic music out of pre-recorded instrumentation and vocals.

See Me Yah Version

A 1975 B-side “Version” mixed by King Tubby

The popularity of these “versions” led many of the Kingston record labels to begin including these tracks as B-sides on their 7” singles. Thus, on over 30 of the records in the Gillesse Collection, the B-side’s label reads simply “Version.”

In Part 2 of this post, I will explore a few of my favorite individual tracks from the Gillesse Collection.

Works Referenced: Veal, Michael E. Dub: Soundscapes and Shattered Songs in Jamaican Reggae. Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 2007.