Anatomy of THE Groove 10/31/2014 Andre’s Pick: “Skeletons” by Stevie Wonder

I’m going to start off this blog with a little personal story. During my childhood,my father and I would often make cassette tape recordings together that mimicked our own radio show. Actually have dealt with this in more detail on another blog last year. When we did a 1988 Halloween presentation? My father picked a Stevie Wonder song called “Skeletons” from his then latest album called Characters. I had actually chosen “Superstition” for this selection. But neither my father nor I had the song at the time,and wouldn’t for many many years actually. Unable to understand the lyrical concept of the time? It just sounded like a funky song with a holiday appropriate subtext-the very understandable concept of fear. It’s only more recently that I’ve fully made sense of this association.

The song starts out with what sounds like an 808 drum machine beat playing a mid 80’s style hip-hop/funk beat over which Stevie lays down a menacing sound bass synthesizer-with long spaces between the notes almost as if they are creeping towards you. Then some scratchy,hissing percussion effects play an equally penetrating,yet somewhat farther away sounding,rhythmic role with a bluesy lead keyboard melody played on a DX7 digital synthesizer simulating a Clavinet-giving a glossier and round tone than the actual instrument. Stevie’s lead vocals,on both the main chorus and the refrain are met with a call-and-response vocal that,unlike Stevie’s,is muffled and sung through some vocal manipulation device. Might even have been Stevie himself having some internal dialog. There is also a bridge that repeats itself twice-a variation of the bass synth part from the beginning,only more hesitant sounding.

Stevie Wonder’s outlook on romance ranges vastly across the spectrum from an almost fantastically giddy sense of joy to a sense of legitimate suspicion. That sense that a horrible secret is being kept and must be exposed in order to be released. This song explores the later end of that spectrum. Lyrically Stevie takes on the character of someone lightly scolding his character for having to clear their conscience-pointing out that “you know your mama told you ‘don’t lie'”. He’s definitely moralizing a good deal here. And does so with a playful style-almost as if he’s repeating the words of his grandma or something. The accompanying video clip showcases Stevie recalling bullying he (or his character) dealt with for his blindness. And the fact that as an an adult,he’s playing party to a clandestine affair next door in a stereotypical suburbia-without even physically being able to see it play it visually.  Surely this was one of Stevie’s most powerful funk statements of the late 1980’s. And is an easy candidate for one of his funk classics in general.

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3 Comments

Filed under "Skeletons", 1980's, cassette tape, drum machine, Funk, Halloween, Motown, Radio, Stevie Wonder

3 responses to “Anatomy of THE Groove 10/31/2014 Andre’s Pick: “Skeletons” by Stevie Wonder

  1. One of my favorite songs period. Stevie also plays with implications here, playing a word game almost like Malcom X would play. He challenges the concept of a “white lie” that is to say one lie is lesser in import than the next, mentioning “a white one turns into a black one.” Also interesting on the 12″ of this cut is he incorporates Ronald Reagen clips from the Iran Contra hearings, after which he does his “hmmm” bit. An overlooked classic from the Wonder Man!

  2. Also worth mentioning is his setting of the video in a nice suburban scene, which plays on all those associations of places that look very pleasant also having their secrets and “skeletons” in the closet as well! Which was a frequent trope of TV shows like “The Twilight Zone”

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