Everyone in the post-grunge indie pop world ever, except Paul Simon owes Steve Winwood some kind of money. The acclaimed, awarded and completely swept-under-the-rug-with-the-sand-of-time British composer is almost single-handedly responsible for one of the biggest aural sunbursts of the late eighties that just so happened to set the tone for a movement of like minded joy-jackers thirty years later. Simon is exempt because he did something very similar with even more popularity on Graceland; casting a wide net across African (as opposed to Winwood’s Carribean) nations and streamlining them into something that even a white person could sort of ‘get’. Winwood, whose phenomenally ridiculous ‘Higher Love’ topped the Billboard charts for a whole seven days in 1986, basically ate every Island around the Americas and then spat it out for Island records, who released this single. It then won two Grammys, anyway. Like Charles & Eddie’s ‘Would I Lie To You?’ and dare I say it, Hot Chip’s more recent ‘Motion Sickness’, ‘higher Love’ succeeds purely because as a kitchen sink song (everything else is in there), it literally has to. The only other option is to have the entire world laughing at you, which, in 1986, was reserved exclusively for The Royal Family. Through brazen composition, unusual elements and strength of conviction, Winwood, along with the indomitable Chaka Khan who sang backing vocals – how is that even fair? – created something so happy and joyous that even the narcs couldn’t bring the high down. What a champion.
Winwood, aside from writing this song, is rock history encapsulated. He plays so many instruments so well that he sat in on sessions for Jimi Hendrix, George Harrison, Lou Reed and Billy Joel. It took four of his own solo albums before anybody really paid notice to Winwood as a performer in his own right, though, which coincides with the time this single dropped. He now jams with Eric Clapton and lets Eric Prydz re-record his licks for dance tracks, so safe to say the man is pretty switched on for a dinosaur. Anyway, ‘Higher Love’, which is what we’re here to talk about. There are synths or guitars or something that sound like steel drums and this whole calypso-Jamaica beat going on the really shouldn’t work but it so totally does. On second reflection I think it is actually a keyboard that just sounds like mallets hitting steel, with a throbbing bass progression moving underneath. What’s amazing about this song is that even though it seems really busy, every part is really holding back. There’s only brief chord stabs on the one and three-and notes of the bar and they’re so quick they could almost not be there. The bass slinks along doing all kinds of great stuff but doesn’t get in the way, and in the verse, there’s literally only one snare hit per bar, which is kind of unheard of in pop music, even today. I have no idea where he studied, but Winwood studied well, this is about as authentic as it gets for Westerners before you’re in ‘Red Red Wine’ territory. The rhythm and timing is impeccable.
It all really comes together in the bridge before the second chorus, where it drops into minor and there are those terrible naff vox presets going ‘OOOOHHHH’ while Winwood moves through a rock progression with a dub beat and you wonder if it’s going to resolve properly or not. Of course, with a chorus this excellent, it’s not like there was ever any real cause for concern; I’m honestly surprised they didn’t use it in the Olympics or Eurovision or something. It oscillates around only one note but it’s just great to listen to, especially when those notes are held over the bar with Chaka closely mirroring on some sort of parallel-not-exactly-octave. To really appreciate this song, you have to go for the extended five minute version, which has a second breakdown thast’s got this sick brass/snare call and response and the huge payoff of Chaka Khan going at it like an R&B banshee in the ensuing choruses, that go forever. Literally forever. This song re-entered my sphere of listening after a long absence (I haven’t had a haircut in a while) after my sister played me a cover by this stooge called James Vincent McMorrow or something, which proceeds to take all the good parts out of it and turn it into some crybaby folk song. I don’t know why people insist on doing that to music that was actually fun to begin with. It seems like a complete travesty to me, especially given how much joy and inspiration this would have given to everyone from Passion Pit to Muse and anyone else who thought about borrowing from other cultures while having a huge party on record. This came out the year before I was born. Even if they can’t learn them, turns out old dogs can definitely teach new tricks.
Steve Winwood – ‘Higher Love’