In praise of the clavinet

It's 40 years since Stevie Wonder showed off the otherwordly range of this keyboard.

If you listen very closely to "Sweet Little Girl" from Stevie Wonder’s Music of My Mind album you can hear him mumble: “You know your baby loves you more than I love my clavinet”. It is certainly a song full of self-parody, but this is no mere joke because for him it was the ultimate compliment. The clavinet was the instrument that defined him and it was also, though few people recognise it, the instrument of a decade.

The notes made by this unobtrusive little rectangle sparkle through the 1970s like space dust falling on the disparate worlds of a musical galaxy. And 2012 is a double anniversary for the clavinet: 30 years since the German company Hohner ceased production and 40 years this month since the release of Wonder's "Superstition" in the US, the song for which it is best known and on which it was stretched to its fullest and most glorious extent.

From funk, soul, fusion and reggae and then to country rock, hard rock, disco and west coast AOR, this sonic will-o’-the wisp seemed somehow suited to whatever purpose it was applied. Originally created for classical music in European homes, the clicking, clucking, quacking noises it produced went on to make funk funkier, soul more soulful and rock darker and more decadent. But when the decade ended it too disappeared, superseded by new keyboards beside which it suddenly seemed tired and obsolete.

Before peering deeper into "Superstition" it’s worth looking at how the clavinet came to be made and how it generated such a unique sound. In the late 1950s and early 1960s Hohner – best known for harmonicas – had been experimenting with portable versions of familiar keyboard types. They produced the cimbalet, inspired by the harpsichord, in which strings are plucked, and various models of pianet, in which the keys activated a sticky pad that on release would vibrate a reed. In 1964 the first clavinet was produced, based on the venerable clavichord, an instrument with a 400-year pedigree that used blades called “tangents” to strike the strings. Clavichords were impractically quiet and a clavinet got round this by replacing the tangents with hammers that plunged down on to a string when a key was depressed. That string was pressed into a metal strip, or “anvil”, which made the string vibrate. The vibration reached magnetic pickups for a sound that could be fully amplified.

Not only did it produce a magical percussive twang across five octaves of 60 keys, but it was also dynamic, meaning notes could be sustained and pressed with lesser or greater force to vary volume and attack. The high notes were bright, the middle range punchy yet mellow and low notes had a visceral growl. Following a few false starts Hohner made the clavinet C in 1968, the keyboard Wonder used during his golden years. After a left turn with the L - triangular with reverse-colour keys and now as rare as a mountain leopard - in 1971 they introduced the more durable D6, the keyboard hundreds of bands relied on for the next 10 years.

Of course, most people recognise the clavinet best in the hands of one man and in the opening bars of one song. For Wonder it became not merely an accompaniment, but his second voice. In a most basic sense it meant he could play his own version of lead and rhythm guitars through a keyboard, but it developed into something much greater, allowing him to express his vision and emotions on a canvass painted from a palette all his own.

His clavinet first shows up, tellingly, as he began to grow as an artist of independent means through songs such as "I Don’t Know Why I Love You" and "You Met Your Match" in 1968 then again on his album of creative transition, 1971’s Where I’m Coming From. Another famous early appearance is on the The Band’s "Up On Cripple Creek" in 1969, on which Garth Hudson plays it through a wah-wah pedal and makes it wobble like an electrified Jew’s harp. It was around this time that almost every major funk and soul act caught on to the edge the clavinet gave their sound.

In just a couple of years the Isley Brothers, Parliament/Funkadelic, Bill Withers, Marvin Gaye, Bobby Womack, Earth, Wind & Fire, Billy Preston, The Commodores and countless others worked the clavinet into the fabric of popular music while in the more esoteric world of fusion it became a natural staple of Herbie Hancock and Chick Corea.

The throaty pulse of the clavinet also reached Jamaica where it emerged on reggae. Bob Marley exploited both the higher and lower range to great effect, from his mainstream breakthrough on the Catch A Fire album in 1973 (played by the American sesssionman John “Rabbit” Bundrick) through to near the end of his life on 1980’s "Could You Be Loved".

Wonder was busy throughout the period creating his own distinct song cycle, leaning heavily on the clavinet and moog synthesisers, and much of the unity of his output is down to his innovative and technically minded producers, Malcolm Cecil and Bob Margouleff. The second album in his run of five consecutive masterpieces, Talking Book, is dripping with the sound of multiple clavinets – sometimes honeyed and at others venomous and mean.

Bands often talk about being “tight” and this is a concept that involves a lot more than technical ability. It requires an unfakeable simpatico. Wonder achieves a kind of other-worldly tightness on "Superstition" – at the age of 22 - by being in synch with himself. The syncopation of his percussive style of keyboard playing is so idiosyncratic that the only way for this track to work is for one person to play it all, including the drums. This is taken to a state of incandescent – almost absurd – virtuosity through the use of eight clavinet tracks in the recording. In a mix of 16 tracks, half were clavinet; the others being one for moog bass, three for the drums, two for his incredible vocals and two for horns (the only thing he did not play).

Syncopation – playing off the expected beat and putting stress on notes outside regular timing – is one of the keys to funk and to "Superstition". First you hear the shuffling drums and as a typical Motown drummer he makes them sound like a piano hitting the pavement from a 10th-storey window. Next comes the opening clavinet riff, which many people still assume is a guitar. On paper it is a relatively simple pentatonic run (black keys, basically) starting on E-flat around which is added layer after layer of the same keyboard, some doubling up and some syncopated slightly differently to the original). What makes the riffs sound so unusual are the extra touches Wonder makes around the core notes, sometimes called “ghost notes”. Cecil and Margouleff then add delay to two tracks to extend what you hear into a vast harmonic panorama. If grooves were deities, "Superstition"’s would be Zeus.

It is a tribute to the song that the clavinet became a shorthand for funk. Even the Goodies' 1975 novelty hit, "Funky Gibbon", predicated its “funkiness” entirely around a clavinet riff. But while the use of the keyboard was reaching a peak in quantity and quality a subtle contextual shift occurred. As it became synonymous with contemporary black music so, inevitably, a divergent number of white rock acts began to spread - and possibly dilute - its impact and whereas in funk it complemented the generally positive and uplifting feel, in rock it suggested something very different.

In the hands of rock bands it became the background noise to babylonian hedonism. It carries with it, even today, the implied grime, crime and menace of a decade and a culture in conflict. It conveys uncertainty and seediness - anxiety instead of optimism. The first instance of this I can discern is on The Rolling Stones’ 1973 album, Goats Head Soup, especially in the song "Doo Doo Doo Doo Doo (Heartbreaker)", which recounts police and criminal violence. Roxy Music’s "Casanova" in 1974 and Steely Dan’s "Kid Charlemagne" from 1976 – arguably the slinkiest record ever made – lay before us a noir-ish picture of nihilism, drugs and charlatans. In the hands of the sardonic Steely Dan the bass notes crackle like a brushfire in the night on the Californian hills.

Other big beasts of the 1970s, including Led Zeppelin ("Trampled Under Foot" and "Custard Pie"), Pink Floyd ("Have A Cigar"), The Eagles ("Life In The Fast Lane") and Fleetwood Mac ("You Make Loving Fun") all used the clavinet in a way that evokes not funky exhilaration, but their own destructive excesses. Even David Bowie used it to add a soiled warmth to the languid soul of several tracks on Young Americans. Although still in use through the high watermark of disco it was beginning to feel dated despite Hohner's new models in 1977 and 1978.

In this way the instrument made a journey of its own through the years from novelty, then to joy and energy and ending in a slightly tawdry darkness. Fashion killed the clavinet and production was halted in 1982. Its successor as the defining sound of a generation was the first digital sampler and sequencer, the Fairlight, which, as if to prove a point, was sounding decidedly old hat by the late 1980s (Wonder himself was one of their first clients). You occasionally still hear the clavinet but it is always as if from a different country. If you want to play one now there is a decent sample to be found in every modern electric keyboard (the real ones sell for between £3,000-6,000). But to be sure of complete satisfaction you are better off reaching for track six of Talking Book and letting Stevie get to work.

Twitter @geochesterton

Stevie Wonder performing in October 1975 (Photograph: Getty Images)

You can follow George on Twitter as @geochesterton.

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The non-fiction novel that takes readers inside the head of Raoul Moat

Andrew Hankinson’s depiction of Moat’s unravelling is being marketed as biography/true crime, but its semi-fictional world is something more complex.

In July 2010, just weeks after becoming Prime Minister, David Cameron expanded upon his vision for the “Big Society” that he had first unveiled at the 2009 party conference. It promised a “big advance for people power”, in which individuals would be responsible for their actions. “To be British is to be sceptical of authority and the powers that be,” he told conference. “There is a ‘we’ in politics, and not just a ‘me’.”

That same month, just two days after being released from HMP Durham for the assault of a child, the self-employed gardener and former doorman Raoul Moat shot and injured his ex-girlfriend Samantha Stobbart and killed her boyfriend Chris Brown, who he wrongly believed to be a policeman. Moat went on the run, shooting a policeman at point-blank range, then fleeing to the rural Northumberland town of Rothbury. For a week, the story of this exotically named, delusional man who left behind a wealth of material, including letters and four-hour-long Dictaphone recordings, was given joint top billing with Cameron’s “Big Society” – soon to be as dead and buried as Moat, who, cornered by police after a seven-day hunt, killed himself.

The journalist Andrew Hankinson’s depiction of Moat’s unravelling is being marketed as biography/true crime, yet really is a non-fiction novel, in which writer and reader squat inside a mind that moves from irrational anger and self-pity to despondency. Moat’s is a solipsistic narration, in which he is the perennial victim – of circumstance, enemies, authoritarian bureaucracy, police harassment and past lovers. There is little room here for the outside world. Like most outlaws, Moat believed that everyone had failed him. “All my life I wanted death,” he laments.

The real-life Moat story, however, was more than that of a lone fugitive. It was also about rolling news coverage and Facebook groups, some of which celebrated Moat as a Ned Kelly-type folk hero – a “#ledge”. When Cameron denounced him in parliament he inadvertently elevated Moat to a clearer anti-authoritarian position: the antithesis of a “Big Society” citizen, in fact. It is also the story of the Northumbria Police force, which did its very best to show that it had everything under control when it really didn’t.

And, bringing an element of farce to a tragedy, it featured the subplot of a thoroughly leathered Paul Gascoigne – the most exciting and idiosyncratic footballer of his generation – tearing through the countryside in a taxi with a fishing rod, a dressing gown and a rotisserie chicken in an attempt to bring a sense of calm to the situation. “All I want to do is shout, ‘Moaty, it’s  Gazza! Where are you?’” he explained en route during a live radio phone-in. “And I guarantee he will shout his name out: ‘I’m here.’” Gascoigne’s pantomime intervention added to the chaos: now another disenfranchised northern male was running amok. The parallels were evident: Gazza’s career had been beset by injury and alcoholism, Moat’s bodybuilder’s physique was no longer in prime condition after weight loss in prison. Both were separated from their families and prone to self-examination. Onlookers knew it could quite easily have been Gazza holed up in those woods.

Other exponents of the non-fiction novel such as Norman Mailer and Gordon Burn would surely have put all this in, yet Hankinson chooses not to cover any of the peripheral subplots, instead using a second-person narrative to burrow deep into Moat’s paranoia, sourcing all his text from real material. This narrative sacrifice in favour of a singular voice gives the book thrust and authenticity of voice, and manages to show the nuances of a man who was articulate and often capable, and had reached out to social services on many occasions for help. None of which excuses Moat’s action – but it does explain his choices. Where the tabloids favoured the simplicity of the textbook “cold-blooded killer”, Hankinson’s portrait lets the reader make his or her own judgement. Clearly Moat was a bully, and yet he was not born that way. Few are. “There’ll be books written about all this, and you’ll be made out to be some crazed fucking maniac,” he says to himself, with both foresight and grim resignation.

Elsewhere the semi-fictional Moat brushes over past transgressions and labours over the tiniest slights in such repetitive, droning detail that the reader’s sympathy soon wanes. The book’s strength lies in the real-life Moat’s keenness to confess – to be heard, finally, beyond death – through these nocturnal monologues, recorded in his tent after yet another meal of charred burgers. From these remnants, Hankinson deftly assembles the man’s inner workings, lending credibility to his portrait while, beyond the myopic commentary, we know, although we don’t see it, that the outside world is closing in. Critics might ask: why give voice to a loser? Perhaps because in the right hands any real-life story is worth telling, and history should never just record the heroes and victors. The losers play their part, too.

Ben Myers’s novel “Beastings” recently won the Portico Prize for Literature

You Could Do Something Amazing With Your Life [You Are Raoul Moat] by Andrew Hankinson is published by Scribe (211pp, £12.99)

Ben Myers’ novels include Pig Iron and Richard, a Sunday Times book of the year. His writing has appeared in The Guardian, NME, Mojo, Time Out, 3:AM Magazine, Caught By The River and many others. www.benmyersmanofletters.blogspot.com

This article first appeared in the 05 February 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin's war