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 But when the decade ended it too disappeared, superseded by new keyboards beside which it suddenly seemed tired and obsolete.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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Limehouse raises the question of when party loyalty becomes political irresponsibility

Labour's “Gang of Four” are brought to life brilliantly at the Donmar Warehouse.

A star of the Labour Party right wing, exiled from the shadow cabinet for deviating from the dominant orthodoxy, rants about how a decent but weak Labour leader, with an election-losing anti-European, anti-nuclear manifesto, risks letting the prime minister get away with whatever she wants.

Laughter shows that the audience gets what the dramatist Steve Waters is up to. Limehouse takes place on 25 January 1981, when a gentle veteran, Michael Foot, seems to be leading Labour to such sure oblivion at the next election that Dr David Owen has summoned his fellow moderates Shirley Williams, Bill Rodgers and (just back from a stint running Europe) Roy Jenkins to Sunday lunch in his kitchen in east London. This meeting led the “Gang of Four”, as they became known, to make a statement of estrangement from Labour that heralded the creation of the Social Democratic Party.

Waters was inspired by a New Statesman interview in which Rodgers wondered if the left-right divide under Jeremy Corbyn might justify a similar evacuation of the pragmatists now. The debates that the play stages – fidelity to party and national tribes against a fear of political and historical irrelevance – feel hotly topical.

Williams, considering an offer to abandon Labour and teach at Harvard, faced then the dilemma of an Ed Balls or Tristram Hunt now. And Labour members today who fantasise about a new progressive grouping might reflect that, while the SDP briefly seemed a plausible alternative to Thatcherism (winning 7.8 million votes at the 1983 election), the middle-class revolution was squeezed externally by two-party domination and internally by disputes over leadership and direction.

But, for all the parallel relevance, the success of Limehouse ultimately depends on the convincing re-creation of an era and its people. Enjoyable period details include the luxury macaroni cheese to a recipe by Delia Smith that Debbie Owen, Delia’s literary agent, chops and fries on stage to fuel her husband’s discussions with his three wary comrades. Waters also skilfully uses the mechanics of a pre-digital world – having to go out for newspapers, going upstairs to answer a phone – to get one character out of the way to allow others to talk about them.

As a good playwright should, Waters votes for each character in turn. Owen, though teased for vanity and temper, is allowed a long speech that honours his status as one of the most memorable orators in modern British politics. Tom Goodman-Hill samples Owen’s confident baritone without going the whole Rory Bremner.

Playing Jenkins, a man celebrated for both a speech defect and rococo cadences, Roger Allam has no choice but to deliver the voice perfectly, which he does. Waters carefully gives the character an early riff about the “crepuscular greyness” of Brussels, allowing Allam to establish the w-sounds and extravagant adjectives. Actor and playwright also challenge the assumption that for Jenkins both to love fine wine and to advocate social justice was inevitably a contradiction.

Debra Gillett refreshingly avoids the scattiness that caricaturists attribute to Williams, stressing instead her large brain and deep soul, in a portrayal that increases the sense of shame that the Tories should lead Labour 2-0 in the score of female prime ministers. As Rodgers (in Beatles terms, the Ringo of the confab four), Paul Chahidi touchingly suggests a politician who knows that he will always be a bag-man but still agonises over whose luggage to carry.

Unfolding over 100 minutes, Polly Findlay’s production has a lovely rhythm, staging the delayed entrances of Jenkins and Williams for maximum impact. Biodramas about the living or recently dead can be hobbled by a need to negotiate objections of tact or fact. Politicians, however, often purchase even the rudest cartoons of themselves for the loo wall, and the real Owen, Williams and Rodgers laughed warmly during, and strongly applauded after, the first night.

At an impromptu press conference afterwards, a genial and generous Owen astutely observed that what at the time was “a very happy day in our house” has been dramatised as tragicomedy. But, regardless of whether Marx was right about history repeating itself the second time as farce, the possibility that farce is being repeated in Labour Party history has encouraged a compelling play that is sublimely enjoyable but also deeply serious – on the question of when loyalty to party can become disloyalty to political responsibility.

“Limehouse” runs until 15 April

Mark Lawson is a journalist and broadcaster, best known for presenting Front Row on Radio 4 for 16 years. He writes a weekly column in the critics section of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 23 March 2017 issue of the New Statesman, Trump's permanent revolution