Jun. 6th, 2015

I'd long since fallen out of any habit of listening to "current pop" radio, until a need for Frederick-specific traffic reports got me listening to a local pop station there. For those who didn't know, the biggest hit of the first 4 months of 2015 (according to Billboard) was "Uptown Funk" by Mark Ronson featuring Bruno Mars. (Ronson is a guitarist and producer, but mostly doesn't do vocals, so he brings in divers folks to do the lead vocal on each track.) Perhaps it's a guilty pleasure, but it's definitely my favorite from that time frame. If it comes on while I'm alone in the car I'll crank up the volume and sing the bass line, or sing the trombone part, or some of both.

It struck me as very reminiscent of songs I heard during my first widescale experience with pop music, from 1975 or 1976 through about senior year of high school. Ronson freely admits that this isn't an accident.

Mark Ronson on ‘Uptown Funk': Pop Songs Don’t Need to Have Dumb Lyrics

"Thing that you ever don’t want to sound like is something that came out last year, but 20 years ago is fine." Or in this case, getting close to 40 years.

One review (I've misplaced the link) opined that this was an homage to the 1980s Minneapolis Uptown funk scene. Given the song title, I wouldn't be surprised. And the *lyrics* are certainly more like mid-1980s (or later) than they are like most of what came earlier. (In fact, certain pieces of the lyric would disturb me more than they do, except that I'm treating even the lyric as being a retro-style pastiche.) But the *music*? That groove is older than 1980s Minneapolis. Now, the only funk act I can recall from that scene is The Time. (Yes, the biggest name to come out of that scene was Prince, but his albums that everybody knows from 1999 on are far more funk-*flavored*, either synthpop or just plain pop.) And by the mid-1980s I wasn't listening to that genre as much. In retrospect, I wonder if it's because I wanted something new, or new to me, for the same reason as the above Ronson quote.

So why am I asserting that the groove comes from earlier than the 1980s?

This mini-history lesson starts with James Brown. The "Godfather of Soul" was better described as the Godfather of Funk. He expanded on the Stax/Volt "Memphis Sound" (with its signature horn section), and all of Brown's best work had horns as an integral part of the sound. A bit later on, crossing from the 60s to the 70s, you had Sly Stone further expanding the horizons, and through the 70s one had the Ohio Players, Rufus featuring Chaka Khan, George Clinton with Parliament/Funkadelic, and others, all refining the sound... and in a somewhat more mainstream-accessible vein there was Earth, Wind, and Fire; and increasingly funkily from 1972 through 1977, Stevie Wonder (think "Superstition"). Which brings me back to 1976, when EW&F had their "Spirit" album, and Wonder came out with one of those all-time great albums that everyone really should hear all the way through before they die, "Songs In The Key Of Life".

Herewith a couple well-known examples of 1976 funk on the AM Radio (Everclear song reference intended):
Earth, Wind, and Fire, "Getaway"
Stevie Wonder, "I Wish"

I hope this helps demonstrate my point.

And now for a change of direction. In the Ronson interview there was some discussion of his use of live instrumentation, especially on his current Uptown Special album. A lot of acts have gone to all or mostly electronic backing tracks even for live shows. They're missing something. There is an energy generated by a bunch of live musicians that a prerecorded backing track just cannot duplicate. It's clear to me from being in the audience, or even working the concession booth, at live shows, and even more clear to me from my days of playing and singing in ensembles, going all the way back to high school (primarily the jazz band). I remember seeing EW&F perform live on a television show, perhaps Midnight Special but I don't recall exactly, and that same vibe was there.

So here are Ronson, Mars, and the gang, in the debut live performance of Uptown Funk. As its lyric goes, "it's Saturday night and we in the spot" -- and if you'll forgive the baseball analogy, they crushed it on SNL. The Rolling Stone article said "they hit it out of the park"... and if Studio 8H in Manhattan is the metaphorical ballpark with home plate to the west, I'll go further and state that the ball landed somewhere out in Block Island Sound east of Montauk, THAT'S how well they nailed it. And you can even tell from just watching the video... but this is one I wish I'd been there in person for.

"Uptown Funk" Live on Saturday Night Live



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