August 29, 2011


Higher and Higher

Michael Zito
Michael Zito

For the first decade or so of the Red Hot Chili Peppers' career—the pre-"Under the Bridge" era, effectively—they took pains to point out their obsession with American funk at every opportunity. The most notable fruit of that obsession was their 1989 cover of Stevie Wonder's "Higher Ground," mostly because it barely tries to pass as funk.

Flea plays his opening bass solo in the slap-and-pop mode that was originally pioneered by Larry Graham of Graham Central Station (see, for instance, this 1978 performance of "Pow") and, by the late '80s, had already become the province of grimacing dudes and Seinfeld theme music. Once John Frusciante's guitar kicks in, though, the Chili Peppers' "Higher Ground" morphs into its familiar groove--almost entirely metal, with only the high-end guitar accents hinting at its origins as dance music.

Wonder's original version had been released in 1973, on his Innervisions album—he played all the instruments himself, most notably a clavinet run through an unforgettable wah-wah effect, but there's no guitar on the track, or in fact any instrument playing anything close to Frusciante's guitar line. "Higher Ground" did get a guitar part or two when Wonder played it on the road with his touring band; check out this scorching if incomplete 1973 performance from a German TV show. He still plays "Higher Ground" on stage to this day—Usher and Shakira sang it with him at President Obama's inaugural celebration.

The Chili Peppers simplify the song's chords a little bit, which sometimes happens when you transpose a song from keyboards to guitars. Still, "Higher Ground" is a terrific guitar song, and had been long before they took a crack at it. The slide guitarist Ellen McIlwaine recorded an extraordinary solo voice-and-guitar version on a 1975 album. (Her mutation of the riff was repurposed by Fatboy Slim for his 1996 dance track "Song for Lindy.")

The most distinctive formal feature of "Higher Ground," though, is its rolling triplet time signature, the sort of 12/8 rhythm that's almost never found in post-'60s rock. It's got a bit of a pedigree in the R&B of the '50s and '60s, though, which may have led toward the way Wonder (and consequently the Chili Peppers) used it. You can trace its lineage back to Bill Doggett's 1956 instrumental "Honky Tonk"—the definitive 12/8 stroll of its era, a hit that defined Doggett's whole career.

There's not a lot of funk that's got that rhythm either, but as it happens, funk godfather James Brown was a little bit obsessed with "Honky Tonk." Before it even became a hit, he wrote a set of lyrics to Doggett's tune, and recorded it as "Let's Make It." In the late '60s, Brown produced a remake of "Honky Tonk" for Doggett—with Brown's own on-the-one groove replacing the original's. Then, in 1972, he got his band to juice up Doggett's 1956 triplet groove, recorded "Honky Tonk" again, and released it under the name The James Brown Soul Train.

It was only a short hop from that arrangement to one of the biggest R&B hits of 1973: "Doing It to Death," which Brown produced and sang, but released under the name Fred Wesley & the J.B.'s. (Wesley was the Brown band's trombonist and bandleader.) Two crucial features of that song to note: Jimmy Nolen's off-the-beat guitar riff, which is remarkably close to one of the riffs Frusciante plays in "Higher Ground"; and the freaky key change three and three-quarters minutes into the song (you can hear Brown calling for it: "For me to get down, I got to get in D!), which is as uncanny as the chord change in the middle of "Higher Ground"'s verse.

"Doing It to Death" came out in April, 1973. It's not clear if Stevie Wonder heard it before he wrote "Higher Ground," although it's hard to imagine that he wouldn't have heard it before he recorded the song in May, and its rhythm has more than a little in common. But "Higher Ground" is also a much deeper song: a gospel song, in fact. slower version of that triplet groove is very familiar in black gospel, and Wonder's final line spells it out: "God is gonna show you higher ground." The song eventually returned to its gospel roots with the Blind Boys of Alabama's 2002 cover (whose hard-rock arrangement owes more to the Chili Peppers' than to Wonder's).

Still, the Chili Peppers' Anthony Kiedis elides over "Higher Ground" 's overt religiosity--he replaces Wonder's kicker with "Stevie knows that nobody's gonna bring me down/Me and Stevie, see, we're gonna be sailin' on that funky, funky sound." There's plenty in the sound itself to sail on. It's just that Stevie offered a little more.