21
Aug 09

STEVIE WONDER – “I Just Called To Say I Love You”

FT + Popular75 comments • 4,762 views

#538, 8th September 1984, video

Bad songs earn bad reputations, but the particular disdain this one attracts is tangled up with people’s love for its creator. Everyone’s entitled a clunker sometimes but it’s galling when one becomes a great artist’s most popular song. At the back of our minds we all know that if Stevie Wonder was to go under a bus tomorrow it wouldn’t be “Living For The City” that racked up the RIP downloads.

Not that Wonder’s ever shown a hint of embarrassment, and why should he? “I Just Called To Say I Love You” hasn’t just made him an awful lot of money, it’s a fine idea for a song. The basic notion – don’t need a special occasion to tell you I love you – is sentimental but no more so than most other love songs: it’s the kind of thing you could imagine making a lovely little doo-wop record, and maybe that simplicity is what Wonder was going for. Then the conceit used to get this across – list all the days this one isn’t – has a charm too: it’s the “don’t know much about history…” structure.

But that’s where things start to go wrong. Once you’ve gone down that route you’re path-dependent – the song can’t vary from its conceit. And anyone listening ‘gets’ the conceit after a single verse, so the song starts to implode after a minute or so. So end it – but pop songs need to be more than a minute long. “I Just Called To Say I Love You” is bad because Stevie Wonder is trapped by his own good idea. You might even detect a desperation in the key changes as he looks for a way to get some life into the song. Too late – and by this time even Wonder’s typically lovely singing is starting to feel like mockery. Yes, he could make a hallmark card sound tender – such a shame he had to.

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Comments

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  1. 26
    JimD on 21 Aug 2009 #

    There’s something about the specific synth sound on this record. It’s very close to the one the Tweets used for The Birdie Song four years earlier, and which meant that weirdly this record actually felt a bit nostalgic to me at the time, even though I was only 9. It reminded me of another record which was HALF A LIFETIME away, back in the past.

    Course, that only makes it even more unforgivable, in retrospect – not only is he using synth presets, they’re not even contemporary ones.

    Relistening, I was leaning towards a fairly generous 3. And I made it to the end, only to be disgusted by that CHA-CHA-CHA ending, which I’d totally forgotten about. So, 1 from me.

  2. 27
    Pete Baran on 21 Aug 2009 #

    The Oscar winning Woman In Red is a stinker. Remarkably misogynistic example of middle aged lothario (middle aged, GENE WILDER WAS MIDDLE AGED IN THE PRODUCERS) lusting after red clad wank fantasy (Kelly Le Brock). I remember mild slapstick and not much else. Apparently a remake of an equally offensive French Film with the much better title An Elephant Can Be Extremely Deceptive. Oscar winning film, of course, because Stevie won Best Original Song Oscar for this too.

    Poor of Kelly Le Brock. She had two modes in her movie career. Wank Fantasy: this and Weird Science, and then Mrs Steven Seagal (Hard To Kill). Perhaps her career was curtailed due to her excess flatulence:

  3. 28
    mike on 21 Aug 2009 #

    Doh, I should have got here earlier – my withering “presets” put-down has already been done, twice! And has there ever been a worse ending to any song than that perfunctory CHA-CHA-CHA? (To say nothing of that maddening bass line, which sounds like another machine-installed preset.) So, yes, I agree with others that this is an efficient – if corny – melody, clobbered by a deadening arrangement. It’s almost as if the whole tenor of the record is to bludgeon the listener with a particular aesthetic, over and over again, e.g. those hymn-like resolutions at the end of each chorus, which always get my back up. As such, it reminds me of awkward slow dances at family occasions, and of bored cabaret bands with bills to pay.

  4. 29
    mike on 21 Aug 2009 #

    Come to think of it, that’s the main problem: that this already sounds like it’s being played for the thousandth time, by a bored cabaret covers band.

  5. 30
    Conrad on 21 Aug 2009 #

    If Stevie had produced and written this aged 8, I’d have been disappointed with him.

    My Mum likes it though – I assume a lot of mums liked it, because I don’t know anyone else who likes the damn thing.

  6. 31
    wichita lineman on 21 Aug 2009 #

    Check list of horror:

    1. The gloopy, overly sincere lyric (“and I mean it from the bottom of my heart” is pure Hughie Green)

    2. The excessively home demo (what the hell is that detuned, dying sigh noise on every chorus?) production

    3. The giveaway clunky key change (can any no.1 claim one clunkier?)

    4. “CHA CHA CHA!”

    For all these reasons, backed up by Erithian’s frightening sales figures, I’ve always been waiting for Stevie to come clean and admit that – with his monstrous talents – he had tried to write The Black Hit Of Space. And pretty much done it.

    I remember at the time Stevie said he had been working on this song for years, returning to it often, refining it, and by 1984 he had it perfected.

    The 12″ came out during it’s run at the top. Our Price, Epsom, was shifting loads of The Woman In Red soundtrack until it was released, to people who were presumably 7″ phobic. Anyway, the long awaited 12 turned up. We stuck it on and heard the 7″ version, followed by the song repeated in its entirety – with Stevie singing through a vocoder.

    It’s a pisstake, right? Dada, maybe? Stone of shame, Stevie! 1.

  7. 32
    LondonLee on 21 Aug 2009 #

    Stevie always had his mawkish tendencies but by the time of this one he seemed to have shot his talent bolt (post-Hotter Than July as was said above) and it has none of the genius for melody that made the likes of ‘You Are The Sunshine of Life’ so easy on the ear. Even though that one is just as soppy this sounds like a cheap birthday card in comparison.

    I saw him live at Earl’s Court just before this came out and he played a tune which he said was from the soundtrack of a new movie. Can’t remember if it was this song though. His Jekyll and Hyde tendencies were on full display at that gig too. One minute the band were playing the hottest, funkiest version of ‘Superstition’ you’ve ever heard, the next Stevie was getting the ladies in the audience to singalong to ‘All I Do’ as if he was some naff cabaret act.

  8. 33
    wichita lineman on 21 Aug 2009 #

    “Rosie, oh Rosie,
    It’s raining when you look the other way”

    I also hope you reconsider and join in whenever you have an opinion or a memory to add (not remembering the song that well won’t stop me from commenting on entries in the 90s and 00s). We’d miss your unique take, and your “going against the tide”.

  9. 34
    col124 on 21 Aug 2009 #

    There also was a horrific episode of “The Cosby Show” in which Stevie got the whole family to sing along to this song–the low point being Stevie coaching Claire Huxtable to sing the opening verse, line by line. Torture.

  10. 35
    mike on 21 Aug 2009 #

    Aw Rosie, don’t you do that to the boys!
    You come on so willing
    You come on so strong
    It will be so chillin’
    When you act so willin’
    And your warmth sets like the sun…

  11. 36
    enitharmon on 21 Aug 2009 #

    wichita @ 33: Don’t you dare paint my face up in the sky!

    I remarked a few days ago that this login had magical powers. I have plans for using them. Just be patient!

  12. 37
    johnny on 21 Aug 2009 #

    #34 – “jammin’ on the 1!”

    just thought of something else in reference to mike’s rememberences of “awkward family slow dances”: this song is very hard to dance to. it’s neither slow enough to be a slow dance, nor fast enough to be fun to dance to. it just plods along somewhere in between, with no groove and no dynamics. someone should’ve done a “two tribes”-style remix of this track with superautomated bass+drum figures and samples of reagan speeches, ie

    no chocolate covered candy hearts to give away/”we begin bombing in five minutes”

    (the possibilities are endless, much like this song)

  13. 38
    David Belbin on 21 Aug 2009 #

    When I saw him for the first time last year, he kept this to a less than a minute snippet, which is, as Tom suggests, probably the ideal length. I just checked to see if I owned this and discovered that the last Stevie 7″ I bought was 1982′s undistinguished (but OK), ‘Frontline’.

  14. 39
    anto on 21 Aug 2009 #

    A pop music equivalent of petrol station flowers, and why does it sound so cheap? The backing track is sheer working mens club tack. It even has one of those BA-Ba-ba ” flourishes ” on the end.

  15. 40
    steve on 21 Aug 2009 #

    Stevie wonder did write worse songs you know. (it’s taken as a given that he wrote some excelent songs too).

    Try listening to “lately” and then say how bad “I just called” sounds.

  16. 41
    abaffledrepublic on 21 Aug 2009 #

    I’d give this a generous 2, for at least having the consistency to set the greetings card lyrics to some truly rotten music. To the nine year old me, this song seemed to go on forever and stay at the top forever. It won the Oscar for best song, the committee must have had tin ears to give the award to this ahead of the surely more deserving aforementioned Ghostbusters, anything from Purple Rain (although I think that got the best soundtrack album award), Let’s Hear It For The Boy (a big fave of mine at the time), or even the main theme from Footloose. Either that or they thought ‘Stevie’s officially a legend, we’d best give him the Oscar’.

    Listing the above reminded me what a truly blockbuster pop year this was. All the above movie songs were American No1s.

    In commercial terms if not artistic ones, were the early 80s Motown’s most successful period in the UK charts?

    I would make comparisons to Chuck Berry’s No1, but I don’t want to be accused of spoilers!

  17. 42
    LondonLee on 21 Aug 2009 #

    I don’t have any numbers for it but Motown was HUGE in the 1960s in the UK so I can’t imagine a handful of chart toppers in the 80s would beat that.

    Would saying that he’s phoning this in be a really bad pun?

  18. 43
    Rory on 21 Aug 2009 #

    Lee, bad puns at this song’s expense fall under the heading of Restitution in my book. That would be the Yellow Pages… let your fingertips do the walking.

  19. 44
    Billy Smart on 21 Aug 2009 #

    You know what, I actually rather like this. The construct of the year running through the length of the song is quite a neat one and the blankness and doom of the rituals and consolations of the seasons being confiscated or banned stops it from becoming too syrupy. And I really like the blip-blip, blip-blip-blip-blip pattern that’s hidden quietly in the mix.

    Until the last 90 seconds, when the thing has run its natural course, but still limps onwards with some very routine emoting and unwanted climaxes.

    I’m sure that somewhere I’ve read that this was written for Nelson Mandela, or perhaps Stevie just dedicated it to him on Mandela day. It certainly works better as a song to an incarcerated man than as a rather overworked communique to a loved woman, anyway.

    I didn’t like it at the time of my twelfth birthday, though, and amused myself by imagining the recipient of the call telling the singer to shut up. Perhaps unexpectedly, this was generally popular among my peers though, maybe because of some residual Wonder kudos.

    Popular is now entering one of the worst periods of my life as I start five years at a top London public school. I’m a awkward, inward and rather priggish boy, bullied to tears most days, and the bottom pupil of the bottom class for much of the time. So far too many of these songs have bad personal overtones to them. But I’ll try not to be too swayed by that.

  20. 45
    Billy Smart on 21 Aug 2009 #

    #2 Watch. Two rather significant songs.

    A massive three weeks for Ray Parker Jr’s Ghostbusters, absolutely loved by me at the time, and an incredibly potent call and response song for those of an age to remember it. A genuinely funny film, too. I got a luminous Ghostbusters T-shirt for Christmas in 1984. How cool was I?

    Then just a week for Culture Club’s The War Song, a record for which nobody has a good word, certainly not Boy George. It may possibly not be good, but I always listen to it with pleasure. If you’re going to be naieve, you can’t go at it half-cocked.

  21. 46
    Billy Smart on 21 Aug 2009 #

    Parody watch: Ronnie Corbett, in blackface, on the two Ronnies in 1985! Part of a musical routine in which they also impersonated Status Quo.

  22. 47
    Rory on 21 Aug 2009 #

    #44 re “the blankness and doom of the rituals and consolations of the seasons being confiscated or banned”: I always thought it was the implied second line of this phone call to Grandma Wonder:

    “Oh, hello dear, how lovely to hear your voice. What’s the special occasion?”
    “No particular reason, Grandma – no New Year’s Day, no Valentine’s Day, no first of spring: I just called to say…”

    John Lennon’s “God” it ain’t.

  23. 48
    Tom on 21 Aug 2009 #

    “It works better as a song to an incarcerated man”

    Aren’t there UN conventions on this kind of thing?

  24. 49
    Mark M on 21 Aug 2009 #

    #29 nails it, I think.

    Re:40 I really like Lately, as it happens.

  25. 50
    wichita lineman on 22 Aug 2009 #

    Re 40: Maybe not his finest moment but “Lately I’ve been staring in the mirror, very slowly picking me apart” trumps every ounce of IJCTSILY. “Very slowly.” Gosh.

    Ray Parker Jr, held at bay with Ghostbusters, had previously played guitar on Talking Book.

    Which reminds me that, shockingly, I have no Stevie Wonder lps apart from Uptight (featuring the fabulous, cynically ‘swinging’ Love A Go Go)*. So, if anyone had to point me to THE Stevie Wonder lp, which one would it be? I’m guessing it won’t be The Woman In Red OST.

    *did have Talking Book on cassette as a kid, but long gone.

  26. 51
    TomLane on 22 Aug 2009 #

    It’s the most critically panned Stevie #1, yet it has its fans. So simple in lyrics and music that you wait for something special. Like you do with all of Stevie’s songs. But I never hated it, and listening to it again, I marvel at the man’s ability to make you sing along to what most people who hated it, called his “Hallmark” moment. Still, you wonder. The critics who like this song obviously loved Stevie. May have gave him a pass for his most simplest #1. If Lionel Richie had released this it would have been savaged. A U.S. #1 as well.

  27. 52
    LondonLee on 22 Aug 2009 #

    If I had to pick ONE Stevie album it would be ‘Innervisions’ as it’s flawless. ‘Talking Book’ is probably more creative and dynamic but I don’t care for the track ‘Maybe Your Baby’ too much (a minor quibble really, the album is jaw-dropping genius too) and the ‘Key of Life’ album goes on a bit in places.

  28. 53
    intothefireuk on 22 Aug 2009 #

    A spectacular fall from grace for Stevie. A truly stale Casiotone arrangement for an already appalling song. I remember visiting my Uncle at the time – I didn’t go very often – and informing him that I played in a band. ‘What do you play ?’ says he, ‘I sing & play keyboards’ says I. ‘Oh’ he says, ‘I’ve got a new keyboard here – can you play that fantastic Stevie Wonder song that’s number one ? It’s marvellous’ he says, handing me a Casio mini keyboard. ‘No it’s shit – I hate it’ says I, trying desperately to wrangle a decent sound out of the thing. The smile fell from his face and the Casio was promptly removed from my hands. He’s never invited me over since.

    How can a man with that much talent (Stevie – not my Uncle), be reduced to producing such purile tosh ? Surely he didn’t need the money. I was tempted to blame McCartney for a while – his soporific influence may have tainted poor Stevie during ‘Ebony & Ivory’ to such an extent that his muse was forever lost. But that’s a long shot and McCartney still manages the odd glimpse of his former genius so why not Stevie ?

    Less than zero

  29. 54
    a tanned rested and unlogged lørd sükråt wötsît on 22 Aug 2009 #

    I’m tempted slightly to defend SW on the “casio preset” front: in the sequence of LPs he made in the 70s he wrote the book on the exploration and expansion of funky keyb language; i doubt anyone else contributed so much — so to opt for a basic factory setting, for him, is a conscious artistic decision

    i think this song is: “let’s write a love song stripped of redemption-by-ambition-of-twist”: in other words, not a love song of which you’d say “well it’s just a cheesy love song, except there’s this lyric/arrangement/moment that redeems it”, but one which is just the thing itself… the thing is, i don’t think he has a deep gift for that kind of artless simplicity, which he confuses with emotion-on-factory-setting (maccartney on his game does have such a gift; as do plenty of lesser popsters do; wonder is a learned and subtle musician who doesn’t, but feels a bit compromised he doesn’t, and has actually forced a few too many of his attempts at it on the world)

  30. 55
    MikeMCSG on 22 Aug 2009 #

    I must confess that Stevie Wonder was a pet hate of mine in the 70s. To my young ears nurtured in the simplicities of glam rock that keening nasal vocal and the complex music and lyrics were just too alien. Same with Curtis Mayfield – “Superfly” was one of the first records I really hated. Then of course all the superlatives being hurled in his direction only made me resent him more for making me feel provincial and inferior.

    So I derived a great deal of pleasure from those same critics looking at their feet and hoping this one was a bad dream. I recall in the mid 90s The Guardian ran a weekly talking point feature where some scribe picked their “Best Ever ….” and the following week you’d read the challenges to it. When it came to Best Ever Number One they picked this one and the justification rambled on about Stevie’s genius without reference to the “merits” of this particular song!

  31. 56
    Erithian on 24 Aug 2009 #

    Billy #44: “The construct of the year running through the length of the song is quite a neat one” – maybe, but it was so much more fun when Neil Sedaka did it in “Calendar Girl”!

  32. 57
    pink champale on 24 Aug 2009 #

    bah! i go on holiday during a right purple patch and return to this. i can’t do anything other than agree that “i just called…” is pretty ropey. lord s makes a good point that it doesn’t work when stevie tries too hard for artless – something like ‘isn’t she lovely’ is in the same sort of territory in terms of a simplicity of melody and emotion but the drummer (stevie?) hammering away all over place like mitch mitchell cuts through the gloop and turns the whole thing into a pure expression of spontaneity and joy. that said though, i wouldn’t really go with the idea that ‘I just called…” is a terrible blot on an otherwise flawless career – there are long noodley stretches on most of his seventies albums that bore me to death. actually, i think the seventies stuff gets overpraised generally at the expense of the sixties – i’d take ‘uptight’ over the whole of ‘talking book’ or ‘innervisions’.

  33. 58
    will on 25 Aug 2009 #

    Not much to add here, except that yes, it’s awful but at the time it was almost as if Stevie was allowed one ropey, if hugely successful single. No one knew then that his well of inspiration would dry up in the way it has. Soundtracks aside, he’s released just four new albums in the quarter century since.

    Re 45: I always thought Boy George missed a trick by not re-releasing The War Song in the run up to Spring 2003. If ever there was a window of opportunity to redeem that poor unloved single it was then.

  34. 59
    Matt DC on 25 Aug 2009 #

    Incidentally this is the very first song I remember seeing in the #1 slot on TOTP. I’m still not exactly fond of it though.

  35. 60
    DV on 25 Aug 2009 #

    when I was younger this was Stevie Wonder for me, as I had never heard his kewl stuff from the 1970s. Consequently, when I met people who talked about how much they liked Stevie Wonder, I assumed they were insane.

  36. 61
    Nick P on 25 Aug 2009 #

    Just wanted to agree that Lately, although not a classic, has always been a favourite of mine because of the lyric quoted by wichita lineman @50. I don’t think it comes anywhere near plumbing the depths of IJCTSILY.

    I’ll also second the recommendation of Innervisions as the must have Stevie album if you only by one.

    And as someone else mentioned, Stevie isn’t alone in having the rest of his output poorly represented by his number one(s).

  37. 62
    peter goodlaws on 26 Aug 2009 #

    Like Rosie, I have shut myself away from Popular recently. I just called to say that this uber-cheesy piece of crap sullied Stevie’s name forever. Whatever was Blindy thinking? Probably thinking about the biggest hit he ever had, is the answer to that!

    # 56 – I hate Neil Sedaka and am appalled that the smarmy git is still alive. “Calendar Girl” is one of my main cases for the Prosucution but nearly his entire portfolio makes me angry. To that end I have decided to have “Laughter in the Rain” played at my funeral. The vicar’s preamble would be “…and here is a record, which was dear to Peter’s heart…” Then on comes Neil. There will be more laughter in the crem than on that fucking record, I promise you.

  38. 63
    Billy Smart on 31 Aug 2009 #

    Light Entertainment Watch: Stevie doesn’t do UK television very often;

    THE BRIAN CONLEY SHOW: with Stevie Wonder, The Bootleg Beatles (1995)

    FRIDAY NIGHT WITH JONATHAN ROSS: with Stevie Wonder, Steve Coogan, Abbey Clancy (2008)

    PARKINSON: with Thierry Henry, Sarah Lancashire, Matthew Kelly, Stevie Wonder (2005)

    THE SOUTH BANK SHOW: Stevie Wonder (1993)

    TOM JONES: THE RIGHT TIME: with Stevie Wonder (1992)

    THE TUBE: with Jools Holland, Leslie Ash, Stevie Wonder, Marianne
    Faithfull, Rod Stewart, Rock Steady Crew (1983)

    THE TUBE: with Jools Holland, Leslie Ash, The Gang Of Four, Judas Priest, Stevie Wonder, The Shillelagh Sisters, Muriel Gray (1984)

    WHISTLE TEST: EXTRA: Stevie Wonder (1986)

    THE WHITE ROOM: with Stevie Wonder, Sleeper, Skunk Ananse, P. P. Arnold, Ultimate Kaos (1995)

    WOGAN: with Michael J. Fox, Ian Botham, Bob Carolgees and Spit the Dog, Bonnie Tyler, Stevie Wonder (1985)

    The list of what doesn’t survive is perhaps more attractive;

    READY STEADY GO!: with Little Stevie Wonder, The Rolling Stones (1963)

    READY STEADY GO!: with Gerry And The Pacemakers, Françoise Hardy, The Temptations, Little Stevie Wonder, The T-Bones, Donovan (1965)

    THANK YOUR LUCKY STARS: with Brian Matthew, Gerry And The Pacemakers, Kathy Kirby, The Searchers, Little Stevie Wonder (1964)

    THIS IS… TOM JONES: with The Hollies, Pat Paulsen, Shani Wallis, Stevie Wonder (1969)

  39. 64
    swanstep on 1 Sep 2009 #

    A very late addition…I just came across a Stevie Wonder drum solo on youtube:
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=iBA4vWQRBA0
    that’s simply staggering. This alone should grant him a pass for several ‘I just called”s.

  40. 65
    Pete Baran on 1 Sep 2009 #

    More grist to the mill for my “colour blind” theory.

  41. 66
    taDOW on 3 Sep 2009 #

    obv stateside (specifically sesame street) so not apart of mr. smart’s list but still essential viewing – http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_ul7X5js1vE

  42. 67
    lonepilgrim on 25 Sep 2009 #

    is this the definitive cover version?:

    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3PK7_Ueh9X0

  43. 68
    ottersteve on 23 Oct 2009 #

    This record actually made small piece of history at the time…
    For only the 2nd time in the history of 7″ vinyl sales did 3 consecutive No. 1′s in the pop charts sell over 1 million copies.

    Hands up those who know the year and 3 tracks that first achieved this feat. I do know the answer, but I’ll check if it was previously mentioned in that section of FT before further comment.

    One for the pub quizzers I think.

  44. 69
    Paulito on 22 Jan 2010 #

    Ottersteve, would the answer happen to be “Rivers of Babylon”, “You’re The One That I Want” and “Three Times A Lady” in 1978?

  45. 70
    ANGEL on 11 Feb 2010 #

    I NEED TO KNOW MORE ABOUT U

  46. 71
    Brooksie on 4 Mar 2010 #

    Tacky, but for me it will always – more than any other song – take me back to the summer of ’84 when a friend of mine had me call for a girl to ask if she wanted to date him. This song = summer childhood. I also like ‘Woman in Red’ despite the criticisms here. Bad song, good memories.

  47. 72
    ottersteve on 25 Mar 2010 #

    Hey Paulito (69)

    3TAL – not a million seller.

    Check out January/February ’79.

    YMCA, – Hit me with your Rythm Stick, – Heart of Glass

    were the only 3 other consecutive million selling No.1s up to this point. I read this in a music mag somewhere around the time of stevie wonders’ hit.

  48. 73
    Paulito on 7 Apr 2010 #

    Otthersteve@72 I never even knew any of those three were million-sellers. Remarkable that they were, considering the time of year they hit the top. Of course, the market was at an all-time high sales-wise around that period – IIRC 1978 was the biggest-selling year for singles in chart history.

  49. 74
    Paulito on 7 Apr 2010 #

    Wichita@31: Make that TWO clunky key changes.

    Btw, what a strange video – what’s with all those floating slices of bread with psychedelic images superimposed on them?

  50. 75
    Ed on 16 Apr 2010 #

    Also, Wichita@31, slightly OT but I was excited to see a reference to Epsom Our Price, because I must have been a customer around then. Probably got my copy of “Ocean Rain” there. Where was it?

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