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The funkiest documentary in Radio 4 history

Friday 26 November 2010, 18:07

James Hale James Hale Producer/Director

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In the first half of the 1970s Stevie Wonder released four landmark albums that changed the course of pop music. A combination of funk and synthesisers, this incredible collection of music includes many of Stevie's classic songs such as Superstition, Living for the City and You Are the Sunshine of My Life. These albums have been influencing songwriters, musicians and producers ever since their release.

Although no one's disputing Stevie Wonder's unquestionable genius, it was Robert Margouleff and Malcolm Cecil's production talents and electronic ingenuity that gave him the tools to develop his finest work, now regarded as his 'classic period'. These two sonic architects developed the world's largest synthesiser - The Original New Timbral Orchestra - which features heavily on all of those records. They invented a unique recording environment that captured Stevie at his most creative, encouraging him to play all the instruments himself. It was a world away from the stifling environment of the Motown hit factory and it allowed Stevie to fully realise the songs he had in his head for the first time.

Cecil and Margouleff also released an album of ground breaking electronic music under the name of Tonto's Expanding Head Band. They also went on to work with big name acts such as The Isley Brothers, George Harrison, Gil Scott-Heron and Devo. Malcolm - now in his 70s - still has TONTO set up in a barn at the bottom of his garden. It's a fantastic-looking thing, incredibly complex and the size of a living room. It's in full working order and he was kind enough to show Radio 4 around his other-wordly creation.

James Hale is producer of Stevie's Wonder Men

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  • Comment number 1.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

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    Comment number 2.

    I could never figure out why Bob Harris was the only person ever to play a track from Tonto’s Expanding Head Band’s ‘Zero Time’ (he was also the only person to Paul Horn’s ‘Inside’ [1]) on the radio. Even stranger, he always used to play TEHB immediately after a Seals and Croft track!!!!

    Without wishing to sound common, I am cautious about knocking anything to do with Mowtown or any Soul related music. As part of a bagging-off strategy, it was more rewarding to express an infinite enthusiasm for songs like Lamont Dozier’s ‘why can’t we be lovers’ (Andy Peebles favourite) or the Originals: ‘Good Lovin’ is Just a Dime Away’ [3]. I tried discussing the contents of ‘Talking Book’ with a female music fan once, but she kept pulling strange faces relating to my interpretations of the songs and then just walked off :( I cheered myself up with a blast of Rory Gallagher [4]. Love the way Rod D’Ath’s was monitoring Rory so closely on this version of ‘hot coals’. How on earth Rory produced those harmonics (4:38) is still a complete mystery to me. The young Rod De’Ath was the spitting image of one of the R4 high-ups.

    P.S. Surprised there's No mention of Can in your posting?
    PPS Very saddened to read of the recent death of General Johnson


    [1] See: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_Horn_(musician)
    [2] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Grltqfc0ZWw
    [3] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JRmzT43ejys
    [4] http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=c5Hsu-A-WYM

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    Comment number 3.

    Sorry - meant to say Beaver and Cross in Line 4

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    Comment number 4.

    One of the advantages of having work cancelled due to bad weather..you get to listen first hand to great Radio 4 programmes...

    Tonto's Expanding Headband...I remember from the early 70's listening to the work of those guys...as a young teenager...fantastic documentary...popped up out of the blue...cheers..

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    Comment number 5.

    What a fabulous programme! The four Stevie Wonder albums mentioned here belong amongst the very best of 20th century music,and even an ardent admirer such as myself was only dimly aware of Malcolm Cecil's and Robert Margouleff's contribution. Thank you for putting the record straight. If you're in doubt as to how much of a contribution they made listen to Stevie's subsequent offerings, which, although frequently touched by genius, consistently disappoint when compared to his work with Malcolm and Robert.


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See the latest on our blog


Find out about this year's panel and theme