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February 22, 2016

Let's Groove - Earth Wind & Fire

People come, people go. The great Maurice White came, went and left so much joy behind that it’s important to take a serious look at his work. He created Earth Wind And Fire, the epitome of groove and happiness printed on vinyl and cassette, the biggest and most fun band of the late 70s.

I thought it’d be a good idea to take a close look at one of the simplest yet most famous tracks from the band: Let’s Groove

Aptly name isn’t it? (The YouTube version sounds bad as usual but the video is so perfect that it’s worth a look regardless).

Spotify it or better yet buy it on iTunes. Buy just that track though, the “Raise!” album is not necessarily worth it except for the incredibly ahead of its time 26 seconds long Kalimba tree. If you are looking to stock up on EW&F albums, I recommend “I Am” and “All and All” instead.

Alright so, what’s so special about Let’s Groove?

First, since doing is much harder to talking, I urge you to write a two bar groove that’s good enough to be played non-stop for 5 minutes 39 seconds without becoming boring. Send me a postcard when you get there.

2 bars. That’s it, the whole song is based on a simple E minor chord arpeggio repeated ad-libitum in different colors. It sounds to me that a jam turned into the song when they stumbled on this little gem.

Something tells me the lyrics did not take too long to write after that. But this song is not about the lyrics it’s about shaking your booty. Youknowhatimsaying? I do particularly enjoy the deeply reflective line “Let you know girl you're looking good, you're out of sight and alright.” She was both out of sight AND alright. A good reason to groove in my book.

Track Breakdown

How did they arrange these two bars? Well, there is a drumset, a synth bass (I love the smile of the bass player faking the part on the video), a rhodes, some crazy tom/cowbell/shaker overdub, stereo claps, 2 horn sections, a couple synths, a couple vocoder parts, a rhythm guitar, some wild synth special effects, and lots and lots of vocals. Let us not forget that this was tracked to tape, with no copy/paste functionality, no tuning, no groove editing, and let’s also remember that they only had 24 tracks at most. Isn’t that fascinating?

The Drums

The drums, played throughout are sounding dry and loud. It’s mostly bass drum in the mix. It’s hard to tell what the snare sounds like because of every else that hits on 2 and 4 (You can kinda get an idea of the snare sound on the little fills every few bars) but I think it’s a piccolo. Or some super tight tuning of a shallow drum.

Let’s use the intro to analyse the bass drum because once the bass comes in, it’s hard to tell who does what: Listen to that point/attack. Bright as hell isn’t it? That’s because the bass takes all the room later in the song so they pushed the bass drum forward by making it ‘clack’. It’s still fat for the times though and if you listen to a bunch of tracks from the era (or even tracks on the same record), this one is particularly heavy. A lot of thought went into this.

It’s difficult to say but I think that they tracked this set on one track, or maybe to two tracks, kick and snare, with the drummer just playing pocket and snare fills. No toms, no cymbals, And I think that they got the stereo spread by overdubbing cymbals, percussions and maybe claps in stereo after. Probably in one pass.

It would explain why that Tom-on-beat-1 overdub is so loud when everything else is so chiseled. They did it, they were stuck with it. Just a guess. Listen to the right side of the song. There is that tom hitting beat 1 followed by some cowbell on 2, 3 and 4. Panned all the way right. Hear it? That is one loud tom with a serious bump at 200ish hz isn’t it? Would you have left it that way?

The claps are key to the stereo feel of the song with some serious gated reverb tail on them. Check out the reverb color and length. Neat right? Could be an AMS which came out that year. EW&F were huge, they could afford the latest toys.

By the way, at the time the way you did those kinds of claps was to put a bunch of people in a room and have them, you know, clap. For the whole song. That’s why there are not two hits that sounds the same. That’s also why they are able to make it groove harder by making beat 4 louder than beat 2. Check it out.

And since there were serious track limitations at the time you did not stack claps, you stacked people. It’s a different sound that what you’ll get by putting a coupe exhausted band members around the vocal microphone at the end of a long session. (You know who you are).

Le Bass

Earth Wind & FireLet’s listen to the bass. It carries the whole song. It IS the song. Sounds like a MiniMoog to me. With the third oscillator one octave lower than the other two. It’s BONE DRY. Someone played that riff without fail for 5+ minutes straight. Isn’t that awesome? It definitely was tracked at the same time as the drums, as you can hear slight push-pull moments that stay together at the end of sections. Groovy as hell.

I also love to hear the bottom of the whole track going away on the bridge because the filter on the Moog and EQ on the board were probably fixed and tuned to the rest of the song, so when the bridge hits, the bottom goes away. Check it out at 2:34 min.

Speaking of the bridge, that’s the only 8 bars of the whole song that the riff stops and that you hear different harmony. The chords are fun too. Check them out.

Earth wind & fire

The Arrangement

Structure wise, this song is quite wild despite its 2 bar nucleus. We start with an 8 bar intro (Notice the 8th note open hi-hat intro, rad) that features the signature vocoder hook. In stereo no less. Quite unheard of at the time. We know what Daft Punk's parents listened to when the helmets were kids.

Notice also how the hi-hat is ten times louder on the intro than on the rest of the song. Pay attention to all the percussion toys (Bell tree, metal blades) that happen hard panned left and right.

There are also many discrete synth tracks there. It’s really complex. Strings hit on the left at bar 5 ish, some weird ascending arpeggio introducing the horn hit on the right and descending one closing it, some single note brassy reverby thing on the left and YES - a riser synth on the right at bar #8. Oolala. Larry Dunn! 30 years early. I think the Rhodes is doubling the main riff very quietly in the middle too.

Then we get into the, well, chorus I guess. It says “Let’s Groove”. It’s big, it has the riff, a badass horn line and it sounds like a chorus on the vocals. Must be the chorus. It establishes the main color of the arrangement. Straight pocket on the drums, percussion+clap overdubs, bass riff, Rhodes playing the chords in the middle, guitar playing rhythm chords on the left (mixed very low) and horns punctuating the whole thing.

After 8 bars we hit, oh well, a part that says “Let us groove, get you to move” in falsetto. Feels like a verse. Vocoders go away, guitar comes up, rest is the same, yes that’s a verse. Right? Notice the shaker 8th note punctuation on the right.

Maurice WhiteOh yes that was definitely the A part of an A/B verse since the next 8 bars continue the exact same arrangement but with Maurice White taking over for Philip Bailey, singing in chest voice over the exact same music. (Except for the little Rhodes interventions in the high range here and there. Fun).

Next is another 8 bars of the same arrangement. But the lead vocal changes mode and makes it feel like a C part. Or maybe a prechorus part. Notice the wild Swoooosh effect on the left. Crazy for 1981. Notice how the vocal melody alleviates boredom and defines sections when the rhythm section and instrument stay the same. White changed the melodic rhythm to achieve this. On the falsetto part and the first chest voice part the melody starts on beat 2 of the first bar. On this new section it has a pick up and lands heavy on beat 1. Simple and effective for waking people up.

Next is the falsetto part again. Ah. So, what is going on? Another A of an A/B verse section? Hard to say. It kinda feels like a chorus though, placed this way no? It’s interesting how different song sections feel depending on what comes before and after them. This one is 8 bars.

And it flows into the chest voice part. Ok. Fine. So we have 2 verses in a row. Falsetto part, followed by cheat voice part followed by some sort of a prechorus, all 8 bars long. The fact that the first prechorus defaults on its mission to lead us to a chorus will not stop us from moving on with our heads high. All is well in the world of classic pop song structure.

So after these two lovely verses our entire bodies are ready for the chorus. Here it comes, ready set. No.

Another falsetto part. Tragedy. No chorus. What is going on? Another verse? Only time will tell. It would be bold. Having three 24 bars verses in a row with seriously similar arrangements sounds like a recipe for a serious snooze. Unless you have seriously captivating lyrics of course but let’s not forget that she is out of sight AND alright. This story is not going anywhere riveting.

After 8 bars of this we hit the turning point in the song. This is not a verse, this is now acting as a chorus by being repeated, exactly as is, for another 8 bars.

To me, this is another sign that this song was not written by someone sitting down and pouring their heart out, writing and rewriting until they get a gem of a song, neat and pretty with a deep message and exotic changes in E minor. It seems to me that exchange was probably more like this:

Maurice: Larry what was that riff you just played?
Larry: Which one?
Maurice: you did something like la, la laaa, la la la lalala.
Larry: I have no idea. I was just figuring the synth Moog just dropped off.
Maurice. It was rad. Play it again.
Larry: What was it? This?
Maurice: No in E, it’s better for me and Phillip. Phillip, what do you think?
Phillip: I like it, let’s groove on it tonight when Roland comes back from his haircut appointment.
Maurice: good title, “Let’s groove on it tonight.” Write in down somewhere or we’ll forget it.
Etc, etc, etc…

Then we hit the bridge for 8 bars. Further cementing the falsetto perception as a chorus by gluing the bridge after it.
Then we hit a replay of the intro, first time we hear the vocoder since the beginning. 8 bars.
Then we hit what we thought was the chorus until the verse started feeling like a chorus.
Then we hit a horn break/dance break for 16 bars.
Then we hit the falsetto chorus for 8 bars.
Then we hit some hybrid of the falsetto chorus and our C part/prechorus for 8 bars
Back an 8 bar falsetto part with some Maurice white adlibs
Then another 8 bars of the falsetto / C part chorus.
Then an 8 bar instrumental break
Back a falsetto chorus and fade.

This would NEVER fly on pop radio if the song came out today. The ADD afflicted radio programmers would send the song back to the label and request a “radio edit” from the producer. A radio edit is when every song gets a crew cut instead of their original hair cut. It happens everyday. To really big bands. But that is a different discussion.

Earth Wind and Fire

Are You Lost Yet?

The take away part here is that we have a very very very successful song that has parts that switch functions as you progress in the song, is 5:39 long, and does not fit any mold whatsoever. Refreshing innit?

I’d like to attract your attention to a couple more details that show the amazing vision and forward thinking quality of Maurice White and Earth Wind & Fire at large.

Forward to the re-intro at 2:49. If you pay close attention, you’ll hear a vocal part that goes pa pa pa pap starting on the downbeat of the reintro. Had you heard it before? No right? Check out the pattern. It sounds like multi tracked vocals, stacked. probably bounced over and over again to get the stacked sound.

Now check out the next section. It’s still there. It’s quiet but it’s there and it makes the part very rich.

Now listen to the chorus at 2:11. pa pa pa. Brighter than on the reintro. Had you heard that? It’s worth a pass to check out all those little interventions. They make the one chord composition work. There is SO MUCH going on that is quiet and creates excitement without taking away from the hypnotic quality of the single riff vibe.

Like the synth intro parts coming back on the “fake chorus” after the reintro.

Or how the guitar becomes stereo half way through the horn break. (A track probably opened up at that moment since there are no vocals)

Or how the horn section is really two horn sections, one on the left , one on the right that are treated with different kinds of reverb.

And ALL the little vocal interventions. You could probably listen to the track 10 times and notice new ones every time. Some of my favorites are the “all right” harmony right before the bridge at 2:32, the additional upbeat poooow in the reintro and 2nd “fake chorus” and the pre-Prince falsetto “Oh-oo-Oh” wrapping the choruses in just the right amount of sugar.

And what exactly is that thing at 5:05 on the left?

This is amazing work. It would be amazing today. It is supernatural considering the technology they had to work with at the time. Can you imagine the mixing session? (You can tell it was probably done in passes, and that some manual work was involved by the super loud Maurice White adlibs at 4:42, oops)

This track is timeless and has inspired generations of musicians for good reasons. (Might want to listen to Uptown Funk, 2016 Grammy record of the year, with Let’s Groove in mind)

It seems simple, but as you have seen it’s actually quite complex. It proves without fail that there is nothing wrong with a one-riff song and a crazy structure if it grooves that hard, especially because we can boogie down, down, upon down, the boogie down, down, upon down, the boogie down, down, upon down, the boogie down, down, upon down, the boogie down, down, upon down.

Fab Dupont