3. Five key changes in three minutes
April 12th, 2020

Bill Withers - Harlem
(File under: music, soul, strings, high fidelity)

Listen: youtu.be/BbbwiE2GgkE

In the first two issues of this newsletter, I wrote to you about music and television obscure enough that sharing them felt like pulling a semi-precious gemstone from behind your ear. Writing about a Bill Withers song from 1971, however, feels less like a revelation—more like breathlessly kicking in the door of your kitchen to ask if you’ve ever heard of omelettes. But in a week where I’ll admit that enthusiasm was harder to come by, this song generated it ceaselessly, and I wanted to figure out why.

‘Harlem’ is a song you can set your watch to; a song that somehow manages to stomp with one leg and strut with the other. The whole thing is one giant crescendo that introduces its players with such restraint that it’s practically tantric—guitar, bass, drums, shaker, and organ, all of them daring each other to attempt one audacious key change after the next until that final giddy blossom of strings. It feels like the opening number to a non-existent musical, doors and windows flung open as a whole neighbourhood careers towards the weekend.

Despite being one of the all time great Side One Track Ones (notably missing from that scene in High Fidelity), ‘Harlem’ also feels like an underdog. As far as I can tell, despite being the first single from Withers’ debut album Just As I Am, it was universally ignored by DJs in favour of ‘Ain’t No Sunshine’, its original b-side. I remember hearing it for the first time in the backseat of my friend Jordan’s car, amazed that it had taken me until my late 20s to hear it, incredulous at those key changes. It remains my favourite Withers song, and the first one I reached for when I heard about his tragic death last week. Only this week did I also discover that four years before ‘Harlem’ was ‘Harlem’, it was a 7” single called ‘Three Nights and a Morning’, a hilariously overpowered horn-stuffed freakout at 1000mph.

It’s Sunday afternoon now, and I’ve realised that maybe there’s no grand mystery to the way ‘Harlem’ makes me feel. Maybe the thing that gets you through a week sometimes is just a song in 4/4.

Anyway, omelettes! Check them out. I think they’re going to be big.

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