The first time I listened to Labi Siffre‘s 1970s’ catalog – I mean really listened to it – it was like he was the singer/songwriter I had been waiting my whole life to hear. I know that’s high praise and it’s meant to be. Considering the kind of attention we lavish on certain overlooked artists who only put out a handful of singles or albums, it’s astounding to me that there’s never been much of a rediscovery renaissance for an artist who over half a dozen albums to this name, let alone output at this level of quality. As a Black/gay/British artist, there may be any number of reasons why his releases never connected that strongly in the U.S.; to this day, as far as I know, none of them have ever been released by an American label/distributor (not even the CD reissues). Little surprise then that many Americans probably never heard of him but would recognize 1) Madness’s 1981 hit cover of Siffre’s 1971 “It Must Be Love,” and 2) Eminem/Dr. Dre sampling Siffre’s “I Got The” for Slim Shady’s “My Name Is.”1 To be sure, those are both stellar songs but to reduce Siffre’s ’70s catalog down to these pair would be selling his greatness grossly short.
I’ve tried through the years to pinpoint what it is exactly about Siffre of this era that I’m taken with but I still haven’t nailed it. Partially, I like the simple romanticism in so many of his songs. He reminds me, in a broad way, of someone like Bill Withers – there’s an everyman quality to both his voice (which is distinct but not technically grand) and his songwriting. His sentiments are often direct and earnest, wearing their feelings on the sleeve but there’s a touch of the baroque to some of his songs as well, poetic in style and feel. He also had a subtly keen sense of rhythm, ranging from the slickly paced “A Little More Line” to the jaunty “Thank Your Lucky Star” to the straight up funkiness of “The Vulture.” But look: this is all descriptive but it still doesn’t get to the “so why?” explanation of why I’m so taken with Siffre. Give me a few more years, maybe I’ll get there.
Where to start: The obvious choice (to some) would be to recommend 975’s Remember My Song and it certainly has its merits but song-for-song, nothing comes close 1972’s Crying Laughing Loving Lying (CLLL). 2
CLLL begins with the solemn, acapella poem “Saved“, one of the best “first songs” on any album I’ve heard. It’s also, perhaps, his most romantic album of this era, both in feel and theme. After “Saved” is “Cannock Chase,” named after Siffre’s boyhood region in England even though it could just have easily come out of one of the L.A. canyons with its melancholy, folksy flow. Then you get to “Fool Me a Good Night,” a very representative tune of many of Siffre’s songs from the first half of the ’70s: stripped down to just him and an acoustic guitar.
Next comes “It Must Be Love,” and it’s easy to hear why this would become a hit for both him and Madness: it’s incredibly catchy but as pop-y as it may sound initially, listen for that bassline in the background anchoring the rhythm. That’s nothing compared to “Gimme Some More,” though; the song absolutely grooves off the drummer’s little fills and rolls. At this point, it’s been five songs, five different styles. The first time I heard this LP, that blend of consistency and diversity absolutely blew me away.
I won’t cover every song on here but three more highlights: “Love Oh Love Oh Love” has a similar drumming groove to “Gimme Some More” but now with more clavinet flavor on top while the title song is a piece of songwriting brilliance. And then there’s “My Song,” which some of you will instantly recognize as the inspiration behind Kanye’s “I Wonder.” It’s a gorgeous, lush composition balanced by the simple unadorned sentiment of the song itself.
Note: In 2006, most of Siffre’s ’70s albums were remastered for CD and as part of those reissues, each album had 3-5 bonus cuts included. Off CLLL, I dig the bonus cut “You’ll Let Me Know,” which is sung from the perspective of someone hoping to get put on stage and get that proverbial “big break.”
What Next? Sample-hounds might just skip to this first but sure, grab Remember My Song. Released in ’75, it’s clear that Siffre’s sound has evolved at this point to draw upon more funk influences, especially on the first song, “I Got The,” which I’ll assume a slew of you are already familiar with. I’m always impressed by the arrangement, i.e. the different directions that Siffre goes on the song, especially that now-infamous bridge section which builds so slowly yet surely from those two-note basslines. That leads into my favorite song off the album, “Another Year” which begins with acoustic guitar but subtly adds in a string accompaniment that comes to full force on the hook, as do the drums. This is Siffre at his tender best, exploring the traces of time on a longterm relationship. Slightly sappier – though still enjoyable – would be “Old Time Song,” but Siffre returns to that funky stuff with “The Vulture,” and the chattering breakbeat that opens it.
“Dreamer” is interesting. For one, something about those opening chords instantly makes me think of U2’s “Sweetest Thing” (they’re vaguely similar but I’m not remotely suggesting a relationship between them). More notably, Siffre’s vocals are processed with some kind of delay and/or reverb effect. Personally, I’m not a huge fan of the sound but I think it’s interesting that he was playing with this technique a full decade before Phil Collins pretty much draped it everything he did on his solo hits. “Turn On Your Love” could be a proto-yacht rock tune and “Remember My Song” ends the album with a beautifully wistful ballad.
The reissue CD has one of my favorite of the bonus songs across the various albums: “You’ve Got a Hold On Me,” previously only on 7″. Not only does it have a reggae-influenced rhythm but I’m tickled by the background singer bellowing “so strong” on the hook.
What next? At this point, the field opens up and you have a few different options. Personally, I’m torn between recommending Siffre’s self-titled debut and his sophomore album, The Singer And The Song but I’d give a slight nod to the debut. For one, you can get a sense of where Siffre began his recording career and the kind of styles and sounds he was drawn to from jump. There’s the herky-jerky “Too Late“, the satirical “I Don’t Know What Happened To the Kids,” the upbeat dedication “I Love You” and my favorite song off this album: “A Little More Line.” It opens with a hymnal grace and then unexpectedly drops in some jittery drums and a full bank of strings and horns…altogether, a fantastic slice of production.3
There’s songs I like off of The Singer And The Song. “There’s Nothing in the World Like Love,” is a catchy ditty, “You’re Lovely,” is short but charming, and “Bless The Telephone,” is as sweet as anything Siffre wrote on this era.4 For me however, I just never gelled with the album overall though song-for-song, the CD bonus cuts are probably better here than any of the other reissues, especially with songs like “Get To the Country” and “Fallin’ For You.”
Finally… Two other albums round out Siffre’s ’70s catalog. For the Children came out in 1973 and sonically, you can hear how it bridges CLLL to Remember My Song and I’ve never been as enamored with the album as a whole besides “If You Have Faith,” which is rather awesome. That leaves Happy, which supposedly came out in the same year as Remember My Song and was even on the same label but this one has never been reissued as its own title; you can find all the songs on the Music Of Labi Siffre compilation however. This LP is so hard to find that I didn’t even know about it until I started researching this piece and the only way I can even sample music from it is by going to the UK Amazon site. I don’t feel like I can give it a fair evaluation but snippet-wise, very little grabbed me.
Bonus Beats: Siffre became far more outspoken and politically engaged by the 1980s and remains active in all kinds of humanitarian campaigns. You can follow him and his poetry at his own site.
- Labi Siffre’s highest charting hit was 1987’s “(Something Inside) So Strong” but I have absolutely no recollection of this song growing up but I did know “It Must Be Love.” ↩
- It also helps that if you’re interested in the orignial vinyl releases, CLLL can be had for $10-20 while Remember My Song will set you back 10x that, easily. ↩
- Fatboy Slim likes it too. ↩
- RJD2 has a…quirky cover of this one. ↩