In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.
Stevie Wonder doesn’t seem to get mad that often. When Wonder first burst into the national consciousness with “Fingertips (Pt. II)” in 1963, he came off as a total sunray of positivity. Over the past 56 years, that hasn’t changed much. A couple of years ago, I saw Wonder come out as a surprise guest at the big show that the Dave Matthews Band put together in Charlottesville, where I live. This was right after a screaming horde of white supremacists had blown through our town, killing one person and injuring plenty more. Anger would’ve been a justifiable response. But when Stevie Wonder talked to us that night about the terrible things that had just happened in our town, he offered a message of hope and positivity and ultimately something like triumph. (Wonder speaks beautifully but vaguely, so it’s often hard to tell what, exactly, the message is supposed to be. But it seemed nice.)
Point is: It takes a whole lot to piss off Stevie Wonder. But in 1974, Stevie Wonder, like a whole lot of other people, was mad. And he sang about it.
Looking back on the songs that hit #1 in 1974, most of them were not consciously political, or even topical. I’ve seen plenty of people theorizing that soft rock and disco were coming into vogue, at least in part, because people were sick of politics — even though an underground movement coming up out of gay and black clubs is, itself, inherently political. But the Vietnam War, the ghastly parade of prominent assassinations, and the Watergate scandal had thoroughly unmoored entire generations. And at a certain point, nobody wanted to think about that shit anymore. They just wanted to relax, or they just wanted to go out and have fun. And pop music, which only a few years earlier had been a force for galvanic dissent, had reverted to simply being a soundtrack. Maybe that’s true. But it wasn’t true where Stevie Wonder was concerned.
Wonder released “You Haven’t Done Nothin'” as a single two days before Richard Nixon resigned the presidency. The whole Watergate story had been bubbling for years at that point, and the press had hammered it with admirable focus. A nation that had overwhelmingly reelected Nixon in a 1972 landslide turned on him. By the time he resigned, most of the country wanted him gone. “You Haven’t Done Nothin'” gives voice to that rage. Wonder never mentions Nixon by name in the song, but its target is clear: “We are sick and tired of hearing your song / Telling how you are gonna change right from wrong… You brought this upon yourself.”
“You Haven’t Done Nothin'” is plainly and obviously a song about someone who talked a big game about uniting a country and then did everything he could to destroy the people he saw as his enemies. In a statement he released with the song, Wonder wrote, “Everybody promises you everything but in the end, nothing comes out of it.” So “You Haven’t Done Nothin'” isn’t a gloat. It’s a lament of betrayal, an accusation. You can hear Wonder almost choking on his words as he howls them out.
A year before “You Haven’t Done Nothin,'” Stevie Wonder had released Innervisions, one of the many masterpieces that came out during Wonder’s mind-boggling ’70s run. Three days after that album came out, Wonder was touring through the Carolinas when he was almost killed in a car accident. A log-hauling truck had stopped suddenly, and the car that Wonder had been riding in rear-ended it. Logs fell off the truck and smashed through the windshield of Wonder’s car. He was in a coma for nearly a week, and he ended up losing much of his sense of smell. But it didn’t slow Wonder down. Less than a year after Innervisions, Wonder released Fulfillingness’ First Finale, yet another masterpiece. “You Haven’t Done Nothin'” was the first of the album’s two singles.
As angry as “You Haven’t Done Nothin'” is — and the song is very angry — it’s still striking how much life and inventiveness there is in the track. Even pointing a trembling finger at the leader of the free world, Wonder assembles this massive, honking, life-affirming funk jam. As he did on so many songs from this era, Wonder played most of the instruments on “You Haven’t Done Nothin’.” Wonder plays drums, and he also weaves a full quilt of clavinet sounds, creating a gurgling, shifting landscape that feels a whole lot bigger than a simple riff. And he does some mad studio science, doing everything possible to make the song into something weird and futuristic.
A lot of the weird experiments that Wonder did on “You Haven’t Done Nothin'” would, years later, become standard things in pop music. Wonder uses a rickety drum machine, an invention that had only appeared on a few #1 singles before that. He also embraces the synthesizer. It’s not just the clavinet; Robert Margouleff and Malcolm Cecil also play synths on the song. And the song features something else that’s pretty regular now: The guest-superstar cameo. The Jackson 5 did the background vocals on “You Haven’t Done Nothin’,” and Wonder introduces them with panache: “Jackson 5, join along with me!”
It all holds together as a song, which is remarkable. Every element on “You Haven’t Done Nothin'” hits hard: the bubbling clavinet stew, the explosive horn riff, the Jacksons. When the kids jump on the song, they don’t sing any words. The just gel right into this titanic harmony with Wonder: “Doo doo wop!” That refrain is a glorious piece of nonsense. A bunch of famous kids singing gibberish syllables shouldn’t belong on a passionate protest song, but Stevie Wonder made it work. Right around then, he made everything work.
BONUS BEATS: At the end of the 1991 3rd Bass banger “Pop Goes The Weasel,” the central sample — of Peter Gabriel’s “Sledgehammer,” another song that’ll appear in this column — gives way to a sample of “You Haven’t Done Nothin’.” Here’s the “Pop Goes The Weasel” video, starring Henry Rollins (who will not appear in this column) as Vanilla Ice (who will):