Steve Winwood’s “Higher Love” Is The Ultimate Anti-Jam Of The Summer


This month, to celebrate the Internet’s unbridled love for wallowing in nostalgia and even greater relishing of talking about why certain cultural artifacts are horrible, Sound of the City presents First Worsts, a series in which our writers remember the first time… they ever hated a song enough to call it The Worst. (And to be fair, we’re also going to see how these songs have stood the test of time.)

THE SONG: Steve Winwood, “Higher Love.”
THE YEAR: 1986.
THE REASONS: A horrible way to wake up; ubiquity; the tinny drumbeat.

In the summer of 1986, my parents enrolled me in College Academy, a day camp for “gifted children,” which meant that my plans for the summer before seventh grade of sleeping in and watching Facts of Life reruns were replaced with classes in photography, improv and “People in Space.” It turned out to be a lot of fun, but getting up in the morning was not. My alarm clock, a fake-wood-paneling-encased Sanyo, was set to Z94, Boston’s top-40 station. My hazy memory has since convinced me that every morning at 7:15 a.m., they played Steve Winwood’s “Higher Love,” and I can’t think of that song without remembering the Sanyo.

It is an awful tune to wake up to, especially when blaring through a clock radio with one crappy speaker. The tinny, synth drumbeat is way too high in the mix, and the minute Winwood yelps “THINK ABOUT IT, THERE COULD BE HIGHER LOVE,” the impulse was to tune to another station. However, the reception in my neighborhood was so bad that there weren’t many other choices except for the easy-listening outlet, which might have also been playing this musical abomination.

My hatred of Winwood’s 1980s oeuvre was only heightened in 1988, with the release of “Roll With It,” a song that to this day I can’t listen to all the way through. The video (choreographed by Paula Abdul!) was in constant rotation on MTV, and the minute I heard the bell jingle that opened the door to the sepia-toned dance club, I would lunge to change the channel.

Twenty years later, when Winwood opened for Tom Petty & The Heartbreakers at Madison Square Garden, I timed my arrival so that I would not see any of Winwood’s set; I was sure it would close with either “Higher Love” or “Roll With It,” and I didn’t want to be a captive audience. When Petty invited Winwood onstage to jam in the middle of the set, I breathed a sigh of relief when he delved into the Traffic and Blind Faith catalog instead.

“Higher Love” is not nearly as terrible as I remember it to be, but I doubt I would ever choose to listen to it. If I were sipping a white wine spritzer outside somewhere and this began to play, I might nod my head. The synth horns and drums are quintessential 1980s pop, but the whole soundscape is a Proustian trigger for summer days before seventh grade. (See also: Atlantic Starr’s “Always.”)

It is, however, no “Valerie.”