DeepSoul: Stargard - "Which Way Is Up"

A slice of late '70s funk/disco, "Which Way Is Up" remains an underrated track by an unjustly neglected group.
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A slice of late 70s funk/disco, "Which Way Is Up" remains an underrated track by an unjustly neglected act: Stargard. A female trio who drew comparisons to Labelle (particularly through their flamboyant costumes) and the Pointer Sisters, they achieved only one hit with the theme song to the 1977 Richard Pryor vehicle Which Way Is Up?  Their blend of R&B, funk, and gospel should have achieved more success, but their lack of smash followup led to their 1983 breakup.

The original lineup consisted of Rochelle Runnells, Debra Anderson and Janice Williams, and their more gritty, aggressive vocal approach led to their signing with MCA in 1977.  Having previously scored a huge hit with his composition "Car Wash," Norman Whitfield penned the track "Which Way Is Up" for Stargard.  Having previously written classic singles like "Papa Was a Rolling Stone" and "Cloud Nine" for the Temptations, Whitfield was the obvious choice to introduce the group to the public.  The tactic worked, as "Which Way Is Up" topped the R&B singles chart; their self-titled debut album followed in 1978.  While the disc earned solid reviews, it failed to generate any more significant hits.  They tried again with the followup What You Waitin' For; the Whitfield-penned title track reached the R&B top ten.  Despite not topping the success of "Which Way Is Up," Stargard did score one more high profile gig: they appeared as the "Diamonds" in the 1978 film Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band.

Not achieving any other hits, Stargard left MCA for Warner Brothers, and the move seemed promising: they recruited Robert Wright and Verdine White (brother of Earth, Wind & Fire founder Maurice White) to produce their album The Changing of the Gard, featuring the single "Wear It Out."  While the slickly produced and arranged cut seemed to bear the markings of a hit, it strangely reached only number 43 on the R&B charts.  By 1980, Anderson departed the group, and Williams and Runnells attempted to continue as a duo.  They recorded two more albums together: Back 2 Back (1981) and Nine Lives (1982), both of which received little attention; they subsequently disbanded.  

Stargard may have scored only one major hit, but what a song it is.  It may have fared well in discos, but the slapping bass derives from pure funk. The talk box adds a deeper bottom (similar to what Zapp featuring Roger would explore in the 1980s), setting it apart from slick dance music of the time.  Runnels, Anderson, and Williams turn in a tough performance, infusing the lyrics with just the right amount of swagger.  "Trouble had a way of finding me," they sing, but once they found out "which way is up," they got a "new lease on life" and "got my direction together."  In the extended version, a lengthy guitar solo snakes through the track as the trio harmonizes on the title phrase.  "Get funky now!" they command, their gospel background shining through on their tight vocals.

While the rhythm may bear some similarities to "Car Wash," Stargard's vocals lend a more aggressive air than did Rose Royce.  The 12-inch version also includes some incredible jamming that dares fans to remain still while listening.  "Which Way Is Up" should have experienced more success on the pop charts due to its danceability, but its funkiness ensured its top spot on the R&B charts as well as its continued appeal.