I Come Not To Praise Lionel Richie, But To Bury Him.

189 views

I am, of course, unqualified to do either, since I remain a faceless drone in a sea of humanity, lost among the hordes, with little taste and even less musical training: tin, perhaps even aluminum foil, ears.

However, I have a keyboard, and I’m willing to wield it.

Ruh-roh…”

I will also dance the paradox dance:

  • I’ll bust Mr. Richie’s chops for the ballads he’s foisted upon us over the years. You know the ones: syrupy, saccharine, overwrought and undercooked, feckless, limp, bathetic, and broadcast multi-millions of times.
  • Then I’ll turn around and laud a ballad he co-wrote and sang lead on as one of the greatest, if not the pinnacle, of his and/or his former band’s discographies.
  • Afterwards, I’ll completely defenestrate my entire thesis by admitting that ‘Sweet Love’ and ‘Just To Be Close to You’ and ‘Easy’ and ‘Sail On’ were fine, even exemplary.
  • In the end, though, I’ll face the jury, pull at the lapels of my best suit, slip on a well-rehearsed expression of concern mixed with horror and fellow feeling, and intone in a deeply serious voice: ‘“Three Times a Lady.” “Still.” “Hello.” “Truly.” “Endless Love.” “Stuck on You.” “Oh No.” “Penny Lover.” ‘Ballerina Girl.”
“OK. It sounds really complicated.”
But I can hardly wait.”

The defendant is guilty of rank sentimentality. Members of the jury, you must convict.

(You may be wondering why I’ve neglected to include ‘Say You Say Me’ in this fulmination.)

Point 1:
the bridge.

Point 2:
An Academy Award.

[? Well, I exist under the delusion that that means something, despite the ‘You Light Up My Life’’s and ‘I Just Called To Say I Love You’’s still displaying the little guy on their respective mantels.]

Point 3: One reviewer, way back when [1985], described the tune as ‘Beatlesque.’ I don’t know. Maybe on the level of ‘Hello Goodbye?’)

‘Zoom’ is not an unknown quantity.

Heck, it was issued as a single in the UK, where it topped out at Number 38.

That version, of course, was taken from Commodores Live (the domestic single from the double LP was the studio funk stomper ‘Too Hot Ta Trot.’)

(Do I love the inclusion of ‘Ta? Most definitely.)

‘Zoom,’ the album cut, remains pristine, untouched by the gross populism of the 45, resolutely unedited, leaving it to breathe in its luxuriant, full-bodied 7:06. Sometimes, you had to pay $8.98 ($9.98 if you’re struggling under the ‘Superstar’ pricing model) to get to the good stuff. Took me a while to figure that out. ‘Zoom’ was the gateway drug.

Side two of Commodores harbored ‘Brick House’ and ‘Easy:’

Big hits. Enormous.

I played the living crap out of that side (esp., natch, ‘BH’ and ‘Easy’). The other side? Not so much.

No singles, you see. Nothing good enough to play on the radio once every 90 minutes, so why listen? Even if something like ‘Squeeze the Fruit’ was a sizzling flambé of funk sauce, ‘Funny Feelings’ a slower but no less tasty grinder, and ‘Heaven Knows,’ a, well, hmmm, a half-decent (refrains), half-uh-oh-what-the-hell-is-this-treacly-ballad-crap-let’s-hope-he-never-tries-this-nonsense-again (verses) track, which, not to bury the lede or anything, he would. For many long and labored years afterward.

But:

At first, you clench your shoulders and set your jaw to drill press. A stately drum riff. Are they really gonna slow the whole thing down even more? Kill any and all forward thrust the album has thus far created? Two bloops of electronica foreshadow… something. That something is a horn motif of enormous gentleness, empathy, regret. I still do Salieri here: ‘…a phrase of such delight…’

“And, you can dance to it.”

I could end things now. Everything that follows arises from the sound and feel of those horns.

Even Lionel, who specialized in, and would subsequently run roughshod over, the love song form, couldn’t bring ‘Zoom’ there. It was already out of his control. The opening movement set the profile: this was something of a requiem, a hymn.

It was, yes, about a woman, Ronald LaPread’s wife, Kathy. He played bass; she, tragically, had cancer that would soon take her life.

They worked the song together until they couldn’t, and gave it to Richie to complete.

He finished it in the same vein as it was conceived, and that made all the difference.

‘Zoom’ had soul.

The lead vocal stays in control, without flourish. Harmonies slide in and out; the bass, as it should, stays out in front. ‘Zoom,’ counterintuitively, moves like a lazy float down a winding river, sometimes languishing in a shallow as you glide over a breakdown, sometimes running across peaceful rapids, pulling you toward its conclusion rather than pushing you slowly ahead with manufactured emotion.

Which leads to the play out. At just under two minutes, it balances what comes before, and amplifies as well, with a quiet joy, although the sorrow lurks. Still (no, not ‘Still’), it’s hard not feel hopeful and content as it winds down, a grace note punctuating a mournful yet hopeful reverie.

So no, I didn’t do all the things I said I would up at the top.

I didn’t even bury Mr. Richie, who’s provided me with enough ‘not another one!’ material to drop a two-ton safe on, Looney Tunes-style.

Although if I did, he’d only resurrect himself and turn the whole experience into a piano ballad (‘Zombie Girl’ or ‘Slayed by You’).

‘Zoom’ is the finest moment in a career of fine moments the Commodores brought to this listener.

It encouraged me to pay attention to every inch of every LP I’d ever own going forward. I may be a foolish dreamer, but I don’t care:

I think I became a real appreciator of pop music because of ‘Zoom.’

One more thing, LR? What the hell was going on with ‘Night Train (Smooth Alligator)?

This might be Album Cuts.

Over and out.


Let the author know that you liked their article with a “Green Heart” upvote!

16

Thank You For Your Vote!

Sorry You have Already Voted!

Subscribe
Notify of
31 Comments
Oldest
Newest Most Voted
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
cstolliver
Member
Famed Member
cstolliver
Offline
June 1, 2023 5:19 am

I don’t know the Commodores’ work beyond their singles (even though I own at least one album), but I’ll give “Zoom” a listen. As to your thesis, I can’t argue with the main point, but I’ll quibble with the details:

Fully in agreement on the fine, even exemplary, ones.

On the lapel-pullers, I’ll also agree that Hello, Oh No, and Ballerina Girl grate on my ears. I further grant that Endless Love escapes this list primarily because of Diana Ross’ performance (and a romance, not mine, with which I associate it).

My thoughts on Mr. Richie: 1) His midtempo and uptempo singles were generally good (for me, the exception being “Dancing on the Ceiling”) 2) His ballads were I’ll-served by their singles edits. From “Just to Be Close to You” to three of your citations — “Three Times a Lady,” “Still” and “Penny Lover” — the full-length versions have a context that the singles edits bowdlerized. And 3) The more Richie moved toward either R&B or, especially, country, the better he got. For the former, see “Sweet Love” and “Just to Be Close to You” For the latter, “Easy,” “Stuck on You” “Deep River Woman” His success with producing Kenny Rogers’ “Lady” wasn’t just canny marketing. He’s got an honest country leaning that, when drained of its power, gives us gunk like Oh No and Ballerina Girl (and I guess Truly, too, although that doesn’t grate on me so much).

Last edited 11 months ago by Chuck Small
cstolliver
Member
Famed Member
cstolliver
Offline
June 1, 2023 10:07 am
Reply to  cstolliver

That would be ill-served. Stupid autocorrect!

rollerboogie
Member
Famed Member
rollerboogie
Online Now
June 1, 2023 12:26 pm
Reply to  stobgopper

It’s generating some great discussion. I wouldn’t second guess it!

rollerboogie
Member
Famed Member
rollerboogie
Online Now
June 1, 2023 5:30 am

He finished it in the same vein as it was conceived, and that made all the difference.
‘Zoom’ had soul.

I am listening to Zoom now, and I totally get your point. That is an important distinction for sure, for me at least, and will often determine whether or not I will be able to appreciate a ballad, particularly from the 70s/80s time period. Reasons by Earth, Wind & Fire comes to mind, and to a slightly lesser degree, Always and Forever by Heatwave.

To my ears, Say You, Say Me is a barely a song at all and one of the worst of the lot. How it got on the radio, let alone #1, just confounds me. I appreciate your arguments, but awards mean nothing to me in terms of whether or not a song is any good, and neither the bridge nor a Beatle comparison can save it for me.

I will now completely shoot everything I said in that first paragraph right out of the water and state that for me, Hello is a stone cold 10, something I said a number of times in the comment section the past few years. This happens to me on occasion. The heart wants what it wants.

Fun topic!

mt58
Admin
Famed Member
mt58
Offline
June 1, 2023 9:28 am
Reply to  rollerboogie

I like “Hello,” it’s a solid piece of work.

Louis Shelton’s guitar solo manages to be understated and majestic at the same time.

rollerboogie
Member
Famed Member
rollerboogie
Online Now
June 1, 2023 10:11 am
Reply to  mt58

Yes!

JJ Live At Leeds
Member
Famed Member
June 1, 2023 12:14 pm
Reply to  mt58

I don’t know if I like Hello or not. It came out when I was 7 and it seemed like the video was on Top of the Pops every week seeing as Lionel wasnt available to perform it himself. Musically it wasn’t at all what I wanted to hear as a 7 year old but the video was weirdly fascinating. Plus at school the lyrics were changed to ‘Hello, is it meat you’re looking for’ which seemed the height of wit and sophistication to our tiny pre-adolescent minds. I still can’t reconcile it all.

rollerboogie
Member
Famed Member
rollerboogie
Online Now
June 1, 2023 12:24 pm

My favorite story about that video was that supposedly Lionel complained to the director that the sculpture of his head that the woman was working on didn’t look like him, and the director’s response was “Lionel, she’s blind”.

LinkCrawford
Member
Famed Member
LinkCrawford
Offline
June 1, 2023 5:13 pm
Reply to  stobgopper

I will not forget this imagery.

mt58
Admin
Famed Member
mt58
Offline
June 1, 2023 5:52 pm
Reply to  stobgopper

With regard to Heatwave:
They have two songs in particular that always get a visceral reaction from me:

The Groove Line, and Always And Forever.

For one of these, I will run to whatever device is available to turn it up, and enjoy it to the very last note. For the other, I will set a land speed record for changing the station or skipping on a playlist.

I’ll let you all take a guess as to which is which.

(Might make an interesting article? 180° opposite reactions for two songs from the same band? I’m just sayin…)

Last edited 11 months ago by mt58
Virgindog
Member
Famed Member
Virgindog
Online Now
June 1, 2023 10:16 am

Like Chuck, I only know the singles and don’t think I’ve heard “Zoom” before today. It’s got some interesting arrangement choices. The backing vocals, horns, and strings each do slightly unexpected things, so it’s not a run of the mill ballad and yet, I don’t know, it just doesn’t float my boat.

I have the same reaction to most Commodores stuff. I appreciate their skill and taste, but they’re too middle of the road to keep my attention.

Pauly Steyreen
Member
Famed Member
June 1, 2023 10:23 am

One of many pointless hills I’ve died on was my insistence that Lionel Richie did NOT belong in the RRHOF. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t have a problem with a genre-expansive admission gate. Got no problem with Jay-Z or Dolly Parton or other non-rock musicians being inducted.

And I would have absolutely zero beef with the Commodores being inducted someday. They had some level of grit, a whole lot of funk, and chops for days.

But solo artist Lionel is such a toothless wonder, so treacly and soft. There isn’t even the slightest hint of edge. And I think IF the RRHOF needs to maintain some minimum standard of admission, it needs to require at least a hint of danger or trouble — from the artists or their lyrics or their musical style. They need to exhibit something some grandparent somewhere might object to. Something a parent might feel the need to protect their children from.

No doubt Lionel was successful. He sold enough music to fund generations of drug addictions… his great-grandchildren will still be getting high off Great Grandpa’s money. But the line should have been drawn somewhere… you’re a successful and talented musician Lionel, but rock ‘n’ roll you are not.

Virgindog
Member
Famed Member
Virgindog
Online Now
June 1, 2023 10:41 am
Reply to  Pauly Steyreen

That’s the word I was looking for. Edge. That’s what’s missing.

lovethisconcept
Member
Famed Member
June 1, 2023 11:56 am

“Zoom” is new to me. Liked the sound of it at first listen. I will need to hear it a few more times to know if I really like it, or if it’s just pleasant background for me.

I have struggled with the Commodores. “Brick House” came out when I was at my most aggressively feminist, so I found the lyrics objectionable. But damn, I have never been able to resist that funk. Makes me want to “Shake it down, shake it down now.”

Phylum of Alexandria
Member
Famed Member
June 1, 2023 1:32 pm

“Shake it down, shake it down now.”

That is not at all what I thought they were saying. This being a family friendly site, I will leave my mondegreen in the dark alley where it belongs.

Virgindog
Member
Famed Member
Virgindog
Online Now
June 1, 2023 3:17 pm

OK, now I’m curious.

LinkCrawford
Member
Famed Member
LinkCrawford
Offline
June 1, 2023 5:15 pm

I always thought that they were made-up syllables.
Chicka-tao
chicka-tao
chicka-tao now

Phylum of Alexandria
Member
Famed Member
June 1, 2023 5:23 pm
Reply to  LinkCrawford

Clearly this is a Rorshach test that reveals why the CCM milieu was ultimately not for me.

cappiethedog
Member
Famed Member
cappiethedog
Offline
June 1, 2023 9:24 pm

Reading Laura Mulvey changed my life.

Catherine Breillat is the leader of the film movement French Extremism. Her films can get pretty graphic. But I always presumed that her movies, no matter how nude, were rebukes to the male gaze. Who has the agency? Who has the agency? Who? Who? Who? That’s an example of what runs through my brain when I first watched the ironically titled, Romance. I presumed she was on the side of the woman. I presumed wrong. She is decidedly not Jane Campion. She made headlines in film nerddom for eviscerating Asia Argento on social media.

I don’t know what to make of a music video such as “WAP”. Cardi B is in control of her own image. But is it feminist if the viewer doesn’t care?

I guess a song, any song devoted to the female body(pre-2 Live Crew), is “WAP” as a metaphor.

lovethisconcept
Member
Famed Member
June 1, 2023 9:52 pm
Reply to  cappiethedog

There is a point to be made about agency, but internalized oppression is also very real. Is “WAP” a song about empowerment, or is it an acceptance that women are most valued for body parts? Or maybe a bit of both?

cappiethedog
Member
Famed Member
cappiethedog
Offline
June 2, 2023 1:46 am

It’s both, and I guess more importantly, Cardi B knows it’s both. She knows that the song will mean something different to all combinations of race and sexual orientation. I’ll stop here before I write a short essay between the difference between Don Siegel’s The Beguiled, and the Sofia Coppola remake. It’s so over-the-top, it’s kind of funny. None of the 2 Live Crew songs are funny. I guess maybe that’s the point.

JJ Live At Leeds
Member
Famed Member
June 1, 2023 1:03 pm

Like others I’m not overly familiar with Commodores other than the singles. First time listening to Zoom and it doesn’t grab me.

I share your confusion regarding Lionel ballads though. Easy is a 10, Sail On is great but then there’s Penny Lover and Ballerina Girl and the title Oh No says it all.

Other than Easy my favourite Commodores track is back where they began with Machine Gun. From there to despair as far as I’m concerned with Lionel’s trajectory. I don’t think I’m ready to attempt a reappraisal of his career just yet.

thegue
Member
Famed Member
thegue
Offline
June 1, 2023 1:15 pm

The only listenable singles in Lionel Richie’s quiver:

  1. Sail On: freshman year at college, we’d play/sing this to any of our hallway mates who’d broken up with a girl. Still have great memories of it.
  2. Brick House: a classic.
  3. Lady (You Bring Me Up): my introduction to the Commodores on my own.
  4. Easy
  5. Stuck on You
  6. You Are
  7. Truly

Anything after the first three I’m probably changing the station, but are bearable under certain conditions.

Any of his other songs are like nails on a chalkboard.

Ozmoe
Member
Famed Member
Ozmoe
Offline
June 4, 2023 8:31 pm
Reply to  thegue

I love the first 3 unconditionally as well. As for the rest, well, I remember visiting a local radio station in 1984 listing the local hits and since they had a sense of humor or were tired of listing some of them straight (or maybe both), they wrote Stuck on You down as Sick on You. The fact that I remember that 40 years later shows how it resonated with my opinion of that song.

LinkCrawford
Member
Famed Member
LinkCrawford
Offline
June 1, 2023 5:36 pm

Stob, I like this. The reason that I have “Zoom” in my iTunes is because of discussion of the song over on the mothership. (I’ve owned the vinyl album for years, but mostly just listened to the singles.)

I don’t love “Zoom”, but I do like it. The 70s strings behind the song are great. The general feel of the tune is chill. I might feel the same about “Easy” if it weren’t drilled into my head by AM radio as a kid. As it is, “Easy” is such a 10/10 for me. How would I feel about it if I were hearing it today for the first time? I don’t know.

Today wasn’t the first time I’ve listened to “Zoom” , and it won’t be the last.

Mr. Plow
Member
Trusted Member
Mr. Plow
Offline
June 5, 2023 2:53 pm

Any Commodores discussion has to include the genius of “Machine Gun” and “I Feel Sanctified”.

As far as Commodores’ hit ballads go, “Oh No”>”Still”>”Three Times A Lady”

dutchg8r
Member
Famed Member
dutchg8r
Offline
June 6, 2023 2:51 pm

Lionel and Neil Diamond are 2 Peas in a pod, in my opinion. Both are obviously super talented and seem perfectly fine to coast along on super treacle MOR music that is grating to my ears, only to throw out doozies every now and then where you just throw your hands up in disbelief and question why don’t they go down this road more often?!!

And they each had The Hairdo to top off the presentation. Ha!

Obviously the rest of The Commodores had some significant say in what the band created, since its obvious what a Lionel-only approach would have been. Thank you, Commodores-not-named-Lionel.😁

And for the record, Lionel’s lone banger for me?

Running With The Night.

Last edited 11 months ago by dutchg8r
31
0
Would love your thoughts, please comment.x
()
x