Remember When Lionel Richie Was A Rocker? Don't Worry, Almost No One Else Does Either
I was surprised at the outpouring of interest we got from the post last weekend about the new hard rockin' Body Count single, "No Lives Matter" from their upcoming album Bloodlust. Someone asked me if we ran it because of Black History Month. Uh... no; we ran it because Bodycount put out a new single about issues relevant to the DWT mission. But Happy Black History Month too. In fact, I rummaged around the files and found this article I wrote for Creem almost 40 years ago about another rockin' band that has been largely lost to (white) history, The Commodores. I had recently returned from over six years living abroad and I was photographing bands and writing about music to pay the rent while I figured out what I was going to do with my life. Creem assigned me this story on the band, just as they started to transition from a hard sound to a predominantly soft, commercial sound.
When I went to interview them late in 1977 I had Machine Gun in mind and the world was soon inundated with Three Times A Lady. But when I talked with Lionel Richie he still kind of wanted to be like my old pal Jimi Hendrix. So we got along great.
The Commodores: Come Funk With Us! (But Bring Your Led Zep Records)
Howie Klein, Creem, January 1978
"NOW YOU take a group like Fleetwood Mac or the Zep," offered Benny. "It's another thing that the audiences get off into. I don't understand it because I'm not a heavy rock fan, but I respect it and appreciate it in my planning for the group."
Benny is the omnipresent Ben Ashburn, and "the group" is the Commodores, the six-man self-contained funk 'n' roll band that has been delighting in breaking rule after rule in the Music Business Book of Absolutes. Benny-- for the record, the manager and surrogate father-- is the seventh Commodore. He and lead singer Lionel Richie are telling CREEM about their Plan and how they've been implementing it. The plan is easy: to stick around and "become an institution, like the Stones." And the implementation-- well, that's a lot of facts and figures-- things like simultaneous #1 hits on the r'n'b, pop and easy listening charts for their two current singles; three million sales for the new-- the fifth-- album; ten million dollars in gross tour receipts; broken attendance records in stadiums from New Orleans to the Philippines; unprecedented-- for a black group-- advance ticket sell-outs, etc. They planned it all this way. They do their homework. And if Benny's not into the heavy rock sound that dominates today's concert circuit, Lionel sure is.
"See, I'm a rocker," he confided. "When we started out back in '68, if I had my way I'd have said, 'Turn the amp up on 12 and let's go.' But I couldn't do it. I had to realize one thing: this industry divides into two categories-- r'n'b and pop. Before I go and sell out Madison Square Garden with Led Zeppelin and all the rest of the brothers, I've got to first of all start r'n'b-- get myself a market together. We cannot say, 'I wanna be a Beatles.' There's a totally different marketing strategy. Number one, we're black. We've got to sell ourselves on another angle. The angle is energy-- coliseum energy, not nightclub energy. When r'n'b groups played coliseums they used to do seven groups in a night. I wanted to sell out Madison Square Garden as the Commodores. Back in '68 people looked at us as if we were crazy. 'Son, I've been in the Business 25 years...'"
In fact, "Son, I've been in the Business 25 years and here is a list of what you can't do," is the Commodores story. The whole band is from Tuskegee, Alabama, where they went to school at the original "Negro college," Tuskegee Institute, in the late '60s. They went through school listening to what all American students were into then: the Stones, Hendrix, the Beatles, the Temptations, the Airplane. "What I realized walking across campus," recalled Richie, "is that even though the Music Industry has a category of r'n'b and one of pop music... well, I was on a predominantly black campus, but I'll bet you we had as many Led Zeppelin and Rolling Stone and Cream albums as anything."
So when they walked into the Motown offices-- ready to revolutionize the Music Business-- they didn't exactly fit into the company's standard success pattern. In fact, it took them over three years from the time they signed a recording contract until they finally got their first record out. Mo-town's idea of plugging into the "Baby Love, Baby Love" formula for making a hit wasn't exactly what the Commodores had in mind for themselves. "We wanted another kind of sound and we had to fight tooth and nail to sell the idea. You see, in r'n'b you're dealing with an industry that's into 'Clean Sound'-- nuthin' heavy. So we walk in and start talking about feedback and 'gimme some echo and some fuzz and some garbage can sounds.' These are professional people who are into cutting clean tracks. So it took right up to this album here just to get them to understand. They still try to mix it down, though. Maybe it's necessary. I can get so locked into the fuzz sound on the guitar that I loose the perspective of what the total song is all about. But once we get live onstage..."
Yeah, that's the way to get into the Commodores-- live onstage. The name is energy. Their thing is to take a 15,000 seat stadium and turn it into a nightclub. "We get insulted if we don't see people up and dancing. We're into total energy. We're into entertaining. The idea in this business is to back up what you say-- to deliver what you promise."
And deliver is what the Commodores do. Beyond the reach of corporate product evaluators and quality control hacks, the Commodores let the audience know how they feel. They're raw and gutsy-- real-- the way the Stones are. There's no glossy patina onstage to make their act safe and homogenized. Forget that. And if "traditional wisdom" says that that makes a funk group "too black," well, just look at who's comin' to Commodore concerts. The Boston police showed up with mace when they found out that the ticket buyers were half white and half black. It was 50/50 in San Diego, too, and almost that in San Francisco. (They didn't need any mace; the band keeps everybody too busy for anything but the music.) You ain't never seen such a racially mixed audience before. And everybody's up and dancing.
"If they're little kids, I give 'em a kiddie show. But on the Stones tour all we tried to do was blow 'em away with the music, 'cause that's where rockers are at. Rockers are into lyric content. The audiences know every word before the show."
Last fall the Commodores and Donna Summer played themselves in the movie Thank God It's Friday, a kind of black Star is Born. The Commodores were billed throughout as the "World's Greatest Disco Group." Now this band may have started as a disco group, but don't be fooled-- today their music goes far beyond the simple, repetitious bass lines and droning mechanical parameters of disco. Richie felt awkward about that part of the film. "It was kind of strange and we thought about it, but we wound up saying, 'What the heck; they use our name all through the movie.' All I know is that the lights were on me and I said, 'Ham it up.' And remember, we did have our beginning as a disco group. We've branched out a lot now, but if you listen to the Machine Gun album right now, you will not be able to sit down. We started out trying to get a following. Now we've got one and we can take 'em to places we want to go."
And where that is, is-- of course-- to the top. Like the man said, these guys wanna be an institution. They've been working real hard at it, too. You've gotta remember something about the Commodores, something they never forget-- they're not in the r'n'b business; they're in the music business.
"I'm not saying I wanna be a rocker," smiled Richie. "What I'm saying is that rockers take risks in their writing and their shows. That's what makes you number one. But you've got to have a following that will stand behind you and say, 'If my man tears off his clothes onstage, it's alright.' Well, that's what we're trying to do right now. We're stepping off into some areas of our music that are risky. But, like I said, in order to be number one you've got to take some risks. In terms of our writing, 'Easy' was a risk. 'Zoom' was a guarantee-- we knew it would definitely take care of our r'n'b audience. 'Easy' was an experiment. Programmers had said our stuff was too r'n'b to be number one on the pop stations. I said, 'OK, I'm gonna give these people a song that has no r'n'b anything to it. There's your pop song. Pop, pop, pop'."