At the moment I’m indulging in one of my favourite past-times which is listening to old Commodores albums. For those who don’t know, Ronald LaPread was the bassist in the Commodores from 1969 until his departure from the band in 1986 when he fell in love with an Iranian / Kiwi and moved to New Zealand. He’s been here ever since and for the last 10 years we’ve been friends, even hosting an award-winning radio show together All About Soul for a couple of years.
There are many reasons the Commodores were Motown’s biggest selling band of the 70s and 80s, but at the forefront was that they were six guys who could all write. Unlike most Motown acts, the Commodores didn’t rely on ace songwriters like Holland/Dozier/Holland, Ashford & Simpson or Norman Whitfield to give them their hits; they did it themselves.
With six songwriters, one who’d go on to become one of the greatest popular songwriters of the 20th century (Lionel Richie), the Commodores spurred each other on to be better. As a result you had the famous Lionel Richie ballads like Easy and Three Times A Lady, but also the Southern funk of Ron in songs like Look What You’ve Done To Me, Gimme My Mule and Fancy Dancer, plus gems like Milan Williams’ Wonderland, Patch It Up and Machine Gun, Thomas McClary’s Slippery When Wet, High On Sunshine and Celebrate, William King’s Lady You Bring Me Up and Funky Situation and Walter Orange’s Nightshift.
I’ve said it before, but how this band isn’t in the Rock ‘n’ Roll Hall Of Fame makes zero sense. Alongside the number one hits and sell-out tours (first black act to sell out three consecutive nights at Madison Sqaure Garden), you have a startling diversity of music that puts them amongst the most versatile bands to ever dominate the charts. Few other acts have moved as seamlessly between as many genres as the Commodores. Just think of the country of Sail On, the funk of Brick House, the soul of Just To Be Close To You, the dance-pop of Lady You Bring Me Up, the funk-rock of Slippery When Wet, the quiet-storm of Zoom, the gospel of Jesus Is Love and the adult-contemporary soul of Nightshift.
The lazy narrative of the Commodores is that they started funky and went progressively ballad-heavy. The truth is that the Commodores were always funketeers, just as they always had a way with the love-song or the socially conscious message-song. What happened was that as the years went on, it became apparent that the songs best suited to mass radio play were the Lionel Richie ballads. That meant that the casual fan or the critic who couldn’t be bothered actually listening to their albums didn’t realize that there was funk and soul on every single one of the more than dozen Commodores albums.
This narrative also tended to downplay the simplistic brilliance of Richie’s songs. Three Times A Lady and Still might be romantic ballads, but it’s not as if by virtue of singing a ballad you are guaranteed a number one hit. I would argue these songs had just as much X-factor as any other mammoth hits of the time by the likes of the Bee Gees, Fleetwood Mac, Donna Summer and the Eagles. To be blunt, you only have to listen to the Commodores own aimless Only You from the Richie-less album 13 in 1983 to realize the difference between a ballad that grabs you and a ballad that doesn’t. The beauty of so many of the best songs, whether ballads or up-tempo, is that they sound simple, though only a rare few of us can write them. At their best, their were six Commodores who had this ability.
So with that in mind, here is the latest Commodores song I can’t get out of my head. Baring in mind this is a band whose back catalogue I know back to front, therefore making a new discovery near-on impossible, I’ve gone for one of any number of songs which blow my mind. However, intimate knowledge of the band to one side, it’s fair to say this song initially passed me by and I can’t quite believe it.
Written by the late Milan Williams, who so often brought out the best, most expressive version of Lionel Richie, this is just about the dirtiest (in a good way) the Commodores ever got. It’s another thing I love about this band, that they can be as carnal as this, just as they can be as overtly spiritual as songs like Jesus Is Love. It’s a dichotomy which has always existed more easily in black music. Here are the Commodores at their best, this is X-rated Movie, from 1978’s Natural High (and to reinforce their diversity, this was the same album that featured Three Times A Lady).