Once again, Lionel Richie has hit the road, attracting and exciting audiences with hits from his solo superstardom and from his bountiful years with The Commodores. Remarkably, it’s been forty years since he and his bandmates experienced their first chart success, with a hot, electro-funk instrumental, no less: “Machine Gun.”
Even then, The Commodores had been on the Motown roster for three years, honing their skills, striving for their own sound and identity. They spent a vital part of this woodshedding period on the road as an opening act for the Jackson 5, learning about the give and take of the live circuit. That’s where the polish and charm you see in Lionel today began.
The Commodores grew up in the 1960s, baby boomers who gained their college – and musical – education in the celebrated halls of Tuskegee Institute, Alabama. Let’s hear it for students Walter Orange (drums), Thomas McClary (guitar), Milan Williams (keyboards), Ronald LaPread (bass), William King (trumpet), and, of course, Lionel Richie (saxophone). They coalesced as The Commodores after stints with other bands in and around the university, and then graduated to New York to become clients of manager Benny Ashburn. He got them gigs at Manhattan nightspots and an album’s worth of studio sessions with Atlantic Records. But more importantly, he was an acquaintance of the young talent coordinator of a New York club, Suzanne de Passe. When she was later hired at Motown and tasked with finding an opening act for the Jackson 5, Ashburn suggested The Commodores to her. This was good fortune, smiling on them.
And so to Machine Gun, the band’s debut Motown album, mostly recorded in Los Angeles and released in July 1974, as the title tune gained a splash of attention and some R&B chart action. The fact that all but two of the ten tracks were written by members of The Commodores was another sign that this was a new breed of Motown artists, largely self-sufficient. That said, producer James Anthony Carmichael played a vital role in developing their talent, sound and distinctiveness, arranging and supervising (with the group) seven tracks.
“I Feel Sanctified” and “Young Girls Are My Weakness” are the best evidence of that talent. Both are strong songs, maximised with chunky horns and pneumatic bass lines. “Sanctified,” produced by Jeffrey Bowen, owes a debt to the Ohio Players, with tight vocals and a great hook. It also owes something to P-Funk: Bowen took the tracks from a session with guitarist Eddie Hazel and overdubbed The Commodores. As for “Young Girls Are My Weakness,” the lyrics may be politically incorrect, but the ladies got their turn when Australian pop star Kate Ceberano cheerfully resexed the song into “Young Boys Are My Weakness” on her 1989 hit album, Brave.
As for this album’s title track, “Machine Gun” brilliantly showcases the fast-fingered keyboard skills of Milan Williams, on a tune given its title by Motown chairman Berry Gordy. (The group had originally called it “The Ram”; when de Passe played it for Gordy, he suggested the new name.) “Rapid Fire,” which Williams also wrote, uses the same instrumental machinery. His third contribution is “The Bump,” which has less speed, more funk, and the group chanting a disposable dance lyric. What’s interesting about this track, and another mid-tempo entry, Lionel Richie’s “There’s A Song In My Heart,” is the continuing influence of Sly & the Family Stone, years after their explosive arrival. “There’s A Song…” is also noteworthy for being produced by Terry Woodford and Clayton Ivey, hired southern guns who most likely recorded it in their Muscle Shoals, Alabama base.
When first inked to Motown in 1971, The Commodores were assigned to in-house songwriters and producers Pam Sawyer and Gloria Jones. “With them being self-contained, you had more control over what you were trying to develop,” recalled Jones in liner notes for The Complete Motown Singles Vol. 12A. “That was exciting.”
She and Sawyer crafted a pair of songs on Machine Gun, namely “The Assembly Line” and “The Zoo (The Human Zoo),” both with lyrics touching on life’s dehumanising aspects (“And they call this civilisation…”) that are more socially-conscious than others on the album. “Assembly” has gospel flavouring, a mid-point female voice (Jones, perhaps) and a dramatic breakdown towards the end, while “Zoo” features horn riffs reminiscent of New Orleans during Mardi Gras, and Walter Orange’s powerful percussion. This second Jones/Sawyer track is melodic, too, which may be why it was chosen to follow “Machine Gun” in the UK, which was a Top 20 hit there.
And so evolved The Commodores, as Motown and Benny Ashburn worked together to develop the band’s full potential in record sales and concert receipts, at home and abroad. Machine Gun was just the beginning of the assault.
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