lionel_richie_all_night_long2There’s a warm breeze coming in from the ocean. With the languid nonchalance of a man on his third Malibu, Lionel Richie beckons to us, offering to take us deep into the balmy nocturnal dream-world of pop, the night that never ends:

“Well, my friends the time has come / Raise the roof and have some fun / Throw away the work to be done / Let the music play on (play on, play on, play on…)”

Scoring a US Number 1 hit  in 1983, a year after Thriller set new standards for pop-soul production, All Night Long saw Richie and Commodores producer James Carmichael deliver an undulating, teflon-smooth sound worthy of Quincy Jones at his finest.  At six minutes 25 seconds for the album version, All Night Long is a long pop song.  In fact it’s a multi-layered epic, seemingly comprising several songs in one, full of gear shifts and detours celebrating the studio-as-instrument.

But it is also a work of supreme economy in which nothing is wasted and every part serves the whole.  Behind the laid back, sun-kissed vibe it is slick, hair-gelled, and shoulder-padded. The song sounds like it should have soundtracked a pilot episode of Miami Vice – and what’s more, it did. Everything about the sound of this record smacks of white leather interior: air-brushed, classy in a quintessetially 80’s way. It’s a pulsing orgasmatron of studio effects, slithering strings, synthesised horn stabs and complex percussion, all designed with machine-tool precision to get your feet moving.

Yet this is authentic black music, not white yuppie soul, and like all the best pop songs it transcends its own calculations.  Nowhere is this more apparent that the remarkable chant section, in which Richie does his best to convince us that a roving street festival has just broken into the studio.  We hear shouting, crowd noises, the blaring horns of a carnival parade, a xylophone suggesting a Trinidadian street band:

“Come join our party, see how we play!” Richie urges, as the track launches into a fabulous call-and-response exchange held in an entirely fictional African dialect. Then we’re thrown back into the chorus one last time, before the song starts its final coda: “Everyone we meet, they’re jamming in the street, all night long,” sings Richie.  By this point the song is soaring, symphonic, ecstatic.  Inside the music, the denizens of its exotic pop ultraworld are intuitively connected in a community of rythmn, the very streets conga eels of twitching funk.

All Night Long imports the spirit of traditional black communal celebration into a shiny global pop product and, in the best Motown tradition, does so with all the slickly engineered proficiency of a Chevrolet coming off a GM production line.  This is what helped make the record an international hit, as resonant in Soweto as it was in LA.  At the same time, dressed in its period aspirational glamour, it brilliantly fulfils one of pop’s core functions, providing a paen to the seemingly inexhaustible mysteries and excitements of the adult world as seen through the prism of adolescence.

All Night Long played a key role in the mammoth success of the smash album Can’t Slow Down, sharing groove space with Hello, a track whose video memorably cast Richie as a jheri-curled phone stalker pestering a blind college girl. It is a matter of some regret that Lionel Richie would never recapture the glories of All Night Long, prefering instead to concentrate on cementing his growing reputation as the black Barry Manilow.

But for now, Lionel is beckoning again from his impossible island, a kind of funk Prospero, inviting us to join the party one more time. Waves of synth-wash are lapping the shore and the sky is as pink as your drink. Close your eyes and listen to the man.

 

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