Music

Lionel Richie: Can't Slow Down (Deluxe Edition)

Charlotte Robinson

Lionel Richie

Can't Slow Down (Deluxe Edition)

Label: Deluxe Edition
US Release Date: 2003-05-06
UK Release Date: 2003-05-19
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I'm ashamed at just how much I'm enjoying the Deluxe Edition of Lionel Richie's Can't Slow Down. While the music on it is slick, commercial, and overly sentimental, it's still catchy as hell and executed with an incredible amount of artistry. Originally released in 1983, the album was the biggest success of the ex-Commodore's solo career, with each of its five singles -- "All Night Long", "Penny Lover", "Stuck on You", "Running with the Night", and "Hello" -- reaching the Top Ten. Although Richie's career has since stalled, at the time he was probably the No. 2 black male artist in America, right behind Michael Jackson, whose Thriller had been released a year earlier and seems to have provided a blueprint of sorts for Richie's success.

Like Jackson, Richie was a former member of a successful Motown act trying to carve out a distinctive solo career. Thriller was Jackson's second solo album as an adult, and coming after the success of 1979's Off the Wall, people expected big things from him. Similarly, Richie had already released his self-titled 1982 solo debut to some success, and was expected -- especially by Motown head Berry Gordy -- to top it. Both Thriller and Can't Slow Down kick off with energetic dance numbers. Both feature a track incorporating a pseudo-African dialect. Both feature a song with a hard rock guitar solo. Both inspired videos starring onetime Playboy Playmate, Ola Ray. Most importantly, both maintain a balance of light funk romps and elegant ballads designed to appeal to the largest possible audience. Even if Richie's approach was decidedly more conservative than Jackson's, he achieved his goal of crossover success and earned hits on the Pop, R&B, Adult Contemporary, and U.K. charts. "Stuck on You", a song he considered giving to Kenny Rogers, even received airplay on country stations.

It's no stretch to say that Can't Slow Down was a landmark album of the 1980s, even if Michael Jackson's success foreshadowed and overshadowed it. In light of the album's 20th anniversary and the recent release of the first comprehensive anthology of Richie's career (The Definitive Collection), it's an appropriate time for a reissue. And what a reissue it is, set off by extravagant packaging and generous extras. The Deluxe Edition comprises two discs, the first of which contains the original eight-song album, the twelve-inch version of "All Night Long", the seven-inch mix of "Penny Lover" and instrumental versions of "All Night Long" and "Penny Lover". The second disc is devoted entirely to demos, alternate takes, working masters, and studio improvisations. Much of the bonus material is superfluous and features Richie mumbling half-finished lyrics to largely finished music that doesn't differ dramatically from what's on the album. Given the original album's short running time, it would have been wisest to pare the set down to a single disc, adding the previously unheard songs to the end of the original album and omitting the demos, instrumentals, and alternate mixes. However, there is some fine material on disc two. Although its lyrics seem to be unfinished, the previously unreleased "Ain't No Sayin' No" has an appealing pseudo-Caribbean bounce similar to "All Night Long", while "Can't Find Love" is an adept A/C ballad. "Tell Me" is a surprisingly funky number (surprising because it's co-written with schlockmeister David Foster) that could have better balanced the ballads on the album. The minute-long snippet titled "The Groove (Interlude)", although unfinished, also hints at another funky track that might have been. Another minute-long fragment, the hidden track called "Blues", is a jazzy piano and bass piece over which Richie scats. These tracks, while by no means fully realized, imply a musical diversity that Richie did not fully exploit on the finished album.

As far as sound quality, this is one reissue that was done right. The album was digitally remastered from the original analog tapes by Kevin Reeves and sounds very warm and rich. The enclosed booklet is also top-notch. It features photos, lyrics, a list of singles and their chart positions, comprehensive recording details on the bonus tracks, and an impressive seven-page essay by Steven Ivory. Based on interviews with Richie and co-producer James Anthony Carmichael, it provides a vast supply of information on the making of the album that will interest even casual fans intrigued by the process of record making. Then again, anyone with an interest in the art of record production, the intricacies of songcraft, or the history of popular music will find something to treasure in Can't Slow Down: the music itself.

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

 
9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.


 
8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

 
7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

 
6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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