The Number Ones

The Number Ones: Lionel Richie’s “All Night Long (All Night)”

In The Number Ones, I’m reviewing every single #1 single in the history of the Billboard Hot 100, starting with the chart’s beginning, in 1958, and working my way up into the present.

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Lionel Richie – “All Night Long (All Night)”

HIT #1: November 12, 1983

STAYED AT #1: 4 weeks

Between 1978 and 1982, Lionel Richie wrote six different #1 singles. All of them were gooily sincere love ballads. You could be forgiven for thinking that all of them were the same gooily sincere love-ballad, even when Richie wasn’t the one singing. Richie had gotten his start playing party-funk in the Commodores, but ballads were what made Richie rich. He probably could’ve kept making those ballads forever.

But Richie had other territory to explore. In 1983, while working on his second solo album, Richie wanted to make the kind of song that people could dance to while on vacation. “All Night Long (All Night),” the first single from Richie’s Can’t Slow Down album, is a conscious and successful effort to make an international jam. Richie was smart enough to see that American pop music had become a universal global language, and he steered right into that, making the kind of thing that would sound inoffensively playful anywhere on the planet.

Richie loves to tell the story about how he wrote “All Night Long (All Night).” He’d been working on the track for weeks, driving himself nuts, and he couldn’t figure out what the main hook should be. The chorus finally occurred to him when he was having dinner at a Jamaican friend’s house. Richie left that dinner to go to the studio, and he told his friend that he’d have to work “all night long.” All of a sudden, he’d found his hook. The funny thing about that story, as Richie tells it in this GQ video: Even before he recorded “All Night Long,” even when he was just talking to his Jamaican friend, Richie was using a fake Jamaican accent.

Three years before Drake was born, Lionel Richie brought the fake Jamaican accent to the top of the American charts. Before Richie, plenty of artists had toyed around with reggae and scored huge American hits. But on a song like Blondie’s “The Tide Is High,” the most directly reggae-influenced song that had hit #1 in America at that point, Debbie Harry was still using her own voice. “All Night Long” isn’t a reggae song, but Richie still goes all-in on that accent. He’s terrible at it, which somehow makes the whole enterprise that much more charming.

On “All Night Long,” Richie pulls stray bits and phrases from other languages. “Fiesta”: Spanish for “party.” “Karamu”: Swahili for “party” (or really “banquet”). And then there’s the song’s bridge, with the fake African chanting. Michael Jackson, Richie’s eventual collaborator, had used fake African chanting on “Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin’,” a single that had peaked at #5 earlier in 1983. (“Wanna Be Startin’ Somethin'” is a 10.) But Jackson had taken those chants from somewhere — specifically, from “Soul Makossa,” the 1972 single from the Cameroonian bandleader Manu Dibango. Richie just made up his fake African chant out of thin air.

When Richie was writing “All Night Long,” he called a friend at the UN to ask for some “African” phrases. Upon learning that the people of Africa spoke thousands of different dialects and that it would take weeks to come up with a workable translation for what he wanted to say, Richie just made up some words. That bridge is pure gibberish. It means nothing. Richie got away with it.

That means “All Night Long (All Night)” is straight-up cultural appropriation. Instead of trying to honestly engage the traditions that he pulled from, Richie just lazily gestured at them. Maybe Richie shouldn’t have gotten away with that fake accent or those fake chants. If “All Night Long” came out in the past few years, Richie would’ve pissed a whole lot of people off. But 1983 was a different time. And anyway, who wants to be mad at “All Night Long”?

Lionel Richie is no Michael Jackson, but “All Night Long” shows that he was paying close attention to what Jackson had done with Thriller. Like a bunch of other tracks from Can’t Slow Down, “All Night Long” works as Richie’s attempt at the sort of blockbuster dance-funk that Jackson had perfected. Co-producing with regular collaborator James Anthony Carmichael, Richie brought in a small army of session musicians, including a few who’d played on Thriller. Over a light, percolating groove, Richie lets all of those musicians get funky and busy, doing subtle push-pull things that serve the song. It works.

Richie could never be the sort of hard, percussive vocalist that Jackson was, so he doesn’t try. Instead, Richie brings the same soft-hearted charm that had served him so well on his ballads, and he floats effortlessly over the ripple of the beat, only really pushing his vocals when he he hits the hook. The music pulls in a bunch of different directions — buoyant horn-stabs, rubbery basslines, light hints of distorted guitar. Underneath Richie’s voice, there are dozens of backup singers — including Richard Marx, a guy who will eventually appear in this column — but they’re all smooth enough that they can answer Richie back on the chorus without overwhelming him. As it fades out, the song dissolves into pure party sounds — Richie showing us that his work is done here.

Lyrically, “All Night Long” is pure escapism. There’s no tension, no hint of conflict. Richie lays it all out in the opening lines: “Well, my friends, the time has come to raise the roof and have some fun.” There’s nothing motivating this party. It’s just time to party. That’s all. Troubles only exist as things to be danced away.

The video drives that home. Michael Nesmith, who’s appeared in this column a few times as a member of the Monkees, produced the video. Nesmith’s old collaborator Bob Rafelson directed it. After co-creating the Monkees TV show and directing the band’s psychedelic musical Head, Rafelson had become a serious filmmaker, directing Jack Nicholson movies like 1970’s Five Easy Pieces and 1972’s The King Of Marvin Gardens. Two years before “All Night Long (All Night),” Rafelson had directed Nicholson in The Postman Always Rings Twice. But where Rafelson’s films are about conflict and alienation, the “All Night Long” video is the opposite of those things. It’s Rafelson back in an updated version of his old Monkees territory.

In the video, on a soundstage made up to look like a heavily stylized city street, Richie, resplendent in shiny vinyl pants, leads a crowd of multi-cultural revelers. Little kids pop and lock. Models shimmy and spin. A conspicuously jacked chauffeur throws off his jacket and joins the fun. A cop shows up, and everyone freezes. It looks like he’s about to get mad. But no: He’s just there to spin his baton around and to party with everyone. Richie himself can’t really dance the way that some of those extras can, but his grin is wide and inviting enough to make up for it.

The video is pure dizzy fantasy — a four-minute spectacle where conflict ceases to exist. At the time, even after Michael Jackson’s breakthrough, MTV was a hostile place for Black artists. “All Night Long” still went into heavy rotation. Like Jackson’s videos, it works as an elaborate musical number. Unlike Jackson’s videos, there’s no heaviness to it. Like the song itself, the video is pure candy.

Generally, I like my party songs to have something at stake. If there’s no need or desperation or intensity, then the partying doesn’t mean the same thing. That’s why the best dance songs aren’t about dancing — or, anyway, not just about dancing. They’re about romantic desperation, about longing to escape. There’s nothing like that in “All Night Long.” Instead, the song is smooth and frictionless, and it doesn’t acknowledge any reality outside of its party. It’s an anthem of complacency. But it’s also well-made enough that this never really bothers me.

Lionel Richie learned from Thriller. He knew how to build a pop song slowly, when to crest its moment, when to lead into the big-singalong chorus. On “All Night Long,” the big-singalong chorus is really big — big enough that it almost makes sense that the title has “(All Night)” in parentheses. After all, whenever someone sings the words “all night long,” most of us feel a pure need to sing the words “all night” back. It’s Pavlovian. A song can’t become a reflex like that unless it’s brilliantly written and unless it gets drilled into your head through repetition.

I tend to resist this kind of smoothness. “All Night Long (All Night)” is a low-stakes piece of work, the kind of thing that can glide by without calling attention to itself. But the song still moves. I don’t put it on the same level as the great 1983 pop anthems, but I can’t deny its easy appeal, either. Nine months after “All Night Long” hit #1, Richie sang the song at the closing ceremony of the 1984 Summer Olympics in Los Angeles, and a global pop song achieved its full potential.

“All Night Long” propelled Richie into the God tier of early-’80s pop stardom, putting him close to the Michael Jackson level. Can’t Slow Down sold more than 10 million copies in the US alone. In 1984, Can’t Slow Down was the #3 seller of the year, behind only Thriller — the champion for two years running — and Huey Lewis & The News’ Sports. (Huey Lewis & The News will eventually appear in this column.) At the 1985 Grammys, Can’t Slow Down won Album Of The Year, defeating Purple Rain and Born In The USA and She’s So Unusual and Private Dancer. That’s the kind of travesty of justice that only the Grammys could give us, but it also shows what the music business thought of Lionel Richie. To the people who worked in the industry, Richie was now royalty.

Can’t Slow Down also launched five singles into the top 10, including another song that’ll appear in this column. Richie was at his apex. We’ll see him again soon.

GRADE: 7/10

BONUS BEATS: In the 1984 pilot episode of Miami Vice, Philip Michael Thomas gets into a tense staredown at a nightclub while a band covers “All Night Long (All Night).” Here’s that scene:

(Miami Vice will eventually appear in this column.)

BONUS BONUS BEATS: In Luc Besson’s 1997 sci-fi movie The Fifth Element, Chris Tucker’s talk-show-host character Ruby Rhod sings a bit of “All Night Long (All Night)” while making his wild, yammering entrance. Here’s that scene:

BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: On the intro of Jennifer Lopez’s 1999 Big Pun/Fat Joe collab “Feelin’ So Good,” Pun sings a little bit of “All Night Long.” Here’s the video:

(Jennifer Lopez will eventually appear in this column. Fat Joe will be in the column, too, but only as a member of Terror Squad. As a solo artist, Fat Joe’s highest-charting single is the 2002 Ashanti collab “What’s Luv?,” which peaked #2. It’s a 3. Big Pun’s highest-charting single, the 1998 Joe collab “Still Not A Player,” peaked at #24.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Enrique Iglesias’ 2010 Pitbull collab “I Like It” interpolates the living hell out of “All Night Long (All Night).” Here’s its video:

(“I Like It” peaked at #4. It’s a 5. Enrique Iglesias and Pitbull will both eventually appear in this column.)

BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BONUS BEATS: Here’s Drake singing a bit of “All Night Long (All Night)” on his 2017 album track “Blem”:

(Despite not being released as a single, “Blem” peaked at #38. Drake will eventually appear in this column.)