My favourite Commodores is the one that Lionel Ritchie doesn’t sing a single note. The late ’70s funk and soul outfit may be known universally for Ritchie’s smooth tones on ‘Easy’ (later to be taken up with considerable aplomb by Faith No More’s Mike Patton), but it’s ‘Brick House’, the sex anthem, barmitzvah jam and blaxploitation soundtrack in one that really should mark the X on their section of the musical map. It is so full of swagger and so utterly estranged from all that gooey stuff that made the ladies go wild for their perms later in their career that this song should have its own wing in the Soul Asylum. I remember discovering this track in highschool while studying funk drumming and being amazed that a guy who I’d previously only associated with writing jungle ballads like ‘All Night Long’ was in such a shit-hot outfit. Then I found out that they used to wear matching white uniforms when they performed, too. Awesome.
If you want to know what a sixteen year old Australian boy thinks a ‘brick house’ of a woman is, the answer is not much. As it turns out, I was so enthused by those stabby horn lines and the raunch of drummer Walter Orange’s vocal delivery that I didn’t get around to looking up the lyrical context until I was old enough to appreciate it anyway. ‘Brick House’ actually refers to a statement we use around here quite a lot, a shortened version of the term of endearment ‘Built like a brick shithouse.’ Typically, I had used that to describe men who went to the gym way more than I did (which at this point, was anything greater than zero), but in this song, the female subject is who it’s attributed to. So lately it got me thinking about what kind of woman I’d seen around who qualified as a ‘brick house.’ It was shortly after that when I discovered that the entire vocal part was actually written by the guitarist’s wife after he fell asleep trying to think of something good to go over the groove.
I spent some time with a Brick House yesterday, and I knew she was one as soon as she walked into the room and I started hearing that bass line running through my head. It’s sleazy and it’s dirty and sure, you wouldn’t play it around kids but sometimes you just have to acknowledge that you’ve been hit by a stack of sexy and there’s absolutely nothing you can do about it. I’ve always loved the way Orange left ample pause between the two famous words for those saxes and trumpets to chime in with their own call. And the way the bridge is actually just a repeated chord that lets him riff all over the place about waist measurements and wanting to be younger again and presumably some veiled allusions to erections that certainly aren’t allayed by the direction those brass are pointing their bells. One thing that good funk got right which rap has been playing catch-up with for decades is that confidence in the material. ‘Brick House’, from the opening tom fill and beyond, is ludicrous. It could easily fall flat. But it succeeded because the Commodores didn’t know what the other option was. It simply did not occur to them that this would get them laid (well, the unmarried ones anyway) in every state across their fair country. And thank God for that, because now we all have something mavellous to strut to when we see an impossible woman across the hall, down the street or, you know, running in the opposite direction. And if they don’t approve of the wolf whistles, you can always blame the track.
Commodores – ‘Brick House’