December 2013 - January 2014

Arts & Letters

Nile Rodgers

By Anwen Crawford

Nile Rodgers (second from left) and Chic, at the Palladium in New York City, 1979. © Waring Abbott / Getty

From ‘Le Freak’ to ‘Get Lucky’

Wee Waa’s Annual Show is, any given May, much what you would expect from an agricultural show in a New South Wales cotton town with a population of 1653: dog jumping, fireworks, cake stalls. This year’s show (the town’s 79th) was a little different, for it was here that the French duo Daft Punk – noted for their futuristic motorbike helmets – chose to unleash their fourth studio album, Random Access Memories, on the world. Fans drove hundreds of kilometres to hear the album played through massive speaker stacks, and to throng on an outdoor circular dance floor above which hung – what else? – a giant disco ball.

Random Access Memories will likely top many critics’ polls this year, and the album went to number one in just about every country except Slovenia (number seven with a bullet). I’m clearly in the minority of listeners who find its fidelity to a set of smooth, late-’70s musical templates (The Doobie Brothers, Fleetwood Mac and Steely Dan) bafflingly retrograde. The lead single, ‘Get Lucky’, which has gone five times platinum in this country alone, sounds like disco superstars Chic, and there’s an obvious reason: the song was co-written by and features the distinctive guitar of Chic’s founding member, Nile Rodgers.

“Making a hit record is very difficult,” writes Rodgers in Le Freak, his 2011 autobiography. True enough – and then you remember that Rodgers himself has written and produced enough hit records to generate billions (not millions, billions) of music industry dollars. Think you’ve never heard his songs? Yes, you have. Even alien lifeforms in far-distant galaxies have heard Sister Sledge’s ‘We Are Family’, Chic’s ‘Le Freak’, David Bowie’s ‘Let’s Dance’ and Madonna’s ‘Like a Virgin’. Rodgers has been a part of each: as writer, producer, musician, or all three. Trained in jazz and possessing a technical mastery that few can touch, Rodgers nevertheless creates pop music that sounds effortless: a kind of shimmering vapour.

Disco was already a sensation by the time Chic formed in 1977. Italian producer Giorgio Moroder – another guest on Random Access Memories – had pushed Donna Summer to the top of the charts in 1975 with the lustful ‘Love To Love You Baby’. The Saturday Night Fever soundtrack – released just a month after Chic’s self-titled debut – brought disco out of the Philadelphia and New York clubs where it began and into the suburbs of America, and the world. Unlike Moroder, who favoured the futuristic sound of synthesisers, Chic relied on the bass, drums and guitar line-up of a classic rock band. Their execution, though, was far from standard; as Rodgers writes of ‘Everybody Dance’, the band’s debut recording, “Only a handful of bassists on earth could play the bass line I wrote.” Chic’s bassist was the phenomenally tight Bernard Edwards, who inadvertently founded an entire genre – hip-hop – when the bass line for Chic’s 1979 smash ‘Good Times’ was recycled by any and every aspiring rapper in New York City. And by Queen. If you’ve heard ‘Another One Bites the Dust’, you’ve heard Bernard Edwards’ bass line for ‘Good Times’.

The theory behind Chic, more properly known as the Chic Organization Ltd, was corporate anonymity. From KISS, Rodgers took the idea of always appearing in costume, and from Roxy Music the band took their sartorial cues: impeccable tailoring, suavity, chic. With a rotating line-up of vocalists, Rodgers, Edwards and drummer Tony Thompson performed “the faceless backup band professionally”, and their luxe image connected with an expanding black middle class in America. Anonymity plays an important part in the history of dance music: the audience is the star, gathered on the liberating, sometimes hedonistic space of the dance floor. It makes sense, then, that nearly 40 years on from Chic, Nile Rodgers would choose to work with Daft Punk. The duo of Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter have gone to extraordinary lengths to hide their faces from the world. Hopes were high that they would appear in person at the Wee Waa Annual Show, but without the gleaming, LED-enhanced helmets, who might have recognised them queuing patiently for fairy floss?

Failure of recognition gave Chic their biggest worldwide hit, ‘Le Freak’, released in 1978. Turned away on New Year’s Eve by a bouncer at New York’s Studio 54 – the club at the centre of the disco universe – Rodgers and Edwards turned their disgruntled cry of “Awwww, fuck off!” into “Awwww, freak out!”, and watched their song move 4 million copies in the US. It remains the biggest-selling single that Atlantic Records has ever released – and this is the label that signed Led Zeppelin, Aretha Franklin and Crosby, Stills & Nash. ‘Le Freak’ boasts every Chic trademark: a circling, potentially infinite groove, silky strings, unison singing, and Rodgers’ “chucking” funk guitar style, which gives the track both its melodic and rhythmic spine. Chic headlined this year’s Glastonbury Festival, and footage will show you Rodgers, the band’s last original member, standing front and centre, playing the ‘Le Freak’ riff with unbroken fluidity. The crowd roars with joy.

‘Le Freak’ has a subtext – Rodgers and Edwards would refer to it as the “Deep Hidden Meaning” embedded in every Chic song – which is not so joyous. Even in their disco finery the two men were turned away from Studio 54, and the rejection had, for them, a clear racial implication. Rodgers writes his autobiography with an acute awareness of the ways in which racism has shaped his life, from the moment when his 13-year-old mother, Beverly, fought a six-month battle to prevent an outcome that in 1952 must have seemed almost inevitable: Nile’s adoption out to an older, married white woman. “Bohemian” doesn’t even begin to describe Rodgers’ upbringing: his teenage mother was resolute and beautiful; his eventual stepfather, Bobby, was a white Jew disowned by his family for marrying a black girl; both of them were heroin addicts and jazz fiends. Even in beatnik Greenwich Village they made the neighbours stop and stare. Rodgers’ childhood brings added poignancy to the lyrics of a song he produced in late 1983: “Dream on white boy / Dream on black girl / And wake up to a brand new day / To find your dreams have washed away”.

That song was ‘Original Sin’, which became the first number one single that INXS had in Australia, and an international hit. Rodgers didn’t write the song, but it bears his unmistakeable trace – a sophisticated yet sparse arrangement that allows you to hear every instrument; rhythmically precise and melodically irresistible. Rodgers describes Michael Hutchence as “dazzlingly charismatic”, and the INXS frontman was one of at least a dozen highly ambitious pop stars to whom Rodgers would lend his “faceless” creative power, with Madonna the most determined of all.

Four or five years ago, admitting to anyone who didn’t already have a fanatical over-investment in the history of pop music that you owned Chic records was akin to inviting them to a fondue party: anachronistic, and not in a charming way. Maybe you were a little weird. Maybe your taste was dubious. Disco was that laughable ’70s thing. In 2013 disco is, if not exactly “back”, then certainly creeping closer. Daft Punk sound like Chic, Justin Timberlake sounds like Chic, and the year’s most talked-about song, Robin Thicke’s ‘Blurred Lines’, sounds like late-’70s Marvin Gaye. At the height of their success Chic opened for Gaye in San Diego: to stave off a riot, the band were required to do laps of the venue in a golf cart after their set, waving like royalty to the crowd. To this day, writes Rodgers, he talks to people who attended that San Diego show, and “I feel like I’m part of some clandestine funk society whose underground members are waiting for the signal to rise up again.” With Nile Rodgers set to play across Australia this month, maybe the uprising isn’t so far away.

Anwen Crawford

Anwen Crawford was The Monthly’s music critic from 2013–21.

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