Monday, July 14, 2008

Feel That Chic Rhythm, Chant That Chic Rhyme

Chic’s timing was as brilliantly impeccable as their music. In 1978 the disco movement was at its peak, though unfortunately the quality of the disco songs on offer didn’t match the voluminous quantity. Enter Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards to redress the balance with their group Chic.

Rodgers (guitar) and Edwards (bass) both had established backgrounds in the New York music scene and had known each other since 1970. They had both worked in various soul and R&B style groups since leaving school, had worked as backing musicians with the likes of Aretha Franklin, and by the mid 70s were ready to combine their talents and experience. Joining with drummer Tony Thompson, they formed the power-fusion trio Big Apple Band. As a power-rock combo a record deal eluded them, and as the short lived new wave act Allah and the Knife-Wielding Punks the dream seemed even more distant. So in 1977 Rodgers and Edwards renamed the group Chic, recruited female vocalists Luci Martin and Norma Jean Wright, and set about taking on the lucrative disco market. As Rodgers and Edwards both declared at the time, it wasn’t all about the music for them (in fact neither Rodgers nor Edwards had much affection for disco), it was about breaking into the big time.

They recorded a demo for the song ‘Dance, Dance, Dance (Yowsah, Yowsah, Yowsah)’ which was summarily rejected by several record companies before Atlantic Records saw the potential in both song and band, signing Chic in mid 1977. ‘Dance, Dance, Dance’, lifted from the group’s eponymous debut album, sold more than a million copies within a month of its release, rocketing to #6 on both U.S. and U.K. charts in late ‘77, the song performing solidly in Australia (#28) soon after. The follow up single ‘Everybody Dance’ performed well in the U.K. (#9), but only reached #38 in the U.S. in mid ’78. Soon after vocalist Norma Jean Wright left the group to pursue a solo career, replaced by Alfa Anderson.

The door was now well and truly ajar and now all Chic needed was the vehicle to drive their success home. That vehicle came via the sublime R&B/dance track ‘Le Freak’. Featuring Rodgers’ distinct rhythm guitar and a funk bass line from heaven by Edwards, ‘Le Freak’ became one of the all time biggest selling disco-oriented songs, racking up sales of over 5 million copies (the biggest seller ever for Atlantic Records). It spent a mammoth 6 weeks at #1 in the U.S. from December 1978, 5 weeks at #1 in Australia (from Feb’79) and peaked at #7 in the U.K. I recall seeing the clip a number of times and besides loving the song itself, I couldn’t help but be intrigued by the transparent guitar that Nile Rodgers played.
The group’s second album ‘C’est Chic’ (UK#2, OZ#18, US#4 was a million seller across the world and also yielded Chic’s next hit ‘I Want Your Love’ (US#7, UK#4). The production team of Rodgers and Edwards was already in demand beyond the world of Chic, also producing Sister Sledges ‘We Are Family’ album in 1979. The pair reconvened Chic in mid ‘79 to record their third album ‘Risqué’ (UK#29, US#5). It would yield the group’s second U.S. chart topper and last major hit single. ‘Good Times’ hit #1 on the U.S. charts in June ‘79 and also reached #5 in the U.K., though for some reason didn’t hit the mark in Australia (#48). Queen’s #1 ‘Another One Bites The Dust’ owes much to the basic rhythm track of ‘Good Times’, whilst the Sugarhill Gang’s (see future post) hit ‘Rapper’s Delight’ borrowed direct from the Chic hit. The album realised two more minor hits with ‘My Forbidden Lover’ (US#43, UK#15) and ‘My Feet Keep Dancing’ (UK#21). But by the end of 1979 the writing was on the wall for the whole disco movement and a question mark hung over the future of one of its flag bearers Chic.

Over the next couple of years Rodgers and Edwards attempted to redefine the Chic sound to incorporate more ballads and even a rock edged dance style to the mix, but the attempt was futile. 1982’s ‘Soup For One’ crept to #80 on the U.S. singles charts and soon after the release of their 1983 album ‘Believer’ Chic had crept from the big time for good.

But the demise of Chic marked the dawn of a prolific production career for both Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards. Over the course of the 80s the pair worked together and individually with the likes of Madonna, David Bowie, Diana Ross, , Stray Cats, Duran Duran, The Cars, B-52s, Mick Jagger, Debbie Harry, Rod Stewart, Robert Palmer and Carly Simon as producers, arrangers and song writers. In between times Rodgers played with the short lived supergroup The Honeydrippers in 1984, whilst Edwards produced another supergroup The Power Station in 1985 which just happened to feature Chic drummer Tony Thompson. Former vocalist Norma Jean Wright played with Chic associate member Raymond Jones in the early 90s group State Of Art. Rodgers also recorded two solo albums, and Edwards one, but none produced any hits. In 1992 Rodgers and Edwards put together a revamped Chic line-up for a series of live shows and a new album ‘Chic-ism‘, with new vocalists Sylver Logan Sharp and Jenn Thomas. Sadly, Bernard Edwards died due to complications from pneumonia in 1996, aged 43. Rodgers has eased back somewhat from the production controls over the last decade but is still a sought after contributor as both producer/musician, working with the likes of Mariah Carey, Britney Spears, The Dandy Warhols, Paul Simon and Joss Stone.

Many may question the musical integrity of the whole disco movement (I’m not one of them by the way), but in terms of contribution to popular music as a whole, the creative forces behind one of disco’s most notable exponents Chic, Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards, have left an undeniable musical legacy that transcends all genre boundaries.

This is A. FlockOfSeagulls signing off for The Chic Organization Ltd.
Footnote: In 2012 this author was fortunate enough to see Nile Rodgers and the Chic Organisation perform live at the WOMAD Festival in Adelaide, Australia.  Of course, 'Le Freak' was the highlight of the show!

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