Disco inferno

Chic supplied the uplifting soundtrack to the dark days of the Seventies. But, as Daryl Easlea reveals in his new book, behind the good times lay a fiery tale of black power, radical politics and a battle against the forces of Middle America

Saturday 11 December 2004 01:00 GMT

The rainbow colours of American life in the late 1960s were muted with deep sadness. The dichotomy between blacks being contained in the streets of their own country and the sacrifices they were making in Vietnam was being played out for all to see in the riots which swept through the inner-cities. A tide of Black Nationalism flowed in the wake of Martin Luther King's assassination in April 1968 and the fashionably defiant black power salutes of athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos on the winners' podium at the Mexico Olympics in October. That same year, Nile Rodgers, a 16-year-old New Yorker and future member of Chic, became a Black Panther.

The rainbow colours of American life in the late 1960s were muted with deep sadness. The dichotomy between blacks being contained in the streets of their own country and the sacrifices they were making in Vietnam was being played out for all to see in the riots which swept through the inner-cities. A tide of Black Nationalism flowed in the wake of Martin Luther King's assassination in April 1968 and the fashionably defiant black power salutes of athletes Tommie Smith and John Carlos on the winners' podium at the Mexico Olympics in October. That same year, Nile Rodgers, a 16-year-old New Yorker and future member of Chic, became a Black Panther.

Few political groups within American history have been romanticised and then vilified so much as the Panthers. Founded in California in 1966 by Huey Newton and Bobby Seale, they began training as paramilitaries for a civil war against a racist police force. As well as calling for an end to police brutality, the group's ten-point plan included demands for decent housing and "true education" for the black community. Although the FBI would ultimately discredit their leaders, and the media would portray them as terrorists, the inner-city reality of the movement was very different.

For the budding guitarist Rodgers, the grass-roots support the Panthers offered to oppressed inner-city communities, like the one in which he grew up, proved irresistible: "I always thought that politics was going to be my life and career, and music was my hobby. I thought I was going to be a serious revolutionary à la Che Guevara." Rodgers became subsection leader of the lower Manhattan branch of the New York Black Panther Party. "The most interesting thing we did was to found a breakfast programme for grade-school children that actually worked," he says. "Everything the Black Panther party did was totally legal - which is why the cops couldn't shoot them."

Rodgers' branch had members who were Indian, Chinese and Puerto Rican as well as black. But the idealism of the mixed-race Panthers jarred with his superiors. A run-in with his lieutenant meant that Rodgers' hard associations with the Panthers were over by the turn of the decade.

Meanwhile, Bernard Edwards, Rodgers' future partner in Chic, was ploughing his own furrow, playing alto sax at Brooklyn's Erasmus High School. "I was the black kid in the middle of a Jewish neighbourhood," he recalled in 1985. "So I heard different things, The Beatles, The Yardbirds, James Brown, Motown. I learned how to play by sitting home and listening to tunes like 'How Sweet It Is' and trying to figure out every note played. Then, I'd go onstage and throw those licks into other songs."

By the late 1960s, unknown to one another, both men were living nearby in New York's Greenwich Village. The precocious Rodgers was not slow in embracing all the experiences the Village had to offer. The night of 3 June 1968 was one such evening, though it was to go frighteningly wrong: "I went out one day with this girl, April, and met these military guys, who were on leave or had come back from Vietnam. We had all seen [the hippie musical] Hair. They slipped hallucinogenic drugs in our drinks and I ran out of the house we were in, suffering from some kind of panic attack. They subsequently raped April, which I found out about later. I called the police and they took me to a hospital. I'm there in the waiting room and I now believe I'm a lizard." To add to this confusion, the ward doors were flung open and a new patient was wheeled past at high speed. "All of a sudden, everything changed and they wheel in Andy Warhol, who had just been shot by Valerie Solanas." As all medical attention was shifted to the Pop Art guru's pressing needs, Rodgers felt somewhat hard done by: "All I could think was power to the people, because I had been there first - I know he was famous, but first come, first served!"

The first real contact between Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards was, to put it mildly, hostile. A colleague of Edwards at the New York City Post Office, had given his number to Rodgers. Edwards, a man of few words, listened as Rodgers, the just-out-of-his teens hippie, explained his idea for a band with everything from oboes to sitars. "I can just imagine him looking at the telephone thinking, 'Who the fuck is this whacko?'" After more of Rodgers' monologue, Edwards brought the conversation to a swift conclusion: "Yo brother, do you want to do me a favour?" Rodgers waited with some trepidation: "Lose my number."

Despite this inauspicious start, the pair finally met by chance onstage at an informal "pick-up" gig; Rodgers didn't rate the band but thought the bass player - Edwards - was fantastic. Soon they were inseparable, and when Bernie Edwards got a regular job with The Big Apple Band, the backing band for old-school vocal group, New York City, he brought his new, slightly unconventional friend with him. The band toured widely and, prompted by Edwards, Rodgers perfected his distinctive guitar sound.

In 1975, at the end of New York City's UK tour, the band went out to party. When Rodgers got back to his hotel in Nottingham, his money and passport had been stolen. The rest of the group went back to the States but Rodgers had to make his way down to the American Embassy in London to get a new passport. Enthralled by the capital's thriving club scene he stuck around and began jamming with other musicians, who hailed him as "the next Hendrix". Clearly for Nile Rodgers, that was music to his ears, but all of this was to change when Rodgers was taken to see Roxy Music at the Empire Pool, Wembley.

Bryan Ferry had pastiched American popular music, especially soul, rock 'n' roll and R&B, and mixed it with a high-European artiness and a level of grandeur that was dismissed as pretence by the British rock press. "We see this group called Roxy Music - and I'm like 'Holy shit, this is happening'." Rodgers remembers: f "I called Bernard up, and went, 'Man! I've got it! I got what we should be doing. You should see this whole Roxy Music thing. It's so elegant and cool and fashionable - hip and hairdos and clothes and girls around - I don't know what's going on, but it looks cool!'"

If this hybrid of rock and funk and glamour were to work, Rodgers and Edwards would need the right team of people. They found them in a line-up which would include at various times Tony Thompson on drums, Luther Vandross on vocals and backing singers Alfa Anderson, Diva Gray and Luci Martin. Having settled on the name Chic, and after months of peddling their demo of "Dance Dance Dance (Yowsah, Yowsah, Yowsah)" unsuccessfully around the New York record companies, the band signed to Atlantic Records. The single was released in October 1977 and raced into the US Top 5.

Still, Chic's initial success did not immediately elevate them to the top of every list. It was snowing in New York when Rodgers and Edwards stepped up to Studio 54's fabled doorway on 31 December 1977. The pair had been asked to join Grace Jones, who was partying inside the legendary club. Already they were sporting clothes commensurate with the fact that their debut single had sold a million copies within a month: Rodgers was wearing a Cerutti dinner jacket, Edwards was in Armani.

They went to the club's back door and attempted to get in. Their names weren't down. While the club rocked to "Dance Dance Dance", they were outside being denied admission.

Back at Rodgers' apartment, they started to jam. As Rodgers recounted to Anthony Haden-Guest in his book The Last Party: Studio 54, Disco and the Culture of the Night, "We were just yelling obscenities ... fuck Studio 54 ... fuck those scumbags." Suddenly, the music began to coalesce. The guitar and bass part locked in and a repeated refrain of "Aaaaaaaah, fuck off!" became the jam's focal point. Eventually, the "fuck" became "freak". "Off "became "out".

The resulting song, "Le Freak", is what Chic did in the Vietnam war; it is why 25 years later, books are being written about them. It is the epitome of the Chic sound, effortlessly crafted. The ultimate irony of turning the hatred that Rodgers and Edwards had felt toward Studio 54's door policy out on to the dance floor and making it positive was fantastic.

Entering the US charts on 18 November 1978, the record went platinum and became the biggest-selling record in Atlantic's history. It hit No 1 in America, where it remained for six weeks. It went gold in Belgium, Italy, South Africa, Great Britain, France, Brazil, and most of the rest of the world. In Canada, it became the best-selling song in the nation's history. At Christmas 1978, Chic had the No 1 single in America. No self-respecting party of the 1978 festive season was complete without it.

The success of the track gave an incredible halo effect to the album, C'est Chic, released in November 1977. The Chic sound here was sparse, nuanced, even bleak. The lyrics were often a joint effort, but the more political lines fell to Rodgers. (For the sake of Edwards' young family, Rodgers had agreed to keep his Black Panther past a secret, and the deeper meanings in Chic's lyrics covert rather than overt.)

There had never been a better time for transient celebration on the dancefloor. By the turn of 1979, the disco industry was estimated to be worth US$4bn, more, according to Bill Brewster and Frank Broughton's book Last Night A DJ Saved My Life: The History of the Disc Jockey, than the industries of movies, television or professional sport. And Chic had had the biggest disco No 1; made by African-Americans dressed as bankers. But as the band was leading the way the two partners began to celebrate their success in different ways. "Our respect and love for each other's musicality couldn't get any stronger," Rodgers recalls. "Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie; John Coltrane and McCoy Tyner; Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards - we go together. But we didn't hang; because he didn't hang. I'm a hippie guy, dropping acid, seeing colours. I wanted to go out and dance around in muddy water and think the world is a beautiful place. Bernard was the opposite. His house was modern - he was that MTV Cribs dude long before his time."

To promote C'est Chic, the group embarked on an enormous tour of stadiums across the Americas, with dates in Rio de Janeiro and Sao Paolo - where they were treated like conquering heroes. But they remained something of an enigma. They were a huge band, but no one really knew what they looked like: "It was just like Kiss - you wouldn't be able to tell who the hell we were if you stood next to us at a party. And that's all we cared about; being famous and anonymous," says Rodgers. "It's come back to bite us in the butt though, because we've done it too well and there is such a huge disconnection between our music and our name and us."

The record that really sealed Chic's reputation was the Sister Sledge album, We Are Family. The four Sledge sisters (Kathy, Debbie, Joni and Kim, who originally went by the name of Mrs Williams' Grandchildren) had enjoyed middling success in the R&B charts, and had sung as part of the entourage that accompanied the fabled Muhammad Ali-George Foreman Rumble in the Jungle fight in 1975. Their new album was recorded at the legendary New York recording studio The Power Station in late 1978, with the newly founded Chic Organization Ltd working at their very best.

The finished album centres on three fantastic tracks: "He's The Greatest Dancer" - a song originally intended for Chic - introduces the dance floor as a kind of ritual ground, while "Lost In Music" testifies to the transformative power of music. "We Are Family" reasserts a gospel vision of unity and harmony in troubled times. Rodgers wrote the track at Woodstock, and the record's effortlessness is astounding. At a time when the liberal experiments of the American 1960s were seen to have collapsed, the record penetrated the popular psyche sweetly, succinctly and saliently.

The Power Station, housed in a former Consolidated Edison plant in the Hell's Kitchen area of Manhattan, became like a revolving door for the Chic Organization. Sister Sledge recorded one day, Chic the next. It was full of the hottest music makers of the day. Brian Eno came down when Chic were working. Bruce Springsteen recorded and mixed The River there. Bryan Ferry also came to use the studio: "The vibe there was great and Nile was a very big part of it. He and Bernard had a room booked all year round. It was a funny place - it was owned by the Bongiovi family so all the engineers were Italian and white ... It felt like a really vibrant meeting place for many styles of music."

Chic entered 1979 riding the very top of disco's rollercoaster. As Jimmy Carter's policies began to look stagnant in the US, the Labour government in Britain was about to capitulate to the Conservative Party led by Margaret Thatcher. How disco had been received in America was one thing, but in Britain, it was a very different tale. f

The Mecca ballrooms and mirror-balled halls of the UK were a million miles away from the opulence of Studio 54. Britain had had a hard time in the 1970s which had seen inflation and widescale strikes impact the economy. It was into this climate that Chic were accepted in Britain with a mixture of love and fervent bemusement.

When Chic first appeared live on Top Of The Pops on 19 January 1979, they were clearly different. Chic sported fashions you'd be more used to seeing on Racing From Ascot or at a regatta. Simply put, these looked like black toffs. And in Britain, where we'd only just become used to seeing ethnic minorities at all, and where comedy programmes such as Love Thy Neighbour and Mind Your Language were 1970s TV staples - that was most unusual.

But in clubs around the land, a new generation was listening. Martin Fry, who was about to form ABC, recalls, "These records from America sounded immaculate. We wanted to make something as shiny and as perfect as that. Our generation was Ian Curtis and Mark E Smith. It was all post-punk. We wanted to capture the flavour, the drama and the glamour that was in the music we were hearing in clubs and discos - and also that Saturday night feeling of being indestructible. That feeling of euphoria and optimism wasn't in the air in 78/79 - especially in Sheffield."

Back home in America, however, the bubble was about to burst. The precise time and place was 12 July 1979 at Comiskey Park, Chicago, at an event overseen by W-LUP DJ Steve Dahl, under the banner "Disco demolition". In the intermission of a baseball game between the Detroit Tigers and the White Sox, a huge pile of disco records was covered in lighter fluid and then set ablaze. Anyone who brought disco records to the game for burning was allowed in for a mere 98 cents. Dahl was an overweight, bespectacled shock-jock in military headwear who had himself actually hosted disco parties. But he saw an opportunity and sensed the backlash that was swarming around him. Live on television, the flames sparked a crowd-invasion, the field ended up trashed, and the White Sox were forced to forfeit their second game. The event made the international news.

It was the end of an 18-month campaign that had been brewing across Middle America in order to contain the music that had so caught the popular consciousness. That it was picked up by the media with such enthusiasm demonstrates the latent hatred that had been festering. Disco was diametrically opposite to the macho posturing of white rock - and since there were no bands in disco, no tours, or souvenir T-shirts, it was difficult to quantify. A few journalists wrote passionately about it, but in the main it was ignored or treated with disdain. As Craig Werner writes in A Change Is Gonna Come, "The Anti-disco movement represented an unholy alliance of funkateers and feminists, progressives and puritans, rockers and reactionaries. None the less, the attacks on disco gave respectable voice to the ugliest kinds of unacknowledged racism, sexism and homophobia."

"It felt to us like Nazi book-burning," Rodgers sighs. "This is America, the home of jazz and rock and people were now afraid even to say the word 'disco'. I remember thinking - we're not even a disco group."

For Rodgers and Edwards, the main problem was timing. Because Chic's recording career began simultaneously with the rise of disco, Chic had no past and were seen by the American public as a manufactured act. "When disco sucked, we sucked. People couldn't tell the difference between us and Lipps Inc."

After three remarkable years of success, Chic would soon barely be able to get arrested in their own country. As the social and political advances that had been earned across the decade began to be confined, contained or eroded, so did the public support and love for the disco movement.

If Chic were going to ride out all the disco backlash pessimism, it would have to be with something very, very special. They were to have one last, huge, commercial and artistic hurrah with the album they had been working on during the gaps in their schedule since the start of 1979. And the lead single was arguably to be their most influential record of all. The album was called Risqué and the single, "Good Times". In 2002 when asked what was the most important thing that's ever happened in the history of hip-hop, LL Cool J said "Good Times".

The record was a subtle marriage of past and present; political and apolitical; disco and lindy-hop. Rodgers is justifiably proud: "We were talking to people in a time of financial chaos and putting a bright face on it. We were going through the greatest recession since the Wall Street Crash. In the 1920s they wrote 'Happy Days Are Here Again' because they could drink booze again."

At the same time work began on their Real People album, they embarked on a production for one of the most famous and important black stars in the known universe: Diana Ross. By now Rodgers and Edwards had established a set pattern of working with their charges. Their style was to sit down with the artists for a couple of hours, find out all about them and then go home and write the album. But this was the first time that the duo had worked with an established artist, and their benignly dictatorial working methods were alien to Ross.

The recording began with sessions for "I'm Coming Out", "Give Up" and "Upside Down", and continued into January 1980. "Everybody we had worked with up to that point were all good friends of ours - if we said, 'Jesus Christ, what are you doing singing that bullshit?', they would shoot back, 'Hey, pal, your guitar part's no picnic either.' Nothing was really personal."

When Edwards, the "bad cop" of the Chic producing partnership, suggested that Ross may have been singing "underneath" one of the tracks, the following dialogue ensued, as recalled by Rodgers:

"We were trying to say she was singing flat. Bernard's exact words were,

'Um. Excuse me Diana, I think you're singing a little under the track.'

'Bernard, I've never heard that before, what does under the track mean?'

'Under the track'.

'You mean under the pitch of the track?'

'Yes - that's it!'

'You mean FLAT?'


Bang. And that was it - she stormed out of the studio, screaming 'BERRY GORDY NEVER TOLD ME I SING FLAT!' We never saw her again for 30 days."

The album was delivered to Motown in March 1980. Ross wasn't happy. They were accused of trying to make their sound shine and Motown's first lady look poor by comparison. Ross demanded a remix. Again it was not to her liking. So it was remixed without Edwards and Rodgers' knowledge by Ross's long-term f engineer, Russ Terrana. "I was devastated on first hearing Motown's mix. I was in tears over our artistic vision," Rodgers later said.

Rolling Stone called the album "streamlined-designer-funk" and said that Rodgers and Edwards "came to the rescue" of the singer. In Britain it remained on the charts for 32 weeks. Rodgers and Edwards were approached by Ross the following year to produce Why Do Fools Fall In Love?. They respectfully declined the offer.

By now, mainstream disco was finally over. Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager, the owners of Studio 54, were found guilty of fraud and imprisoned; and, on 28 February 1980, the club finally closed its doors. If recession and the new conservatism of the Reagan era slowed down the party, Aids was to act as the final pulling across of the velvet rope. In 1982 Rodgers and Edwards began work on solo albums, while in the late summer, Nile Rodgers had two meetings that were to change the course of the decade for him. One was with David Bowie. The other, Duran Duran. The latter he encountered in New Jersey backstage at the final gig of their American tour supporting Blondie.

Birmingham-based Duran Duran had been major Chic fans from day one. In fact, John Taylor, the group's bassist, saw Duran Duran from the beginning as a combination of Chic and the Sex Pistols.

"Within 20 minutes" of their backstage meeting, says Taylor, "we were bonding in the bathroom over a line of charlie." In 1984 Rodgers remixed Duran Duran's song "The Reflex", giving the band their biggest hit.

Rodgers' second encounter was with David Bowie, by then the world's foremost art-pop superstar. He and Nile Rodgers met, completely by chance for the first time at an after-hours bar in New York called The Continental. At the time, by his own admission, Rodgers was a "completely wild, out-of-control drug addict who just loved the life and music, amazed that he's in the game". Following the art-noise attack of Scary Monsters, Bowie had been impressed by Chic's glacial disco noir and felt that it was time to dust down his dancing shoes; Rodgers had been a Bowie fan since Hunky Dory. What clinched the deal for Bowie was Rodgers' newly finished solo album Adventures in the Land of the Good Groove: "I'll never forget it. He was in my apartment and he said to me after it had finished, 'If you do for me a record half as good as that, I will be very happy.' I was so blown away - it was like - he thinks this shit is good?"

Let's Dance was recorded at The Power Station in December 1982. Given that disco was, by now, supposed to suck big time, David Bowie's choice of Rodgers as producer was controversial: "There was an underlying tone of racism," Rodgers believes. "David told me how many times people said to him, 'You mean you are going to do an album with a disco producer?' To me 'disco' is another word for black or lesbian or Martian or something."

The single, "Let's Dance", was released in March, the album soon after. The robust title track was an instant classic and was on every turntable that spring. At a time when most singles sounded like the demo button of a Casio in an electrical retailer, this was old-fashioned, wide-screen R&B.

The album became a statistician's dream, topping charts the world over. On 21 May 1983, "Let's Dance" reached No 1 in America. The last time Bowie had been there, it was with "Fame". The attendant Serious Moonlight tour, across four continents, was even more successful.

One year of work had made Bowie finally really rich. However, Rodgers still felt somewhat marginalised by the white art-rock community by whom he so wished to be accepted: "I've never felt more like a producer and appreciated than I was on David Bowie's Let's Dance, but I was really pissed off when it came out," Rodgers states. "It's still the most commercially successful album of David Bowie's career - and when it came out ... all he could talk about was Brian Eno, Iggy Pop and all these rock people. He was almost embarrassed to talk about the 'disco' producer. That really broke my heart."

While the world continued to turn at high speed for Rodgers, Edwards, who was feeling somewhat left out, continued work on the only project which bore his name alone: Glad To Be Here, which trickled out on Atlantic in 1983. The album had an old-school feel, sounding more like a Chic record than Rodgers' all-the-sweeties-out-of-the-box solo effort. The two albums perfectly encapsulated the differences between the two men. Rodgers was running as far as possible from the Chic sound, while Edwards was bathing in it.

The resentment was exacerbated by the success of Let's Dance, despite the fact that Edwards played on the album. Over the next year the two would barely speak. Even though the demise had been on the cards for some time, it still came as a shock to the rest of the group. Alfa Anderson is still bemused: "It didn't end well for me," she says. "No matter what had happened between us as a group, I loved making music with them. When it was no longer there, I was deeply saddened." Her sadness was compounded by the manner in which the information was delivered to her: a letter through the post. "I was never even told why. Not even a conversation or discussion."

The Chic Organization was finally liquidated when Chic disbanded in 1983. It was time to pursue life outside. Edwards had some session work lined up, including a project that Rodgers wanted him to work on - the second album by a relatively new artist called Madonna ...

In April 1996, Chic performed three concerts in Japan, one in Osaka and two at the legendary Budokan concert hall in Tokyo. They had brought along a coterie of famous friends and guest players, including Guns'N'Roses' guitarist Saul Hudson, better known as Slash, Simon Le Bon and Stevie Winwood. Three quarters of their old production charges Sister Sledge - Joni, Debbie and Kim Sledge - were also on hand to provide a dose of sororial magic with their rendition of Rodgers and Edwards' greatest anthem, "We Are Family".

There was, however, one serious cloud on the horizon: by the time of the final concert, Edwards was really ill. It was increasingly apparent that he was suffering from pneumonia, but, true to his professional roots, he refused to cancel the performance. At the side of the Budokan stage, Edwards reached for Rodgers and held his lifelong friend close and, fighting back tears said, "Man, we did it. This music is bigger than us." Rodgers replied, "What are you doing, coming up with this philosophical stuff for, Sophocles?" Edwards whispered back, "The music has a life beyond us - it almost has nothing to do with you and me at all now."

After an emotionally charged show, the group returned to the Hotel New Otani. The rest of the touring party departed for America the following day. Edwards was too ill to travel and spent the day recuperating. Rodgers stayed behind as well.

Rodgers checked on his partner that night as he went out to eat. He asked him if he needed anything. Edwards assured his friend that everything would be fine.

"It's all right. I just need to sleep," Edwards whispered.

They were to be his final words. At 1:30 am on the morning of 18 April 1996, bassist, composer, producer, husband, friend and father, Bernard Edwards was pronounced dead.

And, as many would argue, with him died one of music's greatest golden ages.

Extracted from Everybody Dance: Chic and the Politics of Disco, by Daryl Easlea, published by Helter Skelter Publishing, priced £14

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