How we made Boogie Wonderland

Songwriter Allee Willis and bassist Verdine White recall how the disco anthem was inspired by a grim Diane Keaton film and struck a blow against sexist drummers

Allee Willis, co-songwriter

In the late 1970s, I teamed up with Jon Lind, who'd written Sun Goddess for Earth, Wind & Fire. In the disco era, lots of songs contained the word "boogie", but we didn't want to write just another dance song. I'd just seen Looking for Mr Goodbar, a harsh film starring Diane Keaton as a dissatisfied teacher, who takes drugs, goes out dancing every night and picks up a different guy. One night, she brings home a sexually confused Vietnam vet who beats, rapes and kills her. I wanted to write about the desperation some people feel – and how dancing can provide a release.

The line "Midnight creeps so slowly into hearts of men who need more than they get/ Daylight deals a bad hand to a woman who has laid too many bets" is so bleak. But the groove came first and – musically – it's uplifting, with a chorus that feels almost theatrical, like Broadway, like Mary Poppins.

We wanted to name the song after a nightclub and rifled through the phonebook for names. The chorus originally went "Come to Johnny's Casino Lounge", which wasn't good enough. We realised the one word we hadn't used was "boogie", so changed it to "Dance, boogie wonderland", and it just worked.

In those days, every dance record had a disco hi-hat on it, so I figured the song would be even more different if we took it out. But when we made a demo, the drummer couldn't play the beat without one. There weren't many women songwriters back then, and no matter how many times I told him to stop playing it, he was like: "Screw her." I finally said to Jon: "If you don't do something, I am going to physically go in there." Jon is a big guy, and literally lifted the hi-hat off the drumkit and out of the studio. To this day, every time I hear the song, I think about that drummer and grin.

Earth, Wind & Fire almost didn't record the song. Another group, Curtis the Brothers, cut the track first, but the vocals didn't excite me or Jon. We kept begging Earth, Wind & Fire's frontman Maurice White to do it – I don't think he realised what a good song it was. They'd just spent a month finishing their album I Am. Then, on the last day, Maurice changed his mind. If he hadn't, no one would have heard Boogie Wonderland.

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Verdine White, bass

We had the studio booked from noon until 6pm, but we overslept. I got there at 4.30pm and we cut the basic track half an hour later. It took as long as the record lasts, just a few minutes. It was a Saturday night: we just wanted to get out of there and go out.

Ben Wright, who worked on Michael Jackson's Off the Wall album, did the arrangements for all the horns and strings later, and then the vocals went on last. The whole thing took two weeks tops. We didn't aim the song at the disco market or anything. We just played how we sounded.

Maurice produced it, as he did all our records. He had discovered a female group called the Emotions and produced their records, too, with us as rhythm section. So it was easy to ask them to add vocals. We were a very tight-knit musical group of people.

Making the video was a real laugh. Sometimes, the 1970s get a bad rep when it comes to the clothes, but our outfits were designed by the late Bill Whitten and were exquisite. We never said no to anything: pink waistcoats, white boots, shiny green flares. It was the 70s, man!

We had no idea Boogie Wonderland would be such a big hit. It's not easy to play, but it sounds great. When we blast into it, people just go crazy.

• Earth, Wind & Fire's album Now, Then & Forever is out on 21 October ( The band play the Royal Albert Hall, London SW7, 19 October; Manchester Apollo, 20 October.


Interviews by Dave Simpson

The GuardianTramp

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