The Chic Organization – 10 of the best

From their own early disco anthems, through to their masterly productions for others, Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards scaled pop's heights

1 Chic – Everybody Dance

“Uh, my man, what the fuck does ‘do-do-do’ mean?” This is what Bernard Edwards – Chic’s bassist and co-songwriter/orchestrator along with Nile Rodgers – asked of the chorus to the band’s first composition, written and recorded in 1977. To which Rodgers replied, reasonably enough: “It means the same thing as ‘la-la-la’, motherfucker!” Chic songs meant whatever you wanted them to. This was the New York outfit’s second single. Its predecessor – Dance, Dance, Dance (Yowsah, Yowsah, Yowsah) – was assumed to be a simple invitation to (the) disco, when actually it evoked an entirely different era: the 1930s Depression and its brutal dance marathons. With America gripped once more by hard times in the late 70s, Everybody Dance had a similar sense of desperation and urgency. This was reflected by the inventive, darting bassline, the scything, jabbing strings and the vocals – more blank than passionate – that didn’t so much sweeten as sharpen the message(s), one of which was: here was no ordinary disco group.

2 Chic - Savoir Faire

Rodgers talked in his 2012 autobiography Le Freak: An Upside Down Story of Family, Disco and Destiny about Everybody Dance, its jazz-influenced “harmonically extended chords” and the bass pattern’s “two strict chromatic movements”. He also told the Guardian that “the only real way to understand Chic is in hifalutin terms. Our chord progressions were based on European modal melodies. I made those early Chic records to impress my jazz friends.” On its release, Savoir Faire, a five-minute instrumental from their 1978 album C’est Chic, was dismissed by one critic as “jazz boogie”. It’s rather more than that, its circular structure and keening strings enveloping you in sadness. As for the intricate guitar play, think of it less as a solo than a complex extemporisation around the theme of solipsist abnegation from a former Black Panther and fully paid-up member of the self-doubting brigade. No wonder Rodgers titled the 2013 Chic box set after it.

3 Chic – I Want Your Love

The bells, the bells! As soon as you heard them, at the start of the follow-up to Le Freak, you knew they were tolling for something bad – as though they were announcing the death of love. For all their synonymity with party culture and hedonism, Chic offered “a subtle discolation of the norm”, as the old Ze Records tagline had it. Their fourth single wasn’t dance music as affirmation but an escape into ritual as release from the torment of denial. No wonder Steve McQueen used it in Shame, his 2011 movie about sexual alienation and despair. In fact, Rodgers dreamt the song – and it really is a dream of a song – about a nightmare of a situation, while he was asleep with his then-girlfriend and lusting after another woman. “Please don’t make me beg," indeed. Originally intended for Sister Sledge, it is a masterclass in elegant yearning and sophisticated gloom gloom, the six vocalists singing – crying, really – in unison as the horns chase the strings over the nagging guitar and the aching melody. It’s an anguished soundtrack for the aspirational classes, the lonely sigh of the loveless and bored in a chic uptown apartment. And they called it Buppie love.

4 Chic – At Last I Am Free

Rodgers wrote this when he was consorting with a band called Allah and the Knife-Wielding Punks and still a Black Panther. Tripping on acid, with a head gash following a violent run-in with the cops in Central Park, he came up with the lyric, “At last I am free/ I can hardly see in front of me.” Put through the Chic Organization filter, what began as an epic power ballad, complete with jagged rock chords, became something more rarefied and elegiacal, sorrowful to the point of funereal. Robert Wyatt later covered it, giving the song a new dignified political inflection, as did Liz Fraser, who made you realise Chic were closer to Cocteau Twins than Cameo.

5 Chic – My Forbidden Lover

The second single from Chic’s third album, 1979’s Risqué, might have been dwarfed commercially by its predecessor, Good Times, which reached No 1 in the States and helped kickstart the hip-hop revolution via its heavy sampling by the Sugarhill Gang for Rapper’s Delight. Nevertheless, it was no less effective an exposition of Rodgers’s insistent guitar sound, which he affectionately termed “chucking” and captures the dull throb of unfulfilled desire as well as any single instrumental technique in pop. It is his signature, and you can find it all over his work, including this paean to troubled love, in which it repeats like a distress signal. “We’ll just let them stare,” dares Alfa Anderson, a woman, although it functions as an anthem for any unrequited or verboten romance, whether extramarital, interracial or gay.

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6 Chic - Will You Cry (When You Hear This Song)

The leitmotif running through Chic’s work is the rapture of heartache. It is their motor, their metier; strange considering Rodgers, at least, was at the time philandering like there was no tomorrow. “Love is pain, and pain could be pleasure” – a masochistic impulse, it virtually becomes wish-fulfilment on this, one of two tracks on Risqué (the other being A Warm Summer Night) in dire need of a new identification beyond “ballad”. Stately and staccato, Will You Cry was way too rarefied to be called R&B, unless it stood for Ravishing and Bruised. In answer to the title: probably, yes.

7 Sheila and B Devotion – Don't Go

Between 1977 and 1982, Rodgers and Edwards were on a high (the creative and narcotic varieties), sharing their bounty with everyone. Not only did they record six Chic albums (and a seventh, a soundtrack LP), they also produced – that is to say, auteurishly gifted – two albums to Sister Sledge, and one each to Debbie Harry, Diana Ross and Norma Jean, with a couple of unreleased ones for Johnny Mathis and Fonzi Thornton. They were also close to doing the Rolling Stones and Bette Midler and had meetings with Aretha Franklin. Instead – and perhaps to perversely demonstrate that the Chic Organization could work their magic on anyone – they chose Annie Chancel, alias Sheila, a French pop singer who had been having hits back home since the 60s but not so many abroad. The result was the King of the World album (1979), which included the fabulously forlorn 5m-selling worldwide hit Spacer, whose B-side also offered this example of etiolated Chic disco.

8 Sister Sledge – You Fooled Around

The rule with Chic is: investigate everything – B-sides, lesser-known releases, unissued tracks, the lot. The first Sister Sledge album, 1979’s We Are Family, contains their most famous rhapsodic delights: He’s the Greatest Dancer, Lost In Music, Thinking of You and the title track – you can see why Rodgers considers it, “pound for pound”, the finest-ever Chic Organization release. In a way, though, the follow-up, 1980’s Love Somebody Today, was even better, even if it did fare less well at the box office and only contained one semi-hit in the title track. But if you like that classic cyclical Chic song construction and glacial production style (both of which Rodgers and Edwards abandoned in their own work after Risqué), you’ll love the dolorous disco of You Fooled Around et al.

9 Diana Ross – Now That You’re Gone

Chic had a busy 1980: Got to Love Somebody, King of the World, their own fourth album Real People, and they also found time to knock out unarguably the best-ever long-player by Motown’s pre-eminent star. Rodgers has proclaimed Diana a “deeply personal” collection” and “our masterwork”. Shame for him and Edwards, then, that the results were rejected by Motown boss Berry Gordy and Ross and would, as he admitted in his autobiography, “cause us … tears, pain and humiliation”. Some of that pain is evident in the music, which is minimalist and dark, postdisco to match the then-concurrent postpunk. Diana, reworked by Motown, eventually came out with some of the angularity smoothed away (the original Chic mixes have since been made available). Ironically, propelled by the singles Upside Down and I’m Coming Out, it sold, but those hits were deceptively exuberant and – very Chic, this – only sardonically empowering. Now That You’re Gone is more typical of its stripped-down disco noir, all dimlit spaces and pizzicato strings. Rodgers may have cried when he heard another poignant Diana track, Friend to Friend, but he had the last laugh when Diana became Ross’s biggest-selling album to date.

10 Carly Simon – Why

This was taken from the soundtrack to the 1982 movie Soup For One, which featured largely Chic-composed material, including the title cut on which French house duo Modjo based their British No 1 Lady (Hear Me Tonight) from 2000, one of numerous global smashes to benefit from the Rodgers/Edwards catalogue. Why – a top 10 UK hit in 1982 – was the last great release by the Chic Organization ahead of their bisection: after Chic’s 1983 album Believer, Rodgers left to produce David Bowie, Madonna and Duran Duran among dozens of others while Edwards worked with Robert Palmer, Rod Stewart and Joe Cocker before his death in 1996. He was only 43. And if ever a song captured the despairing nature of existence, our relentless attraction to pain (“Why does your love hurt so much?”) and Chic’s ability to express both while simultaneously making us dance, it’s the wonky, weary skank of Why.


Paul Lester

The GuardianTramp

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