In Britain it took a confused and stubborn mix of musical
primitivism, noisy rhetoric and conspicuous opposition to tilt the balance
towards a new form of late Seventies entertainment. America sought progression
by consolidation, the domination of existing or selfcreated markets and
a clean, functional music. Or so the myth goes.
British bands took information from outside the usual points
of pop reference and used the old marketing systems to disseminate it. American
acts worked from within the established structures and ideas of the industry
to reach out to a larger, and therefore more powerful, audience: the medium
was the message, and not simply a vehicle for it. And there the myth comes
home to rest.
From a late-1979 perspective, one was feasible where the
other was pointless. In business terms, the extreme end of the new wave
denied itself the market it needed both to survive and make its point by
pursuing its original logic. Besides which, record companies no longer have
the budget or inclination to subsidise minority tastes. And, in musical
terms, the "innovative" new wave bands - from Public Image to
Gang Of Four - freely borrow from disco (though they might prefer to say
'comment on') while disco acts don't and have no need to, return the compliment.
As a means of commercial exploitation, the lessons of disco
are already being freely adapted in other fields. The Gary Numan operation,
for example, proves resoundingly that in 1979 the most attractive proposition,
on musical, sociological and financial grounds, is bright, uncomplicated
and selfperpetuating Success.
|DISCO ARTISTS: A PROBLEM OF RECOGNITION|
"Really dig that Gary Numan guy. Two albums in the
charts ... THREE albums? That guy's amazing. Reminds me a lot of Mike Oldfield,
The Chic operation is passing time in the foyer of a Bournemouth
hotel, waiting for the coach (a limousine for the mainmen) to convey them
to the Winter Gardens. Pre-gig conversation moves in straight lines: sales
figures, commerce and sex. The biggest selling singles act in the history
of Atlantic Records, on its first full length tour of Britain, is having
a slight problem pulling.
More broadly, it's a problem of recognition. With the notable
exceptions of Donna Summer and the Village People's wardrobe, disco acts
in this country have still to be discovered as personalities as opposed
to technicians. It's a recurrent sore in the almost obsessive pride that
Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards, its two creators, have in the band, and
is one of the reasons behind the tour.
The other reason is to prove that Chic are more than a
studio band with an album-cover image. Style occupies a central part of
the performance, reflected in the selective use of lights, clothes and choreography.
Bournmouth responds with a mild outburst of visual fever; the only dissenters
are the mums and dads, flapping about in loose denim and chunky knits at
Musically, from the carefully assembled medley of Sister
Sledge hits to the faultless reproduction of their own singles, Chic put
on the most immaculate, professional and passionless show I've ever seen.
But it's never clinical; simply a logical stage adaption of the disco soundtrack,
allowing rather than enforcing a reaction.
Even when the audience rushes the stage, it's not the usual
expression of adoration, or even the effect of Gucci tailoring. People find
a space to dance beneath the PA and keep to it, occasionally checking out
the spectacle but mostly preoccupied with their own two-step.
"There's so many drugs and things around young people
today, and what we want to do is get them away from all that crap. We have
a very definite lifestyle and a musical approach that we like, and if other
people do, that's great - we simply want to entertain them," says Bernard
(accent on the second syllable) later. It's an unshakeable belief that both
he and Nile Rodgers will often repeat and vigorously defend.
|THE ROUTE TO INTERNATIONAL PLATINUM|
Offstage, Rodgers and Edwards effortlessly slip out of
their manufactured, high-fashion stage image, into a quiet, and at first
guarded, amiability. In conversation they exude all the Good American Values
(honesty and truthfulness, for starters) coupled with a sharp and unerring
business sense. The only thing that could prevent them from becoming model
politicians is their popularity.
And Chic are phenomenally popular. Since forming two years
ago, the band have clocked up sales of more than 50 million dollars worth
of sales for Atlantic; every record they've released has gone at least gold,
and the more recent ones have turned multi-platinum. Add to that the success
of the recent batch from Sister Sledge - produced, written and played by
Nile and Bernard - and you have two of the richest young men in the world.
From an observer's point of view, the reason for success
is obvious: superb melodies, expertly arranged and relayed through the most
inventive guitar/bass coupling of the decade. From their point of view,
it's even more obvious in that the whole operation had been planned down
to the smallest detail before it got off the ground.
The story picks up around 1972 when, already friends, the
two found themselves playing in the back-up band to New York City (remember
"I'm Doing Fine Now"?). By the time it folded in 1975, both found
themselves looking for a way into the mainstream and megasuccess.
"Right from the start we had a concept for Chic,"
says Nile. "The music at that time was very much a secondary thing.
We know we had to have something that was international and interchangeable
with the markets, while at the same time we had to be in with a music that
was on the rise. At that time it was rock'n'roll, and we thought we could
make our concept work within its framework.
As it happened, they couldn't. The concept had at its core
the equal distribution of male and female instrumentalists on stage - which,
they decided, was asking to much of sexist, macho-orientated rock. There
followed a brief flirtation with punk, via Allah And The Knife-Wielding
Punks, before redemption beckoned.
|MILLIONS OF DOLLARS, FERRARIS AND PLANES|
"When disco came in, it was like a gift from heaven,"
says Nile. "Discos gave us the perfect opportunity to realise our concept,
because it wasn't about being black, white, male or female. Further, it
would give us a chance to get into the mainstream. We wanted millions of
dollars, Ferraris and planes - and this seemed like the way to get them."
Bernard readily admits that he hated disco. "I got
into it, though, and realised that if we did it our way it'd be pretty good.
"Any musician wants to be successful, no matter what
he says. A lot of people destroyed themselves by trying to force a formula
on the public which might not become popular until they're dead and gone.
It's been like that for thousands of years, man. Cats like Handel were playing
for the kings and queens and they were real popular, superstars, right?"
Er ... right. Idealism out of the window, I muttered something
to the effect that maybe rock has something to do with art.
"That's bullshit, man," Bernard explodes. "Most
rock artists are nothing but copycats, not even good technicians, who sit
around downing everyone else's music. We don't do that, we like rock. I
mean guys like Led Zeppelin, we love that shit." Last point taken,
And thereby lies Chic and the crux of the matter in hand.
After initially jumping in both feet first, America is currently undergoing
a minor downer in its attitude towards disco. As the Chicmen point out,
enjoyment of disco and respect for its musicians haven't yet been aligned.
And around it, perpetrated largely by jealous and less successful rock musicians,
the "Disco Sucks" campaign has become more than just a silly title.
|CLAMS ON THE HALFSHELL AND ROLLERSKATE, ROLLERSKATE!|
In moments of whimsy, it's not hard to see why this should
be so . For all of its pretension and muddle-headed confusion, rock at least
attempts to agitate and challenge the status quo while disco, like country
music, can be seen to seek safety in numbness, the ultimate blind escapism.
Translate that into the choice between weekend violence and repressed male
gangs and Chic's colourful, gentle entertainment, and the debate falls on
And despite (in rock terms) their unforgiveable opportunism
and compromise, Rodgers and Edwards come across as cleverer and more caring
men than the majority of rock musicians. Besides which, they also make much
"Sure, there's a lot of problems in the world, and
that's what a lot of rock musicians are busy telling us. But they're so
upset by it, so obsessed with being depressed, that they don't help.
"What we're saying is that in spite of all this shit
we can enjoy ourselves, relieve the pressure for a moment. I don't care
how many people put us down, the fact that millions of people have bought
our records and found pleasure in them is enough," says Nile.
"We both come from a generation that had to be into
politics, because when we left school it looked then like we were going
to be sent to Vietnam. And that political frame of mind continued after
the war. The real intelligent people at least had a choice, either to go
wholeheartedly into politics or to realise just how ineffective they were
as an instrument of change. For most people even that choice didn't exist."
So was disco a political reaction to that?
"It was less of a political thing than a social thing,
I guess. People wanted a place where everyone could be equal, and discos
provided that away from the different factions and styles of rock.
"All our lives Bernard and I have just wanted to be
normal regular citizens, but in America there's this constant pressure to
be the best at whatever you do. With us it's not like that, Chic isn't a
superstar thing and the message behind our songs is just that: have fun,
participate, reduce the pressure for a while."
|WE ARE FAMILY (I GOT MY ACCOUNTANT WITH ME)|
To spread the message a little more and, as already mentioned,
to earn respect for themselves as musicians, Nile and Bernard have this
year subjected themselves to a gruelling schedule.
They began touring America in April, took time off in August
to write and produce the next Sister Sledge album, as well as their own,
and will tour Europe until the end of this month. Then it's back to America,
an album with Sheila B. Devotion and some recording work with Diana Ross,
who approached them for new songs, a commodity which she has needed for
"As it happened, it really tied in with plans we already
had. Bernard and myself had for a long time wanted to work with an artist
who was known and recognised as a great melody singer. Maybe it's an ego
thing, but we think we write pretty good songs which go unrecognised as
At a time when Chuck Berry has completed a second stretch
inside for tax evasion, the Isley Brothers have had all their property confiscated
and countless other acts are severely broke, the Chic Organisation is continuing
to rake in the bucks.
In addition to being the sole spokesmen of the band, Rodgers
and Edwards are virtually the sole beneficiaries of their success. Together
they control the running, finances and music of Chic and it's offshoots.
"We'd been ripped off so many times that this seemed
like the only way. Chic was evolved to try and fulfill something that we'd
never had and we don't intend to let go of it. We have to stay ahead of
our business, we have to keep abreast of our situation at all times. To
some peoplet hat may sound corny and conservative, but this is now the rest
of our lives we're working on.
"We've both played heavier music than this and got
exactly the same buzz. If we were playing country and western, we would
get into it. It's nothing more than writing songs to which people can react.
We've figured out a way to put together music that we can repeat over and
over again, and I don't think there's another band that can play like we
|LOST IN MUSIC (WHO SAYS DISCO DOESN'T SUCK?)|
Before we leave Bournemouth, Nile decides he wants to go
out and make a new friend for the night. Bernard has gone to bed and Tony
Thompson, Chic's drummer and the only member of the band who seems to be
in the confidence of its controllers, comes along instead.
We arrive at the disco as "I Want Your Love"
is playing. The club's manager is not inclined to let its author and one
part of the biggest-selling singles act in etc. into the club. The manager
is leaned on. The deejay fades in a Sister Sledge song before reverting
back to the Buggles and Status Quo. Nile is appalled and we return back
to the hotel, friendless. Who says disco doesn't suck?