In the '70s, Chic's hot funk was
a signal to dance sweaty and think dirty. Nick Coleman freaks out with the serious-minded disco dynamos
as they prepare their comeback.
Quite a lot hangs on this. Not that Nile Rodgers and Bernard
(call him 'Nard) Edwards, the Chic Organization, are under personal pressure.
just look at them in actress Lysette Anthony's dressing room at the 'Jonathan
Ross Show': sprawling on their little chairs, limbs out, scoffing Lysette's
fruit, laughing their heads off. But quite a lot hangs on this all the
'We were terrified we'd destroy the whole Chic thing by
doing this,' says Edwards. 'All of it, all the way back to the '70s. Thought
maybe we should leave it alone. Maybe people in the '90s don't wanna hear
a live band, playing so-called dance music.' His last sentence came out
like a worm.
In fact, everything on the personal front is dandy for
the chaps. They're both top-flight producers -Madonna,
Duran Duran, Robert
Palmer, Rod Stewart and so on -and they both want not for material
substance. Edwards drives a Porsche. But there is something at stake here,
something that hangs like a dog about the skirts of 'Nard's misgiving.
Destroy the whole Chic thing? That would destroy not only a rather nice
pop myth but also the faith of a generation.
Chic were once very important. They were important because
they confused a lot of people in the '70s, the sort who'd wrinkle their
noses at the word 'disco' as they would at the smell of eggs.
They introduced the concept of the pop record that went
'Dance! Dance! Dance! Yowsah!!
Yowsah!! Yowsah!!' without making you feel ill. By the time of their
third hit, 'Le Freak', not
only were rock fans buying Chic records to go with their Clash records
but open speculation raged in hip circles about what Chic meant. Here
was an ethos that acted like a disco group that looked like uptown dinner
guests who wore sharp shoes and read books. And they sounded odd too. Kind
of sophisticated but hard; mathematical yet musical; superficial yet trenchant.
Guitar, bass and drums held in wired-up tension, graced with strings, batting
along on a bite-stream of vocal drivel. With their singular geometry of
sound and sensibility, Chic redefined what was to be expected of dance
Chief among those expectations was musicality. Chic proved
that you could be both musical and commercial; that four-on-the-floor need
not be a bore. Indeed, Chic's musicality was their commercial feature,
a fact which may or may not have been lost on the zillions who wobbled
about their handbags to the jittery thunder of 'Le Freak' and 'Good Times'. Chic records made you
do things like that because Nard, Nile and drummer Tony Thompson played
like that. Might as well be jazz.
Nile Rodgers shoves a heel under his rump and spreads
his palms. 'Nowadays, of course, you got people listening to modem techno,
dance music and most of 'em haven't had the luxury of hearing a band play
dance music, the excitement of a drummer working things up. And
that's why we decided to do this project. For the fun, for the pleasure
'Chic-ism', the comeback album, is a brilliant record,
a socking great fistful of natural rhythm. And following as it does in
the breeze of Prince's best album in years (featuring his new, all-human
rhythm machine, The New Power Generation), and renewed interest in the
power of bodily oomph in the shape of groups like the Brand New Heavies,
there is every reason to suspect that playing, as opposed to programming,
might yet make a comeback itself. There's a lot hanging on this.
But Rodgers selects his vocabulary carefully. When he
talks about the 'luxury of hearing a band play dance music', he means it
literally. There are sound socio-economic reasons why what he calls 'techno'
music has dominated dancefloors for a decade. After all, the most important
feature of the hip hop/rap explosion is the way it has democratised music
as an activity, the way the downmarket technology of sampling, scratching
and sequencing has liberated music from the inaccessible sanctum of the
studio and deposited it inelegantly in the bed-sits and kitchens of the
There has been a price, of course. There are more appalling
records in the shops than ever. But, interestingly, the bulk of them come
from the topmost layer of the pop production cake, where more money is
spent in using more technology to economise on human labour. Pause a while
and try to think of the last time you heard a big, mainstream pop record
that didn't sound -musically and texturally -not only identical to the
next mainstream pop record but also utterly sterile.
Rodgers: 'When we were coming up, what bands did was compete.
Compete in funkiness, in rocking an audience. We didn't have to do anything
but play in the pocket and play good songs. That was enough. Now it seems
that because of the technology everything has to be 'perfect'. And of course
no one can play like that. No one can play on a techno record because it
would sound imperfect. And the real point of what I'm saying is this: because
you're aware that human beings can't actually be playing this music,
the musicians who make these records aren't considered important.
Whereas, when we were coming up we'd have Herbie Hancock
standing at the side of the stage checking out our groove - and that was
important to us, as you can imagine -now a lot of the kids aren't getting
the respect for their creativity. And there are some amazing records
being made right now.' He raises both eyebrows, points a finger and gets
off his heel.
'And that means that the nature of creativity has
changed. I mean, I say to these kids: "You know, man, that' s a fantastic
record you have there: how you have the bridge in one key and the verse
in another key; how did you guys think of that?" And they just look
at me and go ... what? They don't even know what a key is.' He seems
to like this idea.
Bernard Edwards, bassist, isn't quite so keen -though
he is, lest we forget, putting on a show with his mate for the goggling
'Still,' he says, hitching himself up in his seat, adjusting
his shades and adopting an aggrieved tone, 'it doesn't feel right to me,
pushing a button to start a rhythm and at the end of the song push another
button to stop it. Doesn't make sense to me, like playing with a robot
or playing with yourself or something.'
I remind him of Keith Richards' pronouncement that rhythm
is about the body and that therefore it should come from the
body. Also of his cute theory that the pop world is a department store
and that at the moment everyone's just playing in the toy department. Edwards
loves this, but grudgingly concedes to a liking for Janet Jackson's ultra-techno
producers Jam and Lewis. 'They're musicians and what they do comes from
a musical head. They're not just tinkerers. Whoever plays music should
have some musical knowledge. . .'
'Well, I'm more liberal than that. . .', interjects Rodgers.
'Well, good for you,' says Edwards.
They're an endlessly affable pair. The next 20 minutes
are spent talking up the meaning of funk. Funk not as a sound, nor even
as an attitude, but funk as a force of nature. There is much hilarity,
thigh-slapping, reminiscing about when they used to go out the three of
them, and play as a trio, because that way you get more money. And being
on a bill with Rufus and Cameo and Heatwave. And how 'Nard, as a kid, used
to hang around the Apollo in Harlem all day, and watch the people come
and go: 'The way these guys'd laugh and talk and play cards, and one guy'd
walk in and he'd say this and another guy'd say that, and
then they'd start playing. And that was another band formed. Man, you just
had to be funky.'
And so on, with voices rising and falling, and flashbacks
to the Commodores' 'Brickhouse', with its giant funky pauses between
syllables -well, she's a brick-FWUMP de-duh-duh (pause) house-FWUMP
de-duh. . . -and the pantomime of the thing made the afternoon
shimmy like James Brown. But still it wasn't as good as the groove
on 'In It To Win It' on the
new album, which is hard and, funky and only like pantomime in the sense
that you want to join in.
'Chic-ism'(Warner Bros) is out on Monday.