The Man Who Put The Backbone In CHIC.

by Ian Mcann published in Echoes Magazine on March 16th 1985

Music journalists tend to bandy certain words about from time to time. Take 'seminal', for example. That word is a favourite. It gets applied to virtually anyone, from Robert Johnson to Howard Tate. One of the word's meanings is 'providing a basis for future development'. And one of the musicians it can be legitimately applied to is Tony Thompson.
Tony Thompson, as Chic's drummer, provided a solid foundation for the rest of the Organisation to build the hits on. And Chic? They are seminal also.
They started off as another seemingly gimmicky New York disco act, and then went on to provide some of the late seventies' finest dance music, spreading their influence far and wide from the release of their second LP, 'Risque' (sic! Risqué was CHIC's third LP). By then white rocky ears were flapping to the solid rhythmic music, and suddenly it became OK to be caught liking disco.
The next, post-punk generation of young bands in England found themselves irresistibly drawn to the Chic sound, and outfits like the Durans and Spandaus of this generation were utilizing the lessons learned from Chic productions. And a diverse lot of productions they were, despite similarities in the finished sound of the product.
Apart from the material that came out under the Chic banner, there were also one or two others that benefitted from the Edwards and Rodgers writing and production expertise. They had hits on Sister Sledge; France's answer to Cliff Richard, Sheila And B Devotion; Diana Ross (they must have regretted getting involved there) and Carly Simon. They cut an album with Johnny Mathis, which to date has never appeared on the streets, and despite cutting some excellent sides with Norma Jean Wright they never managed to hoist her to stardom. Then things began to drift apart. Bernard Edwards and Nile Rodgers began to take an interest in separate projects, some said that they had spread themselves too thin and had taken on too much at once writing-wise. Whatever the cause, after Carly Simon's 'Why', the Chic Organisation had little commercial success apart from re-issues of old Sister Sledge material in Britain. Nile Rodgers went on to produce Bowie on 'Let's Dance', remix Duran Duran records and produce no end of rock acts queueing to get a little Chic magic that had so influenced them on the dance-floors.
Tony Thompson is here to make a video to promote his latest project, an album recorded as the Power Station, a one-off with Robert Palmer, Duran's John and Andy Taylor, and held together by the production talents of Bernard Edwards. I met him at his hotel one warm afternoon, and we sat down to rap a little on a bench on the road island at Marble Arch. Behind us, an old tramp yelled and howled every so often, to our consternation!
Tony is an animated talker, and this distraction didn't put him off for long. So here it is: a few words with dance music's backbeat, Chic spoken here from the man once dubbed the 'world's greatest drummer', the man who played on every Chic Organisation production.
"How did I get started with Chic? I was on the road with Patti La Belle, and a friend of mine named Eddie Martinez knew I'd just finished with her, I'd been on the road for about a year. I was out of work for quite a while. I couldn't find any work at all. Eddie (who is on Jagger's album-I'm gonna be starting a band with him in the near future), called me up and said: "Look this guitar player called Nile Rodgers is looking for a drummer."
"So I went down to a place named Brandice High School in Manhattan, and I met Bernard and Nile for the first time. And I'd just come off the road so I had like, flight cases and a whole big kit. At the time I was playing with Labelle and I was really loose, I played a lot of Cobham type stuff, and straight ahead rock and roll. It had nothing to do with the R&B type locking grooves that Chic got known for. So I went in with all this equipment and Nile & Bernard said "Hey pal, we can't use that! You play your ass off, but you gotta put that stuff into perspective."
"So I don't think they liked the way I played the first time they heard me 'cause I played too much. I found out afterwards that Bernard told Nile, "If we get this guy and just put his stuff on the right road straight-ahead stuff, it could be a monster."
So Nile and Bernard really helped me to get into the serious groove type stuff. That was before we even had a record out, before we even started thinking about recording-so we had a bar band. But it sounded like Chic. We did cover tunes, Earth Wind & Fire, and stuff."
"A lot of drummers think that really fancy technique (and at that time I was into fusion and that was cool, I got a lot of work through that) will help them, and they forget a lot and lose sight of being a metronome and being a timekeeper. And Nile and Bernard... Bernard's got huge ears man, meaning that he hears amazing things. And to play with a cat like that has helped me mould myself into what I play now. 'Cause he would hear any tempo discrepancy whatever and I wouldn't even know I did it."
Was he employed on a session basis at first?
"No. I was part of the band. Nile and Bernard were owners of the company, an employee of the company if you like. It wasn't split down the middle. But it should have been! At that time, I think they didn't know how much I could contribute to the sound, and I guess they found out. Time has gone on... at the time I was very young, and they really took care of me-they really did. Lucy and Alfa, they brought me up. They bought me a Porsche, all kinds of stuff. I should have gotten more though. 'Cause it was a successful band. But I was just young. That's all".
When were they aware that things were taking off?
"When we first recorded 'Dance, Dance, Dance' and 'Everybody Dance' and we had a lot of friends in Manhattan discos and they would play that stuff on Saturday nights and people would just freak out. It was then we figured something was gonna happen. I have the same feeling about Power Station now."
Were they aware that they began to get a lot of heavy critical approval?
"Not really. We just played. Me, Bernard and Nile were like family. We were close and so the music had something of that, it came across in the music. The aura and the feeling I used to get when we laid down tracks, the groove in the studio was thick, you could feel it, man. And you don't get that too often. I didn't really see it happening, it was just a bunch of guys playing."
So the backing tracks were laid down together?
"Yeah, Bernard & Nile would not allow me to overdub anything. Nothing. We didn't do more than five takes. They would allow five takes. And that was cool, because now, I'm really disciplined. Like now, I can't do 10, 20 takes for one song. That's ridiculous. For all those records it was like that. 'Upside Down', 'I'm Coming Out' for Diana Ross, they were done in like two takes. It was just cool to work with those guys. Just walk in, knock it out. Great."
And everything was fine for a couple of years. Then, as ever, things started to go wrong, and strange reports started coming through about albums remixed by Diana Ross, abortive projects with Johnny Mathis... what really happened?
"The Ross thing was a lot of politics, dealing with Diana, she's a little..." (Mr Thompson then makes a farty noise with his tongue and lips) "...well, er, she's a nice a lady!" Tony then pulls a face and bursts into sardonic laughter, to make sure I get the drift.
"So, I don't know. I just saw it falling apart because I saw Nile wanting to go off in a different direction. he was really berserk about drum machines when they first came on the market. 'Holy mackerel. New toy!' And the guy just went berserk. And I guess that's cool, he heard things that he wanted to do for himself. And I saw this split coming.
"I was the quiet one..." -I find that a little hard to believe Tony!... "Bernard didn't want to use drum machines, he wanted to stick to the old formula, and then Nile was kinda like going off, he had different ideas, and I'm in the middle of this sucker, and all this is going on. I could see it was all gonna blow up and fall apart. Unfortunately."
What about the Mathis LP? Did it exist?
"That's right. It's a serious album. It's serious, and it's on the shelf. I think that Columbia, his record label, thought that it would alienate his audience. So they didn't want to release it and it was such a good album. You never heard Johnny Mathis sing like this. No-one has. He grooves to death with this album, grooves to death. It was serious. We did like a Brazilian type funk-samba on this; oh, incredible. Sang his ass off. Phut. No-one's ever gonna hear it. I hate that. We spent time on this. It was a real good album."
There were things like the Norma Jean stuff that never sold...
"And Sheila B Devotion, never took off in the states. I dunno what 'Spacer' did here. But that was a great jam. But the album didn't do squat in the states. And there was some good stuff on the album. But when she came in the studio...wow! There were some looks when she opened her mouth to sing. She was terrible! I couldn't believe my ears. 'Spacer' should have come out as Chic. It was too good."
Was it all being spread a little thinly?
"Yeah, sure. I think they should have concentrated it more. When some of the material was dying towards the end of Chic, that's because the time wasn't spent on it like it was on the first couple of albums. Nile and Bernard were writing separately, they never used to do that. I was seeing the break-up happen. They wouldn't write together at all. Nile songs began to sound like his, Bernard had his own... it was a drag."
So what happened to you between the demise of Chic and Bowie's 'Let's Dance' sessions?
"I was out of work." (Laughs) "Lot of people kinda thought, 'This guy's worth using', and they said, 'Wish I could've got you for my album.' I was there, but everyone assumed I was too busy. And I was out of work. I was still on salary, and still with Chic in some capacity. But they weren't doing much, they weren't even talking, I don't think. When Nile and Bernard told me they were going to dissolve the company, this was after the Bowie album. I heard that Bowie was putting the band together, I just asked him if he needed a drummer. It was as simple as that. I got the gig."
Tony played on 'Let's Dance' together with Omar Hakeem, another great drummer and a friend of Tony's for many years. "Apparently, Nile wanted the drummer to sound like me, but he didn't use me until midway in the LP. It was weird."
Tony did eight months touring the world with Bowie's band, his first experience of such a concentrated live stint.
"It was great, a gas. I've always been a rock and roll drummer. My idol has been John Bonham, I tried to emulate myself after him 'cause he was solid."
The sound on some of 'Let's Dance' is not dissimilar to the Bonham sound with Led Zeppelin, drum-wise. It's a little disarming to find one of the world's finest R&B drummers citing Bonham as an influence though, And that influence comes through on the Power Station single with with Tony laying down a hard flashy backbeat. So did Tony find his Chic playing just a little limiting?
"No...but some of it was just a little too cutesy. Towards the end, the vibe was bad, too cutesy and not enough serious music. But Bernard was the greatest groove player in the world. He does a great break on the new Power Station LP. He's just great and he's always serious about music."
Are there any prospects of another Chic LP?
"I'm working with Bernard and there's talk of another Chic LP. And we're putting a band together of our own. Chic's dear to me. It's a shame. Lucy and Alfa, I'm not sure what's happening with them now, I think Alfa is on the road with luther Vandross. I'm up for a Rick Ocasic album, and an Elton John album, a Men At Work tour, maybe another Chic LP, Bonnie Tyler possibly. I don't know. I'll pick and choose from it. I wanna play rock with a funk feel to it. A lot of rock is so sterile now. You couldn't dance to that stuff even if you wanted to. I'm gonna make it danceable. People don't want that wimpy light disco music. Ugh! Yuk! Like the Village People stuff. Ugh!"
Tony says the Power Station LP is going to open up people's eyes to the fact that the Duran musicians can really play.
"You don't get that far by being a nerd. Who do you think plays when they're on tour? You think they've got another band hidden away back there? This album is gonna make serious musicians sit up and say 'Yeah, these guys can play'".
At this we part, and on the way back to the hotel, Tony tells me that he hopes Chic get together and cut another 'serious' LP. he says it'll sell too, that evryone's ready for it.
"If Sister Sledge can be re-issued here and sell, then we can do it. Believe me, that was all Chic."
Put me down for an advance order on the album, Atlantic. I'm keeping my fingers crossed.



Get album info on 'Power Station' GO

Watch video clip of 'Bang A Gong' GO

Read 2001 interview with Tony GO

special fan section courtesy of Glen Russell e-mail:glen@chictribute.com,
by pocat productions, sthlm 2003. e-mail:pocat@chictribute.com