Le Freak: An Upside Down Story of Family, Disco, and Destiny
(Spiegel & Grau)
US: Oct 2011
Reviewing the late Richard Burton in Shakespeare’s Henry V, a critic was moved to note the actor brought such power and potency to the role that, taking to the stage, he “brought his own cathedral”. A conjured image of great stature suggesting Burton was, in short and on that night, the Guv’nor. A line in architectural metaphor which, if applied to the man I have on the other end of a trans-Atlantic phone line, famed guitarist, Chic man and über-producer Nile Rodgers, would have him—as the Guv’nor of Groove—“bring his own club”. A super-cool venue jumping to some of the greatest pop from the last four decades: from Chic to Diana Ross and Sister Sledge; forward, through Bowie to Duran Duran, INXS and Madonna, Hall & Oates and Grace Jones. Throw in Chic’s influence to boot, and there’d be needles dropping on classic Clash, Queen, Blondie, ABC; let alone all that Chic’s orchestrated motifs and breakdowns informed: hip-hop and house.
Rodgers is currently—rightfully—back in the spotlight, for his memoir Le Freak. As a compelling tale of survival—let alone success—against the odds, his story, as they say, is one a writer would be hard-pressed to make up. Born to an alcoholic father and a 13-year-old mother (fated also to succumb to addiction), Rodgers’ self-penned account of his tumultuous childhood is an astounding and well-delivered read. Granted, Le Freak is a narrative of Rodgers’ life, not the narrative—so much of his history has been overlooked for pace that, at times, the book resembles one of those highly précised rock bio-pics in which lives just make sense. Nevertheless, it is a fine work of prose, woven with the same line in warm, yet melancholic outsider observations as Edmund White, that other famous New York chronicler and author of City Boy and The Beautiful Room Is Empty.
Having been congratulated on his literary debut, Rodgers proves keenly receptive and charming in return and genuinely surprised at the widespread praise the book is receiving. More to the point, and given the severity of much that he endures throughout Le Freak’s childhood chapters, he is thankfully at peace with himself: “When I look back upon my life, I’m actually quite romantic about it, because I didn’t really feel the pain. Except for the loneliness—which I hope comes through in the book. I was extremely lonely; but I made the best of it. I knew that my life was different, from what I saw on television, but I always tried to entertain myself, keep myself occupied. And the things I saw around me—that was just real life.”
This was a reality which often placed Nile as the lone child in an apartment populated by his parents and their visiting beatnik friends turned nodding-out junkies. It is a scenario which Rodgers artfully paints in one of the books standout scenes: “They often slept standing up, and this group narcolepsy could strike right in the middle of the most dynamic conversation. Eventually our living room would be filled with black and white hipsters suspended in time and space, while I ran through the petrified forest of their legs. My favorite game, waiting to see if the ash from the cigarettes they were smoking would ever drop. Somehow they almost never did.”
“Portrait of the artist as a young man”
Those hoping for some kind of misery memoir with Le Freak however, will be disappointed. Despite the unsettling tale of how young Nile would bounce back and forth between New York and L.A.—in search of safe haven within the perpetually disintegrating, extended family unit—Rodgers manages to avoid self-pity, to deliver an endearing, let alone valuable snapshot of that often historically eclipsed, but no less pivotal decade: the 1950s. Yet for all the chaos a higher love was clearly guiding Rodgers, as his conflicted journey through also helps expose his rarely-schooled raw smarts to an intense array of otherwise disparate musical styles: emerging jazz, brave new classical; and through the smelting street sounds of the city as cultural melting pot: Latino.
Growing up during the 1960s—via rock to pop, R&B and soul, while maintaining a love of jazz—Rodgers admits to having been first alerted to the wonderverse potential of pop by the Beatles. Yet, if the Fab Four (let alone dropping acid with Timothy Leary and jamming, stoned immaculate, with Hendrix) were to change his world view, such events would pale compared to the seismic arrival of his future musical partner, the late, great bassist Bernard Edwards. “To me it’s as if history only started for me that day. Nothing prior to us getting together mattered. All that mattered was that we’d been introduced to each other on the phone and we decided we hated each other.” He laughs heartily, before adding, “Actually, I didn’t hate him, I was cool. He just hated me, told me to never call him again. In fact, his exact words were, ‘Hey bro, lose my number’!”
Chic: Nile with Bernard Edwards (far left) and Tony Thompson (far right)
Thrown back together by fate’s better intentions, Edwards would provide the yang to Rodgers’ yin: he would introduce Rodgers to his trademark “chucking” guitar style which, along with Rodgers’ innate sense of rhythm and orchestration, would formulate the guitarist’s aural signature: “It’s very common in jazz, but not in funk and R&B; it’s how you achieve a very smooth leading voice without taking over the sonic range of the whole group.” Moreover, Edwards would also help curtail the guitarist’s live-wire tendencies as the pair set about carving both a name, but also a living for themselves.
Working in pick-up bands (backing famous singers who were touring hit singles around New York City’s live circuit), an intense form of schooling which Rodgers likens to, “A black Coliseum: thumbs were either up or down. Some nights, we’d be at (famous Harlem venue) the Apollo,” recalls Rodgers, “And believe me you had to hold your own.” And one which would focus the pair’s ability to entertain a crowd: “We’d be taking over some guy’s gig, because we wanted to sound good, out of pride. Take his hit single’s arrangements and reduce it down—because we had no sweetening, we only had a rhythm section and a percussionist. We’d just believe we were the same band that made the record and thrill folks!”
With confidence stoked, and the arrival of Tony Thompson (“A rock drummer at heart, he wanted to be John Bonham”), Rodgers and Edwards would transform themselves into Chic; a name inspired by the simplicity of KISS and a suitable label to match their trademark sophisticated suits look, borrowed from Roxy Music. Rising in line with disco’s break over-ground, Chic’s sharp, highly focused brand of R&B-funk would cut up the dance floors. Belying the notion that disco was lightweight entertainment, tracks like “Everybody Dance”, “I Want Your Love” and “Le Freak”, along “He’s the Greatest Dancer”, produced for Sister Sledge, Rodgers and Edwards’ evolving song-writing and orchestration skills, matched with a shrewd ear for innovation, would see Chic deliver some much-needed punch to the charts.
“The real genius, the sonic genius behind Chic was Bob Clearmountain. As an engineer, he’d done a ton of R&B records and he knew that being a black act we’d only get played on a few radio stations—and they’d be limited and compressed in a certain way. We didn’t have sub-woofers like you do in cars or whatever these days, so he made our mixes super-clear. Plus, he also knew that we were going to start in the clubs, and because we knew all of the clubs were wired in mono—with the left and right speakers were stood right next to each other—even though our recordings are in stereo, they were built to work in mono: What we did was, we managed to boost those low-mids and it added a chunkiness to our sound.”
John Taylor in the studio with Nile Rodgers
Turning for insight to Duran Duran’s John Taylor—who has worked with Rodgers many times—I ask the bass player why he reckons Chic hit so big: “With Chic, Nile helped strip dance music of artifice, rather like James Brown had done in the sixties: Made it raw and urgent, rather than plush and self-satisfied. Plus, there was a rebellious spirit to Chic, regardless of them wearing that ‘Cote D’Azur’ look. It came across in the wire of the grooves. That’s why I connected to them at a time when all I was interested in was white and loud.”
Which brings us to the thorny issue of Chic’s association with the critically reviled disco genre, about which Rodgers is polite but pragmatic: “I’m finally getting used to saying Chic was a disco band. Like in the news, I guess, once you’ve heard someone say something like ‘Chic is disco’ enough, it becomes truth. I’ve learned to wear it okay, because people keep saying it. But it does feel disingenuous; we were an R&B funk band, like Earth Wind & Fire or Kool & the Gang. But we were New York, and we wanted to be sophisticated, so it became about the arrangements and the cool chord changes and all that stuff. But I guess, in a way, our blessing became our curse.”
Cursed indeed, because two short years into Chic’s run, on Thursday 12 July 1979, someone put Nile Rodgers’ career in a box with dynamite—and blew it up: Said detonation taking place at the Chicago White Sox’s Comiskey Park, as part of a Disco Sucks stunt. Organized by Steve Dahl, a disgruntled DJ, who’d managed to get himself fired after refusing to accept his station’s switch from rock to disco, Dahl had convinced the White Sox to allow audiences to bring disliked disco records to the stadium. After the first game, they were all piled into a container and ceremoniously exploded.
In a country struggling with denial post-Vietnam, and with the economy tanked in recession following the OPEC oil crisis, the wider Disco Sucks campaign was less an attack on disco music itself, more a catch-all rejection of those to whom disco gave a podium. With rock praised for its innate wholesomeness (read: belonged to the white working class), disco was denigrated for its urbanity: all affected airs and graces; jumped up and fancy of pants. Disco’s greatest threat, however, the flagrant promotion of a liberalist agenda (read: accommodating the rising gay counter-culture, post-Stonewall; along with America’s newly-prominent black middle-class).
Despite disco’s reputation—along with Chic’s viability as a band—in tatters, Rodgers and Edwards would nevertheless go on to inspire the bedrock sound of the entire ‘80s decade, both black, but more deliciously, white: first, via their magisterial re-branding of Motown queen, Diana Ross, followed by work with the likes of David Bowie (“Let’s Dance”, and later “Black Tie, White Noise”), INXS (“Original Sin”), Madonna (“Like a Virgin”), and various Duran projects (“The Reflex”, “Wild Boys”, “Notorious”, and the Power Station album).
When it came to Britain, it seems every other white-boy act wanted in on the Chic sound: Beyond Duran Duran, there was ABC, whose Lexicon of Love album—heralded as one of the decade’s greatest—was effectively a concept album in the key of Chic. Even those (supposed) leaders of the opposition, the Clash, would revolt against punk’s narrow playlist to pay Chic respect, via songs the likes of “This is Radio Clash”, “The Magnificent Seven”, and the Combat Rock album, a fact confirmed by Topper Headon. Speaking with the Clash drummer for a TV documentary some years back, Headon joyously revealed how in 1980, “We were in New York, recording at the same (Power Station) studios as Chic. They were in their famous Studio B room—the Chic suite. I ended up spending the entire afternoon with my nose pressed up against the door’s portal-window, trying to work out how they did their stuff. I made such a pest of myself someone eventually came and stuck a piece of paper over the glass to block me out.”
Curious, I ask John Taylor what he reckons the difference is between Nile Rodgers the musician, and the producer: “I think they are one and the same; his musicianship is his DNA. That’s what makes him such an extraordinary producer. In many ways he is one of the last of the producer-musician breed. So many producers today come from the click-and-sample world. They just do not have the depth of musicality to work with horn sections and string sections. Nor would they want to, I guess.”
No surprise when you can simply borrow—“click-and-sample,” as Taylor put it—from the greats. While Godfather James Brown is often (somewhat lazily) marked down as the key inspiration for hip-hop (for being sampled intensely across the genre) in truth Chic were—are—the crossover point, the (funky) bridge, from band-delivered music into the brave new world hip-hop was about to usher in. As Rodgers laughs and admits, “In Chic, we had ourselves an inside joke that went, ‘A song is just an excuse to go to the chorus, and the chorus is just an excuse to go to the breakdown.”’ It’s just we were all too mesmerized by John Travolta’s white flared suit back in 1977 to notice. That is, except for Sugarhill Gang, whose “Rapper’s Delight”—that now-historic opening salvo in the coming hip-hop world revolution—was built upon Chic’s “Good Times”. We even missed it with “Rapture” by Blondie. So often referenced as the flag-waving moment at which hip-hop was brought to many people’s attention (read: a white band taking the off-limits sounds of the Projects into the charts)—“Rapture” was, in fact, according to its writers, Debbie Harry and Chris Stein, an intentional homage backwards to Chic.
But as Rodgers admits, laughing one last time before our all-too-brief trans-Atlantic conversation was brought to a close: “With Chic, we lived for the moment. We weren’t thinking about the future—the right now. Everything we tried to do—sometimes we didn’t get it right—but, we were futurists. Me, I just keep trying to make music the same way I drive my car: You keep on looking straight down the road. You don’t look right in front of you, otherwise you’re going to have an accident. You have to look further, down the road. And as long as the car is going straight, don’t go interfering.”