“Real good times/always end too soon”
—Chic, “Everybody Dance”, 1977
Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards, the story goes, were shut out of Studio 54 on one cold, wintry night in 1978. Grace Jones had personally invited the two founding members of Chic to her show at the famed discotheque but their names were somehow missing from the guest list. Despite writing and producing two monster hits for Chic (“Everybody Dance” and “Dance, Dance, Dance”), Rodgers and Edwards were still relatively anonymous faces among the disco cognoscenti.
Their rejection at the velvet rope fueled a late night jam session marked by colorful profanity and smacking guitar licks. From one particular four-letter expression sprung “Freak out!” Adding Tony Thompson on drums, the cool voices of Luci Martin and Alfa Anderson, handclaps, keyboards, and the Chic strings, the resulting single—“Le Freak”—sold more than six million copies upon its release and held the number one spot on the pop charts for five weeks in December 1978. Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards had turned misfortune into insurmountable riches.
Chic’s two-disc installment on Atlantic/Rhino’s Definitive Groove series serves up other such indispensable sleights of hand by the master architects of sophisticated grooves. More than a few Chic compilations have populated the CD age, including the very perfect Very Best of Chic (2000), but this long-overdue collection is the first to group the album-length versions of Chic’s hits with a satisfying array of their more challenging material.
The galloping bass line of Bernard Edwards introduced Chic to the world in 1977. For eight glorious minutes, “Dance, Dance, Dance”, the leading track from Chic’s self-titled debut album, pulsated on a relentless 4/4 disco beat. The coy “yowsah” reference from They Shoot Horses Don’t They (1969), the Sidney Pollack film about Depression-era dance marathons, captured the spirit of all night dancing rituals celebrated by the denizens of discotheques. “Everybody Dance”, the follow-up single, was equally as bracing with its command to the dance floor and Edwards’ awe-inspiring fretwork.
Whereas the first two singles were bass-centric, the hit singles off Chic’s second album, C’est Chic, showcased the deft axemanship of Nile Rodgers, possibly one of the most underappreciated rhythm guitarists in the history of popular music. It is easy to take for granted that the opening groove to “Le Freak” is driven solely by his guitar riff. The break mid-way through “I Want Your Love” also reverberates with Rodgers’ Midas touch and propelled the tune to #7 on the pop charts in early 1979.
Yet Rodgers and Edwards were also capable of crafting exquisite ballads, which Definitive Groove serves in generous portions. “At Last I Am Free”, though overlong, falls into the “hidden gem” category of Chic’s catalog. Its dreamy ambiance is a welcome reprieve from the upbeat material that dominates disc one of this collection. “Savoir Faire”, another cut from C’est Chic, is a gorgeous, down-tempo instrumental wrapped in the band’s trademark rhythmic shifts, which would later serve Diana Ross well on the Chic-produced diana (1980).
“Will You Cry (When You Hear This Song) ”—chronologically out of sequence on disc two—is not only a contender for Chic’s greatest ballad but also represents Rodgers and Edwards’ artistic peak on the Risqué (1979) album. In the preceding year, the duo honed their songwriting chops on their productions for Norma Jean, by former Chic vocalist Norma Jean Wright, and We Are Family by Sister Sledge (the latter single-handedly catapulted the four sisters from Philadelphia to mainstream and critical success). Because of the producers’ disciplined and prolific work in 1978, nary a dud appears on Risqué. In retrospect, “Good Times”, the most timeless of Chic’s tunes, signals the burgeoning appreciation and respect that Rodgers and Edwards were earning among a diverse listening audience. The members of Queen politely asked permission to appropriate Edwards’ bass line on “Good Times” for “Another Ones Bites the Dust” (the second of two number ones from Queen’s ‘80 smash, The Game) and Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight” ensured that long after disco’s alleged death, Edwards’ bass line would live on through a legion of MCs and rappers.
Concomitant with giving Diana Ross the most commercially successful album of her career, Rodgers and Edwards ushered in the ‘80s with Real People. The songs on Chic’s fourth album explored the thematic tension between the hedonistic lifestyle they aspired to on “Good Times” and the vacuity of that lifestyle. “I’m so tired of hypocrisy and why these folks even bother me” was far removed from the carefree sentiments of “clams on the half shell and roller skates”. In just under a year, however, the disco market had imploded and Chic’s core audience didn’t want to “freak out” so much anymore. Thus, an edgier, funkier sound dominated Real People, best exemplified by Rodgers’ searing solo on the title track.
The focus on Chic’s post-disco career is what makes Definitive Groove an essential collection. To know the complete Chic story is to hear Rodgers and Edwards mirror each other’s funkified riffs on “Rebels Are We” (Chic’s last Top 10 R&B hit) or Fonzi Thornton lead “You Can’t Do It Alone” with, arguably, the most soulful vocal performance in the entire Chic catalog. Chic’s story has its share of low points too, such as regrettable tripe like “26”. Their early ‘80s work is best defined as a scattershot attempt to be mainstream and avant-garde at once. Take It Off (1981) featured first-class Chic funk on “Stage Fright” but languished in a thick haze on “Just Out of Reach” and “Flash Back”. Reaching into Rick James’ bag of vocal mannerisms, Nile Rodgers gave a rare lead vocal on “Your Love is Cancelled”. It’s essential listening, if only for its unabashed quirkiness. Ignore the lyrics and marvel at the friction generated by Thompson on drum and Edwards on bass. (“Hangin’”, from 1982’s Tongue in Chic, is less charming with an obvious nod towards the Gap Band and Midnight Star.)
The songs on Believer (1983) were an unfortunate signal that Chic was still trying to cultivate a currency with an audience that long abandoned them. The synthesized productions and robotically sung choruses on the title track and “You Are Beautiful” contrasted severely with elegant, four-year old masterpieces like “My Forbidden Lover”. Perhaps because Edwards and Rodgers were beginning to branch out individually with other artists explains why Believer lacked cohesion. It effectively closed the chapter on Chic…until 1992.
During the early ‘90s, disco underwent a resurgence and the time was ripe for Rodgers and Edwards to reunite Chic, albeit without the original vocalists. Chic-ism may not have launched the full-fledged comeback that the duo hoped for, but it did return Chic to the clubs. The elements that made C’est Chic so original, yet were so absent on Believer, were intact on Chic-ism and landed “Chic Mystique” the top spot on the Billboard Dance charts. Long out of print, Chic-ism is represented here by “Chic Mystique” and “Your Love”. Sadly, any hopes of a follow-up studio album were detoured by Bernard Edwards’ untimely death in 1996 and Tony Thompson’s passing in 2003.
However, the music of Chic continues to inspire and Definitive Groove is the best place to become acquainted with Chic’s legacy. For fans and newcomers, and even those who might have dismissed Chic’s work in the past, this collection is nothing short of revelatory …and that’s something to dance about.