Music

Chic Were the Zenith of Disco

The first three years of the Chic Organization have been spruced up at Abbey Road and housed in a sleek box.

The Chic Organization 1977-1979
Chic

Rhino / Atlantic

23 November 2018

One of the greatest losses I experienced as a result of sustaining injuries in 2012 was dancing. Spinal and feet damage have made it if not quite impossible then certainly much harder to graze a rug, never mind cut it. Listening to the glorious first three years of the Chic Organization's output, as presented in this box, forced me to confront that loss head-on. The best disco, and Chic were sometimes disco even though they transcended it, was highly sensual and absolutely thrilling to dance to. But disco was a very broad church. In its authentic form, whether by Chic or Donna Summer, it was a counter-cultural and streetwise music of shimmering escapism, aspiration and romance.

However, its watered-down, white-washed, lowest-common-denominator form, such as that purveyed by the Village People, was sexlessness set to a 4/4 beat, with a horribly basic up-down marching rhythm for drunk revellers. (The same could be said about what passes for nightclub 'bangers' in today's dance music market.) Listen to the lithe, dotted rhythms conjured by Bernard Edwards and Nile Rodgers, and you'll immediately understand that not all disco was created equal. And then there's the third disco category, of which the less said the better; the opportunistic disco cash-in album made by a non-disco artist. Possibly the only example worth acquiring, just for the sake of camp, is The Ethel Merman Disco Album (A&M, 1979). The rest can be forgotten by all but the most committed devotees of kitsch.

Nile Rodgers is now Chief Creative Advisor at Abbey Road Studios, London. Consequently, the six discs comprising the vinyl version of The Chic Organization 1977-1979 have been half-speed mastered by Miles Showell at that very location. Inside are the first three Chic albums (Chic, C'est Chic, and Risqué), the 1979 breakthrough album from Sister Sledge, We Are Family, plus a collection of Chic single edits and a recreation of Chic's first 12-inch single release on Buddah Records.

The accompanying booklet misses a trick by not being illustrated. It's not as if Chic weren't photogenic, so some picture research wouldn't have gone amiss. But the space is well-used by three contributing writers; Paul Morley, Ashley Kahn, and Touré. For Morley, you have to be in the right mood or his style might irritate you. It strives for poetic turns of phrase and for cool. Cool may be an overrated virtue, but the fact remains that it cannot be acquired – it has to be in you already, and that's where Morley comes unstuck. Khan is more palatable, telling the Chic story in a comparatively straightforward, fact-based manner – it's unfortunate that his essay is not included in the compact disc version of this release. Both Morley and Khan make the astute observation that Chic suffered by being bracketed in a genre which they had sampled but not whole-heartedly joined. Chic weren't a disco group – they were a group that sometimes did disco, but, like their peers, they got caught up in the racist and homophobic 'disco sucks' movement and began struggling to place their singles high in the charts as the 1980s got under way.

Touré calls Chic "the zenith of disco" and makes another crucial observation, namely that the singers in Chic "are like another instrument in the mix; not the dominant force". He couldn't be more right. Part of the magic of classic-era Chic was just that; the exceptional singers (Norma Jean, Alfa Anderson, Fonzi Thornton, and Luci Martin, sometimes augmented by vocalist-legends David Lasley and Luther Vandross) did not showboat. They used minimal melisma. They went for stylish restraint rather than histrionics and emoting. This is exactly what's missing from the 2018 model of Chic, as featured on the new album It's About Time. It's crammed with celebrity guests. Not one of them shows even the slightest inclination to be part of an ensemble. They're STARS and each of them turns in a 'me me me' performance, served up with more ham than an industrial pig farm. That's not the Chic spirit at all. The Chic singers were ego-less and their talent spoke for them. They did not need to go in for 'it's all about me and my big personality!' posturing.

Chic's singles were genius from the outset ("Dance Dance Dance", "Le Freak") but it took them a little while to perfect two other arts; the album track and the down-tempo/ballad form. This is what elevates Risqué above Chic and C'est Chic. Although Rodgers and Edwards never went in for the singles-plus-filler approach to LP-making and all three albums are perfectly paced and start-to-finish enjoyable, it's Risqué that hangs together best. Every track withstands scrutiny and limitless listening. The album's hits ("Good Times", "My Forbidden Lover", "My Feet Keep Dancing") are distilled rapture, but the album tracks ("A Warm Summer Night", "What About Me") more than hold their own.

There's one missed opportunity here; something which, by its presence, would have brought the package closer to the 'complete' Chic Organisation of the '77 to '79 period – the self-titled 1978 solo album from Chic vocalist, Norma Jean. It came out on the Bearsville label which is now administered through Rhino, so it's hard to imagine any bureaucratic barriers preventing its inclusion. The Norma Jean album had at least one classic Chic single, "Saturday", and although it wasn't the Organization's crowning achievement (that prize has to go to Risqué and 1980's Diana), its absence is glaring. The inclusion of Sister Sledge's We Are Family goes some way towards taking the sting out. In essence, it's Chic but with different lead vocalists, and in "He's the Greatest Dancer", "Lost in Music", and "We Are Family", it contains some of 1979's most thrilling singles – frivolous and serious at the same time, like the best Chic always was. The Chic Organization were never consistent with the ballad form, however, and the rather wan, listless "Somebody Loves Me" can't quite achieve lift-off.

So what are the prospects for a followup box? Chic's 1977-1979 output was startlingly good, but genius can only be spread so far. After Risqué there was a slight tailing off not dissimilar to that experienced by Ashford & Simpson around the same time, and possibly for the same reason. Just as A&S were giving some of their strongest material to external productions (in their case, Diana Ross's The Boss and Ullanda McCullough's self-titled second album), so Chic were booked solid with projects and a host of outside albums including another Sister Sledge full-length release plus Debbie Harry's Koo Koo (1981, Chrysalis) and Diana Ross's classic, Diana (1980, Motown). There's still plenty to enjoy on their later albums (e.g., "Rebels Are We" from 1980's Real People), but the thrill isn't there in quite the same measure. Nevertheless, let's hope that this box is the first in a series. Even post-peak, Chic were brilliant. One final word on the presentation of this collection; the outer box goes for elegant simplicity, and the individual albums are presented in recreations of their original inner sleeves. The whole thing looks and, more importantly, sounds great.

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