PopMatters is moving to WordPress. We will publish a few essays daily while we develop the new site. We hope the beta will be up sometime late next week.

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

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.


Please Donate to Help Save PopMatters

PopMatters have been informed by our current technology and hosting provider that we have less than a month, until November 6, to move PopMatters off their service or we will be shut down. We are moving to WordPress and a new host, but we really need your help to save the site.





Gamblers' Michael McManus Discusses Religion, Addiction, and the Importance of Writing Open-Ended Songs

Seductively approachable, Gamblers' sunny sound masks the tragedy and despair that populate the band's debut album.


Peter Guralnick's 'Looking to Get Lost' Is an Ode to the Pleasures of Writing About Music

Peter Guralnick's homage to writing about music, 'Looking to Get Lost', shows how good music writing gets the music into the readers' head.


In Praise of the Artifice in George Cukor's 'Sylvia Scarlett'

George Cukor's gender-bending Sylvia Scarlett proposes a heroine who learns nothing from her cross-gendered ordeal.


The Cure: Ranking the Albums From 13 to 1

Just about every Cure album is worth picking up, and even those ranked lowest boast worthwhile moments. Here are their albums, spanning 29 years, presented from worst to best.


The 20 Best Episodes of 'Star Trek: The Original Series'

This is a timeless list of 20 thrilling Star Trek episodes that delight, excite, and entertain, all the while exploring the deepest aspects of the human condition and questioning our place in the universe.


The 20 Best Tom Petty Songs

With today's release of Tom Petty's Wildflowers & All the Rest (Deluxe Edition), we're revisiting Petty's 20 best songs.

Joshua M. Miller

The 11 Greatest Hits From "Greatest Hits" Compilations

It's one of the strangest pop microcosms in history: singles released exclusively from Greatest Hits compilations. We rounded 'em up and ranked 'em to find out what is truly the greatest Greatest Hit of all.


When Punk Got the Funk

As punks were looking for some potential pathways out of the cul-de-sacs of their limited soundscapes, they saw in funk a way to expand the punk palette without sacrificing either their ethos or idea(l)s.


20 Hits of the '80s You Might Not Have Known Are Covers

There were many hit cover versions in the '80s, some of well-known originals, and some that fans may be surprised are covers.


The Reign of Kindo Discuss Why We're Truly "Better Off Together"

The Reign of Kindo's Joseph Secchiaroli delves deep into their latest single and future plans, as well as how COVID-19 has affected not only the band but America as a whole.


Tommy Siegel's Comic 'I Hope This Helps' Pokes at Social Media Addiction

Jukebox the Ghost's Tommy Siegel discusses his "500 Comics in 500 Days" project, which is now a new book, I Hope This Helps.


Kimm Rogers' "Lie" Is an Unapologetically Political Tune (premiere)

San Diego's Kimm Rogers taps into frustration with truth-masking on "Lie". "What I found most frustrating was that no one would utter the word 'lie'."


50 Years Ago B.B. King's 'Indianola Mississippi Seeds' Retooled R&B

B.B. King's passion for bringing the blues to a wider audience is in full flower on the landmark album, Indianola Mississippi Seeds.


Filmmaker Marlon Riggs Knew That Silence = Death

In turning the camera on himself, even in his most vulnerable moments as a sick and dying man, filmmaker and activist Marlon Riggs demonstrated the futility of divorcing the personal from the political. These films are available now on OVID TV.


The Human Animal in Natural Labitat: A Brief Study of the Outcast

The secluded island trope in films such as Cast Away and television shows such as Lost gives culture a chance to examine and explain the human animal in pristine, lab like, habitat conditions. Here is what we discover about Homo sapiens.


Bad Wires Release a Monster of a Debut with 'Politics of Attraction'

Power trio Bad Wires' debut Politics of Attraction is a mix of punk attitude, 1990s New York City noise, and more than a dollop of metal.


'Waiting Out the Storm' with Jeremy Ivey

On Waiting Out the Storm, Jeremy Ivey apologizes for present society's destruction of the environment and wonders if racism still exists in the future and whether people still get high and have mental health issues.


Matt Berninger Takes the Mic Solo on 'Serpentine Prison'

Serpentine Prison gives the National's baritone crooner Matt Berninger a chance to shine in the spotlight, even if it doesn't push him into totally new territory.

Collapse Expand Reviews

Collapse Expand Features

PM Picks
Collapse Expand Pm Picks

© 1999-2020 PopMatters.com. All rights reserved.
PopMatters is wholly independent, women-owned and operated.