It was 40 years ago that Chic’s monumental song, “Good Times”, began its ascent up Billboard‘s Hot 100 singles chart, reaching the peak of that chart in mid-August 1979. In the summer of 2019, “Good Times” is more relevant than ever.
I often think about “Good Times”. I think it is the most present-tense song ever.
Chances are, people who were alive and remember 1979 don’t look back on the year fondly. Jimmy Carter was president of the United States, and his popularity was plummeting. There were enormous problems, including a major hostage crisis, in the Middle East. An energy crisis in the United States. I could go on. And on.
Disco music was riding high for what would be its final year of chart supremacy. For some, the continued success of disco music represented the worst that 1979 had to offer, musically or otherwise. In fact, on 12 July 1979, as “Good Times” was climbing the charts, hordes of drunken baseball fans smashed thousands of disco records at Comiskey Park in Chicago.
Chic were perhaps the most successful of the disco bands, though their music quite transcended the genre, even if it would take decades for many listeners to figure that out. Coming off a huge hit single in 1978’s “Le Freak”, Chic released its album Risqué early in the summer of 1979. Risqué contained the epic “Good Times”, which was an immediate monster hit.
There is so much to love, musically, about “Good Times”. The song opens with one second of the most gargantuan musical chord you’ll ever hear on an organ, before the trio of Chic musicians-guitarist Nile Rodgers, bassist Bernard Edwards, and drummer Tony Thompson–set the song up with their scientifically precise yet funky interaction. A pianist, whether it be one of the Chic guys or another musician, provides musical accents before singers Alfa Anderson and Luci Martin enter the picture, along with a string section, to declare: “Good. Times. These. Are. The. Good. Times. Leave. Your. Cares. Behind. These. Are. The. Good. Times.”
The excessive punctuation is intentional because the singers make it clear that each of those opening 16 words has equal weight.
Musically that’s the song. The killer bass line by Edwards would inspire two huge hits within a year: Queen’s dynamic disco-rock mash-up, “Another One Bites the Dust”, and Sugarhill Gang’s pioneering “Rapper’s Delight”. When the instrumental breakdown of the extended version of “Good Times” hits, you’ll feel that bass, for sure.
Back in 1979, this deceptively simple set of musical elements may have sounded like yet another here-and-gone disco tune, but there is so much more going on in “Good Times”. The song could be seen to reflect the cocaine-and-Halston culture of 1979 disco New York, as seen and heard at Studio 54. That would be ironic since the members of Chic were not recognized, and apparently denied access to that hallowed hot spot after their earliest success, an incident that provided the songwriting inspiration for “Le Freak”.
“Good Times” isn’t about Studio 54 at all. It isn’t even about 1979. Or Chic. “Good Times” is about living in this moment. Because these. are. the. good. times.
Chic’s songwriting team knew 1979 was not a year of good times when they wrote the song. That might explain why lyrical snippets of Great Depression-era songs, such as “Happy Days Are Here Again” creep into the words of “Good Times”. For all the implicit irony though, and the lines about clams on the half shell and roller skates, the message of the song burns through the sleek arrangement and sly vocals: the present tense, the right now, is what you’ve got, and it’s the only thing you can really be assured you have. What are you going to do about it?
Some people might think of Chic’s “Good Times” as bearing the same message as Kool and the Gang’s “Celebration”. But where that song says, “Celebrate good times,” Chic is saying “THESE are the good times.” There is a difference.
Of course, I didn’t think about “Good Times” this deeply when I first heard it pumping out of a radio in the summer of 1979. I heard it then, I guess, as one of many great pop tunes happening at a time when I was listening to the radio much more than I have at most other periods of my life. I was a kid then, taking in all the pop hits of the day, regardless of genre.
And now we find ourselves in 2019, another weird year. Kind of like 1979, but potentially worse. The kind of year that might make people throw their hands in the air and exclaim, “These are the not-so-good times” like they just don’t care.
But then along comes Chic, sounding fresh and timeless, as they loudly proclaim, “These. Are. The. Good. Times.”
And dammit, Chic is right. Chic was right when they wrote and recorded the song, and I’m sure that Nile Rodgers – the lone survivor of the Rodgers-Edwards-Thompson trio – knows for damn sure that Chic is right today.
Chic is challenging anyone else who cares to listen: “These. Are. The. Good. Times”.
Chic is right. It’s up to all of us to figure out what to do about it.