Last week, I was lucky enough to get a copy of Nile Rodgers new autobiography Le Freak: An Upside Down Story of Family, Disco and Destiny which was truly, a fascinating read. It dealt with not just his music career, but his early family life. Now I’ve many similar books over the years, but Niles is an incredible read. Some of the stories of his early life in particular, are quite disturbing. That he’s managed to overcome some troubled and turbulent times, including ill-health as a child, family break-ups and he and his family being terrorized by an unhinged hit-man to become one of the most talented musicians, songwriters, arrangers and producers of the past forty years is testament to Niles drive and determination. What was most interesting for me, was how he goes about writing songs, the technical aspects of the music, especially when it comes to arranging and producing songs. It’s especially interesting to hear how he and Bernard Edwards with whom he founded Chic, took an idea for a song and managed to transform it into a fully fledged musical masterpiece. Their attitude to the songwriting process was quite a unique one. In the book, he describes how the idea for songs like Dance, Dance, Dance (Yowsah, Yowsah, Yowsah), Le Freak and We Are Family came about. However, one of the best stories in the book, how one of the songs on Real People came about.
The song was Rebels Are We, which was written as a result of Niles and Bernard being invited to the Cashbox magazine music industry party. After the plush dinner, both Niles and Bernard noticed that nobody was yet dancing in the adjacent disco. They decided to be the first people to take the plunge and head onto the dance-floor. Once there, nobody joined them. They were the only people who spent time on the dance-floor. Why was this? Well, at this time, the Disco Sucks movement was gathering steam, with The Knack’s single My Sharona being deemed the savior of music. At the Cashbox event, it seemed none of the music executives were willing to have anything do with music that was remotely connected to disco. They were even unwilling to enter the dance-floor, for fear of having to pass underneath the sign that said the word disco. After the party, Niles and Bernard headed home, where they broke one of their musical golden rules, never use their music for direct protest.
Using what they witnessed at the Cashbox dinner, they harnessed their anger and frustration into what they did best, writing songs. What emerged was Rebels Are We which would the first single taken from Chic’s next album Real People. This was just Chic’s fourth album. Chic released in November 1977 had reached number twenty-seven in the US Billboard 200, number twelve in the US R&B Charts and been certified gold. C’est Chic their second album, released in August 1978, fared even better reaching number four in the US Billboard 200, number one in the US R&B Charts and been certified platinum in the US. It was Chic’s first big album in the UK, reaching number two and being certified gold. Risque was the album that preceded Real People, and was released in July 1979, reaching number five in the US Billboard 200, number two in the US R&B Charts and been certified platinum in the US. In the UK, it reached number twenty-nine, and was certified silver. Now that the Disco Sucks movement was gathering popularity how would Real People fare when it was released?
Real People was released in June 1980, by Atlantic Records, reaching just number thirty in the US Billboard 200 and number eight in the US R&B Charts. This time there were no gold or platinum discs for Real People, with Chic’s popularity seemingly on the wane. The irony was that Chic never considered themselves a disco band. They felt their music had more in common with groups like The Fatback Band, Kool and The Gang, Brass Construction and Crown Heights Affair, who were essentially jazz-funk and R&B groups who just happened to write and record dance records. That this was and always has been the case, passed everyone by, including record company executives, disc jockeys and the record buying public. When the two singles were released from Real People, neither fared well. Rebels Are We, written after the Cashbox dinner reached number sixty-one in the US Billboard 100, number eight in the US R&B Charts. Real People didn’t even do as well as Rebels Are We, reaching just number seventy-nine in the US Billboard 100, number fifty-one in the US R&B Charts. Although this was just three years after the six-million selling, triple-platinum single Le Freak, it must have felt like a lifetime ago for Niles and Bernard. After all, both the singles Rebels Are We and Real People, plus the album Real People, all featured some great music from Chic. Sadly, they’d been the victims of two things, small minded, musical zealots and changes in musical fashions. However, did Real People deserve to do so badly, or was this just another innovative and quality album by Chic, that suffered because of the change in musical tastes?
Real People opens with Open Up, an instrumental track and the first of the eight Niles Rodgers and Bernard Edwards tracks on the album. It opens up with the trademark lush swirling strings, accompanying the rhythm section of Bernard on bass and Tony Thompson on drums, while Niles guitar chimes and shimmers at a similar breakneck as ‘Nard’s bass. The interplay between the pair in incredible, they’re locked into a groove, ‘Nard using his usual chucking bass style, while Niles sets of lays down some jazzy licks on guitar. All this is set against a backdrop of these grand, swirling strings which dominate the track from start to finish. Over nearly four minutes, Niles and ‘Nard prove that they’re far more than a disco band, laying down a groove that’s tinged in jazz, accurately and brilliantly played at an almost breakneck speed. This is quite simply their Le Freak to those who dared call them just a disco band.
The second single released from Real People was the title track Real People. As the track opens, Niles lays down a post-disco, searing rocky guitar solo above the rhythm section. This gives way to the punchy united vocals of Alfa Anderson and Luci Martin, who each take turns of delivering the lead vocal. Behind then, the interplay between Niles’ guitar and ‘Nard’s guitar, is fast and intricate, the guitar quivering and shimmering, while strings sweep dramatically in. Stabs of piano punctuate the track, and later, Niles’ drenches the arrangement with a prolonged soaring guitar solo that dominates everything. It fits in well with the rest of the arrangement, adding an energy and dynamic sound to an energy that features bursts of drama throughout. Although the track is quite different to much of their previous music, this post-disco sound a fusion of jazz, funk and even rock music, which they marry together majestically.
I Loved You More is a lovely slow track, that opens with a piano playing thoughtfully, before lush strings float in, giving way to the tender lead vocal. It’s accompanied by the rhythm section playing carefully as Alfa sings how she loved her former partner more than he loved her, and how she’s still not over him, thinking of him and their times together. By then, strings inject brief bursts of drama, as do the drums. Adding to the drama is a slow, searing, soaring rocky guitar from Niles, as he accentuates the notes, playing sparingly but with accuracy. By the time his guitar solo finishes, all that’s left is Alfa to deliver the closing line “I loved you more,” as this drama laden, sad and emotional ballads ends.
Side one of Real People closes with I Got Protection, another track that showcases the talents of Chic as musicians. Like Open Up, there’s a jazz influence to the track, when you listen to the rhythm section and Niles’ guitar playing. Sometimes, a funk influence shines through, especially with ‘Nard’s chucking bass style. Strings grandly, swirl, while stabs of piano punctuate the sound. In front of the arrangement are the sweet, but punchy vocals, which sometimes, have a defiant sound. Later, Niles decides to unleash another one of his soaring rocky solo, which sits above an arrangement that’s awash with a jazz and funk influence. When Niles and ‘Nard combine all this, the result is an infectious sounding and hook-laden dance track.
Side two opens with Niles and ‘Nard’s protest song Rebels Are We, which they wrote after the Cashbox music dinner, when they realized that the music industry that grew rich on disco, were now deserting disco, becoming scared to be associated with anything that vaguely resembled, or was connected to it. Rebels Are We was Chic’s response to the evening, with Niles and ‘Nard cast as the “brave rebels” in the song’s lyrics. From the opening bars, when grand swirling strings are accompanied by the rhythm section and guitars before the lead vocal enters, Niles and ‘Nard use their music brilliantly to make their point and protest. Against a backdrop that includes funky breakdowns, handclaps, chiming, soaring guitars and the lushest of strings, Chic proceed to give a musical masterclass taking in jazz, funk, disco and shades of rock music. Delivering their message are their secret weapons, the sweet, but punchy vocals of Alfa and Luci. Like smiling assassins they deliver the lyrics beautifully, while Niles, ‘Nard and the rest of Chic provide the soundtrack for their brilliant protest track.
Chip Off the Old Block is another track that sees a fusion of a variety of musical genres to create one track. During the track, jazz and funk are the primary musical influences, with the lush strings of the “disco years,” providing a vital ingredient. All of this is delivered in short, sharp bursts by Alfa and Lucy. When you listen carefully to the track, it’s as if Niles and ‘Nard have decided to prove that they’re not one trick disco ponies, and deliver at breakneck speed, some hugely intricate, jazz licks, through in an equal measure of funk, and of course, add to this The Chic Strings. Then, when placed in the hands of two of the best arrangers and producers of the time, Niles and ‘Nard, the result is Chip Off the Old Block, five minutes of the most intricate, frantically, fast funk and jazz music that sounds delicious, when served up with a side serving of the lushest, swirling strings.
26 is probably the most different song on the album. Alfa and Luci punchily, sing “that my baby is 26 on a scale of 1 to 10.” This they do against a backdrop of driving rhythm section, chiming guitars and drama drenched strings before the lead vocal changes hands, with Niles taking his turn to sing lead, singing about a similarly irresistible woman he knows. Like before, he delivers the lyrics against a backdrop that sweeps along with strings and guitar playing an important part in the gorgeous arrangement. Both Alfa and Luci’s delivery is in a post-disco style, delivered in short, sharp bursts, with a punchy style. This works well, and although it’s a very different sounding vocal delivery, it still retains the trademark Chic arrangement from Niles and ‘Nard which really lifts the track.
Real People closes with You Can’t Do It Alone which opens with drums playing slowly, guitars signal the arrival of Fonzi Thornton’s lead vocal. Against a sparse arrangement, where the rhythm section and guitars dominate the arrangement, Fonzi tells his girlfriend to go out find herself, find what she’s looking for, and live her life to the full. He then tells her that she can’t do it alone, she’ll need a home and anyway, is it worth losing her lover to find herself? These are some of the best lyrics on the album, delivered with emotion and passion by Fonzi. This is sung against the sparsest arrangement on the album, one that features a lovely Spanish guitar solo towards the end played by Niles, a classically trained guitarist. It’s a lovely way to end Real People, with a beautiful, tender track that makes you think.
In a recent article on Sister Sledge’s fourth album Love Somebody Today, the second Sister Sledge album produced by Niles Rodgers and Bernard Edwards, I mentioned how that album’s sales had been affected by the Disco Sucks backlash. Sadly, the same musical zealots small mindedness actions affected the sales of Chic’s fourth album Real People, an album full of great music that demonstrates the versatility of Chic. What’s more disturbing is that the record industry ruthlessly cast aside anyone or anything that had been connected to disco. One group that will be forever be associated with disco are Chic. That’s ironic, given that their music had much more in common with other musical genres jazz and funk especially. What I find priceless though, is when people were lining up against either disco or the next supposed savior of music The Knack, the experts in the music industry decided to side with The Knack. Who I hear you ask? Exactly. Whereas Chic’s music is still hugely popular, and perceived as innovative and influential, The Knack’s music is largely forgotten, and is a mere footnote in musical history. Even though sales of Real People suffered from the disco backlash, the music on the album is of the usual high standard you’d expect from Chic. On the album, Niles and Bernard demonstrated their virtuoso style and versatility, on eight tracks that’s a fusion of jazz, funk and a smattering of rock music. After Real People, Chic’s popularity declined, never again reaching the heights of their first three albums. As Chic’s popularity declined, Niles Rodgers reinvented himself as one of the most in-demand producers in the music industry, producing everyone from Diana Ross to Madonna, and everyone in between. However, regardless of his later success as a producer, he’ll always be best remembered for Chic, and the brilliant music he created with his musical partner Bernard Edwards. Standout Tracks: Open Up, Real People, Rebels Are We and Chip Off the Old Block.