Real People: Chic in the ’80s

How the storied dance group dealt with the death of disco.

The headline of Paul Grein’s interview with Bernard Edwards and Nile Rodgers in the December 15, 1979 issue of Billboard said it all: “New Chic Game Plan: No Disco.” Bassist Edwards and guitarist Rodgers were partners in songwriting, arranging, and leading the band that had spent three years apotheosizing the disco style. They planned to “get back to writing heavier ballads, rock, and R&B,” said Edwards. They’d already been working on their next single for a while; at one point a Bette Midler collaboration was on the table. “We wanted to work with a white artist so people could stop tagging us as black producers or disco producers,” Rodgers said. “You can't make any money with that label.” Edwards added: “The public puts you in a category and decides that you're a disco group, so obviously if disco dies you have to be concerned.”

The idea that disco “died” has undergone a lot of revisionism over the years; 35 years later we take for granted the acceleration of the pop-culture timeline, and the idea that trend cycles moved much more slowly then. But this wasn’t a case of Chic reinventing themselves after several years dormant – the band was ditching disco a mere four months past their most recent number one U.S. pop hit “Good Times” (from the comparably successful album Risqué). Yet the need to push past public perception was paramount – the record’s week at the top had come a mere month after the infamous Disco Demolition Night at Chicago’s Comiskey Park. That event was the first domino in the U.S. music biz’s wholesale divestment of “disco” – never mind that many of its biggest successes over the next few years, from Flashdance to Thriller, were disco in all but name.

Diana Ross - I'm Coming Out

In fact, many chart-topping tracks were direct byproducts of the Chic Organization (Rodgers’ and Edwards’ production umbrella), from “Rapper’s Delight” (a Top 40 U.S. hit and number one elsewhere) to David Bowie and Madonna’s mid-’80s smashes. But things completely cooled off – fell off, if you prefer – for the Chic Organization in 1980. That year they helmed four albums – including Sheila & B. Devotion’s King of the World, Sister Sledge’s Love Somebody Today, and Chic’s own Real People – but the only hit was Diana Ross’s Diana, and even that one had been taken out of their hands and remixed by Motown. Edwards and Rodgers’ original mix was finally released as part of Diana’s “Deluxe Edition” in 2003, and no wonder Motown balked: It’s a defiant left turn for both artist and producers, Ross sounding husky and defiant, the instrumental tracks heavy on solos, the whole thing weirdly aggressive. If anything, Motown’s official version – Diana’s singing metronomic, the arrangements streamlined – sounds more like classic Chic than the record Chic actually made, which sounded as if Bernard and Nile had elected not to release “Le Freak” but its original draft, “Ahh, Fuck Off!” (See part one of Rodgers’ RBMA lecture, beginning at 2:04:00.)

Disco Chic promised transcendence, even when they were being tongue-in-cheek. Post-disco Chic made no such promises. It mocked the very concept.

So call the four band albums that followed Risqué, Chic’s “wilderness period.” That’s certainly the way Rodgers seems to think of them. (Edwards died of pneumonia in 1996; drummer Thompson of cancer in 2003.) “Chic soon lost its footing and we broke one of our promises to each other: Never use our music for direct protest,” writes Rodgers in his 2011 autobiography. “We couldn’t do that very well, because it wasn’t what Chic stood for… We were angry. It didn’t matter. Our band was over commercially.”

Rodgers takes clear pride in his role as a hitmaker, and he should; from “Dance, Dance, Dance (Yowsah, Yowsah, Yowsah)” to “Get Lucky,” few have put their names on as many truly great pop records. If anyone deserves a triumphant narrative it’s Nile, but he does himself and his listeners a disservice by leaving Chic’s early ’80s work out of his canon. If anything, those four albums aren’t an anomaly, but a major part of what made Chic great – a body of work equal to the band’s ’70s records, with a crucial difference: Disco Chic promised transcendence, even when they were being tongue-in-cheek. Post-disco Chic made no such promises. It mocked the very concept.

Chic - Real People

What better way to flee “disco” than by taking a torch to it? Real People has no characters, no overarching narrative, yet it sounds like a concept album. Betrayal was already key to earlier Chic songs – see Risqué’s “My Forbidden Lover” (“And the lies – whew! – those alibis”) and “Will You Cry?” (“The camel’s back broke tonight / It’s too late to try”) – but on Real People, it’s front and center. Moreover, even when the narrators are seduced by that two-facedness, they call it bullshit more plainly than ever. “They receive you readily and will deceive you dreadfully / Oh yes, it’s a reality,” Alfa Anderson sings on the title track, vowing to “Make all these phony relationships dissolve.” On “I’ve Got Protection,” Luci Martin chides a would-be lothario: “You’ve fooled them all / But that won’t last forever,” then demands he go to the doctor (“You’ve got to pass my inspection”). It’s about disco-era VD, but it also looks ahead to AIDS, the horror headed down the hedonist block.

The album’s leadoff, “Open Up,” is a paradox – it’s rhythmically snappy as always, but rather than expansive it’s as sealed as a boil-in-the-bag dinner. The strings are savory, not sweet; on the bridge they saw away alongside Nile’s guitar, whose jazzy filigrees, sophisticated and fist-tight, bring the section to a piquant close. It’s not so much a duet as a duel – and it establishes that Rodgers’ instrument is in fighting mode, something that carries over to much of Chic’s ’80s catalog. Instead of riffing off chords until they take flight (see Norma Jean’s “I Like Love” from 1978, the greatest Chic breakdown not named “Good Times”), Rodgers steps out while Edwards holds down the bottom; only on “Open Up” (clean and jazzy) and the closer “You Can’t Do It Alone” (flamenco-inflected acoustic outro) are the tone of his solos not dirtied up, their grit showing through the finery.

Chic - You Can't Do It Alone

Real People’s ballads, “You Can’t Do It Alone” and “I Loved You More,” are the album’s twin anchors – understated, devastated, not an eyebrow cocked – laying bare the dark side of disco’s dream of nonstop leisure and pleasure. “Seems like we all live all alone, for ourselves,” Martin sings tremulously on “I Loved You More”; “You Can’t Do It Alone” answers with its opening line, crooned by longtime Chic backing singer Fonzi Thornton: “The Me Decade is gone.” Real People is about the sensation of waking up after the party’s over and realizing that just about everyone there is somebody you dislike. It’s about owning up to the truth, as on the most classically Chic-sounding track “26,” with the smoky-voiced Edwards stepping to the microphone to admit: “I haven’t known too many women / Throughout my less-than-industrious career.”

America hated disco so much by the time Real People came out that it didn’t even want to hear disco’s greatest band rebuke the genre.

Those lines point to another reason for Chic’s commercial downfall: Edwards and Rodgers’ new lyrical communitarianism may have been anti-’70s, but it was also definitively post-’60s. The ’80s rejected ’70s fashions, including the social progressivism that flowered under JFK, LBJ, and even Nixon. Ronald Reagan’s election pointed the way to an even more selfish time to come, and the humility Nile and Bernard were now in favor of was so not ’80s. Besides, no one needed to advertise that the party was over. America hated disco so much by the time Real People came out that it didn’t even want to hear disco’s greatest band rebuke the genre.

As it turned out, Chic never risked another album as bold, under their names or anybody else’s. Besides, the big-band funk that was the other side of disco’s coin was also falling from favor. Young bloods like Prince and Rick James were making rawer-sounding records, a sound dubbed “naked funk” by R&B historian Rickey Vincent. Strings were out, synthesizers were in, and from the title on down, 1981’s Take It Off followed suit. It pretty much had to: Brilliant as it was (and in their catalog, only Risqué equals it), Real People was a dead end. Disco’s nonstop party had to end, and simpler pleasures beckoned.

Chic - Stage Fright

If the touch on Take It Off is light, Edwards, Rodgers, and Thompson’s playing is still meaty, particularly on the straight funk of “Stage Fright” and “Burn Hard,” a showpiece whose vocals are there to cheer the band on (“Slap your bass, burn hard”). That restraint also buoyed the album’s more overt melancholy. Though the Anderson and Martin-led refrain on “Flash Back” asserts that “The reason for the pleasing was the teasing” (translation to discophobes: “It’s the grooves, dummy”), Edwards’ husky opening lines are outright wistful: “Making love and dance was all we’d do,” he croons, the backlash’s wounds still fresh. The ballad “Just Out of Reach” lives up to its title with Rodgers’ near-gossamer plucking (not counting the swooping sax solo) and a lyric to match: “I want a love that’s / Mine all mine, all the time / You keep it just out of reach.” It sounds less like Chic than something from their onetime backing singer Luther Vandross, only warier. Only the ultra-arch “Your Love Is Canceled,” with its art-rocky start-stop structure and Rodgers nasal intonation could have made it onto Real People, though it’s closer in tone to early Talking Heads.

Edwards had told Grein that he and Rodgers were ready to compose for the movies as well as other bands. The latter proved a stumbling block in 1981, the year their album projects with Aretha Franklin and Johnny Mathis were both shelved. A few Mathis tracks surfaced decades later, proving them an intriguingly off-center match: both sides are plush, but the singer’s too plummy for the music’s citrus bite. One album that did see release was the Rodgers-helmed KooKoo, Deborah Harry’s unsatisfying first album away from Blondie.

They got their chance at a soundtrack after Take It Off, for the slight 1982 comedy Soup for One – half previously released tracks (Sister Sledge among them) and half new ones. Chic producing Teddy Pendergrass sounds more combustible than it actually is: “Dream Girl” is a meandering mid-tempo ballad, and while Pendergrass is his usual intense self, there’s not enough for him to tense against. Fonzi Thornton’s “I Work for a Living” is a likeable showcase but not much more. The one collaboration that takes off is the least likely: Carly Simon’s “Why” is an arresting détente between a Caribbean-tinged beatbox-sounding rhythm and Simon’s surprisingly raw nerves; her voice seems to freeze in the air.

Chic - Soup For One

Synthesizers are at the fore of Chic’s title track, one of their most stylishly off-kilter songs – later the source for Modjo’s pop-house smash “Lady (Give Me Tonight),” and one of the only post-Risqué songs Rodgers has performed live with Chic’s post-Edwards roadshow configuration. (“It’s no ‘Good Times,’” wrote Billboard, “but then you try writing a song for a movie called Soup for One.”) Even more lovely is “Tavern on the Green.” It’s Rodgers solo acoustic, unobtrusively embellished by what sounds like synth-woodwinds – they’re playing in circles, like he’d been woodshedding with the self-titled Penguin Café Orchestra album.

If Take It Off consciously strips the Chic sound down, 1982’s Tongue in Chic is where the new model loosens up. The B-side sounds like a grab bag: “Sharing Love” is a pleasant sigh, “Chic (Everybody Say)” an in-concert update of C’est Chic’s “Chic Cheer.” But the first three songs may constitute the band’s most powerful vinyl Side A, each track building richly on the last.

Hangin’” features Nile’s tautest lead riff since “Good Times” and his most swinging since “Est-Ce Que C’est Chic,” from the band’s debut; his understated and jazzy solo rubs nicely against tart synth-horns. “I Feel Your Love Comin’ On” features a show-stopping start, an a cappella chorus leading into Thompson’s most thunderous drum intro ever – a DJ weapon par excellence, as James Murphy and Pat Mahoney demonstrated in 2007 on their FabricLive 36 mix. (For some unfathomable reason, Rodgers put Dimitri from Paris’s remix of this track – which cuts Thompson’s stark paradiddles – on The Chic Organization Vol. 1 box set instead of the original.) And “When You Love Someone” might be the greatest of all Chic ballads: Martin at her most tremulous, the band at its most carefully paced, switching over to sharp funk for the last two minutes while maintaining the mood, well-crafted to its last note.

Around the time of Tongue in Chic’s November 1982 release, Rodgers met David Bowie at an underground bar and they spent the whole night gabbing about music; within a few months they camped out at New York’s Power Station studio and cut Bowie’s Let’s Dance in less than three weeks. The album’s booming sound, particularly the boxy drums – which, as Rodgers told an audience at the 2010 Pop Conference in Seattle, was inspired by the third Peter Gabriel album – defined mid-’80s pop much the way “Dance, Dance, Dance” did the late ’70s, and gave Rodgers his long-awaited entrée to the rock & roll big time.

Let's Dance came out in April 1983; that September, Rodgers went back to the Power Station to cut “Original Sin” with Australian rockers INXS. A year later, he produced Madonna’s “Like a Virgin” – six weeks at #1 in the States, just like “Le Freak” six years before. Edwards didn’t produce Let’s Dance or Like a Virgin, but he played sessions for them, and would soon be making hits for others as well – notably Diana Ross’s “Swept Away” and Robert Palmer’s “I Didn’t Mean to Turn You On.”

Madonna - Like a Virgin

The Chic Organization duo were going their separate ways, so it’s little wonder that the final Chic album, 1983’s Believer, sounds so flat. It’s their synth album, with the same processed sound as Let’s Dance, and like much of Soup for One they adapt awkwardly to the new technology – too often the drum machine percussion sounds pasted on. Still, the title song and the soulful “Give Me the Lovin’” rouse some of the band’s old fire. “Believer,” in fact, is more overtly combative than anything they’d done since Real People, albeit far more playful: “Stand back-to-back, believer / Meet head-to-head / Fight toe-to-toe, believer / Dance cheek-to-cheek.” The last line had some of the old DHM (deep hidden meaning) that Rodgers and Edwards had vowed to inject into Chic’s songs when they started the band – kernels of meaning or intention that later creators might dub “Easter eggs.”

“By [1983] ‘dance’ was a loaded word for me,” says Rodgers in Le Freak. “The Disco Sucks backlash had given me a post-traumatic-stress-like disorder, and I’d vowed not to write any songs with that word in them for a long time.” Or at least not in a celebratory way. “I thought maybe now was a good time to reclaim a word that was already mine as much as anyone else’s,” he wrote. “Still, I was nervous about the ‘D’ word, because while I didn’t want to leave the word around for someone to steal, I didn’t want to be seen as a one-trick pony either. It helped that my name wasn’t on the album cover: As a well-regarded white rocker, David [Bowie] had the freedom to use the word if he wanted. And when David said, ‘Let’s dance,’ no one ran into the streets to set records on fire.”

By Michaelangelo Matos on October 28, 2014

On a different note