Gone but not forgotten, Sampled

Sound Affects

There are a million bits in records – not necessarily the whole track – that stick in the brain and when re-heard trigger some sort of euphoric high in the brain. Off the top of my head, the galloping acoustic rush as Johnny Marr leads The Smiths into Bigmouth Strikes Again, The Clash going full pelt on White Riot, the popping bass intro to Sly & The Family Stone’s I Get High On You, the 14th fret D chord that fills every second line in Rip It Up, Liz Fraser’s voice on Song To The Siren, the gear-changing riff on The Breeder’s Cannonball, the stomping goosestep that opens Holidays In The Sun, the wild-eyed storm at the end of The Beatles’ Helter Skelter, the clattering industrial funk that holds Happy Mondays’ Mad Cyril loosely together, the bit in I Am The Resurrection when Mani’s riff kicks in and the whole band head off into an episode of Starsky & Hutch for 5 minutes, Marvin Gaye’s ‘Up early in the morning!’ when the Funk Brothers momentarily drop out on Can I Get A Witness.….That 10 Favourite Albums thing that’s doing the rounds just now on Facebook is good fun ‘n all, but if you were to ask me my 10 favourite bits in music, I reckon I’d be at it, one a day, for months on end. And I’m sure any of you reading this would be similarly challenged.

There’s no doubt though (this week at any rate) that the sound of Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards playing together is just about my favourite sound in music. Nile, with his chattering funk guitar, all major 7ths with extra pinky action, found the perfect foil in Bernard (pronounced with the emphasis on the 2nd syllable – it rhymes with ‘hard’ (just like those bass lines he plays)), a seasoned jazz player who ran up, down and across the 4 strings under his fingers with an effortless glide. When the pair of them lock into a groove it’s like an old married couple nattering over the kitchen table, Nile leading the conversation with positive excitement, Bernard uhm-ing and ah-ing in contended agreement.

Listen to their playing on Sister Sledge‘s Thinking Of You.

Sister SledgeThinking Of You

Rodgers’ idea for Chic was always that they’d be a hit-making machine writing songs for others as well as themselves. They’d have their own act, Chic, who took their cue from Roxy Music by dressing to the nines and fronting the band with a couple of glamorous females who wouldn’t have looked out of place on a Roxy album sleeve. Chic ran up all manner of hit singles; Le Freak, Everybody Dance, I Want Your Love….. and when Nile and Bernard weren’t guiding them to chart success they were busy helping others fill the gaps in the charts they’d just vacated.

The Chic Organisation played on all manner of records, a disco-era house band akin to the Funk Brothers at Motown or the Wrecking Crew in LA. And the best thing about those Chic Organisation records is that every one of them sounded exactly like Chic themselves.

Take the Sister Sledge record above. It opens with that none-more-recognisable Rodgers’ guitar sound, played high up the frets on the first 3 or 4 strings, simple enough to listen to but devilishly difficult to play with the same bounce as its writer. When Edwards’ bass comes in along with the vocals, the whole thing takes off in airy abandon.

“Everybody, let me tell you ’bout my love,

Brought to you, by an angel up above….”

And away we go. Strings sweep up and down, the bass drops in and out, congas and pitched percussion keep the whole thing groovy and the sisters Sledge sashay on the spot, ice-cool four-part harmonies and backing vocals from beginning to end. The Chic Organisation thought the finished track was just OK and stuck it on a b-side. A b-side! The a-side? That would be Lost In Music.

Thinking Of You finally gained chart success in 1984 when a down on their luck Sister Sledge were releasing records to ever-diminishing returns and some clever soul at the record company pointed out that that old b-side from 5 years ago hadn’t been too bad after all. By this point, Rodgers was working with Bowie and Madonna, his sound forever in demand. Listen to Let’s Dance or Like A Virgin and you’ll hear his clipped guitar all over the records like a happy rash. Not for nothing has he nicknamed his white Strat ‘The Hitmaker’.

Nile of course is everywhere nowadays, front and centre stage, in a forever-touring version of Chic. “No, it’s not the same musicians,” he’ll happily tell you, “but no-one complains when they go to hear a Mozart piano concerto and ol’ Wolfgang fails to turn up.”

A few years ago we (I say ‘we‘ – I’m part of a group who put on local gigs) were looking for a headline act. We had enough money for either Nile Rodgers or The Magic Numbers, but not both. Nile lost out on the vote, which greatly upset me…..and the others when he popped up a few months later owning the stage at Glastonbury, at that very moment reborn. Our Magic Numbers gig a few short weeks later was great, but, y’know, not Nile Rodgers great. Nowadays, believe me, you could probably fund a Magic Numbers World tour for less than the cost of putting on Nile for one night. On stage, Nile plays with a smile as wide and long as the zeros on his royalty cheques. And who can grudge the man! He’s survived a very disfunctional childhood. He’s beaten cancer. And he seems like an all-round decent man. If you haven’t already, you really should read his book.

Bonus Tracks

Paul WellerThinking Of You

Taken from his Studio 150 album, clearly a contract-filling album if there ever was one, Weller treats the original with politely-scrubbed acoustic respect but not the required funk.

Sister SledgeThinking Of You (Dmitri From Paris remix)

Dmitri From Paris takes Sister Sledge’s original and turns it into a rolling, soulful house cut. Sensibly, he keeps all of Edwards’ and Rodgers’ parts. There is, after all, some music DNA that you just don’t mess with.

Gone but not forgotten, Hard-to-find, Sampled

It’s Chic Co. Time

Jeez! Plain Or Pan used to be all about Beta Band outtakes and multiple versions of La’s demos, the odd foosty soul survivor and long-forgotten obscurios by long-forgotten oddballs. It still is, of course, but just not today.

I have a long-time love of disco. To these ears, it doesn’t matter that it’s considered kinda naff and uncool, which, when placed next to any amount of other musical bits n’ pieces, it may well be. In the mid-late 70s, when straddled by the ugly, oiky twin-headed monster of glam and punk, it was certainly the musical choice for the straight-laced amongst society. Folk who bought one single a year bought Saturday Night Fever. Folk who bought one single a week owned the entire back catalogues of The Sweet and Sham 69. What I like about disco is the musicality of it all. If the Floyd (man) and Can (man) are head music, disco is most definitely music designed for below the waist. Rock music is, they say, ‘proper’ music. But so is disco! Made on proper instruments and played as well as or even better than the patchouli-smelling long hairs in afghan coats from bygone eras, disco is all about a slick riff, a fluid bassline and a four-to-the-floor, hi-hat enhanced beat that never lets the lyrics get in the way of a good groove.

The difference between rock and disco is that rock music has the virtuosos, the soloists and the guitar heroes. Who’s Pink Floyd’s guitarist? Easy, eh? But if I asked you to tell me who played the slick riffs on Night Fever or Rock Your Baby, chances are you’d be struggling. You could probably have a good stab at naming half the members of Can. But asked to tell me who played the fluid basslines on Car Wash or Young Hearts Run Free and chances are you’d be asking the audience or phoning a friend who answers to the name of Mr Google. Disco, for one reason or other has been ridiculed and put in its place as someway unimportant. Of course there are exceptions to the rule.

Nile Rodgers was developing serious Class A substance abuse at the age most of us are just getting to grips with the technicalities of Eagle-Eyed Action Man. Passed back and forth at a young age from East Coast to West Coast on a succession of Greyhound buses between his drug-addicted prostitute mother and far-off, far-out aunts and uncles on the other side of America, it’s a wonder he thrived at all. But thrive he did. Playing in a variety of  covers acts, reputation enhanced by his ability to read music, fate lead him to Bernard Edwards and eventually Chic were born. It was watching an early Roxy Music show that gave Nile his band’s manifesto: The clothes were as important as the music. The women on the record sleeves would give the band glamourous identity. Chic would be a company. An organization. Singers would come and go, but the core of Rodgers and Edwards would remain the constant. They’d write songs for other artists. They’d discover knew ones. Like an East Coast Family Stone, in sharp suits rather than hippy garb, but fuelled by the same high grade white powders, Chic and their music would rule the world. You know the songs. You know the stories. You can read all about it in Nile’s excellent ‘Le Freak‘ autobiography.

It’s worth noting that the Nile Rodgers’ guitar sound has been appropriated by the musos that form white rock’s guitar untouchables. Edwyn Collins’ blatant homage to the sound can be heard all the way from the opening bars to the fade out of Orange Juice’s Rip It Up (perhaps even more so on the strangulated none-more-80s 12″ mix). Johnny Marr was so enraptured by Nile that he based his guitar line on the second verse of The Boy With The Thorn In His Side on those wee choppy rinky-dink Chicisms. Johnny turned up earlier on in the year playing Le Freak on stage with Nile. And just in case you missed the point, he even named his son Nile. Dance records over the past decade or so, proper dance records, made by machines and everything, often stray close to the Chic sound. Modjo’s Lady for one. Spiller’s Groovejet another. And Stardust’s The Music Sounds Better With You. Chicesque, the three of ’em. Even Da Funk by Daft Punk is built around that clipped guitar sound. Ubiquitous. Is that not what they say?

Here are some of the Chic Organization’s wonderful world-ruling results. Every one features Bernard’s ripe-for-sampling, slap-happy, fluid-as-mercury bassline and Nile’s trademark 3 string rinky-dink guitar, chattering away incessantly in the background like a couple of old ladies clacking their false teeth at one another down the Mecca on a Saturday night. It might just be my favourite sound in music.

ChicGood Times

Norma JeanSorcerer (12″ mix)

Diana RossUpside Down (original Chic mix)

Sister SledgeThinking Of You (Dimitri From Paris mix – officially sanctioned by Chic, it’s a cracker)

Carly SimonWhy (12″ mix)

And the influence of Good Times et al lives on, seemingly forever…