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When I was a teenager my social life revolved around discos. From the age of 12 I went to Saturday afternoon discos held in my town's ballroom and never missed the regular school discos. If there was an under 18 disco being held in my town I usually knew of it and was going. I even used to go to roller discos held at the town's youth centre because I loved the music and I loved to dance.
I say I loved to dance but not in a strictly choreographed manner - for me a dance was bopping along to the beat of a piece of music which had been written with the sole purpose of getting people on the dancefloor.
For me, the crème de la crème of disco music came from Chic. Their music was deceptively simple - so simple you generally only had to hear their songs once for at least part of it to stick about in your brain. They also exuded an air of class and style - which figured given their name I suppose.
The brains behind Chic were guitarist Nile Rodgers and bassist Bernard Edwards. The two men had met in 1970 as session musicians and had formed a bond which led to them performing with the band New York City in the early part of the decade before forming their own band, called the Big Apple.
Unfortunately for this Big Apple, there was a song climbing the charts called "A Fifth of Beethoven" by Walter Murphy & The Big Apple Band. A name change was in order, and eventually Edwards and Rodgers settled on the name Chic. The rest is history really - within a year Chic had released their first album and were on their way to stardom.
Nile Gregory Rodgers was born in New York City in 1952 and his childhood was somewhat chaotic. His mother was only 13 when he was born and his youth was punctuated by trans-continental trips between New York and Los Angeles , where his grandmothers lived. This was caused by his mother's drug addiction and the early sections of Freak Out describe a childhood which at face value sounds horrific in a matter of fact manner but in a way which leaves the reader in no doubt that there's a hell of a lot of love in his family.
His childhood may have been dysfunctional but he became incredibly independent at an early age, leading to encounters with people such as Timothy Leary and Frank Sinatra way before he got famous.
Rodgers taught himself the guitar and in Le Freak he relates his light bulb moment when his mother's ex boyfriend pointed out his guitar sounded bad because it was out of tune. Once the guitar was tuned, Nile was on his way.
Rodgers describes how his musical knowledge grew over the years, and he cut his teeth as a session guitarist. What he realised quickly was a session musician who can read music has a distinct advantage over those who cannot so he taught himself how to read music. He also tells the reader how the idea for the band which would become Chic evolved. Rodgers had been held over in London following the theft of his passport and a girlfriend took him to see Roxy Music play. Rodgers got the idea in an instant - the happy co-existence of music, style and art - but for a black group.
Rodgers was also inspired by rock band Kiss however, loving the anonymity they had due to the make up they wore - a little like the anonymity of the session musician.
What Rodgers can only speculate on is what made Chic special. He comes across as a rather modest man, but there's no denying that they were incredibly gifted musicians. Although Chic songs sounded quite simple with lyrics which at face value were almost facile, Edwards and Rodgers always strived to get what they called a "deep hidden meaning" into their songs. So while "Good Times" sounds upbeat and has a beat to die for, the song itself was a reflection on how Rodgers and Edwards felt about the economic climate in the US at the time, with the lyrics being inspired by original 1930s depression era songs.
Good Times also featured on the first mainstream rap song, "Rapper's Delight", which features Edwards' bassline on the backing track. Rodgers relates how he discovered the song had been sampled and what happened when he and Edwards sued Sugarhill Records for not including them on the songwriting credits.
The sheer musical talent of Edwards and Rodgers - along with drummer Tony Thompson - is what made Chic special in my opinion. Rodgers was usually the person who started writing the songs but they couldn't be finished without Edwards - a fact Rodgers openly admits. Edwards was one of the best bass players of his generation, and Rodgers states in the book that some of the best rock bass players struggle to play the opening refrain of "Everybody Dance" which is incredibly complex.
Because of Edwards and Rodgers' experience as session musicians they knew the pitfalls of being in the music industry and as such were never ripped off. As a result by the time the seventies came to a close both men were rich beyond their wildest dreams, with Rodgers describing it as being like winning the lottery. By this time Rodgers was a permanent fixture at Studio 54 in New York and his descriptions of some of his antics there are both eye opening and interesting. Rodgers also shows some class by not naming names when he refers to some of the more outrageous behaviour he witnessed there.
It was being refused entry to Studio 54 which led to Rodgers and Edwards writing their biggest hit with Chic, "Le Freak". The chorus wasn't originally "freak out", it was something altogether strongly worded with the same initials, borne of frustration. Once they realised they were onto something, the lyrics were toned down and Chic had a million seller on their hands. Years later the doorman who had refused the group entry into the club contacted Rodgers on Facebook to apologise, an apology Rodgers gracefully accepts.
Unfortunately Rodgers and Edwards had begun a slide into drug addiction and while Rodgers was always able to function, Edwards wasn't as reliable, which led to a slow decline in their working relationship. Together they produced "Diana", the 1980 massive hit album for Diana Ross but as the new decade dawned and the "Disco Sucks" campaign kicked in, the men found themselves going in different directions.
Rodgers does consider the "Disco Sucks" campaign in a measured manner, pointing out how wrong it is to him for someone to blithely dismiss an entire genre . Reading between the lines you get the impression he doesn't want to fall into the trap of saying the campaign was racist, but he probably thinks it was. I have to say my own thoughts on "Disco Sucks" are that the campaign was racist - and homophobic too. Disco wasn't all about the hedonism of those who went to Studio 54 but it was about enjoying yourself as opposed to going to an organised event where people smashed records - and then rioted.
By the end of Chic Rodgers became a top producer in his own right, successfully working on "Let's Dance" by David Bowie and "Like a Virgin" for Madonna. His observations of a young Madonna are fascinating, along with his memories of how they had different opinions on what made a club good or not.
By the time the 90s came round Edwards and Rodgers had reconnected and reformed Chic - when Rodgers describes Edwards' last days and the aftermath of his death in Japan following a concert his devastation at this awful loss is evident.
I loved this book. I knew I would as I've seen Nile Rodgers interviewed on TV many times in the past and he has always come across as someone who is inherently nice but also as someone who isn't up his own posterior. I've also got a hell of a lot of respect for him because his musical ability is staggering - he's an incredible guitarist but he's also an amazing producer.
If you like music and musicians in particular this book is excellent. Rodgers himself is a genre crosser, having worked not just within the confines of disco and black music - he's produced rock musicians and given acts such as Carly Simon huge pop hits.
So even if disco isn't really your thing, if you love music and want to hear about one of the most important figures in US popular culture from the past 30 years, this book is for you. The fact is that Rodgers' story is colourful, wonderfully written and utterly captivating.
Rodgers currently writes a regular blog on his website which I can also recommend.