Meeting Nile Rodgers was really an experience. We found each other in the entrance of the Hyatt Hotel in Melbourne and Rodgers, with dreadlocks down to his waist and a very cool pair of sunglasses, said “hello”, and then charmed his way into my orbit. Our interview went overtime and it was hard to keep on-topic. He has an unmistakable glint and is the classic raconteur – the more he talked, the more I abandoned what I had to ask. All the stories he was telling were just so good. Rodgers was the founding member, songwriter and general big cheese of Chic, the iconic disco band which created such hits as I Want Your Love, Dance Dance Dance, Le Freak, Everybody Dance as well as writing and producing Sister Sledge and the hit We Are Family. Bascially this man created disco and the soundtrack to every cool party in the 70s and every Mardi Gras since. He also produced Madonna’s blockbusters Like a Virgin and Material Girl. “She was very ambitious when I met her. Frighteningly driven. At first I didn’t know if she had the talent to match the image she created for herself. But then I started working with her and realised she was going to be the biggest star in the world. When she stayed with me in the country, she’d drive to New York every day to see what the press was writing about her. She wanted fame more than anyone I’ve ever met.”
My first real exposure to Chic (and this is not counting Sister Sledge in The Adventures of Priscilla, Queen of the Desert) was in the seminal Whit Stillman film The Last Days of Disco, released in 1998 with ingénue Chloë Sevigny. The film was about the end of disco (obviously), the closure of Studio 54, those amazing outfits (one shouldered dresses, tight sequins) and most of all the music. The soundtrack is Chic personified and it provided a theme for two years of my life in the late 90s.
However what is not initially most famous is the fact that Nile Rodgers and Chic were the first band to create an overpowering synthesis between fashion, art and music. Their look and sound epitomised the time when Halston and Bianca Jagger hung out at Studio 54 every single night. Chic wore Fendi. “Black people wearing Fendi in the 1970s in America was unheard of. No one even knew what Fendi was and when the girls walked in people’s mouths were open. I mean, black girls wearing Fendi in the 1970s! No one did that.”
The music and the art direction were interdependent and equally as important. It all began when Rodgers was playing in a band he lovingly referred to as “a one-hit-wonder” band, The Big Apple Band, and he was stuck in London because he lost his passport. “I was seeing this Swedish girl, really good looking. And she let me stay, then took me to see Roxy Music at the Roxy. It was the coolest thing I’d ever seen. Some of it was made-up, some of it was rehearsed and they had this image and all these beautiful people watching. It was like being in a museum. You were completely transported.”
Roxy Music had a strong art-rock-experimental image in the 1970s. Bryan Ferry, Brian Eno and Andy Mackay had all been to art school. They were slick, especially Ferry, and their stage look was carefully crafted by designer Andy Price. Rodgers had discovered what he called “a totally immersive artistic experience. They were art-school cool. It was like I walked into the Roxy that night and was taken somewhere I’d never been before.” The way he describes it, leaning in for emphasis, makes me furious I wasn’t there too and it’s not that often I want to increase my age. Rodgers wanted to take that back to America.
Roxy Music’s covers were essential to their imaging. “I mean, For Your Pleasure with this beautiful girl…” (Amanda Lear, the then-girlfriend of Bryan Ferry) “… with a black jaguar on the cover? It was so cool and you don’t get Roxy Music without those covers. They had all these beautiful women on their covers.” This got Rodgers thinking. He wondered why he couldn’t make a Roxy Music, but for black people. “But of course.” When Rodgers finally made it back to New York, buppies (Black Urban Professionals) had risen and they were the key market for Rodgers’ vision. He also noted that the famous black singers of the time took on “a royal” approach, for example, Duke Ellington. So Rodgers created his Chic and with the band came a story: they were a black R ‘n’ B band from France who’d come to America to support bands. This wasn’t a publicised story, this was their story to themselves and the philosophy behind the music they wanted to create and the image they wanted to build.
It was also completely made-up and, as Rodgers put it, “utterly contrived”. Shamelessly so. But seamlessly a part of who they are, because “performance is art”. Music and art and image should be intertwined. It was popular too, because it struck a chord with a period where disco was beginning to become king. Studio 54 would soon define the time.
This of course led to Rodgers’ creation of his own “immersive experience”. There was a desire for shows where music was just one element of the performance, with fashion and image coming front and centre. People wanted more. Even KISS touched Rodgers, because when Ace Frehley asked him down to see their gig, an early, unsigned KISS, he realised that while they were good, their art direction was just as good as their music. I’ve never associated KISS with disco, but Rodgers is right – the glamour and mystique was something they shared. But in terms of soul and chutzpah, well, Rodgers had it in spades and still does.
“We approached fashion houses, we wanted to wear their clothes. It was all a part of it. No one did that before. No one cared. Do you think people were asking Mick Jagger about who made his jacket back then? The public didn’t have the awareness they have now.”
With the image in mind and copious talent, Rodgers and Chic used their jazz session musician roots to lay tracks in the studio. The first one of these was Everybody Dance and it hardly had any lyrics, just the unmistakable chorus. Unbeknown to Chic, the musical engineer was also a DJ at the Night Owl (a huge buppie hang out) and called Rodgers in a frenzy to come down one night. “When I went down there I couldn’t believe people were playing my song. Everyone was dancing, the whole club was moving to the beat and I was so happy.” And that’s just the way Rodgers is. Happy. Everything’s COOL. At 59, and having spent the night in hospital, he’s still regaling stories. He’s still it.
The revolution of Chic had begun and Rodgers had touched on a trend that would define New York, and in fact the world, in the late 1970s. After an argument between Atlantic and Buddah Records over Dance Dance Dance which involved helicopters, limousines and a disco convention, the DJ at Studio 54 took a shine to it and they were off. The men always dressed in crisp Italian suits, “classic brands like Armani and Cerruti”. This was a ploy to “look fly” but also to be “a little anonymous, like KISS and their makeup”. The lingering influence of Roxy Music meant sexy girls were on the cover of records and the Chic organisation went out on the road. It would be easy for me to wax lyrical about the number one hits he had (seven gold singles, six platinum, three double platinum, one triple platinum) in this period or the artists he discovered (Sister Sledge), but Rodgers incidentally was the first man to realise the power of the synthesis between fashion, music and art on a great scale. The famous line from Sister Sledge “he’s wearing Halston, Gucci Fiorucci” was in fact the first namecheck of fashion ever in music because they really were wearing it. And only the people in the know clocked it. Now, as Rodgers comments, “it’s everywhere and it’s a little tragic”. The collaborations don’t feel real anymore.
So Chic took disco. And Rodgers took Studio 54, as it was “the only place to hang out. It was the hottest spot on the planet.” Although Studio 54 only cared who you were and what you looked like, the Chic mystique was not about “fame”. The business suits Rodgers wore “were in keeping with the character and mystique of Chic”. The only time Rodgers couldn’t get into Studio 5 (“Sometimes the mystique worked against us”) it spurned a song where the original chorus of Fuck Studio 54 became Le Freak, C’est Chic. The success of that track meant Chic were made and continued to be made in the most opulent period of modern history. After that point, Rodgers could always get into Studio 54. There, he hung out in four key places: the basement, the balcony, the women’s bathroom on the ground floor (“This was known as my office.”) or “the ultimate sanctum” Steve Rubell’s office. It was Rodgers, Truman Capote, David Geffen and lots of girls who happily let Rodgers stay all night in the bathroom, delivering him drinks. “Nothing was taboo.” It was, as Rodgers wrote later in his memoir, “the most progressive and financially lucrative period of art in America”. Rodgers leans in again for emphasis as he regales me of the success, the highs, the drugs, and a life which went from club to studio. They thought it would never end and it didn’t for many years. They forgot how special it was to sell millions of records. That is, until the overnight cultural revolution of disco sucks.
Disco sucks was really encapsulated by The Knack’s My Sharona. Chic’s Good Times came second to that one-hit wonder (and now probably most known for featuring on Reality Bites which really says it all), however at the time, the whole recording industry was rooting it. They were scared to be associated with disco in any way. The cultural shift, “from one day to the next”, meant My Sharona was number one. But Good Times was number two. “When anyone asks me what my greatest achievement was, I say Good Times getting to number two. The entire recording industry was against us. In fact, one day everyone loved us and the next they hated us. Disco sucks destroyed us.” However, even tides that strong couldn’t keep Rodgers’ sound down. The next year, Queen’s Another One Bites the Dust was number one with a strikingly similar hook. And INXS, who Rodgers produced, had a similar hook again. The guitar hook in Original Sin, which Rodgers wrote and produced, is one degree from Good Times. All these bands were image-strong. All took their lead from Rodgers. Incidentally, when Simon Le Bon heard Original Sin at a party in Australia, it was the motivation he needed to sign Rodgers on and create their most fun records, the ones you dance around to as a teen, then thrash around to as an adult, namely The Reflex and Notorious. “We were shopping buddies … (Nick Rhodes) hooked me up with Manolo Blahnik … and Philip Treacy.” Then of course, followed David Bowie when Rodgers created his biggest hit Let’s Dance, and Madonna’s Like a Virgin.
Stories of the producing days ensued, from those of Michael Jackson (“He was driven and focused, but much more on making music than being famous.”) to INXS (“They loved the solo blues record I did, only them and my mother.”). Rodgers had to go after this revelation and I was greedy for more, but he invited me to his show and promised me a fun time. I went straight from the hipster crowd of the Black Lips to a group of extreme enthusiasm. Everyone was really, really, really into the music. Chic were dressed in white and the girls embodied disco; sequins, tight white mini skirts and so much soul. People were so into the music that inhibitions were lost, hands were in the air, people were grooving. It was an immersive experience. As Rodgers introduced HIT after HIT after HIT, he kept asking the audience “if they knew” he made all these songs? That was news to my dear friend and I, because a disco king producing Original Sin didn’t seem feasible … Until I met Rodgers. The audience was all over it, answering a resounding YES to every single question he asked.
That Rodgers is now working with Daft Punk, to help them find their inner R ‘n’ B doesn’t surprise me. Daft Punk have created their own “immersive experience” and want to work with the originator. Being with Rodgers is rather immersive itself: after spending time with him, I listened to Chic for the rest of the week. I even wore some white.
Photo caption: Chic, 1981. Bernard Edwards (L) and Nile Rodgers (R).