Given the personally enviable task of organising five hours of the best music that the disco era had to offer for a friend’s party on Saturday night – to celebrate his 50 years on Planet Earth and at least 30 years of committed dancing – it got me thinking about any albums from those hedonistic times that have lasted the ensuing course.
I couldn't think of any. The nearest I came to pinpointing something specific were the four volumes of Phillybusters, but they're really just collections of singles and lack any kind of long-playing identity. And I suppose that's exactly it: the best disco music was cut as singles rather than albums. I used to spend my time in unlikely places like newsagents, in and around Brighton, sifting through boxes of ex-jukebox 7" singles, or hunting for 12" singles in street markets and record shops.
In any case, I hardly ever listen to disco music now – great as some of it is – unless it's at parties. Except for Chic. Numerically speaking, in terms of both formats of singles, Chic productions far outweigh any other band or brand in my collection. So I took an executive decision: this time I'd cheat.
I never saw the need to own any of the first three albums – Chic, C'est Chic and Risqué – because I had all the singles (along with their excellent B sides). The closest I ever came to owning a Chic album was a cut-out of Norma Jean's eponymous release for Todd Rundgren's Bearsville label. For some reason, I never kept it. Maybe, at a time when I was growing up and listening to more jazz, I got caught up in the 'Disco Sucks' backlash (not for any subconscious homophobic reasons) and felt that I shouldn't be seen dead with a disc by the band's principal female vocalist. Older now and wiser, I realise that the musicians included the likes of ex-Dizzy Gillespie stalwart Jon Faddis on trumpeter and Fania All Stars trombonist Barry Rogers, and I listen to the brilliant 'Saturday' and 'Sorcerer' with a certain regret.
During one summer sale at Cultura, a multi-media emporium on the edge of Brive that specialises in brilliant sales twice a year, I stifled a yell as I beheld a four-disc boxed set of the band's finest for the ludicrous price of €3,99. That's a little less than a euro per disc for everything you would ever want from Chic, Sister Sledge, Norma Jean, Sheila & B. Devotion, Carly Simon, Diana Ross and err... Johnny Mathis.
Now be honest. Who here knew that Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards had tried to turn Johnny Mathis into a purveyor of funky things to play with? Presumably he (or his management) had hoped that the trendiest production team in town would revive the crooner's flagging career in the same way that they had already done for Diana Ross. The few tracks in question were never released and only go to prove that the Rodgers/Edwards partnership was not omnipotent.
Nevertheless, what a partnership it was while it lasted. These days, Nile Rodgers appears on almost every relevant music documentary as a bandana-clad talking head. The son of beatnik bohemian jazzniks from Manhattan, his wit, bonhomie and breadth of music appreciation are deeply ingratiating. But there's always a sense of Wise without Morecambe or one Coen brother without the other: a man shorn of his partner – in 1996, from a heart attack in his hotel room, during Chic's sell-out tour of Japan.!(upload://sS9rxIFsHrRKB4TQW2y3v1f3ekJ.jpg)
It was Bernard who named the band Chic. Apparently, he and Nile shared a love of Josephine Baker, who of course loved her adopted country of France. The boys must have loved it, too, even to contemplate an association with Sheila, a former French child-star with seemingly little discernible talent. Like the unlikely associations with Sister Sledge, formerly a rather humdrum family act without a unique selling proposition, and with Diana Ross, whose Motown glory days were fading fast, it worked. Maybe if I'd chosen 'Spacer' instead of 'Everybody Dance' or 'He's the Greatest Dancer', the French contingent at the party on Saturday might have joined the dance.
Each of these three killer tracks shows the brilliance of their production concept: of focusing on what they called the 'breakdown', or the reduction of a song to its basic elements. Ostensibly, it's characterised by Nile Rodgers' unerring ability to come up with a guitar hook that sucks you in and leaves you witless. How can you consciously override your feet, for example, when faced with an introduction like that to Sister Sledge's 'Greatest Dancer'? Im-possible!
Re-listening to my 33⅓ rpm 12" single version of 'Everybody Dance', though, really emphasises the irresistible propulsion generated by Bernard Edwards' nimble bass lines. I guess that's what a true partnership is all about. But it wasn't just the two of them. As Nile Rodgers writes in his notes to this boxed set, 'the CHIC Organization is an inclusive club'. Musicians of the quality of Faddis and Rogers and drummer Tony Thompson, backing vocalists of the calibre of Norma Jean and Luther Vandross, were 'all in [their] big CHIC tent'.
Given the instantly recognisable stamp of their collective sound, you might feel that four CDs is maybe two too many. But there are lesser known gems to discover and re-discover throughout: the almost throwaway Chic stuff like 'Funny Bone' and 'Savoir Faire', Norma Jean's unreleased but splendid 'Hold Me Lonely Boy' and Carly Simon's 'Why', which would be sampled and re-invented by A Tribe Called Quest as the sublime 'Bonita Applebaum' ('you got it goin' owe-onn...').
Most disco classics were one-offs and a single is quite sufficient. Groups like Slave and Kool & the Gang put together pretty impressive bodies of work that certainly warrant bargain-priced retrospectives, and Maurice White got somewhere close to creating a corporate sound with Earth Wind & Fire and the Emotions, but no one blended jazz, funk and disco like Nile and Bernard managed. Thus my feet still refuse to keep still every time I hear that crazy yowsah yowsah yowsah call to the floor and so I'll probably be listening still to this brilliant compilation way into my dotage, even if I have to use a stick to help me make the moves.