Disco: When music made straight for your groin
Someone had to pay for disco. Nile Rodgers took the bullet in late 1979 when it finally became official: disco sucked.
Rodgers was co—founder, with Bernard Edwards, of the band Chic. Rodgers played guitar and Edwards, now deceased, the bass.
They were more of production team than a true band, putting changing voices in front of their music to produce late 70s hits such as “We Are Family”, “Le Freak” and “Good Times.”
Rodgers was rich by his mid—20s, a Studio 54 regular, with a cocaine habit, a Porsche 911 and an oversize speedboat.
Disco changed things. It was partly the way the music bypassed your brain and made straight for your groin; it was partly the drugs. Sex, which had gone into hibernation in the early 70s, was back.
People felt each other up on pink and white flashing Perspex dance floors, in the dunnies, or outside in the car parks. Brand—new waterbeds lay unused. It was much worse than Elvis except no one noticed. They were dancin’.
A so—far unnamed and unexplained disease was getting its foothold in the clubs of New York during this period, but it would not kill disco.
Rodgers says it was The Knack, the band whose song, “My Sharona”, was chosen to rescue the world from flares and high voices and give rock and roll back to the people.
Chic was Public Enemy No. 1.
When disco died, Rodgers thought his career had, too. He writes in his new book, “Le Freak: An Upside Down Story of Family, Disco and Destiny”, that he couldn’t understand it. He’d always though disco was just a branch on rock and roll.
He was angry that the music industry had survived off dance music in recent years but was now embarrassed by it. He needed a new career. Suzanne De Passe, president of Motown Productions, provided it.
De Passe wanted Rodgers and Edwards to do something for Motown’s biggest star, the highly strung Diana Ross, who needed new direction.
Rodgers and Edwards began writing songs for diana, which would become her biggest—selling album, with hits like “I’m Coming Out”, Upside Down”, and “My Old Piano”.
Rodgers was no longer working with talented session singers but a genuine, and very insecure, star. He was used to the wise studio heads not getting it, such as when he played “Le Freak” to Atlantic Records execs, who considered it a dead loss (it became the company’s only triple—platinum single).
This time, the bad news came from Ross herself. She had taken a demo of “Upside Down” to a powerful New York DJ Frankie Crocker, whose WBLS was the number one station in America.
“About three hours later, when she returned to the studio, her mood had dramatically changed,” Rodgers writes. They asked her what was wrong.
“Frankie said this song is going to ruin my career,” she told them. “Why are you guys trying to ruin my career?”
Rodgers and Edwards got the silent treatment from Motown and came to realise they had been fired. Motown remixed the songs, completely changing them. But the Chic team had contractual strength and held their ground. The album, released as they intended it, went six times platinum in the US.
Rodgers became a go—to man for artists who’d already indulged their experimental urges and wanted to look down from the top of the charts.
“Nile, darling,” David Bowie told him, “I’d like you to do what you do best. I want you to make hits.” He produced Let’s Dance, Bowie’s all—time biggest—selling album.
By 1983, his career revived, Rodgers briefly eyed off Madonna, who was coming on the scene with songs called “Everybody” and “Holiday”. She did stepping moves, like the Jackson 5 used to do, with back—up dancers. Rodgers wasn’t sure what to make of her.
But he had other work to do. He ran into INXS, who declared themselves great Chic fans and even devotees of one of Rodgers’ obscure solo albums. “I thought they were bullshitting me,” he writes.
The band proved him wrong by bursting into a four—part harmony from one of the album’s tracks, explaining that they used it to warm up their voices before going onstage.
He produced “Original Sin”, which became a mega—smash for INXS, which in turn introduced Rodgers to Duran Duran, who had loved that song. Duran Duran were already huge, with songs like “Planet Earth”, “Girls On Film”, “Rio” and “Hungry Like The Wolf”.
When Rodgers mixed “The Reflex” for Duran Duran, their label, Capitol, hated it. They described it as too “black—sounding”, referring not to a dark undertone but skin colour. “As far as I was concerned, this was straight—out racist. And dumb.”
The company warned it would deduct earning points from the band if the record did not sell. Rodgers persuaded Duran Duran to hold the line. “The Reflex” went on to become the biggest single of their career.
Madonna came to Rogders with a number of demos that would become her second album, Like A Virgin, which featured the song of the same name and “Material Girl”. He would become her personal melodrama manager and observed her emerging control—freak ways. “Time is money and the money is mine,” she told Rodgers.
Once again the record company, Warner Bros, had a problem – this time, a good problem. Madonna’s first album was still in stores, and one of the tracks, “Borderline” and “Lucky Star” were taking off as singles.
Madonna was itching to put her new album out but Rodgers sided with the record company, urging delayed release to fully exploit the hits off her first album. The wait didn’t matter. Like A Virgin became one of the biggest—selling albums of all time.
When Rodgers first met Madonna she lived in a sparsely furnished New York loft and cultivated a hip girl—in—rags look. A few years ago, Rodgers ran into her at a party in London. She’d developed an English accent and had just had 1000 live pheasant delivered to her estate so she could shoot them.
He describes Madonna as the most unusual artist he has ever met for her absolute businesslike certainty that she was going to be a star. Nothing would stop her. But while he was making people famous, Rodgers’ own talents were failing.
In 1994, in Miami, he joined Cuban musician Nil Lara for a live performance. Rodgers, who was by now maintaining a 15—year cocaine habit, left the stage believing he was a genius; he’d laid on his back playing guitar, even played the thing with his teeth.
The following day, Lara played him a recording of his last night’s performance. “I was shocked at how bad I’d played. What a fucking joke.”
Madonna was in Miami at the time and threw a party. Rodgers had been on a four—day bender and all he remembers from that night was commandeering a bathroom with Mickey Rourke to do coke, both of them crying and telling each other: “I love you, man.”
Back at his hotel, he armed himself with a samurai sword after a dangerous criminal left a voice message saying he was coming to kill Rodgers for sleeping with his girlfriend.
There was no recording. His cocaine psychosis had become acute. He’d had enough.
In October 2010, Rodgers’ found out he had prostate cancer and is to this day still working while busily trying to heal.
Rodgers career is astonishing for the number of stars for whom he has produced hits. But it’s not the names that matter in this book. It’s that the people who paint it, strum it, write it, mix it, think it, play it, sing it and produce it – and those who buy it – who most often know best, not the bosses.
But you’ll never find out if you were right unless, like Rodgers, you hold your ground.
* Rodgers’ book is marketed in Australia as “Le Freak: The Life and Times of Nile Rodgers”. Chic is about to tour Australia, playing Playground Weekender Festival, NSW, on March 2, Virgin Mobile Metro, Sydney, March 5, Billboard, Melbourne, March 7, Womadelaide Festival, March 9, Fremantle Arts Centre, March 10, Golden Plains Festival, Victoria, March 11.
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