Listen to this track by dance-music pioneers and disco heavyweights Chic. It’s “Le Freak” an enormous hit single from 1978’s C’est Chic album, and one of the biggest hit singles of the era. Written by guitarist Nile Rodgers and bassist Bernard Edwards, the song became the biggest selling song on the Warner Music label, holding that position until it was supplanted by Maddona’s “Vogue” in 1990 – twelve years!
But, like many smash singles, it had a fairly humble origin. Rodgers and Edwards, along with drummer Tony Thompson, had been on the New York scene for a while. And while there, they made a lot of friends. One such person by 1977 was singer and model Grace Jones, who had made a name for herself on many fronts, one being her association with Andy Warhol, and by extension Studio 54.
But, that particular nightclub was not known to be friendly to “the little people”, with long lines and surly doormen turning people away being standard fixtures. And yet ironically, in the age of optimistic and inclusive disco music, it would be this very surly and elitist attitude at the door of ’54 that would inspire this now immortal dance track.
Picture the scene; New York City on New Year’s Eve, 1977, the epicentre of the disco era. Outside Studio 54, Rodgers and Edwards attempted to gain entrance, having arranged to meet their friend Grace Jones inside. But, Jones hadn’t included them on the guest list, and the doorman turned them away, not very nicely. With no other choice, the two left. Yet, even if they were frustrated by being turned away from the hottest club in the city, they had the inspiration to write and record one of the songs that would define the era in the charts in the same manner that Studio 54 had done for the club scene.
While writing the song, the chorus was originally a spiky “Awwww, fuck off!” aimed no doubt at the inflexible doorman of Studio 54. Then, it softened to “Freak Off!”, and then to the more life-affirming “Freak Out!” . It would be one of the most reconizable opening lines in pop history, followed by one of the most funky of grooves, with Rodgers’ guitar, Edwards’ bass, and Thompson’s drums completely interlocked into a single musical organism. And despite their initial frustration with how the club dealt with its would-be patrons, Studio 54 gets a shout out in the song in any case. All the while, the song helped to illustrate something else; a manifesto for the genre, and for the era.
This is a song that presents the act of dancing, and of dancing communally, as an act of empowerment, of getting over “all that pressure that brings you down”, whatever that might mean to the individual listener. Sure, the disco era was a jaded period as well, with a lot of casualties. We’ve all seen Boogie Nights. But, the music itself exuded a kind of innocence, not completely unlike the hippy idealism of a decade previous.
Dancing as a spiritually ecstatic act (with “FREAK OUT! being as good a description of that as any) goes back well beyond either period, used as a means of creating and binding communities of people together for thousands of years. And this song is a perfect example, a call to throw off cultural baggage and prejudice, and “freak out” instead. The call to raise one’s “freak flag high” called for in the ’60s was also to be covered in glitter in the ’70s. It was not set in a field in Woodstock, but in a downtown club in New York City. Yet the intent is the same. It touches on a theme true to humanity since we first discovered dancing and how it connects to community.
Really, this was why this song, and disco in general, did so well. This was music meant for men, women, black, white, brown, gay, straight, and everyone in between, to get together in one place and get down to. Arguably, this was the reason the backlash against disco was so virulent by the late ’70s and early ’80s; it challenged social boundaries in a very subtle way, with “gay” music sung by black women being something of a cultural inversion.
So of course, it wouldn’t last.
Chic as a band would go on hiatus by 1983, and many of their contemporaries completely disappeared from the charts they’d once dominated. Yet, Rodgers, Edwards, and Thompson would continue to influence the work of newer artists, including a little band from Birmingham England calling themselves Duran Duran, with their bassist John Taylor modelling his bass playing on the grooves that Chic established. This isn’t even to mention the importance of another Chic hit, “Good Times”, and the effect it had on the trajectory of modern hip hop.
Nile Rodgers would make a name as a highly sought-after producer in short order. Among the many albums and singles he’d go on to produce in the decades that followed, many of them would be the very dance-oriented records that replaced disco in the early ’80s, most notably Madonna’s Like A Virgin, and David Bowie’s Let’s Dance. In this sense, despite disco’s apparent demise, it never really went away. It just transformed. And our need as a species to come together to experience music together as a community would be as strong as ever.
We’re still freaking out. We’ve never stopped.
Bernard Edwards had a long career as a bassist and producer. He died in 1996 of pneumonia while on tour in Japan. Drummer Tony Thompson would be involved in many musical projects over the years, including sharing drum duties with Phil Collins when a John Bonham-less Led Zeppelin took to the stage at Live Aid in the summer of 1985. Thompson died of kidney cancer in 2003.
Today, Nile Rodgers remains to be a much-beloved and active musician. Along with touring with a new version of Chic, he also writes a blog that deals with his life as a musician and as a man living with cancer, which you should absolutely read. Incredibly, he follows me on Twitter, and he’ll probably follow you, too. He’s that kind of guy. And, he’s written a book, Le Freak, which tells the story of his rather sizeable part in the development of disco in the mainstream, and his involvement in many other musical areas to boot.