Wednesday, October 5, 2016

Nile Rodgers!

One of the best guitar-players you may have heard of, isn't the typical speedster of the heavy rock or blues genre of music, but is as talented in his own right as any of those high-speed
players. And since this blog has written about many under-rated guitar players, we would like to write about one that may not be under-rated but perhaps a little under-appreciated.

Nile Rodgers grew up learning music in school as part of the public curriculum. His first musical taste tended towards jazz and then turned his focus to dance music shortly after meeting with bassist Bernie Edwards. However, it was when he went on a trip to the United Kingdom that he found the direction that he really wanted to go. He was heavily influenced by what he saw when he first encountered Roxy Music. The impeccably dressed rock/dance group may have given birth to glam rock in Britain, but Rodgers and Edwards interpretation of Roxy Music was not to apply glamour to rock but to make dance music and dress up as if the members of the band were going out for a night on the town.
   When Nile Rodgers went back to the U.S. to form the group Chic, the original members included Nile Rodgers, Bernie Edwards, Tony Thompson on drums, Raymond Jones on keyboards, and two female singers named Norma Jean Wright and Luci Martin. However, when Chic came out with their first album, none of these original members were to be seen on the cover. Instead, the two women that appeared on the cover were two models that had nothing to do with the music whatsoever. What these models provided instead was an idea of what the band represented. Chic was fashionable and sophisticated, and it was about dressing up or dressing to go out, and it made you want to dance. And their first real hit was called simply 'Everybody Dance'
Le Freak
 When Nile Rodgers and Bernie Edwards were refused entry into the exclusive Disco-mecca that was Studio 54 on New Year's Eve 1977, it was quite possible that one of their own songs was playing inside the club at the time, because 'Everybody Dance' and 'Dance, Dance, Dance' were already being played in many clubs around New York. But the 'entrance policies' of Studio 54 were arbitrary. The first in line was not the first one in. Not only did they have a 'guest list', but celebrities, attractive females and those people who were deemed 'cool' had a better chance of getting in than anyone who might be fifth in the line. After being rejected from the club, the two of them went to get a few drinks and have an impromptu jam session during which they espoused what they thought of the people who ran Studio 54. A shouting/cheer of 'F-off!' to Studio 54 began to form itself into a song. And when the two of them realized they had a new dance hit in the making, the shouts of 'F-off' were changed to the more radio-friendly cheer of 'Freak Out!"
   The biggest hit that Chic would ever have was 'Le Freak', a song that started out as an effort to slam Studio 54 and the people that ran its doors. Instead the song became a kind of Disco-approval of the most famous (or infamous) Discotheque that ever existed. 

One Song, Three Hits
  Nile Rodgers and Bernie Edwards had their share of hits with the band Chic, but one song, called simply 'Good Times' would seem to garner too many hits for it's own good. Good Times was a simple dance tune like many of Nile Rodgers hits, but this one was lifted and sampled by some of the very first Rap artists and formed the basis of Sugar Hill Gang's  Rapper's Delight.
   At the same time, it seemed that John Deacon took some inspiration from Bernie Edwards bass riff. A simple snip at the end of the bass-hook and then it was used to put the backbone in Queen's huge hit Another One Bites the Dust.

Sister Sledge
  Nile Rodgers and Bernie Edwards were recruited by Atlantic Record Company to lend their talents to sister-singing-group Sister Sledge.And unfortunately for Sister Sledge that sometimes meant that some of the vocals on the album weren't going to be performed by Sister Sledge.
   It may have had some help from Chic vocalists and back-vocals, but the Sister Sledge album We Are Family would go on to sell Platinum in the United States and abroad. However, it rarely seems to get mentioned alongside the very best of the Disco Era of music.
   Perhaps Sister Sledge was overshadowed by the neon lights of Saturday Night Fever and outshined by KC and the Sunshine Band or the out-cooled by Kool & the Gang, but the 'We Are Family' album, in this blog's humble opinion, deserves to be mentioned alongside the most famous and iconic Disco albums. This album is excellent throughout. Filled with truly good, listenable, danceable music. Disco is often criticized for being repetitive and simple and it's subject matter vacuous, but in this album is a carefully made example of how good dance music can truly be when some real effort is put into it. It has all the improvisation and interplay between the musicians to make it interesting and it moves from song to song as smoothly as can be. It has catchy guitar-riffs and phrases and musicianship and songs with more feeling and meaning than is usual for a Dance album. It is about as good a single album as the disco era ever put out, and quite possibly the very best album of its genre and time that it came from.

Disco Sucks
"Disco killed itself. Too many products, too many people, too many records jumping on this kind of music. A lot of bad records came out. I guess it was overkill. Everybody started to come out with disco and it became...what's the word? A cussword" -- Giorgio Moroder

    The main problem with Disco was that it became more popular than the genre had in terms of depth of actual talent. For every Nile Rodgers, there were ten other songwriters and guitar-players that weren't nearly as good... and yet their songs seemed to make it onto mainstream radio. At the height of Disco's popularity, it seemed like every song on the radio was a disco song, and most of those disco songs were poorly executed versions of other, better disco songs. The best singers and bands always have cheap imitators, but in the case of disco, those cheap imitations were given airplay and lots of promotion while perhaps some more talented rock acts were overlooked. Everyone was, it seemed, cashing in on the Disco-Craze.
   Perhaps the worst example of a no-talent hit was the song 'Disco Duck' which was written by a DJ named Rick Dees and intended as a joke and a novelty song, but got so much airplay that it became a real hit. At the same time as the song was selling millions of singles, it also became the example that many people held up as the evidence that this whole disco-craze had gone too far. It was easy to remember because Disco Duck and Disco Sucks sort of rhymes well enough to stick in a person's memory, and so one got held up as the example that suggested the whole craze had become a little too silly, even for top 40 radio.
   When the Disco Sucks backlash began, it involved radio station DJ Steve Dahl, who had a personal vendetta against Disco, because he lost his job when his station changed to an all-disco format and left him out of their future plans. When Dahl moved to 98fm he continued his ranting and railing against Disco, and apparently must have tapped into an audience that felt much the same way. And this proved so successful that Steve Dahl's 98fm station in Chicago chose to have Disco Demolition Night, in which a bunch of disco records that were offered up by fans were to be burned in Comiskey Park, which was at that time, the home of the Chicago White Sox. Well, if the Disco-Craze had gone too far, then the Disco-Sucks backlash went too far on  Disco Demolition Night, July 12th 1979 at around 8:30 p.m. Approximately five thousand fans rushed onto the field during the seventh inning intermission as disco records were being burned, along with a few joints, and by the time everything settled down, the field was so wrecked that the game had to be cancelled.
   The 'good' disco artists, unfortunately, were caught up in the backlash against all the other disco imitators. And for those who were insisting that Disco Sucks and those records should be burned, they didn't really get what they wanted either, because rather than getting to watch a double-header for their record sacrifice, they instead got both White Sox games postponed. And instead of having top 40 radio return to  a mix of rock and pop music, what they got instead was a total separation of 'rock stations' and 'pop stations' that only continued and even got worse through the 1980s. Yet another clear example of neither side getting what they truly wanted.
"I don't hate disco...not at all. It’s well suited for the purpose it was designed for: provide a rhythmic accompaniment for the activities of people who wish to gain access to each other for potential future reproduction...Disco music, and the places that dispense it, provide a setting and a facility where you can carry out those activities. It‘s like a playground" -- Frank Zappa

Let's Dance
While some people chose not to take Disco or even Dance music very seriously, it was clear that the 1980s was going to be an era where 'Pop' was king and danceable music had a role to play whether it was in the form of Disco or not.
One of the biggest hit albums of the eighties was David Bowie's Let's Dance. It was David Bowie's entrance into the dance-able mainstream pop that won him new fans, critical acclaim and worldwide recognition. During this time, Bowie's drug-addled artsy-fartsy days were left behind and now Bowie was no longer a tall, thin weird-looking dude with a drug addiction, exotic hairdo and feminine clothing pretending to be an alien, thin white duke, or other strange creation. If he was playing any sort of character at this time, it was the straight, sober persona of a slick, video friendly, ultra-blonde 1980s popstar wearing jacket, tie, and trousers and shoes suitable for dancing, often in primary colours, looking bright, cheery and noticeable in a pleasant and inviting way.
   But along with the change in his look, Bowie also wanted to change the music that he played. Nile Rodgers was the producer and played a role in much of the arrangement (and re-arrangement) of David Bowie's songs on most of the Let's Dance album, making the songs upbeat and dance-able and certainly contributing to the chart-topping success of the album, which far exceeded the expectations of most of those in the pop music business. Guitar duties on the album were shared between Nile Rodgers and Stevie Ray Vaughan but David Bowie was playing guitar solos in the video, though no one was fooled. Let's Dance was a huge success, going platinum in U.S. U.K, Canada and Australia and right around the whole world. The album garnered both commercial achievement and acclaim from critics.
   Later in the eighties, both Nile Rodgers and David Bowie would change directions musically, but when Let's Dance was climbing the charts, Nile Rodgers was the 'Super Producer' that many artists wanted to work with and seemed able to almost guarantee a hit. Nile Rodgers would go on to be producer for albums throughout the eighties, including Madonna's first album, Duran Duran (including Reflex) and a slew of artists too numerous to list here. Most of this work would lead to the creation of what many consider, by ear, to be that familiar type of eighties-sound pop song.

Chic Reunion and the Untimely Passing of Bernie Edwards.
   In the early nineties, Chic reunited to revive some of the old songs along with writing some new and to tour places abroad.
  In the mid nineties, Chic was playing in Japan. And one of the shows that would be recorded was not only one of the best performances, but unfortunately it would also be the last for bassist Bernie Edwards. Bernie Edwards died of pneumonia in his hotel room in April 1996.
   Years later, the recording of the show 'Live at the Budokan' would appear for sale to fans in home video formats. It features an entire show by Chic including guest appearances by Sister Sledge, Slash, Steve Winwood and Simon LeBon. Despite the gloomy knowledge that this is the last performance by Nile Rodger's longtime writing and music partner, this video is actually very high quality and captures a great performance. Check it out, if you can, on a night when you feel like dancing. Chic continues to tour, sometimes more sometimes less, through to today, with several changes in the lineup, but always featuring Nile Rodgers on guitar and back vocals.

Daft Punk
"The late '70's and early '80s is the zenith of a certain craftsmanship in sound recording." -- Thomas Bangalter

 "While Daft Punk clearly want to move on and evolve, ditching the electronic beats, house and techno that first elevated them to fame, it's that music that forms the bedrock of their best tunes, and still, that's what they're best at making. And there will be a significant number of listeners, this writer among them, who are disappointed there's little of that on the new record." -- Album review of Random Access Memories by DJMagazine

  The Disco Sucks 'movement', or the 'Backlash against  Disco', or whatever someone might want to call it, must have ended in the mid-nineties or early 2000s. At this time, those angry people who lost their rock radio station must have given-up their hatred, started listening to oldies or 'Dad-Rock' or simply forgiven the radio programmers that decided that all-Disco was the way to go. In the meantime, whatever empty space that Disco left vacant had been taken up by House and Electronica and those categories of music seemed to try to be 'futuristic' and were less than enthusiastic to be associated with that 'old stuff' called Disco. Somewhat coincidentally, the same duo that had pushed the 'future' in their music by dressing up as robots and playing music that sounded like a wave of laser beams raining down on their audience would be the same people that were going to bring back old dance grooves, dust them off and replay them with renewed confidence that people were going to get up and dance.
   When Daft Punk decided to make the album Random Access Memories, the two 'robots' Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo must have thought that their drum-machine-generated dance grooves were getting a little too robotic because instead of putting out another sixty-minutes worth of laser-blaring electronica directed at a crowd high on ecstasy, they decided to form a sort of 'dance-band' and hired some of the best from late seventies Disco era, along with musicians and pop stars that could kind of go in that direction. Omar Hakim (remember David Bowie's Let's Dance album) was hired to play live drums recorded to analog tape, Paul Williams and Pharrell Williams were employed to write and to sing contributions to the album, and there also appeared Nile Rodgers. Lending himself to the overall sound and style of the album, Rodgers' guitar work is easily recognizable and provides the funky-sounding appeal for more than one of the hits of the album.
   Despite the critics, especially from the electronic world of drum-machine beats, Daft Punk's new experimental musical departure from their late-nineties house music origins would prove to be a great success for the two robots and for Nile Rodgers. The Album was pressed straight to Vinyl and only helped the resurgence of the format while lending itself to the overall Disco-esque sound of the music. The biggest hit song of the album 'Get Lucky' clearly starts and ends with Nile Rodgers riffs and it's hard to imagine how it would have become such a huge hit without Rodgers playing.
   The mix of old and new styles to create a new kind of dance music allowed Random Access Memories to go on to become another great success for Nile Rodgers including winning the Grammy for Album of the Year.

Nile Rodgers on Guitar
If Random Access Memories and 'Get Lucky' isn't proof of Rodgers skills as a guitar player, then this part of the blog seeks to hammer the point home. Rodgers' guitar work is more complex than it sounds. On the surface, it  seems he is a fairly straightforward funky guitar player with a little jazz and/or R & B influence in his playing. But the seeming simplicity of the structure of the song belies the skill of musicians involved in making it. Numerous funk-players and dance band guitarists have done a simplistic or hashed version of Rodgers playing, usually forcing through straight major chords where Rodgers is actually playing variations on the eleventh chord or subtle minor chords. Imitators have over-played and exaggerated syncopated funk patterns and even disonant chords where Rodgers actual playing is much more subtle and improvisational, often working around the main chord and even playing a full octave higher. And worst of all, several guitar players, perhaps in bars in your home town, simply drown out Rodgers' pattern-like guitar riffs with a wash of up and down strokes designed to cover-up the fact that they didn't learn that cool riff in the middle of Le Freak or the subtle notes in Get Lucky.
   Rodgers skill lies in taking fairly complex guitar chords and with a few subtle strokes and improvisation and changes and some quickness in the fingers, can play pieces and slices of these chords, breaking it up and allowing the listener to hear a little at a time, like a funkier version of arpeggios. His guitar riffs are not bombastic, but they are more complex than they sound and they slide right in with the rest of the song, overlapping it so smoothly that imitators think they can just gloss them over.
  The rhythm of Nile Rodgers playing sounds like part of the song itself, but then if you were to take his guitar out of the song, it seems as though the heart and soul of the song has been taken away. The best example of this is Good Times, which has often been sampled by rap artists without the guitar riff and it literally sounds like another song.
 The truth is that this blog decided to do a piece on Nile Rodgers because some of the people involved in making Very Us Mumblings have seen one too many poor imitations of Nile Rodgers style of guitar, some of those players admitted they were simply fudging it up, others were doing the best Nile Rodgers they could muster, and some really thought they got the chops down (but they didn't). But you have to give credit to those that are really trying, and take heart, music fans, because if you've read this far, then you probably have learned to better appreciate the unique character of this guitar player and his talent, along with the talents of the people that he has worked with.