Chic show why music matters

It’s 8pm and a hot sun has set behind the South Downs hills. Yet though the shadows are darkening, the place is still bathed in gleaming warmth. The glow comes from a crowd high on euphoria. Chemically-assisted joy at this gig, however, is not required. The effect comes naturally, courtesy of the mighty Chic.

Half an hour in to the show and the joint, as they say, is jumping. Forget an elitist hierarchy of twinkle-toed hot steppers showing up the two-left-footers, though. Here, everyone is just doing their carefree thing in the way they know how and want to. “Everybody Dance” sings the band, but there’s no need; everybody is dancing. And singing, smiling, and laughing. A good few are even shedding a tear, too.

In over 30 years of seeing live acts I’ve never experienced anything quite like it. Classic song after classic song. A band whose individual and collective talents are cooking perfectly. And at the head of it all a man who stands as one of the most creative and influential in the game.

Rodgers and his re-configured group have been tearing up festivals and stages this summer, notably with the weekend-stealing set at Glastonbury. Heading for the more genteel air of the Love Supreme Festival this weekend in deepest, cosiest rural Sussex, you wished for something special from them again but with a nagging doubt that the extraordinary quality of the live shows could not be maintained at every performance. As the crowd gather for the start of the performance, you can hear the talk – the sense of long-held expectation, the realising of a cherished aim, the hope that it really will be as good as we all want it to be.  

We needn’t have worried. Chic do not disappoint. Instead they turn in over an hour of outstanding songs drawn from the canon of Rodgers and Bernard Edwards, the song writing and production duo who were effectively Chic and who injected hit-making brilliance into so many other careers.

And what a body of work theirs is that is being given an airing tonight. Not just Chic’s refined late-Disco gems like Le Freak, My Forbidden Lover and Dance, Dance, Dance, but the standout tunes from Sister Sledge’s catalogue, Diana Ross’s better mid-career moments, and Let’s Dance, the song that gave David Bowie his groove back. On paper it might seem like a track listing for a Disco and 80s karaoke night; in practice it’s the best club night you’ll ever go to.

The much-loved DJ Norman Jay says that everyone has a soundtrack to their life – the score of tracks and memorable tunes that are the milestones in our personal stories through good times and bad. In which case Rodgers and his late and sadly-missed partner Bernard Edwards have written the soundtrack for so many of us. It’s why Norman named his sound system after what was arguably Chic’s greatest song. It’s why we’re here under a cloudless evening sky in a sea of smiling faces amid the delirium of thousands, all having the best of the Good Times.

It’s a diverse crowd and better for it. Many are middle aged, and most probably reliving their late-1970s heyday. Veteran soul boys and soul girls, and judging from the accents plenty down from London for a day out in the sticks: the kids like my sister who wiled away dark hours in some subterranean club like Crackers while those in the ‘normal world’ got on with their daytime lives. She’s here tonight, along with the locals, a crop of hipsters seeing what the fuss is all about, curious and exuberant teenagers, and families. Nearby is an elderly woman leaning on a walking stick but she’s still determined to strut her considerable stuff.

 And everyone does do their stuff. You can’t do anything but. This is dance music so infectious, timeless and still searingly brilliant that you’d have to have feet of stone as well as a rock-hard heart not to be moved by it. ‘Disco’ doesn’t do it justice: to label it as such is no criticism, but there is so much more to Chic and Rodgers’ output than just four-to-the floor boogie tunes. These lush and sophisticated songs are beautifully written, arranged, and performed. There’s a depth and richness to them that makes a mockery of the rejection they received from some unwise quarters back then (and even still today). 

In its inception, the music was dismissed by snooty critics as lightweight. There was also the familiar and more sinister backlash against dance music’s black and gay roots that culminated in the risible Disco Sucks purge. But as Nile discussed in a terrific interview with Chic aficionado Danny Baker on the latter’s 5 Live radio show last Saturday, the group’s music was about much more than the face-value thrill of a premium dancefloor workout.

Rodgers explained that they used to strip tracks down and reconstruct them again within one recording to illustrate how the music was made. It was built on the foundation of the unmatched trio of his rhythm/lead guitar and Bernie’s bass, and the late Tony Thompson’s drums. Then in came the orchestration and Norma Jean Wright, Alfa Anderson and Luci Martin’s elegant vocals. It’s a formula never bettered than on the build in Le Freak, the seminal Chic hit, and on the much sampled Good Times, but it’s a characteristic of the band’s work running through each gorgeous song like a seam of gold. The current line up, including singers Folami Ankoanda and Kimberly Davis, have got the toughest of acts to follow – no more so than the great and prolific Jerry Barnes, a brilliant musician in his own right but one nonetheless who has to step into the bass-playing shoes of Edwards. But they all do it with Chic-style élan. Class acts every one of them.   

 Rodgers also talked with Baker about how there is a depth of meaning to the songs. Far from supposedly being the background music for an emerging new middle class in tune with the materialist, greed-is-good, individualistic economics of the time, Chic’s music was about people coming together and sharing the desire for good times amid the not-so-good. Rodgers draws a link from the music of the likes of Duke Ellington and Cab Calloway during Depression era America of the 1930s to the late 1970s recession-age themes in Chic’s tunes.

 Happy Days Are Here Again wasn’t only a 1930s standard but a key lyric in Good Times, and deliberately so. The happiness may be temporary but very necessary – a means to put the daily grind and occasional grimness of life aside for a while and feel some collective joy. It’s an antidote, giving people hope that you can make a change for the better – for yourself and for others, and pertinent as ever in these testing times.

 And so here we are over 30 years later, in a field in Glynde and all having lots of delirious fun. At times like this you feel like there’s nowhere else you’d sooner be. The band look to be enjoying themselves too, which is fundamental to any really good gig. Nile is up there grinning from ear to ear and playing The Hitmaker, that famous Fender Strat, for all its worth. That value, reportedly, has been calculated as $1.3billion, based on how many hit records it has played on. If so it’s worth every penny.

 One of the odder comments about Chic this summer has been that people don’t realise they were behind so many great records. To which the response is where the hell have you been? Commercially successful but always and still credible, the current line-up of the Chic organisation is playing as good as ever. And they help demonstrate why music matters. It’s not about whose tunes or which genre are the best, just that really good music has such a power to thrill and move, inspire and unite.

 That was all clearly on show last weekend. So thanks to Jerry, Kimberly and Folami, keyboardists Rich and Selan, Ralph Rolle on drums (an exceptional Bowie vocalist stand-in), Don and Bill on horns, and of course, thanks to Nile. We all had a very good time.

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About adampowley

Journalist and author.
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3 Responses to Chic show why music matters

  1. SimonJ68 says:

    Excellent review Ad.
    We saw them a few years ago at WOMAD, before the “disco revival” really kicked in, and while I would never have classed myself as a lover of the genre, I sang along to every song and it is without doubt one of the best live sets I have seen for many a year.

  2. cameron says:

    Great blog post. Its useful information.

  3. Anon says:

    Nailed it with that review. Saw them over the summer and was literally blown away as to how good these people are To say i was “blown away” would be an understatement!

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