While punk lacks contemporary musical relevance, and rock is certainly struggling, disco is resurgent.
This article titled “Disco’s back as Nile Rodgers tops chart again – with help from his French friends” was written by Edward Helmore in New York, for The Observer on Saturday 27th April 2013 15.42 UTC
If Daft Punk’s Get Lucky, which is poised to storm the charts on both sides of the Atlantic, recalls the groove and glitter of disco-funk pioneers Chic, that should be no surprise, because the man who wrote and played its infectious riff is Chic’s guitarist and producer Nile Rodgers.
“I feel, in a word, wonderful,” he told the Observer. “For it to come together in this fashion is just great. It’s like the summer of ’78 has been duplicated.”
That summer was when Chic released Le Freak, from their second album C’est Chic. The track sold half a million copies in three days. Thirty-five years later, two bars of Get Lucky, featuring N.E.R.D.’s Pharrell Williams, are all it takes to know that it’s destined to be the summer’s big hit – and it’s still only spring.
Last week, the track hit No 3 in the official UK singles chart, despite being available for little more than 24 hours. Then Spotify announced that it had become the most streamed song in the UK and the US over a 24-hour period in its five-year history.
The service predicts the band’s album Random Access Memories will be one of the biggest, if not the biggest, streams of the year after its UK release on 20 May.
The prediction seems a reasonable one: the success of electronic dance music in recent years, with its established concert draws such as Deadmau5 and Skrillex, labels such as New York’s DFA with its now-defunct LCD Soundsystem, and vibrant DJ and remix scenes, suggest we’re deep into a second golden era of disco and dance.
But Daft Punk’s Guy-Manuel de Homem-Christo and Thomas Bangalter want to take it back further – to a time that no one has really focused on: the groove of Chic and the exuberance of Chic-produced Sister Sledge. The French duo looked to Rodgers, who not only masterminded Chic and Sister Sledge with bass player Bernard Edwards but produced hits for Diana Ross (Upside Down), Madonna (Like a Virgin, Into the Groove), David Bowie (Let’s Dance), and synth pioneer Giorgio Moroder, who produced the Donna Summer hits Love to Love You Baby and I Feel Love.
When Get Lucky debuted at California’s Coachella festival last weekend with a video of the band performing with Rodgers and Pharrell Williams, it practically trumped an entire rock festival, says music industry blogger Bob Lefsetz. “I know, I know, you hate dance music and everything it stands for,” he wrote. “But Get Lucky is revolutionary. There’s just a way Get Lucky affects you that is magic. It’s a drug with no aftertaste, no hangover. Other than euphoria!”
The excitement amplified when the clip was played on Saturday Night Live, with the audience unsure whether it was a skit or an advert. DJs went to work, slicing it into longer versions. The audience’s reaction forced Pharrell to perform Get Lucky three times at a show in Brooklyn.
And there’s a second Rodgers/Pharrell track called Lose Yourself to Dance, which the Chic guitarist says is just ridiculous. “Like Get Lucky, it’s easy groove stuff. It would make me get up to dance even I was engrossed in a heavy conversation.”
So what’s the band’s secret? For 60-year-old Rodgers – who has survived a brush with cancer – it was that Daft Punk wanted to write and record in the old-fashioned way. They went into Electric Lady, the studio that was designed for Jimi Hendrix in New York. They used real instruments, real musicians, recorded to tape not computer and Rodgers’ Stratocaster was plugged directly into the mixing board.
Rodgers said: “They chose to go the difficult route. They don’t believe in short cuts. They allowed me just to write and play. I could see they didn’t like it.
“Then we simplified. We worked backwards. We chipped away at it. By the end of the night – woah! It’s a smash.”
Even their style seems to be a distant echo of the old. When Chic first appeared, the emphasis on style (inspired by Roxy Music) was new, at least to America. While he was writing the song Savoir Faire, Rodgers told Melody Maker in 1979, Bernard Edwards had advised him to “think of being suave and sophisticated, like you live in Monte Carlo”. Then it was Fiorucci and Halston; now Daft Punk, Rodgers and Pharrell are decked out in Yves Saint Laurent.
They were the antithesis of punk, the direct contemporary of disco, and a movement that is about to get a second look at the Metropolitan Museum of Art’s costume exhibition, Punk: Chaos to Couture, from 9 May. But whereas punk lacks contemporary musical relevance, and rock is certainly struggling, disco is resurgent.
“I never believed that it was us against them, because I don’t stand for one specific style,” says Rodgers. “But in my heart I would naturally want to promote music that feels as if it’s what I love to do, and it [disco] seems on some sort of course to happen, judging by the number of records I’m being asked to write and play on.”
It’s a long way from the “disco sucks” campaign of 1979 that culminated in the burning of thousands of disco records at what became known as Disco Demolition Night at a park in Chicago.
For three years, Rodgers went without a hit. Then David Bowie called and invited Rodgers to record in Switzerland. “We rescued each other. He’d never had a hit as big as Let’s Dance and I’d had six failures in a row. That record took us to a new plateau.” Soon, Madonna, Duran Duran and INXS were beating a path to the door of the Chic Organisation.
Daft Punk’s Random Access Memories promises more surprises. But the band are cleverly releasing information only gradually. Recorded in Paris, Los Angeles and New York, it features Julian Casablancas of the Strokes, Panda Bear of Animal Collective, house music producer Todd Edwards, DJ Falcon, Canadian singer/producer Chilly Gonzales and Paul Williams, the writer of two huge hits for the Carpenters in the 1970s.
“The great thing about Daft Punk is they make their own decisions,” Rodgers says. “They were making this independent of their label, so the label had to come on board to their concept.”
Last month, when the band were filming the video for Get Lucky in Los Angeles, Rodgers says he realised that the dancers didn’t really know what they were listening to.
“Somebody called out, ‘Wow, what kind of music is that?'” Rodgers recalls. “I didn’t hesitate, I said, ‘disco!’ And they all screamed back, ‘Yeah!’. It was like they’d found something mythical that they’d heard about but didn’t know. There was an organic connection between the kids and the music. At the end they were literally weeping. I’ve seen those moments. I’ve been that guy – and it was for real.”