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How Chic’s Self-Titled Debut Album Raised The Bar For Disco
In Depth

How Chic’s Self-Titled Debut Album Raised The Bar For Disco

A delirious mix of funk and R&B with lyrical nods to UK art-rock, Chic’s self-titled debut album brought glamour to disco dancefloors.

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Even at the height of its popularity, disco music was regarded by critics as little more than a passing fad. However, for guitarist Nile Rodgers and bassist Bernard Edwards – the musical masterminds behind Chic – the 70s nightclub scene was an invitation to celebrate their fearless musical eclecticism and intelligent artistry. Lyrically smuggling what they called “DHM” (deep hidden meanings) into their funk-lite floor-fillers, the masterminds behind Chic’s self-titled debut album brought a poise and respectability to the disco scene that left a long-lasting legacy on the music industry.

Listen to Chic’s self-titled debut album here.

“Taking white rock and making it Black – reverse traffic, if you will – was key”

Having gigged around New York City’s club circuit playing R&B and soul music as The Big Apple Band, Nile Rodgers always had a wide-ranging taste in music. Influenced as much by the glam-rock showmanship of KISS and the flamboyant pizzazz of Roxy Music as he was by funk and jazz music, Rodgers partnered with Bernard Edwards to add fresh ingredients to disco’s party-going recipe. “This idea of taking white rock and making it Black – reverse traffic, if you will – was key,” Rodgers said. With Edwards cooking up the band name Chic after Rodgers was inspired by Bryan Ferry’s lounge-lizard persona, the duo began dressing in sharp business suits and aimed to mix art-rock glamour with upbeat funk energy.

Released in September 1977 as Chic’s first single, Dance, Dance, Dance (Yowsah, Yowsah, Yowsah) was a relentless ode to throwing shapes on New York’s light-up dancefloors. “We developed a sound that was a fusion of jazz, soul and funk grooves with melodies and lyrics that were more European influenced,” Rodgers said. Pressed up as a white-label record and distributed to disco conventions, Dance, Dance, Dance was an instant DJ favourite, selling a million copies in under a month and peaking at No.6 in both the UK and the US.

As a satirical jab at the late-70s dance explosion, what perhaps went unnoticed at the time was that the song’s recurring vocal hook (“Yowsah, yowsah, yowzah”) was a reference to the 1969 movie They Shoot Horses Don’t They?, a film about Depression-era dance marathons that often resulted in contestants dancing themselves to death. Musically, too, it was a revolutionary release, breaking new ground with Edwards’ floor-rattling bass – a sound that would soon become responsible for some of the best 70s basslines. “We cut deeper and wider grooves to have the bass response,” Rodgers said of the way they manufactured the vinyl. “We were pushing the limit.”

“On the first album, we did everything we had to do”

Chic’s self-titled debut album was released on 22 November 1977 and peaked at No.27 on the US album charts. Recorded in New York’s Electric Lady Studios and The Power Station on a budget of $35,000, it was a veritable showcase of Chic’s fearless musical eclecticism: a jazz-fusion instrumental (São Paulo) sits comfortably alongside swaggering invocations of Black pride (You Can Get By), and there are even forays into French spoken-word (Est-Ce Que C’est Chic) and a sensual love ballad with backing vocals from the soon-to-be-legendary Luther Vandross (Falling In Love With You).

“On the first album, we did everything we had to do,” Rodgers remembered. “We had to stand for who we are.” Creating a mystique around themselves, Rodgers and Edwards let the music do the talking and allowed female singers Norma Jean Wright, Alfa Anderson, Robin Clark and Diva Gray to take centre-stage amid the swell of horns and disco strings. Unlike most disco records of its time, you can hear echoes of its immaculate funk licks in the subsequent rise of early 80s new wave and synth-pop. Considering it was recorded in the pre-digital era, the pristine production work on Chic’s debut album still holds up well.

The record’s second single, Everybody Dance, was once described by Rodgers as one of the best Chic songs – and it’s immediately obvious why. Thanks to Edwards’ slam-banging bass and Rodgers’ slide guitar solo, recalling The Beatles’ legend George Harrison, the song hit No.9 in the UK and No.38 in the US. Like its predecessor, it explored a similar theme of dance as a means of pure escapism for cash-strapped city-dwellers (“Dancing helps relieve the pain, soothes your mind, makes you happy again”).

“Our music was crossing over into every sector of society”

Quite simply, the timing of Chic’s self-titled debut album could not have been better. Just a month after its release, John Travolta’s breakout performance in 1977’s Saturday Night Fever was a box office success, and the movie’s Bee Gees-laden soundtrack helped disco go mainstream. Though their songs did not feature in the film, Chic’s association with flares and mirror balls meant they undoubtedly benefitted from disco’s moment in the sun. “Our music was crossing over into every sector of society,” Rodgers noted. “We played in places that didn’t usually have live Black acts.”

Selling more than 500,000 copies in the US, Chic’s debut album also gave disco a musical credibility that even established rock stars couldn’t ignore. “I was aware of Chic from day one,” David Bowie later said. “I loved the original Chic tracks, from Dance, Dance, Dance onwards.” In thrall to the guitarist’s funk innovations, Bowie would go on to work with Rodgers on his 1983 album, Let’s Dance, and repeat the collaboration a decade later on Black Tie White Noise. Naturally, this all started with Chic’s debut album. Transcending disco, its legacy would go on to inspire everyone from Bronx-based rappers to EDM pioneers. There aren’t many disco records that can lay claim to that.

Check out our best Chic songs for more of the group’s classy disco floor-fillers.

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