Book Review: Le Freak by Nile Rodgers

One of the few musical blessings of the last decade was Nile Rodgers’ career reinvention.

But the future had looked pretty bleak at the outset of 2010, with serious illness virtually putting paid to his live career and no new studio product in sight.

Then of course there was a well-received guest spot on Daft Punk’s ‘Get Lucky’ and a glorious concert reboot of the Chic brand, which went from strength to strength as the decade progressed. So it seems a good time to revisit ‘Le Freak’, Nile’s 2011 memoir (and it accords nicely with my current early-’80s NYC obsession).

The focus on gigging during the last decade has been a distinct volte face for a guitarist/songwriter/producer best known for his studio work with Chic, Diana Ross, Madonna, David Bowie, Sister Sledge, Johnny Mathis and Al Jarreau.

Chic were to disco what Steely Dan were to rock, bringing jazz chords, complex arrangements and subtly subversive lyrics to the top of the charts, but it’s easy to forget how out of fashion they were in the early ’80s, as ‘Le Freak‘ grippingly outlines.

But it’s also that rare thing for a music memoir, arguably at its best when it steers away from the music. Rodgers was born to a 14-year-old jazz-loving mother in late-1950s New York City, and his early life was a jaw-dropping sequence of underage sex, drug addiction and bohemian excess on all levels. His stepfather Bobby, a heroin-addicted beatnik, nicknamed the asthmatic Rodgers ‘Pud’, short for ‘pudding pie’, and used to reprimand him thus: ‘Pud. Dig yourself.’

Soon, both parents were junkies, and Rodgers turned to TV, movies, truancy and illicit substances, finding his own brotherhood of Puerto Ricans and Italians in Greenwich Village. Rodgers brilliantly captures the flavour of this bohemian underground and black music scene that flourished in the big cities of the US in the ‘60s.

There are tales of studying jazz harmony with legendary pianist Dr Billy Taylor, an early gig with the ‘Sesame Street’ house band and notable cameos from Thelonious Monk, Lenny Bruce, Timothy Leary and Jimi Hendrix. Later his Harlem Apollo debut sees Rodgers being chased around the stage by a crazed Screamin’ Jay Hawkins.

With musical soulmate, bassist Bernard Edwards, he toured the Chitlin’ Circuit playing the soul, jazz and R’n’B hits of the day, returning to New York to see that dance culture was taking over. Their Big Apple Band quickly became Chic, a black fusion of Roxy Music and KISS, and although Chic quickly became synonymous with the disco movement, their roots in jazz, rock and R’n’B and desire to always include a Deep Hidden Meaning (or DHM) in their lyrics always kept them at some remove from the likes of the Bee Gees.

But things take a turn for the worse when the scene that embraced Chic suddenly implodes and gives way to New Wave, and Nile is brutally candid about his embarrassment that his band (and first solo album) can’t get arrested. Not in David Bowie’s opinion, though, and the extended riff on the making of Let’s Dance is essential reading for any fan of that album.

The passage on the passing of his musical brother Edwards while on tour with a reformed Chic is also moving and perfectly judged, encapsulating Rodgers’ philosophy of music and life.

All in all, ‘Le Freak’ is a fast-moving, well-written, original account of the life of a self-confessed ‘half-hippie, half Black Panther’, and a must for anyone with even a passing interest in black music over the last 50 years.

Rodgers has also intimated that there may be a second volume on the way – yes please. Grace Jones, Mick Jagger, Paul Simon, Jarreau, Mariah Carey, Robert Plant, the B-52s and David Lee Roth are only mentioned in passing, and it would be good to get the full story of Chic’s live renaissance.

NYC Odyssey: Nile Rodgers’ Adventures In The Land Of The Good Groove

nile rodgers

Mirage/Atlantic Records, released March 1983

9/10

New York City, autumn 1982. The Big Apple music scene is in a period of transition. New Wave and No Wave have been replaced by Mutant Disco and Punk/Funk, Madonna is planning her assault on the charts in dance studios and rehearsal rooms around Manhattan, major record labels are flirting with the harmolodic jazz/rock/funk of James Blood Ulmer, Miles Davis’s comeback is getting into its stride despite his continuing ill health and Hip-Hop is flourishing into a fully-fledged movement.

Meanwhile, Nile Rodgers is reaching a crossroads. Confidence is low; his band Chic have seemingly become passé (a very Chic word) with recent albums Tongue In Chic and Take It Off failing to set the charts alight. They are still seen as a disco act even though their music increasingly embraces jazz, funk, R’n’B and even early hip-hop.

NileRodgers-AdventuresInTheLandLPba

The good news is that Rodgers has been given the green light to make his first solo album. But Adventures In The Land Of The Good Groove is not the record Chic fans are expecting from him. No female singers are featured (apart from a brief appearance by ex-Supremes/Labelle vocalist Sarah Dash) and the Chic rhythm section Bernard Edwards and Tony Thompson only appear on three tracks out of eight.

The album sounds far more stripped down than Chic, relying heavily on early drum machines, Rodgers’ guitar playing and his surprisingly effective, relatively downbeat vocals. Lyrically, the album focuses on debauched NYC nightlife rather than the faded glamour of the Chic aesthetic.

But there are many treats inside. I loved this album from the day my dad played it to me in the mid-’80s. I came to it completely fresh; I’d never heard Chic before. But I possibly recognised something of Nile’s soundworld from Bowie’s Let’s Dance album which everyone dug.

I think of Rodgers as something akin to the Thelonious Monk of funk – he’s almost gregarious in his desire to entertain (to paraphrase Gary Giddins). He took the James Brown rhythm method and added jazz harmony and contemporary technology to create some of the great music of the ’80s.

‘Rock Bottom’ puts dark lyrics to a burning funk/rock groove complete with one of Edwards’ finest basslines and a raucous Rodgers guitar solo that gives Stevie Ray Vaughan a run for his money (and pre-empts Vaughan’s playing on Let’s Dance).

‘My Love Song For You’ is the aforementioned duet with Sarah Dash, a classic Rodgers slow-burn ballad with jazzy chord changes, some almost Ellingtonian piano by Raymond Jones and a tantalising middle eight. The title track, ‘Yum Yum’, ‘Most Down’ and ‘Get Her Crazy’ are glorious Afro-funk chants with inventive back-up vocals by the Simms brothers and some typically slamming Rodgers guitar.

Adventures In The Land Of The Good Groove is a fascinating companion piece to Let’s Dance, though Rodgers claims in his book ‘Le Freak’ that on completion he immediately knew it was a ‘flop’, neither commercial nor innovative enough to make an impact. Bowie disagreed. Smash Hits magazine did too; they gave it a 10/10 review!

Certainly it may seem uncommercial compared to Chic smashes like ‘Good Times’ and ‘Le Freak’ but tracks like ‘Yum Yum’ and ‘Most Down’ surely wouldn’t have sounded out of place on the Black stations of the early ’80s that were playing Prince, The Time or Zapp.

Nile released one more solo album in the ’80s, the intermittently effective B-Movie Matinee, but it lacked the minimalist power of the underrated AITLOTGG. It’s long overdue a reassessment.