Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Bryan Ferry on Chic

And lo, not even twenty-four hours after my last post, I read The Wire's Invisible Jukebox with Bryan Ferry in the January 2013 issue and they play Chic: "Happy Man" for him! Right away, he zeros in on Nile Rodgers' subtlety: "Nile is never very loud in the mix, but you just feel him" (24). "Are Chic the black Roxy?" he's asked. "We never had the feel they had." He did get in to Studio 54, though. Nile and Nard, famously, didn't.

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Tuesday, December 04, 2012

Chic.Org: Now More Perfect

In his brilliant entry on disco for The Rolling Stone Illustrated History of Rock & Roll, Tom Smucker states that “the history of post-Beatles rock could be summarized in seven syllables: Led Zeppelin, Ramones, Chic” (569, 1992 revised edition). Damn str8, sister! One reason out of 34,563,876,459 for why Chic looms so large over the post-12/31/1969 popscape lies in Nile and Nard’s knack for breaking down a song into its constituent parts and then building it back up again. The full-length versions of “My Feet Keep Dancing,” “Good Times,” “I Like Love,” etc. destabilized the very notion of “song” and upheld the club DJ’s art by fashioning tracks suitable for weaving in and out of a non-stop mix of dance music.

Or maybe it was just a way to show off their gorgeous mastery. That’s certainly the sense you get listening to the original Chic mixes of Diana Ross: Diana (Motown 1980). Apparently, Ross felt the original mix was too disco (scary for her since the disco backlash had begun) and pushed her vocals too far back in the mix. She commissioned a remix of the album and until a 2003 reissue, it was the only version officially released. It’s difficult today to hear what the fuss was all about. As released in 1980, Diana was a disco classic and turned out to be the biggest-selling album of her career. In particular, her mix of “Tenderness” (helmed by Motown engineer Russ Terrana) returns the strings to the entirety of each verse, thus submerging her voice deeper in glorious Chicdom.

Then again, the Chic mix of “Tenderness” seems to shout “Heavenly track, right? Well, here’s how we made it.” After two choruses, the vocals drop out. Nile’s elegant chicken scratch hides underneath the bass and drums, ready to pounce. And up top, the strings planted in the verses saw away unadorned. You actually start to get angry that Ross’ voice had distracted you from them. And then, as if all this weren’t unbearably beautiful enough, in comes Nile’s understated funk guitar setting the entire construction abuzz. Just as Tony Thompson kicks off the section with a kinetic snare peal, Nile taps in with a nearly imperceptible scratch that slams his run into place, a trick he learned from Phil Manzanera on Roxy Music’s “Virginia Plain” (listen at 2:10 here for how his guitar punches itself through that incredible prog snyth section with an almost inaudible, seemingly accidental strum). Then the vocals of Alfa Anderson and Luci Martin (better singers anyway) return, their calls to “come on, love me!” weighing down on the edifice so heartbreakingly. By the time the mix resurrects Miss Ross if not the song itself, it becomes clear that this has been a Chic production, not a Diana Ross showcase.

The only problem is that all this breaking down/building up takes time, too much for a radio edit. Fortunately, “Tenderness” has been remixed by one Smooth Cinnamon X to include the best parts of both mixes. She retains the superior verses but incorporates, in her words, “that string and Nile breakdown” from the Chic mix. And all in 3:44, about as perfect a slice of bite-sized Chic as one can imagine. Thank you, Smooth Cinammon X!

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