On 11th and 12th November 2011, Nile Rodgers (of Chic) was in Manchester, appearing at two very different events.
The first was an interview with Dave Haslam at the Zion Arts Centre in Hulme; part of Dave’s ‘Close Up’ series. (Ticket price £7.)
The second was a gig with Chic at The Warehouse Project’s Store Street venue, appearing on the same Delicatessen bill as seven other acts, according to the WHP website. (Ticket price £25.)
Neither seemed an ideal way to experience what Nile Rodgers has to offer: why pay to hear him talk when he is famed for playing guitar and arranging music? And why pay so much to hear him play live in a tunnel along with a bunch of over-hyped DJs, when so many ‘live sets’ at club nights turn out to be karaoke-style events?
On reflection, £7 for ‘Close Up’ at Zion seemed very reasonable, even if he was just talking.
Nile was in the UK to promote his autobiography, written in the wake of his recovery from cancer.
The first half of the evening at Zion was spent exploring events described in his book: his chaotic childhood, his relationship with his mother, his musical inheritance from his father and his creative partnership with Bernard Edwards. (He pronounces ‘Bernard’ with emphasis on the second syllable.)
After the interval, Nile had his guitar with him; he discussed music in particular and demonstrated ideas behind some of his landmark compositions.
He gave us some interesting pieces of information… for instance, that he was in a band called ‘Street Punk’ in New York, before punk was invented.
Also he credits Eddie Kendricks, Temptations’ lead singer, with the first ‘disco’ record – ‘Girl You Need A Change Of Mind’.
He also gave The Village People a special mention as disco trail-blazers, and successful purveyors of DHM – ‘deep hidden meaning’ – something which was close to his and Bernard Edwards’ hearts.
Nile and Bernard adopted a ‘concept album’ approach, having been impressed by Paul Simon’s description of his working method, which involved every album having a beginning, a middle and an end. But then they disguised their approach in order to conform to what radio schedulers and record companies wanted from them, as black artists.
Nile talked about seeing Roxy Music at The Roxy in London, after being stranded in the UK after a concert, pre-Chic; he was blown away by their slick image. He and Bernard were also impressed by Kiss’s anonymity, which they decided to emulate, though their on-stage disguise would be much less dramatic!
He described how New York ‘black middle class’ clubs for ‘buppys’ – black upwardly-mobile young professionals – were the model upon which he and Bernard based Chic’s image… the bankers’ suits. They down-played their individuality in the spirit of Kiss and aligned themselves with ‘high fashion’ in the style of Roxy Music. They calculated that this image would work both locally in the New York clubs and globally, as a reflection of people’s ideas about New York, and they were right.
Here he talks about the huge impression which Giorgio Moroder’s work made upon him, how he tried to emulate a sequencer using his guitar, and how this led directly to Chic’s ‘I Want Your Love’.
Chic – I Want Your Love (1978)
Nile also described how Sister Sledge recorded two songs which were originally written for Chic – ‘Thinking About You’ and ‘He’s The Greatest Dancer':
He explained how the ‘Disco Backlash’ arose out of a sports stadium promotion, which unexpectedly gained momentum nationally. As a result, Nile and Bernard found themselves consciously distancing themselves from Chic’s sound when they worked with Diana Ross in 1980:
I’m Coming Out!
Here, Nile describes collaborating with David Bowie on the song ‘Let’s Dance’ from the album of the same name (released in 1983.) David’s ‘concept’ for the album was a picture of Little Richard in a red suit getting into a red cadillac convertible – “That’s rock’n’roll!”
Nile has included this piece of film on his blog Friends of Chic, so I assume it’s OK to post it, and the other short pieces of film, on here.
A high point of the evening for Dave Haslam, the interviewer and organiser of the event, was introducing Nile Rodgers to Johnny Marr, who had come along as a member of the audience:
I was so impressed by Nile Rodgers at the Zion that on Saturday morning I booked myself a ticket for The Warehouse Project that night… it was one of the few WHP Store Street events which was not already sold out.
The concert wasn’t as dire as I feared: the set lasted for over an hour and there was a full band on stage. The acoustics were poor (from where I was standing) but the atmosphere was really good, although I heard people grumbling afterwards; there was general confusion about numbers like Madonna’s ‘Like A Virgin’ (which Nile produced) and Modjo’s ‘Lady’, which was based on a sample from Chic’s ‘Soup For One’. Some people clearly thought they’d been treated to a series of random cover versions.
Johnny Marr appeared on-stage for the last number (there wasn’t an encore) and I managed to capture the moment on film in a primitive fashion:
It was a good gig… and all the better for not being at The Bridgewater Hall, in terms of atmosphere if not acoustics… but the Zion Centre event was better still! (Although maybe I’m just old!)
When Nile Rodgers played guitar at Zion, he played on his own, and each song came alive… showing that his guitar is at the heart of each song… although it would be wrong to under-estimate bassist Bernard Edwards’ contribution. Nile described how pleased he and Bernard had been to create a song around a ‘walking bass-line’… Good Times. They always strove for simplicity but it was a standing joke between them that Nile had a tendency to ‘get complicated’.
It was really wonderful to hear Nile’s guitar so clearly at Zion – and this just wasn’t possible at Warehouse Project.
Johnny Marr’s appearance on stage with Chic was visually symbolic rather than musically affecting, as it was impossible for us to hear him play above the already distorted sound of the band.
At both events the crowds were overwhelmingly white… older people at the Zion and young (relatively wealthy) people at WHP. The older people at Zion were generally well-informed about Nile Rodgers’ work while many of those at WHP saw Chic by accident.
Dave Haslam held his event at Zion Centre with the black community in mind but his strategy wasn’t enough to tempt many local black soul fans over the threshold. Perhaps people were unenthused by the prospect of hearing a musician talk rather than play music!