Chic: Le Freak
he other day it struck me that music does not ever get better than the middle to end bit of “Le Freak” by Chic, the bit where the strings come in. Never. Not once. (If you’re using the 3:27 “radio edit,” it’s at around the 1:40 mark. I think)
I don’t know how or why I’d chosen not to notice it before. Chic are just taken for granted so often, as just kind of being there, a fact of life, the convenient touchstone for when you fancy proving how utterly not rockist at all you are by saying “Ah yeah, but disco wasn’t all crap,” and even more conveniently for when you fancy saying “Yeah, this modern dance music’s shit, it’s all knobs and things—now Chic, they could play their instruments! Personally I blame Pete Waterman, though obviously Kylie’s great…” I remember randomly tuning into Heart FM one night and hearing them play some Chic and thinking, “Yes! Disco! I will listen to this station forever!” before realising that Jono Coleman was grunting in my ear about London’s Best Music Mix and here’s Ronan Keating and after that news and travel with the lovely Claire then another Heart FM All-Time Classic from Whitney Houston.
In Britain, trying to develop any kind of methodology about disco is dodgy because in Britain the history of disco has been claimed by a) middle-aged talking heads on Channel 4 who think that arguing for the genius of ‘Yes Sir I Can Boogie’ represents some kind of swerve; b) Jono fucking Coleman. Trying to spot genius in amongst British daytime radio is murder. Sometimes it’s there, sometimes you can notice that this record is quite nice, and here’s Scott Mills prank calling Yvette Fielding so that’ll be time to get back to seeing if you really can bash your brains out with a stapler, then. Pop music in Britain is not given space of any kind beyond being convenient filler for the speakings of Vernon Kay. Go to the adult stations and yes, Ken Bruce is happy to play you the whole of “I Feel Love,” but he’s even happier to play you exclusive tracks off the new Natalie Imbruglia album. As for the alternative stations—well, as pointed out in The UK Singles Jukebox this week, that new Art Brut single is a little bit on the special side. Ian Camfield, however, thinks they’re too “weird.” Because the alternative has nothing to do with that shit, eh Ian?
So there was me, liking disco and failing to notice that at 1:40 of “Le Freak” Chic seemed to have unlocked the meaning of life, because in Britain disco is what happens ten minutes before it’s time to Say “Ciao, Pépé!” To The Cayman Islands In Association With Smooth-Tasting Nescafé Gold Blend. Course, there’s the other extreme, where you see people dancing to “Le Freak” and DARING to TALK TO each OTHER and occasionally they are LAUGHING and you want to scream GET AWAY FROM BERNARD EDWARDS YOU ARE NOT WORTHY 1500 WORDS ON WHY “WATERLOO” IS SUPERIOR TO THE ENTIRE RECORDED OUTPUT OF BLOC PARTY ON MY DESK TUESDAY MORNING. This, obviously, is not desirable.
But yes, the meaning of life. The meaning of life is, in all probability, either crushingly simple or infinitely beyond our comprehension, and that section of “Le Freak” feels like it’s both at once. Maybe I couldn’t spot it because I fell into the whole “disco as formula” idea, that a certain set of sounds or sequence of noises can add up to a dancefloor, that disco was a five-letter word next to preset #4 on the Casio keyboards at school. Somehow, though, I failed to get the feeling that I got the other day, that the whole of popular music is like the Hebrew people on Mount Sinai to this one minute or so of utter Moses, a towering stack of sound that doesn’t go forward but rather up, directly up, into light that blinds and dazzles. Your mind ceases because everything else has overcome it and Chic have got you utterly supine, incapable of anything beyond sensation, knowing nothing before, during or beyond The Moment, defying your self, destroying the resistance, leaving emotions for dead because emotions cannot contain this.
(Initially I swore it was the bassline that did the lifting, then I listened harder—that bassline doesn’t change at all in this bit. The same phrase, over and over. The same for the guitar. No pitch alteration, volume alteration, nothing. Just the same, looping, not changing but never going away. It’s all one.)
“I-Say-FREAK!” The singers came to snap me back into the state. If you’ve still not got what bit this is (and judging by my usual descriptive skills that’s more than likely) it’s the bit that gets announced: “Now FREAK!” Then bass, then bass, and that’s why I thought it was the bass because OH, BASS! All through my life the things I listened to music on used bass solely for the purposes of making the room look bigger. Bernard Edwards uses the bass for sculpture. Bernard Edwards makes me want to write about musical concepts I have no understanding of because he makes the bass guitar sound like the instrument that they used to make the earth. I dream of flying through wireframe landscapes of Snowdonia with a green neon outline of Bernard Edwards playing bass in between the peaks, slaloming across the land and making the earthforms as he goes, like making grooves with your fingers in soft, giving, smooth clay, bending and twisting through the surface because you have been given the ability to so do, and it’d be such a waste not to.
(I want to write about Tony Thompson, because when he died I had no idea who he was, so when I found out he was the drummer in Chic I felt like a right arse. Tony’s role appears to mainly involve tapping and brushing briskly on the cymbals while keeping the kick-drum steady, pausing only to announce the beginning of the ascendant minute by quickly doing a tour of the rest of the kit. He may just be keeping the rhythm, but Chic’s rhythm was The Rhythm, and The Rhythm requires The Drummer. I don’t notice him much, but I know this wouldn’t be happening without him holding it all together.)
Bass and guitar have these mesmeric phrases they loop on, and on, bass sculpting, moulding, pushing and shaping, while Nile Rodgers’ guitar holds your hand to take you there, pulling as the bass pushes, every quiver urgent and sharp, desperate to bring you with it. You can almost sense the straining as they fuse, the song keeps threatening to get away from them but they hold themselves together, keeping that loop going, staying steady and tight yet still operating at a tempo and energy that most would take as the height of rocking out.
And in the back, what you don’t notice is actually getting you high, the strings playing one continuous note that rises every time they reach the end of the loop, like slapping the typewriter cartridge back into place (except not, because Murder She Wrote really is bloody awful), the air getting thinner with every step till you think you can’t get any higher. And then the singers come back in. “I-Say-FREAK!” And suddenly it does get higher. Then higher again. And again. Everything is louder and clearer. The light is fucking dazzling. You feel like you can reach out and touch them. There’s handclaps, slow, dragging handclaps, but bloody loud handclaps, like a million hooded cloaks along the runway, lighting the way upwards, in-ex-or-a-ble. “Now freak!” This time, it’s less insistent, like it’s seen you and is starting to doubt whether you can take much more. Rodgers’ guitar suddenly jerks a note out of place. You’re still rising. Even Edwards sounds like he’s having a job keeping it together. You’re still rising. The strings sound like they’re about to evaporate from exhaustion, yet still they strain, and you are still rising…
Then a swift slide back down Bernard’s fretboard, and it’s back to the main bit of the song again. It’s still fast without having to shout about it, still shaping the thin air into solid groove, but now you’ve seen what it can do, and you’re almost overcome. All this time, Tony Thompson’s been keeping that same rhythm, and you can sense him quietly chuckling to himself. Chic have just taken you on the best ride in the whole of popular music. Coming up after the news, Lucie Silvas.