In 1863, the Salon des Refusés was launched to counter the conservative aesthetics enforced by the Academy of Fine Arts in the annual Paris Salon. That year, the “rejects” included such later revered painters as Manet, Courbet, Whistler, Pissarro and Cezanne. Perhaps it is now time to establish a Salon des Refusés for the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame‘s rejects.
The rules of eligibility for induction to the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame include:
Besides demonstrating unquestionable musical excellence and talent, inductees will have had a significant impact on the development, evolution and preservation of rock & roll.
And yet many artists who have had huge impacts on the development and evolution of rock & roll have been snubbed over and over, including: Kraftwerk, Chic, Big Star, Roxy Music, Brian Eno, New York Dolls, T. Rex, Television, The Slits, X-Ray Spex, Sonic Youth, Joy Division.
This year, Nile Rodgers will be honored with the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame’s Award for Musical Excellence, presumably for his work on records by everyone from Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Inductees Diana Ross (as part of The Supremes), Madonna and David Bowie to Sister Sledge, Duran Duran and Daft Punk. And yet, Chic, the band Rodgers formed with Bernard Edwards, has been overlooked yet again. Always a nominee (11 times), never an inductee.
It’s understandable why Rodgers finds this a bit disconcerting:
It’s sort of bittersweet. I’m a little perplexed because even though I’m quite flattered that they believed that I was worthy, my band Chic didn’t win. They plucked me out of the band and said, “You’re better than Chic.” That’s wacky to me. The only reason why I met Bowie and Madonna and Duran Duran and INXS is because they all loved Chic.
Chic‘s biggest hit was “Le Freak”:
What began as a bitter response to being denied entrance to the notoriously exclusive Studio 54, even though headliner Grace Jones had invited them, “Le Freak” would become one of disco’s defining songs after the “fuck off” chorus was changed to “freak out.”
But the band’s most influential track was certainly “Good Times”:
It would later be appropriated* as the backing track for Sugarhill Gang’s “Rapper’s Delight,” arguably the first true rap record:
And with only the slightest of modifications, it became the bass line for Rock & Roll Hall of Fame Inductees Queen‘s “Another One Bites the Dust”:
As Chic’s bass player Bernard Edwards explained:
Well, that Queen record came about because that bass player… spent some time hanging out with us at our studio. But that’s O.K. What isn’t O.K. is that the press… started saying that we had ripped them off! Can you believe that? ‘Good Times’ came out more than a year before, but it was inconceivable to these people that black musicians could possibly be innovative like that. It was just these dumb disco guys ripping off this rock ‘n’ roll song.
And that may explain why Chic has not been welcomed into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame. Chic played disco. And disco has never gotten the respect it deserves. Especially in 1979.
At the height of the “Disco Sucks” movement, DJ Steve Dahl organized the “Disco Demolition” between games of a baseball double-header at Chicago’s Comiskey Park (well, it was supposed to be between games, but the second game was forfeited after rioting tore up the field).
It is hard to miss the racism and, especially, homophobia inherent in the anti-disco movement, which pitted “gay” dance music against “manly” rock and roll. (Richard Dyer wrote a well argued “In Defence of Disco” at the time, but an article in Gay Left, a British “socialist journal produced by gay men,” was not likely to be read by, much less persuade this crowd.)
And that is the social context in which Rodgers and Edwards wrote and produced the Diana album. They were aware of the anthemic possibilities of the song “I’m Coming Out,” . . .
. . . but Rodgers claims they downplayed that reading of the song to “Miss Ross”:
We went to this transvestite club but everyone went there. I went to the bathroom and I happened to notice on either side there were a bunch of Diana Ross impersonators. I ran outside and called Bernard and told him about it and said, ‘What if we recognize Diana Ross’s really cool alignment with her fan base in the gay community?’ So we sat down and wrote, ‘I’m Coming Out.’ Meanwhile Diana took a rough mix to the top DJ in the country who hated it and she came back really down in the dumps and she asked us, ‘Why are you trying to ruin my career?’ She asked us point blank if this was a gay record and if people were going to think she was gay. It’s the only time in my life I’ve ever lied to an artist. I looked her straight in the eye and said, ‘Are you kidding?’
The Motown diva was still hesitant, though, and the song was remixed before it was released, downplaying the disco horns and chicka-chicka guitar, accentuating the drums, and shortening the intro before her vocals come in:
Still an amazing song, but a bit less disco.
There was a time I, too, thought “disco sucks,” but Chic, along with Rock & Roll Hall of Fame inductee Donna Summer‘s “I Feel Love,” unlocked the groove for me, leading me to finally hear the similarities between disco and other repetitive music I appreciated by “serious” musicians like Steve Reich, Neu!, Suicide and Spacemen 3. I realized the distinction between “listening music” that appealed to the mind and “dance music” that appealed to the body was an artificial and elitist distinction. Plus, what’s so bad about appealing to the body anyway?
My girlfriend at the time I was reacquainting myself with disco and filling in the large gap in my music collection claimed to hate disco, yet even she loved “At Last I Am Free” when I played it without telling her it was Chic:
Chic surely deserves to be inducted into the Rock & Roll Hall of Fame, both for its “unquestionable musical excellence” and its “significant impact on the development, evolution and preservation of rock & roll.”
* Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards had to sue for co-writing credit, the first of several battles involving the song: many corroborate early South Bronx MC Grandmaster Caz’s claim that the song’s lyrics were stolen from him and two past members have sued so they can use the name Sugarhill Gang, along with the all too usual fights over royalties.