Nile Rodgers and co are to freak out at Castlefield Bowl for a summer party like no other. Shaun Ponsonby tells us why this is such great news.

Chic will play Manchester’s Castlefield Bowl later this year.

They should have headlined Glastonbury“. That was the cry we heard after their now legendary set. Even watching it on TV was astonishing. It was a totally unpretentious dance party that capitvated the packed-out Pyramid Stage.

It brought a tear to our eye. We recall Rodgers playing some nondescript festival, halfway down the bill about a decade ago. To see not only renewed popularity, but a wave of affection for him now is not only touching, but deserved.

His career has been extraordinary. One of his first paying jobs was as the house guitarist in Harlem’s legendary Apollo Theatre. If you don’t know the Apollo, you don’t know music. Pretty much every African-American act made it’s name at the Apollo, from James Brown to the Aretha Franklin. He played behind everyone who walked the boards. Following this, he played guitar for the group New York City, who had a smash with I’m Doing Fine. Touring with the group, he opened for the likes of The O’ Jays, Parliament-Funkadelic and The Jackson 5.

New York City named their backing musicians The Big Apple Band, and in the group Nile was joined by bass player Bernard Edwards, who became Nile‘s musical partner. They started doing their own gigs around New York.

The disco scene was emerging by this time. The white rock establishment would have you believe that disco was the worst thing that ever happened to music, but don’t believe a word of it. Large areas were impoverished, black pride, civil rights and women’s liberation were at a then-all-time high, and the Stonewall riots proved the catalyst in creating a surge in gay activism. Disco brought all of these communities together.

Re-naming themselves Chic, Nile and Bernard engaged with the emerging scene and recorded their first single Everybody Dance in studio downtime. The total cost of the session was $10, to bribe the elevator operator to take them up to the studio. Taking lead in the session, Rodgers and Edwards came into their own. To this day, those early Chic singles still sound incredible. Vibrant and fresh, perhaps only matched by Michael Jackson‘s Off The Wall. Take a listen to I Want Your Love, it is still powerful. Full, and fat. It still makes you stand to attention and dance.

Studio 54 was the ultimate discotheque, and a club of Caligula-levels of hedonism, still in a shroud of mystery and wonder to this day. Even the rock stars of the 60s who died in pools of their own vomit couldn’t match the debauchery of Studio 54. Hey, rock & rollers; anything you can do, we can do better.

But so damn exclusive was 54 that even Nile and Bernard couldn’t get in. When they were turned away, they ran around the corner and wrote a song in protest. “Ah! Fuck off!” they bellowed over the riff. It was too damn funky not to use, so they instead started screaming “Ah! Freak out! Le freak, cst’e Chic”. They weren’t turned away again.

Disco wasn’t outwardly political, and you’ll be hard pressed to find a disco protest song. But it is telling that Le Freak was born out of a sort of protest song, one that bemoaned exclusion. It spelt the beginning of the end of the disco movement, and it could have spelled the end of Chic’s career, but Nile and Bernard got a lucky break.

They continued producing big hits – in fact Good Times was number one during the infamous Disco Demolition Night, which then eventually became a catalyst in hip-hop with it’s bassline sampled in The Sugarhill Gang‘s Rapper’s Delight. The head of Atlantic Records encouraged them to produce hits for other groups on their roster. They chose to work with Sister Sledge and produced a handful of hits over the next few years; We Are Family, He’s The Greatest Dancer, Lost In Music, Frankie. 

The Chic hits may have dried up not long after, but the hits continued elsewhere. In 1980, they had been contracted to work on Diana Ross‘ final album for Motown. It is hard to convey what a big deal this was. Diana Ross was, in commercial terms, the absolute Queen of Motown. She fronted their biggest group, introduced the Jackson 5 to the world, was the vehicle used to bring the company into television and movies. To be contracted to make her final Motown album was huge.

We decided we would interview Diana Ross before we wrote a word of music,” Nile told the BBC. “We wanted to know who she was as a person. She sat there and told us everything. She told us she was going to turn her world Upside Down. That’s her title, those are her words. We turned it into a song.”

There was some behind the scenes shenanigans that led to the album, titled diana, being remixed by Motown. But it ended up being Miss Ross‘ biggest selling album, generating huge hits such as Upside Down, I’m Coming Out and My Old Piano.

Nile and Bernard starting drifting apart due to the classic trappings of rock & roll. Rodgers released the solo album Adventures In The Land of Groove. David Bowie was a fan of the record, and approached Rodgers to produce his next album. He presented Nile with a folk song called Let’s Dance. “I thought ‘If we call this song Let’s Dance, I come from dance music, we better make people dance’…David couldn’t believe how I transformed his little guitar thing.

I saidDavid, did I make this too funky?’, and he said ‘Is there such a thing?’ Absolutely, brother! I hear you!”

Once again, Nile gave an icon their biggest selling album with the Let’s Dance record. It produced hits such as the title track, China Girl and Modern Love. 

Rodgers has said that Bowie showed him a photograph of Little Richard in a red suit getting into a bright red Cadillac, saying “Nile, darling, that’s what I want my album to sound like.”

One of the influences behind the Let’s Dance album was the horn section was Southside Johnny & The Asbury Jukes, especially their horn section. Within the industry, The Jukes’ had become cult figures, helped in no small part by their association with Bruce Springsteen. Ironically, The Jukes’ had worked with Nile the year before on their Trash It Up album, an ill-fated attempt to become a dance music/post-disco act rather than the rock-infused R&B that they had been known for. In a way, you can hear the influence of that record on Let’s Dance, as well as their powerful horn section.

The hits kept coming – INXSOriginal Sin, Duran Duran‘s The Reflex and Notorious. Nile would, in his own words, “reconstruct” the songs and sprinkle his funky pixey dust.

There was an up and coming artist hungry for worldwide domination watching Nile‘s rise. “She used to say that she was going to be the biggest star in the world. I would introduce her to someone really famous and Madonna wasn’t, and she’d say ‘Hi, I’m Madonna. I’m gonna be like the biggest star in the world.'”

She undoubtedly became that, and she wouldn’t have achieved it without Nile. She’d had hits with Borderline and Holiday, but with Like a Virgin, Madonna became a phenomenon. It made her a blockbuster star alongside Michael Jackson and Prince, and gave us a series of iconic images. Rodgers’ production is as perfect as ever, and anybody who doesn’t find themselves dancing around the living room at least intermittently should probably re-asses their priorities. The title track, Material Girl, Dress You Up, Angel. The record ushered in the Age of Madonna and has sold a whopping 21 million copies, making it Nile‘s most successful album.

Nile’s production work carried on throughout the 80s and 90s and he collaborated either as a producer or musician with everyone from Paul Simon to The Thompson Twins, through Peter Gabriel and Michael Jackson.

One of the more interesting projects for us is David Lee Roth‘s 1994 album Your Filthly Little Mouth. Leaving aside that Nile Rodgers producing an album by the Van Halen frontman is bizarre in itself, it also neither sounds like a Nile Rodgers or a David Lee Roth album. It is steeped in jazz fusuion, dance, reggae, R&B, big band, rock, blues and even has a country song as a duet with Travis Tritt.

Demand for Nile, however, reached it’s nadir by the mid-00s. His partner Bernard Edwards passed away following a Chic gig in 1996. Nile himself had been diagnosed with an extremely aggressive form of cancer, and was advised to “get his affairs in order”. Then Daft Punk called.

Get Lucky, his collaboration with Daft Punk and Pharrell Williams, became one of the defining hits of the last few years, not only ushering in the current disco/funk renaissance, but reinvigorating Nile‘s career. Chic began playing to bigger and bigger audiences. Headlining the West Holts stage at Glastonbury in 2013, he busted the 35,000 capacity with 55,000 showing up to watch him get down. At the end of it all, he was cancer-free, and ready to start on a new chapter.

With a new Chic album on the way, and a wealth of hits to play – yes, Chic play those Diana Ross, Madonna and David Bowie songs on stage – this is a summer date not to miss, and a party like no other. Freak out.

Chic & Nile Rodgers play Manchester’s Castlefield Bowl on June 27th 2018. Tickets are on sale now.