When the F Word Sparked the Greatest Disco-Era Hit
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
Because rudeness sometimes begets greatness.
By Eugene S. Robinson
The black velvet rope outside the brushed steel entrance to New York City’s Studio 54 is where dreams went to die for many back in 1977. The door policy was strict, arbitrary and designed to do nothing but separate the cool kids from the not-so-cool ones standing on the sidewalk, waving their hands and screaming for Marc or Haoui, the gatekeepers of excessive excess.
Which is where guitarist Nile Rodgers and bassist Bernard Edwards found themselves on New Year’s Eve that year. Founders of the notable and noteworthy band Chic, the two men were sitting on top of two monster singles — “Dance, Dance, Dance (Yowsah, Yowsah, Yowsah)” and “Everybody Dance” — and confident that getting in was an easy get, mostly on account of having been assured they were guest-listed by their good friend disco diva Grace Jones.
[‘Le Freak’] and the stories surrounding it and disco culture — drugs, bathroom sex, dancing all night — got very popular, very fast.
JP Marsal, disc jockey
But even if Jones had remembered to add their names to the list, it still wouldn’t have been an easy get. Warren Beatty, Woody Allen, Diane Keaton, Cher and Frank Sinatra never got in, so while it should not have been a surprise when Rodgers and Edwards were waved away, for them it most certainly was. And they were pissed off as they headed back to Edwards’ apartment, Champagne in hand. Pissed off enough to start working on a Studio 54 tribute that had the chorus say, simply, “Ahh, fuck off!”
It was a good bit of fun to take away the sting of being found wanting, somehow minus the requisite level of cool. But before too long, the deceptively simple guitar riff and the sinewy bass line met syncopated hand claps and clipped vocals, and they had something. Something that still said, “Ahh, fuck off!”
Subbing words in, subbing words out, Rodgers and Edwards eventually settled on “Ahh, freak out!” and the song “Le Freak” was born. One of the best parts about it? The slyly subversive mid-song exhortation to “Just come on down, to 54 / Find a spot out on the floor.” Which was, you can be sure, totally untrue for probably 99 percent of people listening. That notwithstanding, the song was an instant hit: Billboard charts, a popular dance of the same name, the best-selling record ever for Atlantic Records and upward of 7 million sold back when people still paid for music. All that and weeks atop the charts in Austria, Belgium, Canada, France, Germany, Ireland, Italy, the Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, South Africa, Sweden, Switzerland and the U.K. Beyond that, the song went into remixes, TV shows, films and TV commercials. Essentially, everything everywhere.
“[‘Le Freak’] and the stories surrounding it and disco culture — drugs, bathroom sex, dancing all night — got very popular, very fast,” says JP Marsal, a DJ based in Lyon, France. “Like you might expect.”
Though Chic soon cruised into some superhard times when the “disco sucks” movement gained purchase in the 1980s and the worm started to turn, Rodgers and Edwards did not. Producing their asses off with everyone from Pharrell Williams to David Bowie and Daft Punk, Rodgers and Edwards abided.
By New Year’s Eve 1978, writes Will Hermes in Love Goes to Buildings on Fire: Five Years in New York That Changed Music Forever, “Le Freak” was at No. 1, and Rodgers had a VIP admission card to Studio 54. “But it meant less than it would have the year before.”