Chad Parkhill takes us for a tour through the world of weird, wonderful and unexpectedly danceable tunes. iPods at the ready: it’s time for part four of this special five-part blog series.
Norma Jean Wright, ‘I Like Love’
When Daft Punk’s ‘Get Lucky’ became a number one single in Australia on May 12 of this year, it did more than merely signal the long-awaited return of the world’s favourite robot-helmeted duo. Aside from being a shot in the arm for the flagging career of Pharrell Williams (whose recent solo work has been – let’s be honest – received with deserved indifference), it also marked the return of Nile Rodgers’s signature guitar style to the charts. It was no accident that Daft Punk chose ‘Get Lucky’ as the lead single from their latest album Random Access Memories – aside from the fact that it’s an excellent piece of bubblegum disco-pop, it also makes the album’s back-to-the-future production style and aesthetic plain by slathering Rodgers’s guitar work everywhere.
Even if you don’t know who Nile Rodgers is, if you have turned on a radio at some stage over the past forty years you will have heard his guitar work, all of it played on one single 1953 Fender Stratocaster (retrofitted with a 1960 neck). Aside from his first band, Chic – responsible for a raft of disco hits including ‘Everybody Dance’, ‘Good Times’ and ‘Le Freak’ – he has co-written, produced, or otherwise appeared on a number of tracks that are not so much ‘well-known’ as part of the twentieth century’s musical fabric: Madonna’s ‘Like a Virgin’, David Bowie’s ‘Let’s Dance’, INXS’s ‘Original Sin’, Diana Ross’s ‘Upside Down’, Sister Sledge’s ‘We Are Family’, The B52s’ ‘Roam’. This is before we consider the number of times he has been sampled, and the songs that have stemmed from those samples (including Sugarhill Gang’s ‘Rapper’s Delight’, the first ever commercially successful rap single, and Modjo’s ‘Lady (Hear Me Tonight)’). When he appeared as a headliner for 2012’s Golden Plains festival, several of my friends said, ‘Who?’, and had to be cajoled to attend his performance. By the end of his set – which incorporated nearly all of the songs listed above – we were all grinning like idiots, astounded by the extent to which Rodgers had shaped the sound of popular music since the late seventies.
We were hardly the only ones to notice. Rodgers’s life and career have recently been the subject of a critical re-evaluation prompted by the release of his memoir, Le Freak: An Upside Down Story of Family, Disco, and Destiny, and the comprehensive four-disc Chic box set Savoir Faire (which promises to be the first of many). What is curious about this critical re-evaluation, though, is the manner in which it shapes our access to the music that Rodgers has worked on. In essence, it picks winners and losers from a vast discography, rendering some tracks more accessible than others. Nowhere is this more acute than Norma Jean Wright’s ‘I Like Love’, a track that Rodgers and his production partner Bernard Edwards wrote, produced and helped perform for her eponymous debut album, Norma Jean. Quite why this little gem of a track has been sidelined from overviews of Rodgers’s career remains baffling to me, given that many less worthy tracks – including the relatively flaccid Debbie Harry number ‘Backfired’ – continue to be considered integral parts of the Rodgers/Chic canon.
The pleasures of ‘I Like Love’ are simple, but instructive. The track opens with that signature Rodgers guitar sound – clean, plangent, precise, and laden with its own inherent percussion. Bernard Edwards’s warm, rich bass shortly joins. Then the sucker punch: Norma Jean’s breathy vocal rushes in, bringing with it drums, syrupy strings, and horns – all of the ingredients required for classic disco. Lyrically speaking, it isn’t terribly profound – don’t most of us also like love? – nor is it musically very complex, but this simplicity only underscores the quality of Rodgers and Edwards’s arrangement and playing. There are no tricks in the song’s progression – just chorus, verses, then an extended breakdown and buildup to the song’s climactic, and ecstatic, restatement of its theme. It’s utterly simple, but, despite this, very few contemporary dance music producers are writing songs of this calibre, preferring instead to oversaturate their tracks with screaming synthesisers and stadium-shaking sub-bass.
Despite the fact that Norma Jean was released by one of the highest-profile independent record labels of its day (Bearsville) and distributed by a major label (Warner Brothers), it remains relatively neglected today. The vinyl edition is long out of print, and the most recent reissue (in 2011) was by Edsel records, a relatively obscure British reissues label without a major-label distributor. You can, of course, buy it on iTunes (and I encourage you to do so), but it’s highly unlikely that many copies have been shifted that way – in the face of so much choice, consumers tend to focus on a small number of winners, and many millions of tracks listed on iTunes have not yet sold a single copy. Thus despite its major-label history and hitmaker pedigree, ‘I Like Love’ remains relatively unknown and definitely under-appreciated – a hidden banger if ever there was one.
Chad Parkhill is the Festival Manager of the National Young Writers’ Festival. His work has appeared in The Australian, The Lifted Brow, Meanjin, and The Quietus, among others.