Bargain Bin Babylon: Chic: Risqué

Bargain Bin Babylon: Chic: Risqué

If you don’t already have a copy on vinyl, it won’t cost you much to correct that.

The bargain bin isn’t just for curious also-rans and rightfully forgotten schlock. There are albums that regularly turn up for peanuts that are intrinsically worth far more. One essential record that can still be acquired for a song is Chic’s 1979 album Risqué.

It opens with the walking bassline that launched 1,000 samples and gave birth to hip-hop. The anthemic “Good Times” and Bernard Edwards’ bass alone makes this one of the great vinyl bargains. And despite a seemingly hedonistic lead single that defined the disco era, it’s a more somber record of the period than it first appears. So not only is it inexpensive entertainment, it’s cultural history that proves even dancefloor bestsellers can use a groove to hide a dark backstory.

The black and white artwork evokes nostalgia much like Chic’s 1977 single “Dance, Dance, Dance” called up the past with the “Yowsah, yowsah, yowsah” reference to the Depression-set drama They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? Spoiler alert: the movie didn’t end well. The strings that defined Chic from its first album weren’t unusual in disco, but the stabbing lines were; the slicing violin figures suggested Bernard Hermann’s score to the shower scene in Psycho. What’s with that violence anyway?

Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards made some of the greatest dance music in pop history, and the infectious grooves were sometimes inspired by fury. The multi-platinum breakthrough single “Le Freak” was, after all, based on their anger at being turned away at Studio 54; the chant was originally written as “Fuck Off”—to the minders of the velvet rope. Rodgers had his revenge, as he eventually set up unofficial office space in a women’s room at the club, and did lots of cocaine.

Coke was everywhere in that scene—“Clams on the half-shell/ And roller skates” puts things mildly. Rodgers, who has since gone clean, acknowledges that rampant drugs were a wildly destructive byproduct of the boatloads of money that the band earned from its blockbuster success. As celebratory as “Good Times” seems, there’s a hint of awareness that the party is fleeting. “I heard a rumor that it’s getting late/…you will fool, you can’t change your fate.” You can try to skate away from it, but you can’t, and the rest of the album takes a somber turn.

Chic was one of the rare disco bands who could spin a good ballad, and like “At Last I Am Free” from C’est Chic, “A Warm Summer Night” grounds Risqué, radically turning down the bpm but turning up the heat with a sultry plea for love from Papi. “My Feet Keep Dancing,” the album’s third single, pretty much throws disco under the bus: “Fly into space or maybe save the human race/ All these things seem so appealing/ But I’ll never get the chance/ ’cause all I do is dance.” For one of the premier disco bands to lament that all that dancing is a waste of time is striking.

Oddly, while many rock singers rage against the two-timing women of so many blues songs, Rodgers and Edwards, give singers Alfa Anderson and Luci Martin plenty of material that chastises no-good men. “My Forbidden Lover,” the album’s second single, is addressed to a rogue, but the distraught women can’t help themselves: “You want to love everybody and everything you can/ You’re the typical man/ Yet still and all, I’m at your beck and call.” This is one of Chic’s great deep cuts, leading the B-side with a walking bassline that doesn’t lead to good times but to heartache, and it’s melodic and rhythmic shifts capture a volatile emotion with slick professionalism and a driving obsession—the chorus builds in a way that it could cycle indefinitely; like the narrator of its sad romantic tale, its tension is never resolved.

While the side-openers are the dance tracks for the ages, closer “What About Me” ends the concept with still more bitterness: “I gave my love don’t you see/ Now you got yours what about me.” So if Queen copped the “Good Times” line, in simplified form, for “Another One Bites the Dust,” it’s an apt next chapter in the concept: when “the bullets rip,” it’s death by dancing. Dramatizing the studio moment when that riff was handed to Freddie Mercury, Bohemian Rhapsody doesn’t acknowledge the debt to Chic. But you know where it comes from, and if you don’t already have a copy on vinyl, it won’t cost you much to correct that.

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