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Bargain Bin Babylon: Sister Sledge: We Are Family

As of press time, disco records may be your best bargain-bin value. KC and the Sunshine Band’s terrific early albums can be had for a song, and that goes for the run of Chic albums that paved the way for the modern dancefloor. In fact, one of the greatest albums to come out of the Bernard Edwards–Nile Rodgers stable—in other words, out of one of the great R&B-pop-disco factories of all time—can be had for less than a cup of coffee. The songwriting-production duo sold millions of records while reinventing dance music, with Edwards’ bass and Rodgers’ guitar building on their predecessors’ innovations and creating a thoroughly distinct and completely accessible music. Theirs was a groove that, with or without the extracurricular substances that in part inspired them, is immediately absorbed into the nervous system by means of deep, irresistible vibrations. And in Sister Sledge, whose breakout We are Family is one of Rodgers’ proudest moments, the hedonistic ‘70s met a wholesome family act that to some degree pushed against the prevailing mores of the me-decade. Which makes their best-known album, which begins with Studio 54-style sexuality and wraps up with the ultimate family anthem, a concept album nearly on a par with George Clinton’s longform observations of repression and freedom.

We are Family opens with one of the essential disco singles. “He’s the Greatest Dancer” is built on the quintessential Edwards-Rodgers template, with nary a melody in earshot; yet that all-timer groove steps up from its funk antecedents; think of the James Brown group of just 10 years earlier, the “live” album version of “Sex Machine” maintaining its confident pulse for 11 minutes: the basic, steady rhythm section is deceptively simple, yet over the course of nearly a whole album side (anticipating 12” extended mixes?), that chicken-scratch funk guitar and bass form the building blocks of a structure that’s both completely logical and physically irresistible. What do Edwards and Rodgers do with this malleable, sensual concrete? They coke it up; the white stuff was all over Studio 54 in the band’s heyday, and you can hear it in the evolution of the rhythm scratch, more frenetic, in the bass, more complex, the rhythms layered and dense with percussion, in the spirit of JB’s insistence that every instrument played the part of a drum.

One could write a whole book, or at least an essay, on “He’s the Greatest Dancer” alone, and its power was so formidable that they resisted at least part of its message at first. According to Rodgers’ memoir. Le Freak. Edwards and Rodgers were looking for the right act to take on to spread their sonic wings. Sister Sledge had released a number of albums before they met the team, and a family act seemed like a perfect way to reach beyond the clubgoer audience drawn to “Le Freak” and get to something even more universal. Rodgers writes that he considers We are Family “our best album, hands down.” But it wasn’t as harmonious as it’s blockbuster title single would indicate. The Sledges—Kathie, Debbie, Kim and Joni—came from an entertainment family; their father danced on Broadway, and their mother was an actress; their grandmother sang opera. Yet the sisters were also religious background, and had misgivings about “He’s the Greatest Dancer,” particularly the line, “My crème de la crème/ Please take me home.” Rodgers tried to convince them that the lyric wasn’t about the degeneracy of a clean-cut young woman, but about the sexual power of this larger-than-life dancer.

Leading with that bone of contention makes the rest of the album spin out something like a disco morality play. “Lost in Music,” the Sisters’ third-best track, continues the theme of the groove taking over the mind, but the family brings it all together on the title track, which as soon as it was released seem to be an inescapable part of the industrial world’s soundscape. “He’s the Greatest Dancer” had a murkier sound profile, and for all the strobe light gymnastics it suggested, the club staple was as much about an interior state—Rodgers was right about that lyric, and the very velocity of its guitar and bass lines seem to convey at once the singer’s excitement and anxiety at his moves. On the other hand, “We are Family” wound up brighter, the big chords opening up the heart and body, all in the name of unity and something far more reliable than a one-night stand: a strong family unit. The song has been everywhere, all over the world, ever since, and it’s easy to imagine that somebody might be sick of its superficially easy optimism. But remember, the group had been around since 1971,

So as the tempo simmers down for “You’re a Friend to Me,” the music and lyrics in tandem seem to say, in the midst of a commercial breakthrough, hey, let’s slow down: this is what we’re here for, this is what it’s about; not the empty promise and heavy cologne of that dancer, but the steady love of friendship. What a gift is that We are Family, even in its original vinyl issue, is as affordable as ever; such musical and inevitably spiritual comfort is within reach of everybody.

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