‘…The best pop does what Bogart and Brando and Monroe have done in films – it has to be intelligent and simple, carry its implications lightly and it has to be fast, funny, sexy, obsessive and a bit epic.’ Nik Cohn, Awopbopaloobop Alopbambboom.
‘…We had no idea people were taking it seriously.’ – Bernie Edwards, Chic.
There comes a moment during the epic breakdown of Chic’s sumptuous dance-floor classic I Want Your Love (some 4min 16 seconds into the song) – just after the frantic motif pumped out first by silky strings, then by rasping horns, and then by strings again -where guitarist Nile Rodgers’ nagging, insistent jazz vamps that underpin this sequence (and all of Chic’s oeuvre) slide mellifluously up the fretboard to a synapse-tickling inversion that jumps out at you like a rattle-snake from a bush. A small thing really, a guitarist sliding up his fretboard, nothing special in that you might think, but in the context of this song – emerging as it does out of a groove that is as tightly wound as the coils of a suspension bridge – it is…sublime.
I feel sorry for those that cannot appreciate pop. You know the types of people I mean (usually men, it has to be said), the kind of ‘real’ music snobs who wouldn’t know a good tune if it crawled into bed beside them and started touching with cold fingers; the kind of cloth-eared bigots who seem happy to exist in that parochial musical backwater where everything is high-minded and deathly serious. To the rock snob (or the jazz snob, or the classical snob) pop is cheap, disposable artifice; the lowest common-denominator which they – with their talk of ‘art’ ‘integrity’ ‘authenticity’ – gaze down on from a privileged position of assured superiority. Strangely enough, these are often the very same people who claim to like and understand an artist like Bob Dylan, someone whose artistic persona is no more real than Girls Aloud’s (despite emerging in 1962 with a sound very much like a wheezing, eighty-year old hobo folk bluesman, Dylan was in fact a 21 year old middle class Jewish boy from Hibbing Minnesota, he did not – however much he may sound like it – come down from the Appalachian mountains). And that’s the key here really: all music is artifice, it just depends on whether you are prepared to admit it or not. It is often only pop music that fearlessly nails its colours to the mast.
The usual reaction I encounter when rhapsodising on behalf of Chic is one of barely concealed mirth. Disco? The rock snob snorts, nose shrivelling as if he’s bitten into something bitter, disco? In a way, of course, they can hardly be blamed for their lack of appreciation. Most pop music is rubbish, especially today, where the double edged sword of increasing democracy has bought about an over-saturation that has effectively diluted the quality of people’s ears to the point where they might as well not have any. Most people can make music now, and unfortunately they do. In the face of this a person has to choose, and it is often easier to choose to ignore it all. But then again, most rock music is rubbish for the same reasons, and deafness to an entire lineage of pop-culture means simultaneously turning your ears away from some of the greatest music ever made. Likewise, hating pop, or a pop sub-genre like disco, per se, is as daft as hating the blues, or the sun, or oxygen.
Lets go back to I Want Your Love, and unpack this song a little further. First there’s form: Bernie Edwards ridiculously low-slung, sub-atomic bass rumbles; Nile Rodger’s slick, relentless rhythm guitar; Tony Thompson’s pounding metronomic drumming – played with the kind of discipline and attack not usually found outside the confines of a jazz club – all offset by lovely, aching minor chords on the piano; sharp soaring strings; gloomy bells chiming along with the chorus, and garnished on top with strangely dispassionate vocals coolly intoning a tale of near-obsessional love in starkly minimal couplets. The whole thing is ruthlessly spare, equally terse and sardonic in tone, and held together as tightly as a Swiss watch. Most of Chic’s music is like this – sleek, clean lines, no decoration, but inordinate rhythmic and harmonic complexity: modernism basically. But then there’s content: lyrically, as well as musically, Edward’s and Rogers’ work is peppered with references to both contemporary reality and to the ‘dance-band’ pop-culture of the forties and fifties (‘bopshoowop, bopshoowop’, ‘yowsa, yowsa, yowsa’), their music being as much to do with Cole Porter and George Gershwin as it is to do with cocaine and studio 54 – a position which allows them room to be both active participants and critical commentators of the disco ‘lifestyle’. Their simple lyrics, while seemingly verging on the banal, actually encompass a distanced irony that is so faint most ears just dance on oblivious: post-modernism then. All in all, this produces a curious ambiguity: though this is music for the dance floor – a strongly accentuated up-tempo beat, euphoric harmonic and melodic thrust – it is also tinged with an unnameable fatalistic melancholia epitomising the inevitably finite pleasures inherent in disco’s hedonism. These are the best days of your life, Chic’s music says, but they will soon be over. Sigh. There is a touch of this tricky happy/sad balancing-act in most great pop Chic pull it off time and again with wit, elegance and style. So you see, Chic’s music is both head music, and blissed-out trance music: a dreamy groove to luxuriate in; a subtly nuanced funk balm for mind, body and soul, made by two of the most sophisticated musicians of the post-war period. And I thought this was just a disco song?
Pop music is often described as escapist, and it is, but not in the shallow way that implies. The best pop music is spiritual; transcendental even. Nothing can lift you from the heavy realities of everyday existence quite like the breathless rush of a good pop song. For three minutes, (more or less) you can take a trip to an alternate universe; a universe of extreme pain and joy where everything will – nevertheless – be all right. To be (to quote another Chic produced masterpiece) Lost in Music, is to hang in suspended animation; heart-beating; hair prickling on the back of the neck; chest inflated (as Baudelaire would have it) ‘like sailcloth’ – and it remains one of the few pure sensual pleasures left to us in this increasingly commodified world. And while listening to ‘serious’ music is fine – I like grey, it’s a nice shade, in its way – what about all the other colours of the rainbow? Sure, sometimes a man wants to listen to nothing but Leonard Cohen and Neil Young, but sometimes he wants to shake his skinny white ass and bellow along to the sassy enchantment of the Supremes with all the force his weak heart can muster. This is nothing to be ashamed of. The right pop tune, in the right circumstances, is akin to an intravenous injection of pure unabashed life, and there’s nothing embarrassing about that. Besides which, there is a pop song out there to mirror every experience, every emotion.
As the late, great Ian MacDonald has pointed out, listening to music is a tripartite process: a person either responds primarily to lyrics, to the music, or to the ‘lifestyle’ elements of any particular piece of music. Most fans respond first and foremost to the cultural elements of any given music: they simply want to hear their ownidea of themselves projected back at them. Seen correctly, for what it actually is, fear of pop is predicated on an elitist loathing of the ‘masses’ and mass-taste, as evidenced by the fact that the rock snob’s favourite swear-word is ‘commercial’, as if pop’s aspirations alone are enough to rule it out for any kind of serious consideration. Perversely, obscurity here becomes a badge of honour. The logic runs that if it’s popular it can’t be good, but if it’s unpopular it must be good, it must be ‘authentic’. But this is simply not balanced. While it’s perfectly true that there are great artists who sell nothing, it is also equally true that many artists deservedly sell nothing because they are, well, rubbish. Likewise, the charts are often full of crap, but there is still often great music to be found among them as well. All it takes is a bit of critical distance. When you are able to lose the cultural baggage which renders pop as disposable as a Big-Mac carton, and gain the objectivity needed to truly hear music for what it is, those with sufficiently sensitive ears shall begin to notice that underneath the shiny commercial veneer of pop there is simply…music. Lots and lots of music. Some good, many bad. Admittedly, this has got little to do with being ‘cool’ (whatever that is). The true music fan must stand fearless in the face of much peer ridicule, satisfied in the knowledge that his life is eminently more richer for having pop in his world.
Borge was correct when he stated that all arts aspire to music because music is pure form; about nothing other than itself. It follows that this is as true for the Beach Boys, or Frank Sinatra, or Madonna, as it is for Beethoven, or Ellington, or Dylan (bless him). Ultimately it’s just a question off letting go of culturally bound prejudice; of giving yourself over to feeling; of complete abandonment of ego (Dionysus would’ve loved Chic, trust me). Critical consideration often has the damaging effect of limiting taste and narrowing down opinion to a select few canonised artists, when it should ideally be about broadening taste, opening ears, enriching opinion, widening horizons. So explore! Listen. Listen again. Listen correctly. Surrender your ego to the tune! You never know, you might hear something that makes you smile, that makes you laugh, that makes you feel inexplicably warm and gooey, that moves you for Christ’s sake. Let me put it analogously: if rock music is meat and two veg, then pop music is fruit; succulent, sweet and, damn it, good for you. Personally, I’d take one Prince seven-inch over a million Coldplays.
As your musical doctor I recommend a good dose of strong pop at least twice a day until you start to see what a fool you’ve been – you can start with Chic.
‘It was beautifully compelling and exciting to us that we made complex music sound normal.’ – Bernie Edwards, Chic.
 Now I realise in today’s climate of arch, post-modernist relativism, a concept such as the ‘sublime’ would be given short-shrift by most commentators, especially when used in connection with something as easily ‘de-constructible’ as a pop song. However, these people (failing to have a soul) do not understand music. Intellectuals don’t dance, and that’s a fact.
 See that other dance floor master class Dancing Queen, plus You Keep Me Hanging On, God Only Knows, and much else.
 Chic themselves were on the direct receiving end of this kind of prejudice, in the shape of the ‘disco sucks’ campaign initiated by DJs and fans of the kind of lumpen 70s rock that Chic’s particular brand of gritless, streamlined funk could blow out of the water every time. At least their prejudices were openly readable – the distinct whiff of homophobia and racism emanating from their pyres of disco twelve-inches – despite trying to disguise them under a banner of ‘good taste’.
 Though sadly, for the reasons stated above, this is becoming less and less so.