Saturday, 7 October 2017

The secret of Chic's success, revealed by Nile Rogers on BBC4 - start your song with the chorus!

Strictly speaking, most of Chic's hits start with the instruments establishing a groove for anything up to 30 seconds - but what follows is the chorus (i.e. the  rousing, chanty bit where everyone usually sings the song's title - the part listeners tend to remember), rather than the verse (usually a single voice setting the scene, telling a story etc.): it's normally the other way round. Chic's first hit, "Le Freak", goes straight into the chorus ("Ahhhhh...FREAK OUT! - Le Freak, c'est chic"):
This is to grab the listener's attention...

...and to fix the song in their heads by giving them the heart of it - the meat of it - right at the start. At least, that's the theory - and, judging by Chic's extraordinary success, and by the number of disco records that used the Chic template, it seems to have some merit.

The other thing I hadn't realised until Nile Rogers pointed it out is the lack of a traditional instrumental break in the middle of "Le Freak". There's a whopping one-minute instrumental break, certainly, but there's no standout single-instrument solo - no wailing guitar, for instance: the musicians just keep the groove going. Not much good for rock, I suspect, but great for encouraging dancers to strut their stuff (or for sedentary listeners to perform the white man's underbite), and to crank up tension as everyone waits for the verse or chorus to return. But let me not digress...

Staring a song with the chorus isn't a technique invented by Nile Rogers and Bernard Edwards, of course. This obscure 1960s band did it a lot:

"She Loves You" is probably the most outstanding example from the 1960s (the Fab Four pulled the same trick with "Help!"). Sonny and Cher - thanks to the musical inventiveness of those brilliant LA session musicians known as the Wrecking Crew - used it on "Baby Don't Go", and again, splendidly, on "The Beat Goes On" (we have the legendary bass-player Carol Kaye to thank for coming up with That Riff):

Ricky Nelson did it in 1961, with "Hello Mary Lou" (it's worth waiting for James Burton's incomparable guitar break):

When you've composed a chorus as hauntingly beautiful as the one on Dolly Parton's "Jolene", why wait to share it?:

Lesley Gore's "It's My Party", Bob Marley's "I Shot the Sheriff", Simon & Garfunkel's "Mrs. Robinson", ABBA's "Dancing Queen", The Eurythmics' "Sweet Dreams (Are Made of This)"... it's a longish list. The Essential Secrets of Songwriting blog cites three main reasons for bucking convention and starting in the middle of a song:

1. Choruses often use fuller instrumentations with busier rhythms.
2. Chorus melodies are usually placed in a higher range than verse melodies.
3. Chorus chord progressions are harmonically stronger than verse progressions.

If you're not listed-out yet, there's a good inventory of notable chorus-first songs on the Songfacts website.


  1. Excellent stuff. It is enough in the instrumental break in Le Freak just to focus on Bernard Edwards's bass. Any soloing instrument would be superfluous. Not many people give Chic enough credit for shaping the music of the last 40 years, with a lot of US critics still stuck in the 'Disco Sucks' era which more or less ended the first phase of the band. Their music has outlasted most of their contemporaries. The Chic sound and indeed Nile's guitar is all over some of the biggest hits of the last few years.

    I saw Nile Rodgers at the Roundhouse a couple of years ago playing mostly Chic numbers and while everybody else was raving about the bass player, he lacked the tight lock-in with the drummer that Bernard Edwards had with Tony Thompson in the original band, which you can hear in virtually everything they did. When Nile Rodgers is next reading this blog, he might want to take the hint and re-form with Vinnie Colaiuta and Tal Wilkenfeld, the best drum/bass pairing I ever saw in the Jeff Beck band about 10 years ago.

    1. As a small sign of the great man's extraordinary influence, when my son chose his first grown-up guitar five years' ago, he opted for a Strat, and his guitar-hero was none other than Nile Rogers!

      Although I dance like a hippo with rheumatoid arthritis, I've always had a soft spot for Disco, but my offspring's enthusiasm opened my eyes to just how great the Rogers/Edwards combo actually was - this may be the first time in recorded history a son has had more influence on a father's musical taste than vice-versa, because he's never shared any of my own enthusiasms (he got into Chess R&B, but that was nothing to do with me). Hurtful, I call it.

      I'm sure Nile will heed your advice re Vinnie and Tal (who's another in the Carol Kaye tradition of superb female bass-players, and cute and petite in the Suzi Quatro mould, although that's probably a sexist observation) after he's caught the following video of them with Jeff Beck performing the sublime "Brush with the Blues" at your home-from-home: