Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee Nile Rodgers has often explained the inspiration for and the basic elements of disco’s greatest jam – “Le Freak” – and what went into the recording of it.
And it didn’t stray far from the formula that he and his late partner-in-music Bernard Edwards perfected for years as co-CEOs of the prolific Chic Organization, the two-man production arm that did its best work between the years 1977-80, during the peak and burnout of the disco era.
In 2005, for instance, Rodgers told Sound on Sound – a blog site for audiophiles – that Chic, or more specifically the two masterminds Rodgers and Edwards, often used gimmicks in their songs… as taught to them by their recording engineer Bob Clearmountain.
For example, on their first hit, “Dance, Dance, Dance (Yowsah, Yowsah, Yowsah),” the megaphone sound of the “yowsah” chant was achieved by simply filtering out the upper and lower frequencies of that male vocal.
On their second single “Everybody Dance,” as Nile explained, an otherwise bland Clavinet solo during the instrumental break after the third chorus (extended album version, of course) was made funkier by Rodgers “keying the rhythm” with his guitar, while the Clavinet player played “whole notes” with his instrument.
And who could forget “Good Times” and those thunderous, beat-punctuating handclaps that sounded like whipcracks during the choruses and the long instrumental break?
They weren’t real handclaps; instead they were electronically simulated by a then state-of-the-art Roland drum machine (you didn’t actually think the members of Chic – or anyone else for that matter – stood in the studio and clapped that hard for eight minutes, did you?).
As for their biggest hit, the classic disco tune “Le Freak,” Rodgers and Edwards didn’t use too many tricks because they felt the song itself was the gimmick. After all, it was named after a dance called the “Freak,” which was popular around the summer of 1978 when the tune was being finished.
“We wrote ‘Le Freak’ to capitalize on (the dance),” Bernard Edwards told Billboard Magazine’s Nelson George in a January 1979 interview after the song had topped all of the U.S. charts for which it was eligible (pop, soul and disco) and was well on its way to becoming the best-selling single in Atlantic Records’ history.
It wasn’t until after Edwards’ untimely death in 1996, however, that the story of the song’s inspiration became more interesting.
As Rodgers has since told it, “Le Freak” was originally somewhat of a protest song entitled “Fuck Off,” after a bad experience he and partner Edwards had while attempting to enter the famous New York disco Studio 54 on New Year’s Eve/Day 1977/78. At the time, their first single “Dance, Dance, Dance” was climbing the charts and they had been given a club invite by the legendary Grace Jones, who somehow failed to put their names on the guest list.
Chic’s popularity was rising, but Rodgers and Edwards certainly weren’t household names yet – even if their first song was likely blasting out of every speaker and the happy feet of club goers were hustling and tangoing all over the famed disco.
Not knowing or even recognizing them, the club’s bouncer bounced Nile and ‘Nard from entering Studio 54 and, as the story goes, the two producers went back to Rodgers’ flat to literally drink away their sorrows – and jam together on their guitars.
The result was perhaps the tightest, funkiest bass and rhythm guitar interplay ever created. As for the lyrics, the words that were born out of contempt for Studio 54, “Aaaahhh Fuck off,” became the safer-for-radio “Aaaahhh Freak Off,” and later a cooler sounding “Freak Out.”
“Freak Out” morphed into the titular “Le Freak,” which fortuitously rhymed with Chic, and the rest of the “gimmick,” as they say, was history.
The legendary interplay between Rodgers and Edwards’ on “Le Freak” was clearly no gimmick, however. All that was missing was the beat, which was later provided by the late Chic drummer Tony Thompson.
Thompson’s often formulaic, yet sophisticated drumming complimented Rodgers and Edwards guitar and bass perfectly. His crisp, rapidly delivered sixteenth-note, hi-hat pattern on “Le Freak” was hypnotic and inviting, practically beckoning listeners to the dance floor with each opening of the hi-hat on every first and third beat, which went on in perfect time without fail for well over five minutes.
Thompson’s crash cymbals and hi-hats practically sizzled from the speakers during “Le Freak,” which was perhaps the producers’ and Clearmountain’s way of acknowledging how truly great Tony was on his drum kit with a performance rivaled only by his work on Diana Ross’ “I’m Coming Out” in 1980 and Power Station’s 1985 début album.
With the beat and rhythm for “Le Freak” now set, the rest of the song’s instrumental and vocal tracks would be overdubbed next.
Acoustic and electric pianos – despite being muted for much of the song – formed the chords and came courtesy of Robert Sabino, Andy Schwartz and/or Raymond Jones.
Then there were those “Chic Strings,” which, at the time, consisted of the three-piece ensemble of Marianne Carroll, Karen Milne and Cheryl Hong playing under the direction of “concert master” Gene Orloff.
And these were no ordinary disco strings, either. For “Le Freak,” Orloff had crafted a set of detached notes that didn’t dominate the music like the strings in most other disco songs of the day.
Throughout the song’s verses, the violinists would deliver sparse, understated, staccato-like notes on each eighth beat, and then go into full swing during the third and fourth measures – simultaneously signaling how serious this dance affair was becoming – only to return to the more sparse arrangement during the fifth and sixth measures and then repeat.
Despite Orloff’s sparse arrangement, there are two noteworthy moments during “Le Freak” where the strings really got to shine.
First, during the instrumental break after the second chorus during Nard‘s “tonal pedal,” i.e., where he played the same bass notes over and over while the strings modulated keys for sixteen bars. That one-minute and four-second break (beginning at 2:44 of the album version) is perhaps the song’s greatest musical moment. Without it, “Le Freak” couldn’t have been properly setup for the final stanza.
That stanza is where the strings’ other big impact was. It was during the final verse and the dramatic buildup to the final chorus where they hit their one-note crescendo (at the 4:21 mark of the full album version).
And speaking of the choruses? They were even more sparsely produced than the verses.
The only instruments (besides the simulated handclaps) accompanying the vocalists during each chorus in “Le Freak” were Rodgers’ rhythm guitar, Tony Thompson’s drums and Edwards’ bass. No strings, no keyboards, no horns. And the bass only consisted of Edwards plucking two notes to embellish each “Freak Out!”
As for those vocalists, the two females doing the honors on “Le Freak” were Chic member Alfa Anderson (who had been promoted to full-time member from being backup on Chic’s first album a year earlier) and talented backup singer Diva Gray, who would later be part of the post-disco group Change. Surprisingly, Chic’s other lead vocalist Luci Martin did not actually sing lead on “Le Freak,” despite lip syncing it in the music video and doing all other performances of it back in the day.
The song’s lyrics were simple and escapist, as most Chic lyrics were, which was the source of the group’s biggest criticism both then and now. It may be the main reason that they didn’t get into the Rock Hall of Fame (only Nile did in 2018).
But Nile and ‘Nard were not pretentious guys. They knew what side their bread was being buttered on (disco) and “Le Freak” was made solely to capitalize on the genre that was at its very peak in popularity in the fall and winter of 1978/79.
After all, how seriously were we supposed to take the lyrics of a song that semi-translated an American dance “The Freak” into French and then spent nearly all of the lyrics talking not about the dance of the same name, but about having a good time at Studio 54, the nightclub that the two producers had been thrown out of nearly a year earlier?
But Chic’s greatness was never really about the lyrics – or even the vocalists for that matter. Alfa Anderson and Luci Martin (and the normal cadre of background singers) were great, especially with their staccato delivery as they would later perfect it, but it was always about the rhythm and the groove – as brought to us by Rodgers, Edwards and Thompson – and punctuated by those Chic strings.
Besides, any chorus that begins with the words “Aaaahh, freak out!,” is just begging to be a punchline for some of the worst jokes about disco, which itself has always been marginalized by the music elite – despite some of the music’s sonic excellence, and I might add, superiority.
Still, it’s a chorus that to this day is associated with one of the best known and biggest-selling disco classics of all time. And it was during the final chorus of “Le Freak” that its only true gimmick appears…twice.
A kick drum – presumably Tony Thompson’s – was used to produce the two “explosions” you hear during the final chorus – once at the 4:54 mark and again at 5:11 as the song fades.
As Rodgers explained to Sound on Sound, engineer Bob Clearmountain used a live echo chamber, i.e., the recording studio’s nearby bathroom, and overloaded it with a bass drum to get that explosion effect.
And all this time, I thought they actually lit a rocket in the studio.
“Le Freak” did rocket onto the charts in the fall of 1978, shooting to No. 1 just six weeks after entering the Hot 100 (including a then unheard-of 37-6 move in a single week).
By early February 1979, it was finishing a remarkable third stint at No. 1 after twice being displaced – first by Barbra Streisand and Neil Diamond’s “You Don’t Bring Me Flowers” and then by The Bee Gees “Too Much Heaven.”
“Le Freak” thus became the first song to yo-yo in and out of No. 1 three times during its chart run, a feat that stood unmatched for 29 years (until 2008’s “Bleeding Love” by Leona Lewis and subsequently five other songs tied it), and unbroken for another ten – until last year when Drake’s “Nice For What” had four separate turns at the top.
As its chart resilience suggested, “Le Freak” was ubiquitous yet hard to resist, refusing to give up its reign until we were sure we were all “freaked out!” To this day, 40 years after its six-week No. 1 reign ended, the song still can get butts wiggling faster than you get the opening lyrics out of your mouth after that opening “1-2” count.
Indeed, “Le Freak” was unabashedly disco, and as such, it gets lumped in with some of the worst disco of the day. But “Le Freak” stands above the rest as having one of the tightest rhythm tracks the genre has ever produced.
It is also one of the most critically acclaimed and recognized songs in modern music history.
In 2018, it was one of 25 Recordings selected for preservation in the National Recording Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or artistically significant.”
“Le Freak” was also selected to the Grammy Hall of Fame as having “lasting quality or historical significance,” and to the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as one of 500 songs that “shaped rock and roll.”
It was Atlantic Records first platinum single, and their biggest selling vinyl 45 at nearly seven million copies. It’s the third-biggest selling disco record of all time, behind Gloria Gaynor’s “I Will Survive” (14 million copies) and The Village People’s “Y.M.C.A.” (12 million).
But most importantly, “Le Freak” solidified the Chic sound unlike any of the songs on their previous album. It set in motion a streak that would continue with next singles “I Want Your Love” and “Good Times” later in 1979, as well as a slew of recordings the Chic Organization produced for other artists like Sister Sledge and Diana Ross.
And “Le Freak” finished the year in Billboard as the No. 3 record of 1979, behind two other massive hits that year: The Knack’s “My Sharona” and Donna Summer’s “Bad Girls.”
In Cashbox Magazine, Billboard’s rival trade rag at the time, “Le Freak” finished as the No. 1 song of 1979.
I’d say Cashbox got it right.
Happy 40th anniversary to Nile Rodgers and Chic on their biggest hit!