“Leave. your. cares. behind!”
These. are. the. Good. Times!”
Few tunes have shifted the landscape in popular music as much as the one released by the R&B/disco group Chic forty years ago this month.
Disco’s ending, hip-hop’s beginning – both have been linked to “Good Times,” the No. 1 pop and soul tune written and produced by Rock and Roll Hall of Fame songwriter/producer/guitarist Nile Rodgers and his legendary partner, the late Bernard Edwards, and recorded by their band Chic for its third album Risqué in 1979.
Released to radio during the first week of June that year (and to stores shortly after), ”Good Times” was the embodiment of irony. It was a disco tune that wasn’t so disco, instead being inspired by Kool & the Gang-like funk while lyrically invoking “the jive” and “the jitterbug,” two swing dances from the Depression-era 1930s – before disco (or funk) was even a thing.
Then there was the escapist message it trumpeted that good times were indeed ahead with lines like “happy days are here again” (a lyric that also was inspired by the Depression-era classic tune of the same name), while its chorus implored listeners to “leave your cares behind” – both despite all that was happening in the world around them.
And there was a lot of bad happening in the spring and summer of 1979.
“Good Times” was released in the wake of the nation’s worst nuclear accident – the Three Mile Island reactor meltdown just over two months earlier near Harrisburg, PA – and with the country in the middle of another energy crisis spurred on by events in Iran (how many of you remember those long gas lines during the first half of 1979?).
The U.S. was also in the midst of an economic downturn that would spiral into an official U.S. recession within months…events that Nile Rodgers has said were his and Edwards’ inspiration for writing the tune. They wanted something that would make people feel good, and the uplifting messages in “Good Times” were welcomed by millions, even if they were unduly optimistic, yet typically disco in their happy-go-lucky idealism.
“Good Times” was classic Chic, with all of the familiar elements: a tight rhythm section (the combination of Edwards’ iconic bass guitar, Rodgers’ rhythm guitar, and the late Tony Thompson’s precise, in-the-pocket drumming); staccato, chant-like female vocals (led by Chic beauties Alfa Anderson and Luci Martin); sparse instrumentation with light tickling piano flourishes; a synthesizer keyboard providing the chords; and those sharp Chic strings conducted by the late concertmaster Gene Orloff.
But “Good Times” was much more than just a disco record.
It was an all-out funk groove driven by Edwards’ still legendary bass line and a rhythm track that, to this day, stands as one of the most iconic (and important) of all time.
On the track, drummer Thompson had eschewed the typical 4/4 bass drum disco pattern, instead hitting the bass on just the first and third beats, making it funkier. And unlike most disco records, including the band’s No. 1 predecessor “Le Freak,” the hi-hat cymbal was de-emphasized in “Good Times (or at least the open hi-hat was) in favor of a closed, sixteenth-note riff by Thompson that sounded almost clipped, which added to the song’s frenetic, urgent feel.
That urgency was there despite “Good Times” having a deceptively slower tempo for a “disco” record at 111 bpm. The slower tempo made it easier for roller skating, no doubt an unintended outcome despite the inclusion of roller-skate references in the song’s lyrics. Fans ultimately had no problem making “Good Times” the roller-skating anthem of the summer of 1979.
The urgency of these “Good Times” was hammered home by the handclaps – those powerful, whipsaw-like cracks that weren’t really handclaps, but were electronically simulated by a then state-of-the-art Roland drum machine. They were silenced during the verses, but sounded during each chorus (and during that long instrumental break), which served to emphasize the main point of the song…that these might indeed be the good times if you leave your cares behind.
And about that long break? It was a stroke of funk genius that spanned nearly three of the song’s eight minutes (on the album and 12” versions). Beginning at the 3:12 mark, the song was stripped down to its two most essential elements – ironically played by Chic’s now-deceased musicians: Tony Thompson’s drumming and Bernard Edwards’ bass guitar (along with those handclaps), before building up again like a car on a Detroit assembly line.
First, the keyboard chords chime in at 4:04, then at 4:38 the piano flourishes are reintroduced and finally – at 5:12 – Nile’s rhythm guitar completes the full instrumental track, driving the record to its final verse and choruses beginning at the 6:04 mark.
Adding to the song’s dramatic flair were the sharp descending notes played by the Chic Strings, which had been isolated and used to introduce each instrument added during the break. Chic had incorporated strings in all of their biggest hits to that point, but never had they been so striking as they were on “Good Times.”
But those strings were perhaps the most “disco” thing about “Good Times,” a song that had peaked when the genre itself was at a crossroads.
For the first half of the year, disco music had dominated the pop charts. Of the year’s first fourteen No. 1 singles, culminating with “Good Times,” eleven had also reached Billboard’s Disco Top 80 list. In any given week during the spring of ‘79, there were as many as 15 disco records in the pop top 40 at the same time.
Throughout the first part of 1979, some rock radio stations had converted completely to disco formats in several key radio markets, causing a few rock disc jockeys to lose their jobs. Disco radio’s listener ratings were up during much of the first half of 1979 – in some cases three times what their rock predecessors’ ratings had been.
But by July, some of disco’s glitter had begun to fade.
Record sales overall were down from their record high of just a year earlier. Industry observers ironically blamed disco for the lower revenue numbers, noting that most of the genre’s fans purchased singles, not albums. Many disco artists who were capitalizing on the 1978-79 craze wound up being one- or two-hit-wonders, and they hadn’t built enough of a long-term fan base to sell entire albums – with maybe Donna Summer and now Chic becoming the exceptions with consecutive platinum-selling releases.
That dichotomy made industry heads nervous. How could they continue to back a style of music that wasn’t bringing in the dough like just a year earlier? The unprecedented success of the blockbuster “Saturday Night Fever” soundtrack in 1978 surely had spoiled them.
That was the economic side of things. Race and homophobia were also factors.
Disco was largely seen as music for (and by) black, gay and Latino people, despite mounting evidence to the contrary. It was also seen as promoting an immoral and decadent lifestyle – even becoming synonymous with it – despite the misogynistic and countercultural history of other genres, like its rock and roll counterpart. Yet, many rock purists – mostly white and (presumably) straight males – professed to hate disco while seeing it as a threat to their own musical (and social) sensibilities.
As a result of both the economic and social issues, “disco-sucks” movements began forming throughout the country. Most famously, on July 12, Chicago rock radio personality and shock jock Steve Dahl famously organized a “Disco Demolition Night” during a Chicago White Sox doubleheader game at (then-named) Comiskey Park, where thousands of fans were admitted to the stadium for a mere $0.98 if they brought disco records which would be exploded between games, bringing to life a gimmick Dahl had used on his radio show where he would begin to play a disco record, only to have it abruptly cutoff by a scratching needle and an explosion.
Dahl has since denied that there were any racial or homophobic undertones to the event, instead claiming it to be the result of a bunch of “disenfranchised” white males venting their frustration.
Still, the images of young, mostly white, rock fans burning hundreds of records by disco artists (and by black artists in general) after Game 1 between the Sox and the Detroit Tigers remains one of the ugliest, racially divided scenes in American music history. The riot got so out of hand with many arrests and the field so damaged, the White Sox had to forfeit the second of their two games that night.
But disco was still riding high on the charts…at least for a minute. The week after Disco Demolition Night – on the Hot 100 chart dated July 21 – the top six songs were all disco hits, and Chic’s “Good Times” was among them. It rose 4-3-2-2 then No. 1 for a single week before retreating to No. 2 for three more weeks and eventually off the chart a month later.
In one of the best cases of life imitating art, the lyrics of the second verse of “Good Times” said it all: “a rumor has it that it’s getting late, time marches on – just can’t wait. The clock keeps turning, why hesitate? You silly fool, you can’t change your fate.”
It was indeed getting late for disco, and the lyrics of “Good Times” were prophetic for the genre’s own fate. The song that replaced “Good Times” at No. 1 was “My Sharona” by a newly emerging rock band out of L.A. called The Knack. In December, “Sharona” would be named the No. 1 song of 1979 in Billboard, having spent six weeks at the top of the weekly chart while holding “Good Times” at No. 2 for half of those weeks.
While “Good Times” wasn’t the last disco record to top the pop chart, its replacement at the top by “My Sharona” has been viewed as the symbolic end to disco’s reign. From that point on, disco saw a backlash that, in two years, would see it completely eliminated from the pop Top 40. It would be another three years before dance music returned to any relevance on the American pop charts.
While disco was slowly fading, the legacy of “Good Times” was just beginning. And it was that long instrumental break that played the biggest role.
In New York City, the nascent rap scene was taking hold on street corners, in high schools and in “hip-hop” clubs – mostly with DJs playing the latest disco records while rappers spit rhymes over them. As the most popular choice, DJs would have 12” vinyl singles of “Good Times” queued on two turntables – mixing them to make that classic instrumental break even longer while innovative youngsters rapped freestyle over Chic’s hit. As Nile Rodgers has recalled in interviews since, he even hung out at some of these hip-hop events (notably with Blondie’s Debbie Harry and the legendary DJ Fab Five Freddie) before rap made its big debut on the charts later that year.
That debut would come by way of two important singles: one by the R&B/funk band Fatback (formerly the Fatback Band) and the other by a new trio out of Englewood, NJ known as the Sugar Hill Gang.
Fatback’s “King Tim III” beat Sugar Hill’s “Rapper’s Delight” by one week on Billboard’s Soul singles chart in October 1979, just as “Good Times” was leaving the charts. But it was “Rapper’s Delight” that largely gets the credit as being rap’s first commercial hit – mainly because it was the first to reach the pop chart a month later.
The huge success of “Rapper’s Delight” – a top-five soul and crossover top-40 pop hit by January 1980 – is owed to “Good Times,” the song whose rhythm section it borrowed. The producers of “Rapper’s Delight” did not use the original “Good Times” track, rather they had musicians recreate it in the studio for the Sugar Hill Gang’s record.
As Nile Rodgers has since recalled in interviews, he first discovered “Rapper’s Delight” after attending a club in New York City and observing that there were neither any rappers onstage nor a DJ behind the booth while the song was playing, indicating that what he was hearing was an actual record of people rapping over his and Bernard’s famous composition.
After threats of legal action, the Chic songwriters settled with Sugar Hill Records’ top brass (which included the late CEO Sylvia Robinson of Mickey & Sylvia and “Pillow Talk” fame), and Edwards and Rodgers were credited as songwriters on all future pressings of “Rapper’s Delight.”
Alas, hip-hop as a commercial music entity was born.
To this day, I believe the long instrumental break in “Good Times” stands as one of the best production decisions Edwards and Rodgers ever made. It certainly proved to be one of the most important, as some of history’s earliest rappers might attest.
The length of that break made it easier for rappers to go on for minutes at a time, uninterrupted. It ultimately inspired the song that would become hip-hop’s breakthrough record. After its smash success, many other rap songs would immediately follow “Rapper’s Delight,” though it would be years – even decades – before rap was taken seriously by the mainstream and balloon into the multi-billion dollar industry it has since become.
Still, the fact that “Good Times” symbolizes the end of one era and marked the beginning of another – while being so instrumental to both – is something music historians have been documenting for four decades. Nile and Nard might have only intended it to be a funkier outtake from their normal disco fare, but the song will forever go down as one of the most important tunes of all time – to funk, to disco and to hip-hop.
And to music history in general.
DJRob is a freelance blogger who covers R&B, hip-hop, pop and rock genres – plus lots of music news and current stuff! You can follow him on Twitter @djrobblog.
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- If you’ve ever wondered about that unique intro to “Good Times,” it was a glissando played by pianist Robert Sabino and set to a reverse echo and some “phasing” to give it a fuller, sweeping sound. It’s hard now to imagine the song without it as it added a dramatic flair that set “Good Times” apart from any other record at the time. It was another stroke of production genius as any other opening would now seem cold and boring in retrospect. And neither disco nor Chic needed anything to be boring at the time.
- The origins of “Good Times” were rooted in funk. Nile Rodgers has said in interviews that it was conceived (by him) as a tribute to Kool & the Gang’s “Hollywood Swinging,” a funk jam that reached the top ten on both the pop and soul charts in 1974 with a bass line that, in hindsight, “Good Times” clearly models.
- “Good Times” wasted no time climbing the charts in ‘79, going from its modest No. 72 debut position on the Hot 100 in mid June to No. 4 in just over a month – and then climbing to No. 1 in August, giving Chic their second No. 1 single on both the pop and soul charts (after “Le Freak”). “Good Times” was also named the No. 1 soul single of 1979, having topped that list for six straight weeks.
- The article mentions that eleven of 1979’s first fourteen No. 1 pop songs had also made the disco chart. The three exceptions were, ironically, by two acts that were largely associated with disco: The Bee Gees (“Too Much Heaven” and “Love You Inside Out”) and Peaches & Herb (“Reunited”).
- “Good Times” has inspired or been sampled in over one hundred songs, including – most famously – “Rapper’s Delight,” “Bounce, Rock, Skate, Roll” (by Vaughn Mason & Crew), “Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel” (Grandmaster Flash), “Another One Bites The Dust” (by Queen)”
- For the umpteenth time, “Good Times” came first, “Another One Bites The Dust” came (a year) later.
- Nile Rodgers was inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame in 2017, while the rest of Chic were not. Fans of the band can at least take solace in the fact that The Knack will never be.