THE BIG APPLE BAND – You Should Be Dancing (1976)
Nile Rodgers has a must-read memoir out in late 2011, and while walking the press gauntlet he’s maintained his admirable, fan-interactive approach on Facebook and Twitter. One of Nile’s great shares this fall is a clutch of privately filmed performances immediately pre-dating his big break into the disco and pop music scene as the fulcrum of CHIC. Filmed in late 1976, these clips are riveting pieces for any disco or ’70s soul fan, and I’d like to spotlight the one that killed me from its opening bars.
In one of pop music’s great meta moments, this clip presents the backbone of disco’s greatest performing band covering a recent #1 hit by the world’s most popular mainstream disco band, on what looks like a tiny, rented soundstage, with absolutely no indication of the fame and riches to come. At this point, these guys are just trying to get a record deal, and they’ll play any place that promises a payday. Including New York City area high schools and biker bars.
Think about that for a second.
Now, this band is not the same Big Apple Band that placed a Beethoven disco interpretation on the Saturday Night Fever soundtrack in 1977, effectively forcing a name-change for Rodgers and his equally important running mates Bernard Edwards (bass) and Tony Thompson (drums). The Big Apple Band we see here was –despite extant pedigree (all were successful session players) – a start-up venture susceptible to brand name pilfering and record label rejections. School of hard knocks, yeah?
In the Bee Gees’ iconic performance, “You Should Be Dancing” makes a superb pop single, airy and fleet despite the density of the arrangement, so fluidly played its innate rock heaviness is hardly noticeable. Bells ‘n’ whistles production – conga percussion, punchy horn charts, the Gibb brothers in biting falsetto mode – places the emphasis on the high end, the kind of thing that sounds great coming out of tinny speakers and AM car stereos. The breakdown even showed a clear understanding of early disco music dynamics; this group was no mere genre tourist. Released in June 1976, it quickly made #1 around the world and reaffirmed the Gibbs’ place in the pop firmament. They were huge, and about to get even bigger.
The Rodgers-Edwards-Thompson performance, stripped down to an almost metallic clangour, is hard-as-nails funk disco. Shudderingly physical, thrillingly intense stuff, with a little extra shading from a lead guitarist and singer. Interpreting another’s work, they play it loose and loud. Signature styling abounds: Edwards’s thumping basslines were miraculous – any CHIC YouTube clip invariably sports gobsmacked commentary from what appear to be younger, newer listeners in discovery mode – while Rodgers’s rhythm guitar technique (“chucking,” Edwards called it) has always sounded like precision-drilled sunbursts. Together they are phenomenally simpatico, one of the great axe tandems in rock history (Cropper and Dunn, Townshend and Entwistle…there aren’t many this good).
With Nile and Nard in recognizable form, Thompson is the revelation here. An incredibly heavy drummer (”He hits the drums harder than anyone I’ve ever seen” – Rodgers), his CHIC tracks were marvels of control and economy, wherein any short roll or flare could make your heart skip a beat. But on “You Should Be Dancing” he is unhinged, from the speedy fourth bar tom roll to the clatter of his hi-hat playing. Some of that clatter is miking technique. The rest of it is hands and feet, and Thompson had great ones.
The daunting task of covering for the three-headed Bee Gee vocal monster fell to Bobby Cotter, a Jesus Christ, Superstar cast member hired into the Big Apple Band as lead singer and face. In Le Freak: An Upside Down Story of Family, Disco, and Destiny, Rodgers writes, “he looked like a star and we looked like his band.” Cotter’s loose-limbed physical presence infects his delivery with similar spirit, unbridled and flamboyantly visceral. Sort of like Thompson, actually. He’s got amazing range, a delivery entirely at odds with CHIC’s deadpan female leads. As producers, whether for CHIC or their numerous clients, Rodgers and Edwards tethered singers to the songs. It’s tempting to wonder what Cotter might’ve done with CHIC’s own material. Alas, behavioural tics rattled his image-conscious Big Apple bandmates, and Cotter was left on the cutting room floor.
Functioning as a cover band here, the Big Apple Band brief is simply to get people bumpin’. They should be dancing. As a talent reel-cum-historical artefact, “You Should Be Dancing” is a thunderous rough draft from a band on the verge of history, working out the kinks while showing obeisance to a group they’d eventually outperform in the idiom for which each is best remembered. Thanks for sharing, Nile.