BONG! Popjustice News

 

Over the last 2 years or so I have written news posts for Popjustice. They recently asked me to compare two international telenovela theme tunes for an excellent and not at all ill-advised ongoing feature which tied in with the World Cup. You can read my contribution to that here.

Some ‘highlights’ from my stint so far as a Popjusticenewsperson are the times when…

Cher Lloyd figured out who she is (was)

Little Mix released a song about being ‘in the club”

JLS split up (boo hoo)

Siobhan from the Sugababes got into a philosophical mood

TLC reformed (sort of)

Kylie compared herself to a ‘natural chameleon’ (whatever that is)

Frankmusik decided he wasn’t bothered if no-one bought his music to be honest

Miley Cyrus spent an evening with a mad rap bloke

Daft Punk released a single, but you may have missed it – never mind…

Beyonce thought not having air conditioning in her office was like camping

Jessie Ware had some awkward chat with her audience about Kim Kardashian’s cat

Ellie Goulding and Skrillex collaborated on a hairstyle

Steps made an avant-garde (by their standards) Christmas album

Brandon Flowers had a go at Richard Dawkins

Matt ‘Credibility’ Cardle discussed the creative processes behind his art blah blah blah

Pitbull released an album with horrible cover ‘art’

Example didn’t know what his song was about

The Pet Shop Boys made some music with an orchestra

Scouting For Girls attempted to call Tinie Tempah (except he wouldn’t answer his phone), so they moaned about the X Factor for a bit

Simon Cowell rescued 9 people off a sinking yacht NO HE DEFINITELY DID

Alexis from Hot Chip defended pop from its detractors in the scientific ‘community’

Jennifer Lopez and Enrique Iglesias did some singing and dancing together

Lady Gaga’s manager compared her to a) Jesus and b) a “200 pound toddler”

 

 

 

 

Florrie: “I like watching operations on TV…”

Florrie

(This article originally appeared in State Magazine, May 2011. At the time of posting – July 2014 – she has a new ‘single’ out, it’s called ‘Little White Lies’ and you can watch the video here if you like.)

She learnt to drum by listening to the Spice Girls! She likes watching invasive surgery on telly! She is Florrie, and she hopes to be the next pop sensation to “sweep the nation” (whatever that means). Working from Xenomania’s base in Kent, there’s no doubt that she’s operating in an environment that produces the so-called “goods” when it comes to genre-mashing pop.

As Florrie modestly puts it: “Being at Xenomania is great. I’ve been there for two and a half years working with like-minded people.” In her modest way, she’s referring to “people” like the sadly now-defunct Mini Viva (with whom she toured), studio wiz Fred Falke and unsung lyrical genius Miranda Cooper. There are more collaborations in the pipeline, the woman is a positive Florrie – sorry, flurry – of activity: “I’ve got about 15 tracks on the go. I’ve also recorded a track with Annie which I’m quite excited about. That will be out before the next EP – which will hopefully be out at the beginning of May.”

This is perhaps unsurprising, since the recent (and highly meritorious) Introduction EPbears quite a similarity to fellow Xenomaniac Annie’s brash Nordic synthpop sound. ‘Summer Nights’ and ‘Left Too Late’ are sweet-sad disco music and ‘Call Of The Wild’ is a rollicking techno-rock track in the vein of Girls Aloud’s ‘No Good Advice’. It’s not a style which has found a home in the upper reaches of the charts of late, and Florrie is well aware that she is slightly out of step with the playlisters on daytime radio. “I listen to the charts and I love the British R’n’B sound that’s around at the moment, although that’s definitely not what I do. My music is pop with an electronic influence. I would like to hear more guitars on the radio though. I suppose radio programmers are just reacting to what people want to hear.”

Florrie – who, like all the best pop stars doesn’t need a surname thankyewverymuch (although it’s Arnold, if you MUST know) – grew up in Bristol and took to drumming at a tender age. “I became interested in drumming when I was six and on holiday in Greece”, she remembers, “There was a taverna down the road from us, and it had a band playing in it. I was mesmerised by the drummer and he let me tap the hi-hat in time with the music. After that I begged my parents to get me a drum kit and they got me one for my seventh birthday.” Fast forward 15 years and Florrie finds herself drumming on hits by Girls Aloud and Alesha Dixon.

“I’ve never been a geeky drummer; buying drumming magazines and checking out the latest kit. But I listened to a lot of music from the ’50s when I was growing up and that influenced me. I liked the Spice Girls – when I went for drumming lessons I brought their records along so I could learn to play them.” As she prepares to “step out from behind the drum kit” Karen Carpenter style, one wonders if the pressure is on to rack up hits? “I’ve been lucky to be able to make the music I want to make and develop on my own terms. I really enjoy the feedback I get from posting songs online, getting attention from blogs…”

It helps having pals close at hand when you’re embarking on a pop career of course, so Florrie shares a house in Kent with her friend Annie who also plays keyboards in her band, opposite Xenomania’s studio. “I had been living in London, but it was too much of a commute”, Florrie points out. But more commuting is on the way, with tour dates scheduled on Teeside, Belfast, Dublin and Brighton on her current jaunt around these isles, “and I’m going to be performing in Russia soon!” she adds, excitedly.

All this foreign travel must leave little time for anything else in the burgeoning popster’s schedule. “A lot of my time is taken up with music but I love swimming. I’m quite a sporty person.” But things could have turned out very differently. “I always wanted to be a musician”, she notes, “although there was a while when I was about ten when I wanted to be a surgeon! I don’t know why, I think I just liked watching operations on TV. Even now I can happily sit eating my dinner while watching open-heart surgery or something.” Having a strong stomach is presumably something of an advantage in the rough and tumble world of pop for various reasons, among them; 1. It helps fend off those pesky stage-jitters. “Last night I played in my hometown. It’s very nerve-wracking to play in front of people you know. But you know they love you and want to see you do well.” 2. It also helps prevent travel-sickness… “I like being on the tour bus”, she informs me, helpfully. And 3, To put it delicately, doesn’t being “on-the-road” get a bit smelly? “Yes, and there are five studenty boys on our tourbus and then there’s me and Annie, so us girls are outnumbered.”

A welcome and engaging presence online, where her music flourishes with the approval of Popjustice, NME and of course State, one would hope that with forthcoming releases and an ongoing tour, Florrie can find a broad fanbase for her undeniably terrific tunes. And while this journey will take a considerable amount of work, there’s no doubt it will be fun – for Florrie as much as us, her expectant pop public. “I won’t know when I’ve ‘made it’”, Florrie muses, “although I wouldn’t mind playing Wembley Stadium! It’s not a bad thing to aim for is it?” Indeed not. Good luck, Florrie!

 

Tinie Tempah: “I wasn’t in the mood to compromise…”

(This article originally appeared in State Magazine, October 2010. He has had numerous hit singles and a second top 3 album since this was published, and at the time of posting is in the charts once again, duetting with dubiously-tattooed singer of song Cheryl Cole.)

“It’s a 24-hour job. People think: ‘oh you’re living the life and it’s easy for you’. They don’t realise.” Life can be tough when you’re a top pop star. For Tinie Tempah, who as we write is riding high with a number one debut album called Disc-overy and two – count ‘em, two! – singles in the current UK top five, this is his umpteenth interview of the day. What’s more he was out partying with his pal Example last night and is understandably feeling a little delicate. Now the man who at various points on his great new album shoots out lyrics about being fed up with fame and the constant press attention it brings with it is contemplating another five hours of interviews. So, wary that I’m heaping more unwanted attention on the 22-year-old rap prodigy, I wonder whether he’s not a little fed up talking to pop critic bods such as myself? “It’s crazy but a lot of fun. If you do what you love you never have to work again in your life. I try to work by that ethic.”

Mr Tempah – his real name is Patrick Chukwuem Okogwu Jnr – has reason to be upbeat. Right now he is perhaps the biggest pop star in the UK. Other top artists would clamber over each other to work with him, and would sell their grannies to have even a sniff of the acclaim and sales he has amassed in the last six months alone. Having grown up in Plumstead, South London and spending years making music for a small niche audience, Tempah now finds himself rubbing shoulders with Kylie, Kelly Rowland and the rest. It must be daunting to be catapulted into the spotlight in such a short space of time. Does he ever get starstruck? “It depends. I don’t think it’s being starstruck anymore, I think it’s respect. You know, when you have utmost respect for someone. I’m not comparing these people with, like, Gandhi or whatever but you know how it is when someone walks into a room and they have a huge presence. I’ve been fortunate enough this year to have in-depth conversations with Chris Martin, Damon Albarn and Kylie Minogue and those are people who have sold millions of albums. It’s not so much I’m going ‘wow you’re here’ it’s more like ‘wow you are a very serious individual, you’ve worked very hard to get where you are so I’m going to listen to everything you say’.”

“…I wasn’t in the mood to compromise. Let’s just do our thing. So we put everything into it – drum ‘n’ bass, ska… the song was like 6 minutes long! Then we came back in the studio and thought, ‘this works!’”

Tinie Tempah is, himself, a very serious individual, and well worth paying attention to. ‘Pass Out’, his number one single from earlier this year, was groundbreaking in a subtle sort of way, with a BPM that goes through the ceiling towards its end; it’s a bit grime, a smidgin dubstep, a mite hip-hop and a soupcon of electropop all mashed up together but never sounds like a mess. If it’s not too much liking asking a comedian “where do you get your crazy ideas from?”, I venture: well, just how do you dream this stuff up? “When I recorded it I was thinking ‘These fucking briefs, man – why does my song have to sound like Lady Gaga or any song that’s number one?’ They want your song to sound like that. What the hell… I wasn’t in the mood to compromise. Let’s just do our thing. So we put everything into it – drum ‘n’ bass, ska… the song was like 6 minutes long! Then we came back in the studio and thought, ‘this works!’ We were having fun! For a song like that to go to number one… you get more confidence, you realise you don’t have to compromise. I made it slow, then sped it up, the video was dark and it had all my mates in it jumping around.”

How much of what you do is work ethic and how much of it is talent? “I’d say it depends on what kind of artist you are. Actually no I’d say regardless of what kind of artist you are, you have to work hard. You’ve got to get on planes, do interviews and put up with loads of people talking to you…” Oh dear. Is this the point where I get sent away with a flea in my ear – the final track on his album, ‘Let’s Go’ is about the burden of having to do interviews “I’m tired of it”, it goes. Gulp! “Because you are public property, even if you’re on the street and someone walks up to you, you’ve got to be that guy. You can’t switch off and say I’m on my lunch break, sorry.” Once upon a time, British rap artists struggled to get any attention at all. Derek B, Merlin and others never got the chance to fulfill their early potential as their careers were hampered by snobbery, and by being lumbered with accents which may have seemed alien to US ears. Now that British rap, or ‘brrrrrrap’, is all the rage, it’s understandable that Tinie Tempah might feel triumphant. Being in a position to complain about the trappings of fame must in itself be, something of an ego-boost.

So what does it feel like being number one? “It’s like you’re in Big Brother, everyone’s looking at you.” Is that a good feeling? “Yeah because all I’ve wanted to do is make a bit of history and when you get a number one that’s what you do. No-one will ever be able to take that away from you. On the 7th march 2010 ‘Pass Out’ was number one for two weeks. If the world ends tomorrow, that happened. And for me that was a big deal.” Tinie Tempah got a taste of success when his first single ‘Wifey’ came out 5 years ago and became an underground phenomenon. How does it feel to be so young knowing everyone has an opinion about you? “Well that’s it, exactly. Everyone has an opinion. Sometimes you meet an awful character who says ‘I never used to like you but now you’re alright’. You meet people like that and think ‘oh my gosh, thanks’. Everybody feels like they’re obliged to say (adopts patronising tone) ‘well done!’. Years ago I’d be on a train and would see people checking me out wondering ‘is that that guy?’, and it was preparation for this, but this is a whole different level.”

“…This is music from 2010-2020, when people come to look at how it evolved and developed over that period I want to be at the forefront. I want to be someone who influenced the shape of it and the dynamic of it.”

In terms of history making, the record books will indeed show that, as of October 2010, Tinie Tempah had a number one album and four top five singles under his belt. Perhaps more importantly, people will also say ‘This is what pop sounded like in 2010′. “Yes!”, Tempah says, suddenly quite animated, “that was something I consciously thought about. I realised, making my record towards the end of 2009, that 2010 is a new decade, a clean slate. This is music from 2010-2020, when people come to look at how it evolved and developed over that period I want to be at the forefront. I want to be someone who influenced the shape of it and the dynamic of it.” What Tempah and other pop mavericks, like the dubstep ‘supergroup’ Magnetic Man, are doing at the moment is very exciting. They are making a kind of pop which is identifiably British and rooted in the dancefloor culture it sprang from. Once again, pop is being dressed in new clothes. Tempah ponders finding himself at the heart of the new pop explosion: “I think it’s a generational thing. 2005 is, like, five years ago. If you were 23 playing ‘Wifey’ on pirate radio, now you’re 28 and Tinie Tempah’s making the charts. You’re that bit older and thinking ‘I’m looking forward to hearing what he does next’. I think that’s all that happened. You have a generation that grew up listening to underground dance and dubstep is part of popular culture. Dance is very much a part of our popular culture. When you go clubbing you want to hear dance music.”

Will this Brap-pop sound make sense in America? “Well I hate the term ‘breaking America’, like you’re leaving the UK or something. Music has changed. We have YouTube and Twitter now. It’s safe to say that Pass Out is now in America and it’s underground and cool, that’s the only way I’d want to do it. Not with some major record label, a global campaign, having to change the video for America. Taio Cruz, Jay Sean – they do well over there.” I come away from our chat with the impression that Tempah is a thoughtful, intelligent man with things to say, great focus and ambition and bucketloads of musical ideas. He could almost be an English Kanye, if he weren’t so self-effacing. I also think he rather enjoys the “unwanted” attention he has garnered so far. One last thought: nowadays rap is the pop sound isn’t it? “Rap is popular culture”, he asserts, before I leave him to wend his way back through the Dublin crowd to meet autograph hunters and plot his next assault on the chart summit. As I said, life can be tough when you’re a top pop star.

 

 

 

Katy B: “I used to pretend to be Dick Whittington.”

 

(This article originally appeared in State Magazine, May 2012. Since its publication Katy has released a marvellous second album called ‘Little Red’, and a contender for best single of 2014 in ‘Crying For No Reason’.)

Here’s one. What sort of computer is very good at singing? Answer: A Dell. That, readers, was a joke. Katy B likes jokes, so she has recently been asking her Twitter followers to tweet her some of their favourites. Consequently, in an attempt to “break-the-ice” during our State interview, your intrepid journalist ventures the following pathetic attempt at humour: Katy, how do you turn a duck into a soul singer? You put it in the microwave on full power until its bill withers! Ho-not-very-ho, eh? There follows a perplexed silence, which probably only lasts three seconds, but feels like several epochs. It is finally punctuated by Katy’s producer collaborator, Geeneus. “Hurhurhur!”, he guffaws. After several moments’ thought, Katy eventually acknowledges that she ‘gets it’ but attempts to change the subject by saying “Oh I really love Bill Withers…” Hrrmmn. What is the best joke you’ve heard lately then, Katy? “Velcro! What a rip off!”, she says, practically slapping her thigh, a la Les Dawson.

We are in the lobby of a moderately swish hotel, and while most of the hotel’s guests sit in the restaurant eating lunch and reading the Sunday supplements, Katy B is tucking into breakfast (which in this instance consists of fish, chips and camomile tea with honey). In between munches, she is mulling over a particularly tricky question: “Do I have any secrets? Um…” After what seems like an age she just shrugs her shoulders. Curses! Is this the notorious Brit School “media training” paying off? Is she being evasive? This does not bode well for a “searching” interview, does it readers?. “Is it a scoop that she has the worst memory ever?”, offers her producer Geeneus. Oh dear.

It’s not surprising that Katy is struggling to speak today. She has been very busy of late. She has recorded ‘Anywhere In The World’ – a promotional single with Mark Ronson for the Olympics. She has been nominated for a Mercury prize, has had a top 2 album and three top 10 singles, and she has singularly failed to be nominated for – let alone win – a Brit (which all sensible people agree is a swizz). With whirlwind tours, endless promotion, and high-profile collaborations; she has barely had time to eat or sleep, and today is no exception. The girl is famished and prone to lengthy silences, which give the impression she is choosing her words very carefully. Geeneus, a cheerful bloke whose affable demeanour is in stark contrast to the often dark, brooding electro he creates as one third of Magnetic Man, is engrossed in his smartphone during the duration of our time together, but occasionally he looks up and emits a laugh so hearty you could make it interview Grace Jones and call it Russell. “Hur hur!”, he chortles, at regular intervals. “I don’t have so much time to relax now although we went out last night”, Katy explains, “and yes I did get drunk. It’s awful seeing people get drunk on the street at night time. But as I get older I’m finding the right level.” Geeneus: “You sleep every chance you get! Hurhur!” Katy: “Yes, I bring a little blanket around with me.”

Katy Brien – the “rien” has been excised from her pop star “handle” – is a very level-headed, down to earth woman who takes this pop business in her stride. Her debut album On A Mission was a huge commercial and critical success but this hasn’t fazed her one little bit (“Life’s pretty good right now”, she chirps, somewhat understating things one suspects). Mission accomplished you would think, but she’s already moved onto album number 2. The kindly PR lady who is working with Katy gushes about her client in the way a proud sister would talk of their younger sibling. PR people do this all the time. They are paid to enthuse over their artists and pull them out of interview situations if things get sticky. But this one doesn’t do this in a PR sort of way, she means it. Not many artists command the same kind of affection.

You don’t necessarily need to know a lot about pop music to be very good at making it. However, Katy B does know a lot about pop music. She studied it at Goldsmiths College, part of the University of London. This of course raises the very traumatic possibility of having to write about LMFAO as part of one’s homework. As it turns out, Katy was a complete girlie swot. “I got three distinctions”, she boasts. “I enjoyed it – I had 100% attendance cause I was so into it. I loved it. But at the same time I would get in trouble now and again. Not for serious things. I think I was a good student. Maybe I talked a bit too much. Sometimes I’d get told off for singing in class.” Was the work ever a drudge? “Interpretation of Music was the worst lecture ever”, she complains, “It was just this man saying ‘interpretation’ over and over about a hundred times. I remember talking to him after class one day and he was saying ‘How are you finding the course?’ I was like ‘I don’t understand it!’ Some of it was amazing. We got to arrange big band scores.” Managing to study must have been an effort given the other temptations the clubbing lifestyle has to offer. But it turns out college was about as “bohemian” as the extra-curricular stuff. “Goldsmiths was very ‘left’, very experimental,” she explains, “not commercial at all. It was great for me to go to somewhere which was very ‘outside the box’ and it definitely opened my mind. Although there were also a lot of older people on my course and they were very focused.”

Presumably pop was an obsession from an early age? “When I was growing up I liked pop in general”, she declares, “but in my early teens I got into a lot of R’n’B – a lot of Alisha Keys, Destiny’s Child, Faith Evans. A lot of American stuff but also pirate radio, British dance stuff I heard in clubs. When I say I like garage…I was about 11 when that stuff came out so a lot of it completely missed me.” Geeneus looks up from his phone and shoots me a glance: “I’m used to getting treated like ‘the old one’…” he comments, ruefully. The biggest influence on Katy B’s music, according to herself, is “UK funky. The producers I work with have done jungle, grime, funky – I’m a merge of all those things.” The music which emerges from these influences sounds like all of the best dancepop of the last 25 years in one glorious mash-up, has earned Katy B deservingly positive attention. But one wonders how Katy copes with negative attention: more specifically the tendency for bellends on Twitter to treat you harshly because you’re a famous pop person. “Oh yeah people do that”, she responds, “but you have to grow a thick skin. Sometimes someone will say something about my personality or the way I look. You just bounce back from it and remember it’s trivial talk.”

One thing which comes across quite strongly when you meet Katy B is her unflappability. She is entirely sensible, and although she likes to go mad on a night out like any sensible young person does, she seems unlikely to go properly bonkers due to the “pressures of fame”. Nevertheless it is the responsibility of the interviewer to unearth the sources of the drives behind an artist’s desire to be loved, is it not? So, did you have any odd habits as a “youth”, Ms B? “I used to pretend to be Dick Whittington.” Er, come again? “Yeah, I’d dress up and take a broom and tie a hanky round the end like he did. This was in Peckham. Sometimes I’d get as far as the end of the road. I didn’t want to leave home, I just liked the story. Sometimes I’d sit outside my house at night time and my mum would take me back in and lock the doors so I couldn’t do it again. I was about five.” How odd. Would you ever appear on I’m A Celebrity Get Me Out Of Here?“Nah. The only celebrity shows I’d go on are Come Dine With Me or Who Do You Think You Are. Have you seen that? It’s wicked! I’d go to Ireland. I could have been called Katy O’. My grandad was Irish but he dropped the O’ to get a job. And I’d contact my sister’s mum through a seance.”

And as our conversation comes to an end, Katy chomps her last chip and leafs through the pages of the Sunday supplement which is draped over the arm of her chair. She happens to be on its cover.

 

Nile Rodgers: “Bernard and I would go to video arcades to clear our grey matter pallets…”

(The original version of this article was published in the spring of 2010, in Totally Dublin Issue 76. Nile was diagnosed with prostate cancer later that year, and he has written quite movingly about that subject on his excellent blog ‘Life On Planet C’ and in his autobiography ‘Le Freak’. He then made a record with the obscure French group Daft Punk, but details about it are sketchy…)

To call Chic a disco band would be a disservice akin to calling the Beatles “a Merseybeat band” or calling Kraftwerk “that novelty group – you know, Germans, did that funny song about driving down the autobahn”. So let’s be clear from the off; without Chic’s influence it’s impossible to imagine what modern pop would sound like. Their sound has influenced Daft Punk, house music, LCD Soundsystem and Kylie’s disco-pop; the records they had a hand in as writers and producers have been covered by Robert Wyatt (At Last I Am Free) and The Fall (Lost In Music). Even eternal indiebloke Johnny Marr named his son Nile after Chic’s legendary rhythm guitarist Nile Rodgers: producer to Bowie and Madonna, and the man I’m here to interview today.

Chic played Electric Picnic last year, a performance that Rodgers describes as “outrageously unbelievable and incredible. We could have just let the rhythm section play and the audience would have sung along and done the rest for us.” Having smash hit singles is no longer the driving force of what Rodgers calls The Chic Organization, but a similar quest for excellence informs everything he does. “It’s almost like performing in your living room for relatives”, he tells me, “the only way I can do work is to try and give it my all every time – almost like an athlete. That’s also how I treat writing songs and the possibilities of riffs and chords. I’ve just worked on Bryan Ferry’s record – doing 30 songs in a few days, and that’s how I approached that. Every time you hit that stage you’ve got to be prepared to give the best show you possibly can. I see that as my job”.
With six top ten hits in the UK as a member of Chic and many more as a producer for Sister Sledge, David Bowie, Madonna, Duran Duran and many more, not many people can claim to have influenced modern pop to extent Nile Rodgers has done. Rodgers never stood still for long enough to really appreciate the success those records delivered. “I know what the sales figures are, but we never got the chance to live it as it was happening. It only took a matter of weeks to record each record – it took six weeks to make the entire Like A Virgin album with Madonna and Bowie’s Let’s Dance took seventeen days. By the time a record came out it was like ‘oh right, that record we made a while back. Onto the next one!’”

With an apparently endless list of production duties to his credit it must have been difficult to maintain the quality control, and it transpires the only way out of this trap is to leave notions of being a super-producer behind. “I’m always thinking of the person I’m working with. At that time they’re the most important person in the world. I remember working with Sister Sledge – we thought they were so important, and we just gave them our all. And if you look at that record We Are Family, pound for pound it was probably the single best record we ever made.” It’s a surprise the equally great follow-up Love Somebody Today is hardly remembered at all. Did it suffer from the disco backlash? Rodgers has no doubt about it: “I’m positive that’s what it was due to. In fact when I think about my career, the highlight was Good Times going to number one while the entire American music industry hated us. I mean we were persona non grata because of the whole “disco sucks” thing. Good Times came out in the summer of ‘79 during that whole disco melee – which looked to me like book burning.”

During the summer of 1979, DJ Steve Dahl organized something called “Disco Demolition Night” in a football stadium in Chicago. Thousands of people wearing t-shirts adorned with the legend “Disco Sucks” turned up to throw things like The Trampp’s Disco Inferno onto, well, a disco inferno. Wasn’t that all a bit dubiously racist and homophobic? “It was incredible. I have a pretty good sense of humour and I used to wear ‘disco sucks’ buttons too, but I didn’t realise that they were tapping into this undercurrent of visceral racial hate. The DJ who organized it was just pissed off because the radio station he worked for fired him when they changed their format. He was associated with rock and roll, and disco was so popular they felt if they dumped him they would seem like a credible radio station. It was a bad managerial decision and he protested – but what he didn’t know was he was tapping into that whole undercurrent of racism, homophobia, and all that other stuff. That was the negative by-product of what was, basically, a joke.”

Incredibly, the president of Atlantic Records was so keen to work with Rodgers and bassist Bernard Edwards that he offered them his entire roster of acts to pick from. I ask why they chose to work with the relatively unknown soul act Sister Sledge. “We had known a little bit about them because they had a record we liked called Love Don’t You Go Through No Changes On Me but we didn’t really know who they were. When we sat down with the president of the record company we tried to handle ourselves like we were real record producers. We went into his office and effectively interviewed him! We wanted to know what his vision was and he offered us artists like the Rolling Stones and Bette Midler. I always mention those because they were the names we remember that made us go “wow!” But we thought if we made a hit record with them no-one would know who we were, we’d just be faceless producers. We wanted to have an opportunity to show what we could do. I mean, what are we gonna tell Mick Jagger: “oh we’re gonna write every song on the next Rolling Stones record”? That’s not gonna fly!” It’s tempting to imagine what a Chic-produced Rolling Stones album would sound like. “It would have been great!” asserts Rodgers, “but at that point in our careers it wouldn’t have done for us what the Sister Sledge record did. We were able to use pop and fashion iconography and apply it to them. They probably hadn’t even heard of Gucci or Fiorrucci and so on because they were very religious girls from Philadelphia – and we decided to play Pygmalion and we created a version of them which we believed was relevant for the times.”
After the success of Chic you could be forgiven for thinking Nile Rodgers was given carte-blanche to do whatever work he wanted with anybody even tangentially connected with pop. Work with The B-52s, The Dan Reed Network and even bonkers performance artist Laurie Anderson stretched into the 90s; an incredibly eclectic bunch. How on earth did Rodgers decide who to work with? “99% of the artists I’ve worked with have all come about by happenstance or a chance meeting. Duran Duran were the opening act for Blondie, and we fell in love with each other. INXS were opening for Hall & Oates, who I was working with at the time. Actually I got Hall & Oates to sing back-up on the INXS single Original Sin, a lot of people don’t realise that. The only artist I can remember pursuing was Peter Gabriel. Everyone else I met in a night club or you know, walking down the street.” So now you know, aspiring musicians of Dublin. Hang about the stage door of Tripod towards the end of May and seize your chance.

A track from an unreleased collaboration with Johnny Mathis (I Love My Lady, recorded in 1981 – Ed.) surfaced recently on the internet. Time to shed some light on this obscure aspect of the Chic back-catalogue. Spill the beans, Nile. “Ah, that brings back some of the greatest memories of my life – too many to mention. One thing I can say is that out of all the people I’ve ever worked with in (world-famous studio) The Power Station, no-one ever caused the tumult that Johnny Mathis caused – and I’m talking David Bowie, Mick Jagger, Diana Ross, Madonna – the only one who people asked for their autograph was Johnny Mathis – he was that magical. The record we made together was really brilliant and I don’t usually brag about my products. If I were to produce it again though, I’d probably try to make it a little less Chic-centric and a little more Johnny Mathis-centric. We could probably have done for him what we did for Diana Ross but because he was so iconic we felt like pushing the envelope like we did with Diana and I think we probably pushed the envelope a little too far this time. We felt we’d let him down and let ourselves down, which is sad, but it is a great record.”

Is it true that Diana Ross didn’t know what the phrase “I’m Coming Out” referred to? “She knew what it was about, but we denied it! Heheheh! She asked us ‘isn’t that what gay people say when they come out of the closet?’ We said ‘I don’t know! How we would we know what gay people say – we’re just record producers and songwriters.’ We didn’t want to make the same mistake we made with Sister Sledge. Even though that record was a hit, there was a little bit of friction between us because they didn’t know what we were talking about – they didn’t like that we’d write a song like He’s The Greatest Dancer and make them sing the line ‘my creme de la creme, please take me home’ like they were loose women, when really they were ‘good girls’. Up to this point (Diana, 1980) we’d never produced anyone from outside our own label. So we decided we needed to know everything about her life and then chose the bits we found interesting which could go along with the current culture. But it still had to be something that Diana could pre-approve. The album is like a documentary about the life of Diana Ross as we saw it. It’s highly subjective.” It’s also a highly brilliant record and one of the best things recorded under the Chic Organization banner.

What is The Chic Organization now? “The Chic Organization is what it always has been – a wrapper or a picture frame that Bernard and I came up with for our ideas. I’ve decided that from now on I’m devoting the rest of my life to producing what I call The Chic Organization Box Set. Recently I found thousands of lost tapes, things we worked on but were never finished, out-takes done as a joke but which are fantastic and I’d forgotten about all of them. They will be released for the rest of life as I discover them.” Bernard Edwards died in 1996 and took the secrets of his inimitable bass sound with him – how did Chic go about finding someone to fill his place? It must have been entirely impossible. “Anyone who wants to play bass with me has two tests – they have to play Everybody Dance and Dance Dance Dance – if they can do something on those songs that makes me feel good, that’s it.”

So much for pop’s past, what does Rodgers think of pop these days? “The most innovative music now is pop – which is funny because thirty years ago pop was the vital proving ground for music that had come from the underground. I mean I look at a Lady Gaga video and in the old days that would have been something underground.” What do you think of when I say the word ‘Madonna’? “Drive, determination and dedication – more than anyone I’ve ever worked with. I’ve worked some pretty determined people, but no-one to match her.” And do you ever feel the urge to compete for chart space with Gaga, Beyonce and Rihanna? “That’s not the fuel that drives my interest. Performing is what drives me now. When The Chic Organization disbanded for those years I recorded a massive amount of stuff – there were things that sounded like hits but I never put them out. I also did soundtrack work where the film came out and bombed so the music never got republished. There’s a ton of that stuff. Every tour from now on will be called The Box Set Tour and every record I release from now on will be part of The Box Set. I’d love to see outtakes from The 39 Steps or something. This will be like that. Plus I’m doing video game soundtracks.”

How does a hot-shot producer find the time to play videogames, I wonder. Don’t they usually involve drawing the curtains for eight hours? Turns out they can oil the creative wheels, so to speak. “When Chic started out we did most of our recording during the graveyard shift from midnight until six or seven am and Bernard and I would go to video arcades to clear our grey matter pallets – you felt refreshed after doing that.”

Disco’s Best Bits 

THE YEAR 1979
Disco’s commercial zenith. The UK charts were overrun with disco singles throughout the year from the Village People’s “YMCA” to Ian Dury and The Blockheads “Hit Me With Your Rhythm Stick”. By the year’s end ska and synthpop were paving the way into the new decade but ’79 is still all about what Ray from 2 Unlimited might have called “discodiscodiscodisco”.

ARTHUR RUSSELL
As happy collaborating with serious composer types like Phillip Glass as he was concocting “disco’s answer to The White Album”, Russell is an often overlooked figure. Sadly he died in 1992, but re-issues have helped find his music a wide audience in recent years.

GIORGIO MORODER AND DONNA SUMMER
Moustachioed Italian knob-twiddler, based in Germany meets US soul siren. Result: some of the most glittering pop singles in history. I Feel Love and Love To Love You Baby were incredibly bold and brilliant, but as a general rule of thumb all of their collaborations are essential.

ROCK BANDS “GOING DISCO”
It didn’t always work but you had to love the rock purists’ facial expressions when they were confronted with Rod Stewart in a blouse and make-up. Hands in the air for Blondie, Sparks, The Bee Gees and even The Stones’ marvellous disco makeovers. Hands over the face in despair for Mike Oldfield’s useless “Guilty” and The Beach Boys’ disco version of “Here Come The Night”.

ROLLERDISCOS
Amazing to think that once upon a time people risked life and limb by skating about to the strains of Play That Funky Music by Wild Cherry. And yet, it happened. Early issues of Smash Hits even had special reports on rollerdiscos. But you try telling the kids that now and they won’t believe you etc.,

BIANCA JAGGER ON A WHITE HORSE IN STUDIO 54
Nothing sums up the hedonistic spirit of disco and its most famous nightclub than this ridiculous gesture. Inevitably the dancefloor got covered in dung, but that didn’t dent the glamour enough to prevent Goldfrapp from writing a song about it. Still a familiar pop-cultural touchstone, someone even made a rubbish film about it with Mike Myers (“54″).

THE PARADISE GARAGE
The “slebs” of the disco era showed their faces at Studio 54, but The Paradise Garage – presided over by legendary DJ Larry Levan – was arguably more influential over club culture. Cher’s “Take Me Home” was a floor-filler here, and Levan would sort of invent remixing by cutting records up to sound the way he wanted them to.

SYNDRUMS
That daft percussion sound that goes “boooooow” throughout Anita Ward’s splendid 1979 number one hit “Ring My Bell”. Kelly Marie’s less lovely “Feels Like I’m In Love” rather overdoes it a bit, but the syndrum is synonymous with pop music at the very end of the seventies.

DISCO DISCHARGE COMPILATIONS
Sixteen discs of sometimes ultra-obscure, sometimes world-famous disco records: all of them brilliant, if you’re even remotely interested in the history or sound of disco you need them now. Each volume covers a specific aspect of the scene; Classic Disco, Euro Disco, Gay Disco/Hi-NRG and Disco Ladies made up the first four releases. The next four are out this month.

NOVELTY DISCO RECORDS
The Heebeegeebees parodied The Bee Gees on “Meaningless Words In Very High Voices”, The Evasions’ “Wikka Rap” which featured an Alan Whicker impersonator intoning a run down of every disco cliche available. But there were brilliant one-offs like Ottawan’s “D.I.S.C.O.” – featuring Thomas Bangalter from Daft Punk’s dad.

SONGS ABOUT “DOING IT” WITH ALIENS AND/OR ROBOTS
Sylvia Love’s “Extraterrestrial Lover”, Dee D Jackson’s “Automatic Lover” and Hot Gossip’s “I Lost My Heart To A Starship Trooper” are all ridiculous of course, but no less brilliant for that. The italo-disco trend which swept through Europe in the 1980s is awash with songs about lonely ladies “doing it” with E.T. and Marvin The Paranoid Android. Anouschka Remzi’s “Robot Love” is typical.

Words: Ciarán Gaynor

Make It New

ROCK & POP
Widescreen, epic, ambitious: 2009’s best pop harks back to the glory days of New Pop, writes Ciarán Gaynor.

ABC
ABC’s Martin Fry

Listening to recent singles like La Roux’s surprise hit In For The Kill, or Empire Of The Sun’s Walking On A Dream, you could be forgiven for thinking that you had been transported in a time machine to 1982. Much of the best recent pop seems to take the early eighties’ “New Pop” explosion as its template; like the stars of yesteryear, 2009’s most hotly tipped acts are creating forward-looking, glamourous pop. It doesn’t feel like revivalism, it’s more that we’re witnessing the return of flair, wit and elan in pop. La Roux is androgynous and eye-catching in the same way that Annie Lennox was in her Eurythmics heyday. Bands like Hot Chip and Empire Of The Sun exhibit the same imaginative ambition that made ABC and Duran Duran so exciting. How did we end up in this musical climate? Just three years ago “landfill indie” dominated the Top 40. The Kooks, The View and The Frattelis exerted a stranglehold on the pop consciousness. Their grimly competent indie-rock seemed destined to ensure that pop would see out the decade in the most mirthless way imaginable. But then something came along to change all of that: a recession.

It’s amazing what a financial crisis can do for the state of the charts. Back in the early 90s when the slump following the 80s Thatcherite boom bit hard, youth sought solace and escape in rave, and found expression to their discontent in the sardonic, nihilistic gestures of grunge. Skip back to 1981, a year notable for a summer of riots throughout the UK, and once again you find youth were glamming up, New Romantic and disco and post-punk having crystallized into what NME writer Paul Morley dubbed “New Pop”. Heavily influenced by the DIY ethic of punk, but rejecting the notion of there being “no future”, New Pop acts like ABC, Human League and Culture Club made records that were the sonic equivalent of a big-budget movie from the golden age of Hollywood. The stars that helmed these bands seemed otherworldy. Classic New Pop was widescreen, epic, ambitious; notable for the luscious and luxuriant sound of the records many of which were recorded by ex-punks who had rekindled a childhood fondness for the glam of Bowie and Roxy Music. ABC’s Lexicon Of Love is the best known example of this, but you can also hear it in the exotica of The Associates’ Sulk, in the cinematic grandeur of the revitalised Roxy Music’s marvellous Avalon LP and in the beautifully poised, elegant pop of Simple Minds’ New Gold Dream (81-82-83-84). This sensibility is echoed today in Empire Of The Sun’s lovely Walking On A Dream single and on Bat For Lashes’ recent hit Daniel.

New Pop mk 1 was also wildly eclectic; Scritti Politti’s Green Gartside was steeped in lover’s rock and hip-hop by the time he embarked on an inititally failed quest for proper stardom with 1982’s Songs To Remember album. Three years later, Scritti finally hit it big, reaching a creative and commercial zenith on Cupid and Psyche ’85, a rare example of a British pop album directly influencing US r’n’b – you can hear its techy, digital sound on Janet Jackson’s Control. Now, over a quarter of a century after New Pop’s peak, acts like the much hyped Little Boots, The Ting Tings and Hot Chip sound indebted to the spirit of early 80s pop. Ladyhawke’s reverby, stadium-perfect pop songs call to mind Kim Wilde’s singles Chequered Love and Kids In America. When Kim Wilde was chosen for the cover of the NME in 1982, the readership wrote in to complain in vast numbers. One imagines that a Ladyhawke NME cover would be met with rather less consternation today. Difficult to imagine now, but even Dollar were heroes of futurist pop, their Trevor Horn produced singles – of which Mirror Mirror is perhaps the best – perfectly embody the New Pop spirit. They were beautifully glossy sounding things and determinedly poptastic. Today, Lady Gaga strikes a similar chord – her records sound like they were expensive to produce. She’s also every bit the fantastic New Pop character. As was the case with Phil Oakey and Boy George, it’s difficult to imagine bumping into someone like her at the supermarket. These people aren’t interested in dressing down.


Victoria Hesketh, also known as Little Boots

For all that this sort of pop revels in artifice, it would be nothing without great tunes and records that exude personality. So Empire Of The Sun don an array of outlandish costumes, and make glorious, yearning pop. Little Boots, whose new single New In Town bristles with confidence, and Lady Gaga are like a reaction to the chatty Kate Nash style of girl-next-door pop. Even the Ting Tings have an iconic look and the singles to match. All this scene needs now is a Lexicon Of Love or a Dare – an album so perfectly realised, genre-mashing and groundbreaking that it leaves the rest of pop in its shadow. What people often associate with 80s pop (synth stabs, electro-hanclaps, slap bass) is a sound which was perfected (if not invented) on those albums. Lady Gaga’s The Fame – with songtitles like Paparazzi, Beautiful Dirty Rich and Money Honey – frequently alludes to the language of affluent society, just as Lexicon of Love couched its lyrical musings on relationships in the language of Thatcherite economics. What the current bunch of New Popsters can’t quite emulate is the newness of the technology which made early 80s pop so extraordinarily fresh sounding. There are one or two exceptions: Little Boots is rarely to be seen without a Tenorion, a rather odd looking synth-sampler which looks absolutely nothing like any conventional musical instrument – it has more in common with an “Etch–A-Sketch” than it does a guitar. Nevertheless, it’s hard to see how anyone could be shocked by new technology in the way than audiences were at early Human League gigs, when the Sheffield band would appear on stage with just synths and a slide projectionist.

There are forerunners who made the current pop state possible; Xenomania’s casually ground-breaking work with Girls Aloud and Sugababes, all skyscraping choruses and a dozen musical styles mashed into the mix, helped set the standard. Alison Goldfrapp’s surreal pop nous paved the way for the current crop of electrogirls to step into, indeed Goldfrapp’s “Black Cherry” may be among the most quietly influential pop albums of the last decade. Annie had a part in creating the buzz that led to the hyping of La Roux and Little Boots at the start of the year. Her critically acclaimed synthpop has had bloggers gushing for almost five years, so let’s hope she sees some success off the back of it. Then there are many other acts snapping at the heels of those who are currently in the upper reahces of the charts. Marina and the Diamonds purvey pop of the most splendidly odd kind, their songs Obssessions and Mowgli’s Road deserve to be hits. Bat For Lashes’ witchy, spooky songs have just netted Natasha Khan a top 5 album, and current single Daniel is a match for anything that’s been in the Top 10 in recent weeks. VV Brown’s single Crying Blood was one of last year’s most fun records and if re-released will surely be a smash. No-one can fail to have noticed that this pop scene is absolutely dominated by girls. Girls with gadgets seem to be everywhere. Even Lily Allen’s current album, It’s Not Me It’s You, is noteworthy for its generous lashings of synth. It was co-written with Greg Kurstin of The Bird and The Bee – a man who also has a hand in Little Boots’ forthcoming album Hands. It seems the message is: you have to adapt to this new pop movement or die. It’s hard to see how Kate Nash or the Kaiser Chiefs can survive in the current pop marketplace without a radical overhaul of their sound and image. Everything about pop in 2009 seems to be arch and knowing, self-referential, focussed on delivering hits – pop and proud of it.

The Simple Things You See Are All Complicated

“By the early seventies, pop begins to enter what you could call its postmodern phase. By 1972, the year that Pete Fowler noted Marc Bolan’s failure as a generation icon, and the year in which Simon Frith researched ‘The Sociology Of Rock’, there was a clear division – commented on by both authors – between pop and rock. This division was conducted along gender lines (pop = girls and androgynes, or, as Frith recorded in his interview, ‘puffs’; rock = boys and real men) and revived the old polarities of working/middle-class, exploitation/expression, the mass/the elite.” – Jon Savage, The Faber Book of Pop, 1994.