Chic, “Le Freak” and Studio 54

We all experience those freaky coincidences from time to time don’t we, when we start thinking of a song we might not have heard in ages, only for it to pop up on the radio a few minutes later. I had such a freaky coincidence this week, which ironically involved the 1978 Chic song, Le Freak.   

Over at My Top Ten, Rol has resumed his Hot 100 Countdown. Every week he chooses a song to represent a number, counting down from 100 to 1. This week suggestions were sought for songs that mention the number 54 in the title or lyrics. As expected quite a few of these suggestions included Le Freak, as the lyrics include the lines: 

Just come on down, to 54
Find a spot out on the floor

A reference of course, to the legendary Studio 54 in New York City, which in the late 1970s was probably the most famous nightclub in the world, the home of disco, and frequented by A-listers from the worlds of music, film, art and fashion. 

As a suggestion for a 54 song, it was a good one, so I too offered it up in the comments boxes. I also left a lame remark about how I had loved Le Freak back in the day, but had no idea at the time what the reference to 54 meant, coming from rural Aberdeenshire as opposed to The Big Apple. Needless to say, once I had slept on it, I realised I could have yet again made a bit of a naïve faux pas, perhaps not realising the number 54 was code for the kind of hedonistic activities that went on there during its heyday (I have been caught out with this number malarkey before). I wasn’t even up yet, but I decided to do a quick Google search on my phone, to find out what the 54 in the song was all about. Yes, you’ve guessed it, just as I clicked on the first entry thrown up by the search engine, I hear the words “Ah…, Freak Out” coming out loud and clear from my new radio alarm. 

As a coincidence, I thought this was an extreme one, but Mr WIAA merely brushed it aside, saying these things happen all the time. Personally I think we have far more influence on the world around us than we will ever understand, and because some of us were collectively thinking of the song Le Freak for Rol’s countdown on Tuesday night, the gods of radio playlists picked it for the Wednesday morning schedules. Oh, and for the record, I hadn’t actually been naïve after all, as it turns out Studio 54 was located at 254 West 54th Street, so that’s how it got its name. But enough about freaky coincidences, how about we actually listen to the song?

Le Freak by Chic:

I think most of us have watched reruns of TOTP2 often enough by now to know the story behind the song, but it seems Bernard Edwards and Nile Rodgers of Chic wrote it after being denied admission to Studio 54, even though they had been invited along by Grace Jones. Their earlier hit Dance, Dance, Dance (Yowsah, Yowsah, Yowsah) was played often inside, but they weren’t on “the list” so the doorman, who didn’t recognise them, turned them away. It was New Year’s Eve, 1977, but they now had nowhere to go, so ended up writing this song as a reply to the doorman. They called it “F**k Off” but when they decided to record it, to appease Bernard Edward’s sensibilities, they changed it to “Freak Out”. Incidentally, the “stomping at the Savoy” line in the song makes reference to Edgar Melvin Sampson, nicknamed The Lamb. He was an American jazz composer, arranger, saxophonist, and violinist born in New York City, his most notable composition being Stompin’ at the Savoy

The disco genre was massive between 1977 to 1978, when I was in my final year of school and heading out every weekend to socialise with my friends. Even in rural Scotland, the venues (local hotelier’s unused function suites) were transformed overnight into mini-Studio 54s, complete with a DJ, glitter balls and floors with flashing lights. We’d also now had the films Saturday Night Fever, and Thank God It’s Friday, which had kind of made disco go mainstream. Young people want to get together and meet other young people at the weekend, and this was a really easy and accessible way to make it happen. (Link here and here to my previous disco-related posts.)

The band Chic were probably the most stylish of all the disco acts at the time, and of course Mr Nile Rodgers is still doing his thing today, having worked with some of the most successful acts of the last 40 years. Back then, they were inspired by Bryan Ferry’s “look” after watching him with Roxy Music, but safe to say, nowadays Nile has adopted the look of a street hippie, and looks very comfortable in his skin I must say. 

Getting back to Studio 54 and its history, it apparently first opened in 1927 as the Gallo Opera House, but it was short-lived. After changing its name several times it eventually became a CBS radio and television studio. Then, in 1977, Steve Rubell and Ian Schrager created the space that became the world-famous nightclub and discotheque. They spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on professional lighting design and kept many of the former TV and theatrical sets, creating a unique dance club that became famous for its celebrity guest lists and restrictive (and subjective) entry policies, based on appearance and style.

I am reminded of a scene from the film American Hustle when one of the main characters, Bradley Cooper, has a night off from his FBI duties and takes Amy Adams dancing at Studio 54. I remember being impressed at how many of the details they got right in terms of fashion and hairstyles for this movie. It reminded me that even in rural Aberdeenshire, back in 1978, the boys took to having their hair permed. A strange sight back on the building sites on a Monday morning (and no doubt a lot of teasing from their older workmates) but ’twas the times. Tough to find a suitable clip, but this one gives a feel for what it must have been like in its heyday.

Something I never knew before, were the names of the two girls who sang lead on Le Freak. For the record they were Alfa Anderson and Luci Martin but in the Chic Choir we also had future luminaries such as Luther Vandross and Jocelyn Brown. The Chic Strings completed the line-up.

So, “What’s It All About?” – I think I have opened a can of worms here, as there was just too much information to get through in order to write only one post on the whole disco phenomenon. If I have a rummage in the loft, I’m sure I’ll be able to find some pictures of me in my dancing gear (basically a leotard, footless tights and a wraparound skirt), and the diary entry reviewing my first night out in one of Aberdeen’s new nightspots. Most of the cinemas had seen better days by the tail end of the ’70s so they were being converted to places like Ruffles (on Diamond Street) and Fusion (on Bridge Place). I think I was unusual in that I truly went to dance, and could often be found hogging that sweet spot in front of the DJ, along with the boys who, like John Travolta, enjoyed a bit of “showboating”.

I will leave you with another Chic clip, this time featuring Norma Jean Wright on lead vocals. Everybody Dance got to No. 9 in the UK Singles Chart in April 1978. Enjoy.

Until next time…

Le Freak Lyrics
(Song by Bernard Edwards/Nile Rodgers)

Ah, freak out!
Le freak, c’est Chic
Freak out!

Ah, freak out!
Le freak, c’est Chic
Freak out!

Have you heard about the new dance craze?
Listen to us, I’m sure you’ll be amazed
Big fun to be had by everyone
It’s up to you, it surely can be done

Young and old are doing it, I’m told
Just one try, and you too will be sold
It’s called le freak, they’re doing it night and day
Allow us, we’ll show you the way

Ah, freak out!
Le freak, c’est Chic
Freak out!

All that pressure got you down
Has your head spinning all around
Feel the rhythm, check the rhyme
Come on along and have a real good time

Like the days of stomping at the Savoy
Now we freak, oh, what a joy
Just come on down, to 54
Find a spot out on the floor

Ah, freak out!
Le freak, c’est Chic
Freak out!

Now freak!

I said freak!

Now freak!