Listen to this article
When Chic’s disco dream team of Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards wrote the American band’s 1979 hit “Good Times”, the title might have seemed strange for a period of economic depression. But guitarist Rodgers and bass player Edwards had a formula beyond the song’s insistent bass line that sets up a night out.
That formula was what they called DHM, or “deep hidden meaning”. In “Good Times” the DHM was that this joyous, last-gasp salute to disco, a fingers-up to the Disco Sucks movement of the same year, was inspired by the Great Depression and the Harlem Renaissance.
“Here’s ‘Good Times’ straight up: Al Jolson,” explained Rodgers. “‘The stars are going to twinkle and shine . . . this evening about a quarter to nine’.” Chic morphed that line via another Depression-era number, “Happy Days are Here Again”, and into the opening verse of “Good Times”: “Happy days are here again, the time is right for makin’ friends / Let’s get together, how ’bout a quarter to ten.” Later in the tune, the pair even slip in the antiquarian slang line “Let’s cut the rug, little jive and jitterbug”.
Rodgers was a regular of Manhattan club Studio 54, the fantasy disco castle defended by picky doormen. He recognised the potential of packaging the club’s hedonism for aspirational mass consumption. When I met him in 2011, Rodgers told me that Chic had aimed for the “sophistication of Roxy Music. But we knew we weren’t Bryan Ferry, so we put the girls in that role.”
A clutch of platinum-selling albums and hits followed before “Good Times” became the wordy soundtrack — from which romance is notably absent — to an economic recession, with the contrary yet moving salvo “Good times; these are the good times / Leave your cares behind”.
But disco was about to be eclipsed by a genre first taken into the mainstream by a band that blatantly mined “Good Times”. When Rodgers first heard The Sugarhill Gang’s track “Rapper’s Delight”, he was furious. “You might be able to ‘sample’ a piece of candy, but we weren’t ready to let someone else get all the cash from dining off of something we’d built from scratch,” he recalled in his autobiography. One of the first copyright infringement settlements over sampling resulted in him and Edwards being credited as co-writers. Ironically, a few weeks earlier, a few Sugarhill members had jumped on stage at a Chic gig in NYC, freestyling lines over the music. It was Rodgers who had let them carry on, doing “their improvisation thing like poets”.
Echoes of “Good Times” were swift to surface. Queen’s 1980 hit “Another One Bites the Dust” borrowed the bass line. “That’s OK,” Edwards later told NME, this time saving his ire for journalists. “What isn’t OK is that the press started saying that we had ripped them off . . . It was inconceivable to these people that black musicians could possibly be so innovative. It was just these dumb disco guys ripping off this rock ’n’ roll song.”
“Good Times” also influenced the 1981 single “Rapture” by Rodgers’s friend Debbie Harry’s band Blondie. “Rapture” became the first number one hit in the US to be credited as featuring a rap, although this provoked some debate over the difference between rapping and simply “speaking” a lyric.
The Blondie lyrics tipped their hat to Bronx hip-hop DJ Grandmaster Flash (“Flash is fast, Flash is cool”), whose seminal “Adventures of Grandmaster Flash on the Wheels of Steel” later in the same year deployed not only “Good Times” and “Rapture”, but also “Another One Bites the Dust” and “Rapper’s Delight” for good measure.
The Grandmaster Flash hit was the first time that scratching and cutting was ever heard on record. The Disco Sucks movement, whose backlash Rodgers later said had destroyed Chic, must have wished they’d never bothered.
Listen to the podcast
For podcasts with clips of the songs, ft.com/life-of-a-song
Photograph: Getty Images
Get alerts on Music when a new story is published