Last week I was having a workout and the sound system gave me a treat instead of the more typical horrifying 80s CHR dross [Journey, I’m looking at you]. INXS’ “Original Sin” hit the pre-dawn gym floor. It got me to reminiscing about the presence of Nile Rodgers productions for artists near and dear to my heart as his producer’s star became ascendant during the decade that saw him mine a ton of platinum. After his band CHIC, reached their sell-by date, he made the move to production; first delivering a career best for Diana Ross that cemented his reputation as a hit maker but eventually moving on to produce New Wave acts who at first glance, would have seemed to have had little in common with the disco world that he emerged from.
Debbie Harry – Backfired
The first time that I ever had the Nile Rodgers name in my Record Cell was when I bought the debut solo album by Blondie’s Debbie Harry. 1981’s “Koo Koo” was a somewhat divisive record by the eclectic singer who had her biggest hits with disco, calypso, and primordial hip hop. In the sense that each of these genres provided number one smashes for Blondie, in retrospect it’s not all that shocking that when Ms. Harry and her then beau Chris Stein stepped out from Blondie, that they hitched their wagon to the former CHIC maven. I remember that when on Saturday Night Live solo in 1980, she covered a Teddy Pendergrass hit [“Love TKO”] so the strong R+B vibe of “Koo Koo” was not unprecedented. That said, the single “Backfired” was, like much of the album, written or at least co-written by Rodgers with his partner Bernard Edwards. It’s a fairly typical funky R+B song, not really disco, per se. It had a humorous flair but Harry seemed a bit lost in the song. Irony is her strength and the playful humor of the song might have been a better fit for the more light hearted Tom Tom Club, looking back to 1981.
David Bowie – Let’s Dance
The first time I heard “Let’s Dance” I was flabbergasted at the juxtaposition of strident swing horns and the barbershop quartet backing vocals. It was an awkward mix that never ever worked for me. The banality of the lyric was the biggest disappointment of all. The whole affair had a borderline fascist-disco vibe that in retrospect, reminded me of a song the Thin White Duke might have sung back in 1976. With Bowie’s penchant for not throwing away any idea, who knows. it might have begin its life in just that fashion? The hollow romanticism of the lyric marked it thusly, and was mated with stridently bombastic music that reeked of “Triumph of the Will.” With blues guitarist Stevie Ray Vaughan added to the unlikely mixture, one was left with a David Bowie single that failed on every level for my ears. Rodgers’ production is clean, bright, and professional, which works to the arrangement’s detriment, I think. A little scuzz might have given this track some mystery to pull my ears in.
INXS – Original Sin
Now that’s more like it! Nile Rodgers has a plastic sounding sheen to his productions that more often than not rubs me the wrong way. Here, it sounded right at home. The pulse-pounding rhythm track and chugging synths juxtaposed against Kirk Pengilly’s urgent sax created a rain slicked night pavement that enriched the romanticism of the lyric. Speaking of which, I would imagine that the lyrics had a lot of personal appeal to Rodgers, himself the product of a mixed marriage. Almost immediately, this became my favorite Nile Rodgers production and nothing else has managed to topple it from the list in my mind. When INXS’ album, “The Swing” followed this album, I was disappointed that Rodgers didn’t get a chance to produce any more than this single. In fact, I can’t believe that I’ve never heard the 12″ mix of this title! That needs to be rectified.
Duran Duran – Notorious
If I had wanted to hear a great Nile Rodgers album production as good as the INXS single, I’d have to have waited a couple years more. When he rejoined forces with Duran Duran after two previous singles, he finally got to make a full album with the recently slimmed down band, and the results were one of my favorite albums by the band. The title cut, “Notorious,” was released as an advance single and ultimately reached number two on the US charts. The Borneo Horns from the Saturday Night Live band got a chance to play on a great album following their earlier appearance on David Bowie’s poor “Tonight.” The resulting song became a Duran classic and gave Nile Rodgers a chance to shine as he played the lead guitar on the track following the departure of Andy Taylor.
There is a snapshot of Nile Rodgers’ production portfolio as it relates to artists in the Record Cell. I have other music he produced but this is a quick overview of his production style. Conspicuously absent from my Record Cell is an album that I have been looking for for decades. I have never seen a copy of “Talk Back” by Spoons, but it finally reached CD a few years ago and is on my seemingly endless want list.
– 30 –