Rich Wilhelm

These. Are. The. Good. Times.

In Music/Memory, Music/Opinion, Philosophy/Creativity on September 25, 2014 at 6:30 am

I have been thinking about, and listening to, Chic’s 1979 hit song, “Good Times” quite a bit recently. I think it is the most present-tense song ever. Let me explain.

For those of you who were there, you might remember that 1979 wasn’t necessarily a great year. Jimmy Carter was president and his popularity was plummeting. There were enormous problems, including a major hostage crisis, in the Middle East. An energy crisis in the United States. I could go on. And on. It is quite likely that many people do not look upon 1979 fondly.

On top of all of that, you had disco music, riding high for what would be its final year of chart supremacy. For some, the continued success of disco music represented the worst that 1979 had to offer, musically or otherwise.

Not me, though. I liked disco. Liked it then. Like it now.

Chic was perhaps the most successful of the disco bands, though their music quite transcended the genre-even if it would take decades for many of us to figure that out. Coming off a huge hit single in 1978’s “Le Freak,” Chic released its album Risque early in the summer of ’79. Risque contained the epic “Good Times,” which was an immediate monster hit.

There is so much to love, musically, about “Good Times.” The song opens with one second of the most gargantuan musical chord you’ll ever hear on an organ, before the trio of Chic musicians-guitarist Nile Rodgers, bassist Bernard Edwards and drummer Tony Thompson–set the song up with their scientifically precise yet funky interaction. A pianist, whether it be one of the Chic guys or another musician, provides musical accents before singers Alfa Anderson and Luci Martin enter the picture, along with a string section, to declare:

“Good. Times. These. Are. The. Good. Times. Leave. Your. Cares. Behind. These. Are. The. Good. Times.”

The excessive punctuation is intentional because the singers make it clear that each of those opening 16 words has equal weight.

These. Are. The. Good. Times.

Musically that’s the song. Of course the killer bass line by Edwards would inspire two huge hits within a year: Queen’s dynamic disco rock mash-up “Another One Bites the Dust,” and Sugarhill Gang’s pioneering “Rapper’s Delight.” When the instrumental breakdown of the extended version of “Good Times” hits, you’ll feel that bass, for sure.

Back in 1979, this deceptively simple set of musical elements may have seemed like yet another here-and-gone disco tune, but there is so much more going on in “Good Times.” The song could be seen to reflect the cocaine-and-Halston culture of 1979 disco New York, as seen and heard at disco club Studio 54. That would be ironic since the members of Chic were not recognized, and apparently denied access to that hallowed hot spot after their earliest success, an incident that provided the songwriting inspiration for “Le Freak.”

“Good Times” isn’t about Studio 54 at all. It isn’t even about 1979. Or Chic. More than any other song swirling around my jukebox of a brain, “Good Times” is about living in this moment. Because these. are. the. good. times.

Chic was well aware that 1979 was not necessarily the year of “Good Times” when they wrote this song. This is apparently why lyrical snippets of Great Depression era songs, such as “Happy Days Are Here Again” creep into the words of “Good Times.” For all the implicit irony though, and the lines about clams on the half shell and roller skates, the message of the song burns through the sleek arrangement and sly vocals: the present tense, the right now, is what you’ve got and it’s the only thing you can really be assured you have. What are you going to do about it?

There is deep irony in “Good Times,” in approximately the same way that there is deep irony in the theme song to the hit 1970s series, “Good Times.” Ain’t we lucky we got ’em, good times?

Some people might think of Chic’s “Good Times” as bearing the same message as Kool and the Gang’s “Celebration.” But where that song says, “Celebrate good times,” Chic is saying “THESE are the good times.” There is a difference.

Of course, I didn’t think about “Good Times” this deeply when I first heard it pumping out of a radio at my Aunt Mary Jo’s house, where we were living between-houses in the summer of ’79. I heard it then, I guess, as one of many great pop tunes happening at a time when I was listening to the radio much more than I have at most other periods of my life. I was a kid then.

Thirty-five years have passed and clearly I’m not a kid anymore. I’m a middle-aged man, edging ever closer to 50. My hair is more gray than any other shade these days. I’ve got responsibilities, large and small, weighing me down and in 2014 I am being constantly being pummeled by bad news, both nationally and internationally. In addition to all of this, as I write this, it is 2:28 on a Thursday morning and I am currently in my eighth or ninth day of an insomnia jag that has me up when I should be down and vice versa. None of this makes me in any way unique–so many of us could be forgiven if we look inward and outward these days and say “These are the not-so-good times.” But then along comes Chic, sounding timeless and noting, “These. Are. The. Good Times.”

And dammit, Chic is right. Chic was right when they wrote the song and I’m sure that Nile Rodgers–the lone survivor of the Rodgers-Edwards-Thompson trio, as well as being a cancer survivor–knows for damn sure that Chic is right today.

Chic is challenging me and anyone else who cares to listen:

“These. Are. The. Good. Times.”

I know Chic is right. It’s up to me to figure out what to do about it.

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Patrick F. O'Donnell

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