Aktualisiert: 18. Mai
An appreciation and review of the CHIC-album „Take It Off“ with Alfa Anderson
It was in the autumn of 1981 when I (a fourteeen year-old teenager) came to the small record store in my hometown, somewhere in the north of Germany. One album cover in particular caught my eye: „Take It Off“ by CHIC. The cartoon-like painting fascinated me immediatley and I decided to buy the album. Of course I knew about CHIC – who didn’t? Apart from their own big hits and smashes for the likes of Diana Ross and Sister Sledge , Nile RodgeSrs and Bernard Edwards had just recorded an album with my favourite heroine in pop music, Debbie Harry. „KooKoo“ was an intriguing affair to listen to and maybe I hoped for more of the same on „Take It Off“. To cut a long story short: I fell in love with that CHIC-album and this love has lasted for 40 years now.
Fast forward to the autumn of 2021. I’m talking on the phone to the lovely and fabulous Alfa Anderson about the creation of „Take It Off“. Kind and friendly as always, she willingly shares her memories with me. First of all, she laughingly admits that she had to refresh her memory by re-listening to the whole album. „It was almost like listening to it for the very first time and it really took me on a beautiful trip down memory lane. I was thinking about all the good times we had recording it in the studio. All the fun, all the laughter, the spontaneity. And I could hear what each person, each vocal present would give to the sound, to the mix. It was great to listen to it again and I think the compositions were really good. The vocal approaches were good. Of course, Nile’s and Bernard’s solo-work and breakdowns were par excellence, as always. But when I listened to it – and I had not listened to „Stage Fright“ in a long time – when that one came on and it started with the a capella-intro I felt like „wooooow“. It is so good.“
CHIC in 1981 were at a turning point in their career. After global hits like „Le Freak (Studio 54)“, „Good Times“, „We Are Family“ for Sister Sledge and „Upside Down“ for Diana Ross, the group itself only reached number 30 on the US-charts with their very own „Real People“-album. Also, the ghostly Disco Demolition Night on July 12th, 1979 in Comiskey Park in Chicago had been a violent demonstration of certain people having had enough of disco music. It was not the public who had grown tired of that kind of music, that was for sure – or how else can one explain that in 1980 songs like „Funkytown“ by Lipps, Inc., „Upside Down“ by Diana Ross (here we go again), „We Don’t Talk Anymore“ by Cliff Richard or „On The Radio“ by Donna Summer were all smash hits in the US, following the public burning of disco records? But somehow, Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards, after the commercial failure of „Real People“, wanted to change direction and sound. A decision which they –typically – made completely on their own, as Alfa Anderson remembers. „I never had a conversation with Bernard and Nile about it – but listening to the album again and listening to how stripped down it was and how raw and how the strings were really replaced by the horns, those hard driving horns, and after the disco demolition where disco records were burned, I am sure that they really began to rethink the direction. I don’t really know but I think it grew out of the fact that they were really trying to have the group evolve into something that was harder, more the rock-funk edge than the disco-edge. I am sure it was all perfectly thought out.They thought out everything. They knew exactly what they wanted, all the time. They were never in doubt – about who they were, what their music was, how they wanted it to sound so…without having had a conversation I can just say that it was all worked out.“ In fact, everything was so worked out, that the two musicians and producers had second thoughts about which singer to use as a lead singer on certain tracks. Whereas the sulky and soothing voice of Alfa Anderson, with its yearning and longing, had been perfect for CHIC-classics like „I Want Your Love“ and „At Last I Am Free“, it was now Luci Martin’s time to shine. While Anderson sang lead on the nice but otherwise unremarkable album track „Would You Be My Baby?“ and duetted with Bernard Edwards on the superb „Just Out Of Reach“, Martin got no less than four leads on „Take It Off“. Alfa Anderson says today: „I think at that time I was slightly disappointed - but when you listen to the album, Bernard and Nile definitively wanted something more raw and my vocal approach was more suitable fort the earlier recordings and themes. They used strings then and my voice was soft and maybe a bit more melodic on the earlier stuff. I was a little disappointed but I think that Luci’s vocals are perfect for the songs on „Take It Off“. As producers they were smart enough to see that.“ All smartness and commercial issues aside, Anderson remembers the studio sessions with fondness. The musical direction may had changed in 1981 but the working methods of Bernard Edwards and Nile Rodergs certainly had not, Anderson tells with a laughter. „They would just tell us a day and a time to come to the studio and we would sit in the control room and they would teach us the song. They would have the lyrics written down on a piece of paper and we would just stand in the studio and learn it. And then we went and got behind the mic and sing it. Their thing was: „Listen to it, practice it, find the groove, find the emotion – and then go out there and make it work.“ That way of recording suited the singer just fine: „What is perfection anyway? It’s more about the feeling, it’s more about the emotion. When you rehearse too much and do it over and over again, then sometimes you get perfection but no emotion.“
Listening to the whole of „Take It Off“ after all these years, Alfa Anderson re-dicovered one of her favourite CHIC-songs: „I really do like „Stage Fright“. It’s so uptempo and I love Luci’s voice on it and I love the chorus we as a group did with Fonzi (Thornton), Michelle (Cobbs) and Jocelyn (Brown) – they were on these sessions as well. I love „Stage Fright“ because it also told the story of who we were. All of us, I think, were nervous before live performances. Each of us had a little bit of stage fright, even though we had done all this stuff and touring. I remember my knees would knock (laughs heartily). You would think I played the maracas. I was so nervous that my knees would actually shake and knock together. But once we got into it and were on stage, it was fine. Luci suffered from stage fright, I think we all did. So that song was my favourite on the album because it’s also something that we all could relate to and were honest about it.“
Despite all the fun in the studio, the creativity of everyone involved in this project, the new musical direction and mainly favourable reviews, „Take It Off“ only reached number 124 on the Billboard 200 and an even more disappointing number 36 on the R&B charts in the US. Only one single was released („Stage Fright“) but no video was ever made for this song. Nor did the group do any live promotion for the album. It seems that by this point Edwards and Rodgers did not trust their own instincts anymore. Alfa Anderson, regardless of how commercially unsuccessful „Take It Off“ may have been, still holds a special feeling in her heart for that album: „Oh yeah, I mean „Flashback“, wasn’t that something? I listened to it and I thought „Oh, that is just great! „Baby Doll“ sounded fantastic, the instrumental at the end of the album. „So Fine“ was a great instrumental and I just felt so fortunate. I sang on this album, lead or background, and I still love those recordings.“
There is only one small aspect about the album that Alfa Anderson is not that fond of: the cover by Toby Wright, which showed the group as streetwise-looking cartoon characters, a portrait wich suited the new musical direction of CHIC very well. Although she likes it artistically, today – 40 years later – Anderson admits: „I thought it was very…unique. To have this sort of cartoon…I was supposed to be the lady in the red trousers…and the one in the yellow dress is Luci. I like that cover but I think that Luci and I were a little objectified in that cover - but that was long before I even had an opinion about women’s issues and the objectification of women. But I still think it’s a great cover.“
Looking back, Anderson, who released her sublime solo album „Music From My Heart“ in 2017, has her own explanation why „Take It Off“ was not the success everybody in the group had hoped for in 1981: „Sometimes the audience want you to give them the same things they love and know from you. And when you begin to make a departure – sometimes they go with you and sometimes they don’t. And they didn’t seem to go with us this time. I guess it’s something that you have to try, you know. I was thinking about it because it says in one of our earlier songs: „Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, take a little chance, it don’t mean nothing“. So Bernard and Nile just rolled the dice.“
For this author, „Take It Off“ was the beginning of his very own journey into the CHIC universe, a place which – even so many years later – is worth exploring. Listen to it, practice it and find the groove!