Culture House Daily

Roland Barthes was a fan of Sister Sledge – and I can see why

15 August 2014

Disco, the tackiest of music subcultures, is the nostalgia choice de nos jours. The sudden revival is a sort of pop gentrification. You want proof? They play Baccara’s ‘Yes Sir, I Can Boogie’ in Pret A Manger. Sister Sledge, too. Sledge were never the naffest of the movement’s megastars, but that’s not saying much. Roland Barthes was a fan, whatever that implies.

‘How many people do you think are here as an ironic statement?’ a friend asked as we stood in Camden’s Jazz Cafe waiting for the Sledge to take the stage. It was a good question. Who actually comes to a disco revival gig? And can such a thing exist outside of inverted commas? The first answer was: hipsters, Peter Stringfellow lookalikes and – wow – normal people. As for the second…

First impressions suggested a definitive no. The Sisters (of the original four, only Debbie and Joni turned up) stamped onstage in Barbie-pink togas, beaming in the way that only revival circuit veterans can. They thumped through ‘All American Girls’, a so-so singalong that wasn’t improved by a backing that substituted cheap keyboard frills for enthusiasm.

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I started to get the sense that I might as well have been watching anybody play this stuff. But then a guitarist struck up the opening riff to ‘Thinking of You’, one of the faultless records they made with Chic nearly forty years ago. A saxophone rasped cheese at the crowd, who shouted back every word the Sisters belted out. For audience and performers alike, this was a vital rocket up the arse. It was fantastic.

I’ve never been to a gig with such schizophrenic quality control. As soon as the backing band had decent material to play with, they smashed through it like an airstrike. Whenever they were landed with anything less – basically any song Sister Sledge have recorded since the early 80s – they turned into a suburban wedding band inaugurating a doomed third marriage.

You forgive all for a song like ‘He’s the Greatest Dancer’, though. It takes a lot to load a chant like ‘Halston! Gucci! Fi-orrucci!’ with urgency, but the Sisters threw it out like demagogues on a podium. I felt dizzy all of a sudden. Is this what they meant when they sang ‘Lost in Music’?

No, actually. It turned out the nausea was food poisoning rather than lowbrow Stendahl syndrome – horrible it was, too. Still, even without bringing on a state of rapture, when Sister Sledge hit their stride they’re as good as pop music gets. It’s beyond questions of taste and irony – it’s just fun.

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Show comments
  • Terry Field

    ‘Sister Sledge’
    Ugly, brutish, superficial and foul.
    A fine representation of the putrefaction of current western post-civilsation conditions.
    Soon the streets will be the scene of running battles between gays and ISIS.
    Both so full of alienating aspects I do not know who I would root for.
    I think I tend towards ISIS.

    • No Good Boyo

      On the other hand, you’ll never hear ISIS singing “Frankie”, which was an immensely fun song.

  • GUBU

    Sister Sledge, on the other hand, thought that Roland Barthes was a pompous post structuralist a#se.

    And I can see why.

  • Kitty MLB

    Sister Sledge, were they somewhat more soul singers. ‘ lost in music’ excellent music
    you dance across a wooden floor to ( the same with Strauss) so different to some of
    the girl bands now, that are manufactured.
    A question were The Beech Boys and The Bee Gees pop music? they were clearly
    very similar.

    • John Gerard

      Now there is another underrated artist, who often have the p*** taken out of them. The Bee Gees. Like Chic, the amount of work, and the quality, is staggering.

      • GUBU

        I used to have the yellow Bee Gees compilation.

        Fantastic album – much, much more to them than tippex white teeth and tight white trousers.

        • Kitty MLB

          Were the Bay City Rollers similar to the Bee Gees, apologies if the spelling is wrong.

          • GUBU


            The Bay City Rollers were a 70’s Scottish precursor of modern manufactured boy bands – probably remembered less now for their music than for the behaviour of their fans.

            Lot’s of screaming, fainting and chasing cars – the usual palaver – but done whilst wearing cropped flares (known as skinners where I came from) trimmed with tartan, horrible satin bomber jackets, three star jumpers and other assorted fashion faux pas.

            Thankfully, I was just a little bit too young to inflict this sartorial abuse upon myself. My wife, however, has no such excuses.

    • Wessex Man

      Of course they were and both Groups were very very good, I didn’t realise you were such a snob!

      • Kitty MLB

        O come, I hate snobbery.Maybe it was the hairy chests. I was already led astray as a student listening to the likes of U2 and pink floyd.Rotten
        headaches in the morning.Have some mercy I had to
        study at some point, no time for all types of music.

        Oh by the way you aught to listen to the Manhatten
        Jazz Quintet, you’d love them.

      • Terry Field

        What a strang observation – I suspect you are inexpert in the use of, and in the understanding of the meaning of, words.
        More of a video-game mind, eh?

  • Kitty MLB

    Hey, you’re being a little offish about disco music, it got people on their feet.
    Although I was the ‘ uncool ‘ type who went from Rock Music to Jazz.. and in shall prove just uncool I was ( it wasn’t all Genesis and U2) I used to like someone from the Rock ‘n’ Roll era called B. Holly, not as cool as the Beatles.
    But at the very moment its Eliza Carthy.. who no one here probably has never heard of her but I shall redeem myself by saying I liked Bob Dylan, Police and Duran Duran.

    • Wessex Man

      nothing wrong with liking Buddy Holly, most of the sixties bands were formed in the image of his music!

      • Kitty MLB

        He died rather young didn’t he ? rather like James Dean.

        • startledcod

          Not really like James Dean, he died in a car crash, Buddy Holly died in a plane crash.

          • Wessex Man

            The point Kitty was making is that indeed they were both tragically taken from this world very early in both cases.

            • Kitty MLB


  • startledcod

    Sister Sledge were a reasonably successful singing ensemble until they were taken on by Nile Rodgers who turned them into mega sellers.

    Arguably the coolest man on the planet (he makes Bono look like a hopeless wannabe, mind you so do I) the list of people he has written for, produced and played with is extraordinary: Duran Duran, Sister Sledge, David Bowie, Diana Ross, Johnny Mathis, Debbie Harry, INXS, Madonna, Grace Jones, Al Jarreau, Bryan Ferry etc. etc. etc. and most recently he produced and played on Daft Punk’s ‘Get Lucky’. Over $1bn worth of music sales. Go and check his oeuvre, it is incredible.

    He is music Royalty and we are lucky that his talent was mainly expressed in dance music (disco). Roland Barthes was right and spotted Nile Rodgers’s immense talent through the medium of Sister Sledge.

    • John Gerard

      I had the pleasure of meeting The Man Himself on numerous occasions when I worked in the music business years ago. He was a good friend of my boss. Sister Sledge is essentially Chic with them singing instead of the two Chic girls. Nothing more. I remember going into WH Smith in Brent Cross Shopping Centre with my brother to buy the Sister Sledge album, and they had none left. The man behind the counter told some other bloke, “I think they have stock in Virgin”. We went around there and bought the last one. Then the other bloke turns up, and they’re out…
      I would put their second, ‘C’est Chic’, down as one of the greatest albums ever made. Beautiful, production. Just utterly immaculate…

      • startledcod

        So impressed that you have met him, jealous. I have a good friend in NY, widow of a very well known composer/conductor, who knows the him well and I am hoping might make an introduction.

        i assume you saw this, if not it’s well Soul Train clip.

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