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Culture House Daily

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

15 August 2014

11:36 AM

15 August 2014

11:36 AM

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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