On New Year’s Eve 1977, Nile Rodgers and Bernard Edwards – founders of the disco group Chic – were denied access to Studio 54 in New York. Dressed favorably in black ties and Cerruti dinner jackets, they waited until 01:00 outside the club in the snow, hoping that Grace Jones, who invited them, would find out they were missing. She did not.
The duo walked home, bought some weeds, cocaine and a bottle of champagne and started working on what would become their most famous album. They started in the early hours of the morning with a song called “Fuck Off”, which changed to “Freak Off”, then “Freak Out”, then finally “Le Freak”. The album, It’s stylish, came to define the disco movement, a genre that was criticized at the time for choosing escape over political struggle. But, as Peter Shapiro writes in Turn the Beat, its clear history of the genre, “in a climate of stagnation, when the country was generally held hostage by Opec [and] NYC owes allegiance to the mortgage-issuing robber barons … the only possible response was escape.
It’s stylish, released in 1978, went on to sell over 6 million copies in the US alone, which is no surprise as the playlist includes classical music such as “Le Freak” and “I Want Your Love”. Less well known is a seven-minute song called “Finally I’m free”.
A departure from the rest of the album, “Finally I’m free”comes in slowly, following Andy Schwartz’s obscure piano and Edwards’ wandering bass licks. Chic recruited singer Alfa Anderson in 1978, and it’s her voice that leads the track, lingeringat the end of each line. Far from escaping the disco scene, “At Last I Am Free” is a vulnerable acknowledgment of disillusionment and alienation: “I’m lonely, please hold me, come closer, my darling / It feels so good to be just around you to have. / But who am I fooling when I know it is not real / I can not hide all this hurt and pain in what I feel. ” It’s disco’s cracked soul.
One musician who noticed the track’s profundity was Robert Wyatt, who recorded it in 1980. At first glance, it was a strange choice. Wyatt released a series of political cover singles for the Rough Trade label and “At Last I Am Free” found its place amid idiosyncratic versions of “The Red Flag”, a version of the Cuban national anthem “Guantanamera” (called “Caimanera”), and what remains his most beloved song, “Shipbuilding”, Elvis Costello and Clive Langer’s lament for the folly of the Falklands War.
But Wyatt knew a decent pop song when he heard one and also may have unknowingly hit on the fact that “At Last I Am Free” had a political context. Rodgers had written the rules a few years earlier at the height of the American civil rights movement, when he was a subdivisional leader of the Lower Manhattan branch of the Black Panther party.
Wyatt talked about how he enjoyed exchanging Chic’s New York utterances for his distinctive Kent accent (especially on the word “last”). His coverstrip the song back, swapping a hypnagogic piano line and a more stable, continuous drum loop. The cover stumbles forward, Wyatt’s wobbly falsetto slipping like a strong wind over swampy land over it.
Wyatt’s version is so striking that for many it now defines the song. Indeed, Green Gartside, touring together Politti’s writings for the first time after-closing, Wyatt’s version of “At Last I Am Free” performed every night as a supplement, along with Hot Chip’s Alexis Taylor, who introduced it as “a cover of a cover.”
A few others tried to capture the song. The experimental German orchestra Cassiber included a mostly instrumental version on their 1984 album Beauty & The Beast. Their view is driven by chaotic, improvised saxophone. The Cassiber formula is to break the song out of its melancholy, dividing it apart with screaming solos and jazz drum breaks.
In 2003, Elizabeth Fraser of the Cocteau Twins recorded the song for a 25-year celebration of Rough Trade. Her interpretation is more saint-heavy than its predecessors, centered around a mantric repetition of the word “free,” rising trance-like to the refrain.
“At Last I Am Free” began life as an unexpected hiding in the disco cannon, but it evolved to fit an opportunity of deep reflection. We were all there. That liberating moment when the party rages around you, but with sudden, dizzying clarity, you realize you just do not feel it.
What are your memories of ‘Finally I’m free?’ Let us know in the comments section below.
‘The Life of a Song Volume 2: The fascinating stories behind another 50 of the world’s most beloved songs‘, edited by David Cheal and Jan Dalley, is published by Brewer’s.
Music credits: Rhinoceros; Domino
PImage Credit: Kevin Cummins / Getty Images