Audio Tribute: Taking The Last Dance With Donna Summer
Monday, May 21, 2012
Donna Summer is often tagged as the Queen of Disco. It's really no lie as she ruled the lighted floor roost and set the standard for the genre that defined the latter part of the 1970's. Yet, in all that mirror ball glow, the genre label is nothing short of lazy especially when she was such a chameleon when it came to her musicality. Still don't feel bad, it's a societal pressure to have a label, we try to squeeze and box ourselves in by certain criteria, try to find 'our group' to blend in---we have such a hunger for exactness in this lopsided world, that we forget the individual and that is whom I champion. Which is why those "un-boxables" like Donna Summer mean a bit more to me than just great grooving tunes. Summer's didn't follow in the same ol' 'soul mama' stitch a lot of her peers were doing during her tenure. She played genre hopscotch, charmed her way into the difficult crossover market, and kept her sound vibrant and vital to the time with all the little experiments in-between. To be cliche, Summer sizzled, all while staying secure and true to herself and her artistry.
The silver lining in a music icon's death is the exploration and (re)discovery of their copious material, but then again, I'm always an optimist. After hearing about the passing of Donna Summer and promptly picking my heart off of the floor from the news, there was a slight glimmer of happiness that erupted when plugging into a marathon of Summer's material---material I've heard and sang (badly) hundreds of times over---and hearing the material with new honoring ears. And what a journey Donna Summer's music catalog is! Which is why I must take post time to celebrate the variant tones in Ms. Summer's career by ruminating some of my favorite highlights/phases from it.
So shall we have the 'last dance'?
When the disco ball shattered and "Disco Sucks!" was the (lame) battle cry, Summer balled up the memo and didn't get discouraged and as she released the gusty genre bending The Wanderer in 1980. Right down to the tongue n' cheek title, The Wanderer was a transitional album, not just for Summer to put her Disco past behind her or make way for her intro into her 80's wave of successes, but it was also a transition for popular music in a time where the burgeoning Punk and New Wave scene was breaking through. Summer---with her main producing men, Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte---opts to 'wander' into a mist of zesty prog-New Wave/Rock n' Blues album that goes toe-to-toe with whatever Pat Benatar and Blondie's Debbie Harry were putting forth at that time, and at times even besting them. Tracks like "Looking Up", "Cold Love" (my favorite), and "Night Life" hit in the gut with guitar licks galore, while "Breakdown" and "Grand Illusion" explore synthesized dream pop rather stunningly. Overall, it's a crackling collection that highlights artist's progression beautifully. While other disco novelties dropped like flies when the 80's rolled around, Summer cemented her stay with The Wanderer and opened the door (yet again) for other artists to take risks during a change in the musical climate.
Sex N' Summer
Clocking in at seventeen minutes and basically consisting of Summer in the throws of sexual bliss, 1975's "Love To Love You Baby" wasn't just Summer's break-out (and at one point banned) single---it was a game-changer. Sure it made you blush in public, aroused you in private, and lacks eloquent wordsmith qualities, but without this and the sensual allure Summer's persona carried with it---we wouldn't really have all the nice things we have in music culture right now. Summer's took Soul music out of chipper, wholesome Motown-dom, kept it's honesty and class, but threw a little smut in it to mature it some and voila! you have the pioneer formula for the disco diva. It wasn't the only sexcapades Summer took you on, as anyone with a pulse can feel the lust oozing from such stunners like "Spring Affair", "Hot Stuff", and "Could It Be Magic", and it's a formula that continues to work today. Ironically, Summer herself was never comfortable about her persona as this sensual enchantress of song, which led her to sort of forgo it after her disco reign as well as become a born-again Christian. Still, without Donna showing an uninhibited stance to female sexual empowerment, Madonna wouldn't have humped the floor in a wedding dress, Janet Jackson wouldn't have moaned, Mariah Carey, Beyonce, Rihanna...all of them wouldn't really have had much to say. Heck, Diana Ross became much more interesting when she ditched the gooey ballads and got dirty with "Love Hangover" a year after "Love To Love You Baby" dropped. Things just became a little less boring when Donna's batting eyes and her sexy aural opuses touched down allowing female singers to unleash their inner-sex panther---and grateful we all should be.
"I Feel Love"
Over the years, the Disco genre has often been regarded in a passive tone and in an extremely harsh light, yet where would we be without it? Would House, Freestyle, and Techno have ever happened? In fact where would all those genres have been without "I Feel Love"? We're all salty n' sneering about how R&B/Soul is currently being diluted by the electronic genre, but let's not be coy, as all of that happened here first and to greater effect. In all of it's mileage, "I Feel Love" hasn't aged a slice. I wish I had been alive in 1977 to hear this progressive tune for the first time. To hear the futuristic cosmic climb of synths that hypnotically draw you into it's dreamscape of eroticism---I can just imagine all the brains that melted when this debuted. There is a neat story about Brian Eno and David Bowie being so blown away by it that they dubbed it the "sound of the future" and in turn influenced their collaborative efforts thereafter. Up to that point, Disco music had been mostly constructed of live bands, but this wrote a whole 'nother chapter for what became another avenue for Pop music. I could gab for days about the genius of Summer, Moroder, and Bellote's efforts on this track, but I'll let this great piece do the talking.
While The Wanderer is my all-time favorite, All Systems Go is my personal favorite album of Summer's. Extremely yuppie-fied mid-80's with all the drum machines you'll ever need, yet it's a real nice blend of R&B and Pop that stays the course without missing a beat. It's not the most ground-breaking album of Summer's career, as little to no risks are really taken, but I think "Love Shock" is oh so electric, and "Thinkin' Bout My Baby" has Summer's going all Sade jazzy on us. Just a real feel-good 80's synth guilty pleasure that I liken to eating chunks of cookie dough in ice cream. Oh, and the Brenda Russell penned "Dinner With Gershwin"---yeah, you'll wanna dine on that quirky fun slice of pop pie as well.
The signature slice of Summer's career. What is not to love about this song? It's sweeping, melodic, and joyous (albeit it's bittersweet tone), and has a great arrangement that is peppered with some great string and horn work. Once you play it, you're hard pressed not to sing along. So no wonder it won an Academy Award---it deserved it as a pitch-perfect Disco track. Coming from Summer's first (and last) starring film role in the 1978 novelty flick, Thank God It's Friday, "Last Dance" not surprisingly fared better than the movie from which it derived from. I don't know what is taking me so long to see Thank God It's Friday---I mean, it's got Summer, The Commodores, a really young Jeff Goldblum, and it looks like a cheap campy ride into funkytown---but then again, I'd rather spin this.
As a proclaimed feminist/womanist (whatever label have you) myself I can't pass up the op to say that Summer's had her girl power fist a-pumpin' during her reign taking feminism to the dancefloor. With Barbara Streisand, 'enough was enough' as the two powerhouses combined forces on the smash "No More Tears" dishing about not taking crap from some louse of a guy. Her reading of Jon & Vangelis' "State Of Independence" is soulful and inspiring as she sings with so much personal conviction (seriously, I feel that song!). Truly the best femmy moment is the progressive, "She Works Hard For The Money" where she gives praise to the hard working woman, and man oh man what a great song it is with all that 80's gusto. I find myself numerous times humming it whenever I'm in the throws of work just to let the day go by faster.
The 70's really was the 'concept album age'. Why? My guess is the drug usage, but whatever. As you know, I'm quite the nerd for concept albums because they are just so fun and geeky, and luckily, Donna had a lot of them as during her 70's reign. Summer's most prominent storybooks during that span included 1977's Once Upon A Time and I Remember Yesterday, and 1979's Bad Girls. Yesterday explores the merges of Disco with various styles from decades past, as well as going into the future. The saucy Bad Girls opus gives nod to the 'sunset people' who are doin' it right night after night with the music representing a cast of characters as they roam the streets in search of love. My favorite of the bunch is Once Upon A Time. It's a shimmering feast of Disco that retells Cinderella as a rags-to-disco-queen-riches tale and it's just oh so cohesive. I swear on a stack of Glamour magazines that when I make my first million that I will grab the rights to that album in order to make the most campiest glitter n' gauze 70's disco musical spectacular ever. Crazy dreams, I has them.
Shelved albums are fascinating entities to me. They embody some of either the best or the worst of the artist in question. Most of the time they suck, but Summer's I'm A Rainbow is an exception to the rule, because it's oddly one of her best albums, top three even. Rainbow was stupidly shelved by Geffen as the double album pretty much picked up where The Wanderer left off and then some and well, folks got a little scared about that, thus it was never released though a few songs ended up being recorded by others (notably Frida and Amii Stewart) or thrown on movie soundtracks (see "Romeo" and "Highway Runner"). There is really no telling the impact this album would of had if it had been released, and the mystery of that is what makes this album extra-special. Prior to Summer's passing I was working on a piece about this album in ties with her 1982 work with Quincy Jones---so consider this topic not closed....
"On The Radio"
Strangely, whenever I think of "On The Radio" I also think of Selena. The late Tejano star was a huge fan of Summer's and during the 90's she brought interest back to Summer's catalog when she spun "Last Dance" and "On The Radio" into a neat medley that she infamously performed at her last concert. The medley was played all over the radio in my hometown after Selena's tragic passing, and oddly thanks to her rendition, it became my first introduction to Donna Summer and to this day it's my most favored song of hers. Maybe it's the fluid lyrics or that wicked sax solo, whatever it is, "On The Radio" is constructed in such a way that you cannot hate it and your cares will be cast away once it quietly sneaks in with a tinkling piano and Summer's rousing vocals. I've yet to find love on the radio, but I guess a love of music and a love towards Donna Summer herself will suffice for now.
For further Donna Summer love spread on this blog see 'Eight Reasons Why 80's Donna Summer Ain't So Bad', which is me in a less word-y time, and pretty much touching on some of the same things I mentioned in this tribute.