Dancing Queen: Donna Summer’s Journey Through the Heart of Disco

“Disco” is almost certainly the dirtiest word in popular music. Practically any other genre you consider might be recommended as having at least one redeeming quality, but it is now the case, and has almost always been so, that disco is indefensible. The slim cachet it gained during the ’90s — the dance music decade — has dissipated as quickly as dry ice, as surely as the dance decade itself is dead. In short, disco is for village idiots as much as for Village People.

Disco is dismal, dire. Disco is done.

But not Donna Summer. And the artist we know as Donna Summer is not so much a “she” as a “they.” The girl born and raised LaDonna Gaines (the name “Summer” derives from her first marriage) is one of the most under-rated vocalists of her generation, yet without the production genius of Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte, it’s possible we might never have heard the name “Donna Summer” at all.

Summer’s popular success as a recording artist began in Munich, Germany in the early ’70s, first when she recorded three small European hits, and then when she met Moroder in ’74 and struck gold with “Love to Love You, Baby”. That run of success effectively ended six years later, around the same time the Summer/Moroder collaboration fizzled. Quincy Jones helped produce a brief postscript in 1982, but the later recordings clearly illustrate that neither Summer nor Moroder ever adequately replaced one another — even though the singer herself might be inclined to argue that in God, she found a production artist to die for.

What’s most staggering now about the production work of Giorgio Moroder isn’t merely that it was ahead of its time, but that it was so far ahead of its time. The programming and production on almost all of the Summer/Moroder collaborations are as precise as the workings of a Swiss watch, and vastly more inventive. While artists like Soft Cell, the Pet Shop Boys, and New Order each utilized Moroder’s influence early, it was a later generation of largely anonymous dance producers who fully reaped the rewards. By the time Underworld acknowledged co-opting “I Feel Love” on “King of Snake” for the 1999 album Beaucoup Fish, they were paying homage to a song that was more than 20 years old; in doing so, one of the most progressive, inventive artists from their own era managed nothing by way of improving upon it.

“I Feel Love” is the template from which techno and trance later emerged, which explains why the song never completely left the dance floor. Furthermore, while Kraftwerk are justifiably acknowledged as the godfathers of techno/trance, it is an un-remarked curiosity that Moroder and Bellotte were investigating related concepts not only during the same period of time, but also in the same music backwater of western Germany.

Yet for some years there was a suggestion from certain critics that Moroder was simply taking black funk rhythms out of dance music, and replacing them with measured synthesized beats so that white kids could “get rhythm” too. Such claims are disturbing in their unchecked racism. The Euro-pop sensibilities of Moroder ought no longer be viewed as a polar opposite of the more soulful expressions of traditional house; if they are, one need search no further than Summer’s vocals to discover the bridge across the divide.

If Moroder introduced cool, purely synthesized beats to the dance floor, it was Summer who made sure sex came along for company. Indeed, sex is pervasive throughout much of Summer’s best work, and to that extent it cuts to the heart of the disco era. Disco was sex and coke, a phantasmagoria of amped-up desires played out on the dance floor (and in not a few bathroom stalls), and if those who lived it showed a proclivity for shedding clothes, who could blame them given the styles of the times?

The song that started it all, “Love to Love You, Baby”, remains an erotic masterpiece. Legend has it that before its release, Casablanca Records president Neil Bogart played a standard, single-length version at party in his home, and afterwards played it again while he made love to his wife. Afterwards (presumably, not directly afterwards), Bogart called Moroder and told him the song could be a giant hit, but that he had to make a longer version. Summer remains notable among disco divas for having written much of her own work, and when first told of the proposed epic version of “Love to Love You, Baby”, wondered how they were going to fill in all the extra time. “Don’t worry, we’ll improvise,” Moroder reportedly said — already at least three steps ahead of the game. “Which is how,” Summer disingenuously explained later, “we got to record all those ‘ooh and aahs.'”

To describe such eroticism as mere “oohs and aahs” is somewhat akin to suggesting that Pollack’s canvases are liberally splashed with drips of paint. It doesn’t even begin to tell the story.

Eventually, the extended mix of that particular song — the first of several “musical suites” created by Summer/Moroder/Bellotte, and the very first extended mix of its kind — came in at almost seventeen minutes long (apparently, the requisite time deemed necessary to take care of domestic business). From Summer’s highly eroticized vocals to Moroder’s fastidious programming and production, all the elements of their future success were engrained in this one recording.

“I Feel Love”, “Hot Stuff”, “Bad Girls”, “Dim All the Lights”. The erotic pulse that ran rampant through the Summer oeuvre did so not merely as a matter of content, but also through an elusive erotic charge that registered in the singer’s voice. Who understands where these things come from? As mysterious as the attraction of a distinctive perfume, it simply was, and if it could have been bottled, a fortune would have been made from it, also.

Yet for all that, there was more to Summer’s voice than pure sex. She possessed a classicist’s range that exhibited itself in an utterly natural, uninhibited fashion. Few vocalists in recent years could have traded blows with Streisand and left not only with a reputation intact, but actually enhanced — something Summer accomplished in the duet “No More Tears (Enough is Enough)”. Perhaps pre-stoned Whitney Houston might have managed it, but certainly not Mariah Carey, who, for all her stunning vocal range, has yet to record a single song worthy of her gift. Christina Aguilera has the vocal chops, perhaps, but it remains to be seen whether she possesses the emotional depth to last the course. Summer and Streisand, meanwhile, contrived to elevate a song that contained all the elements of a substantive fondue into something that occasionally borders on the miraculous. The vocal performances are astonishing.

“No More Tears” was released in 1979, the last year of considerable success, the end of the greatest Summer. The new decade opened with “The Wanderer”, the last and least substantive hit produced by Moroder, and one that represented an alarming drop-off in quality. It played a poor imitation of earlier glories.

The disco era was over, and those at the deepest heart of it were confronted with a hangover of the most unimaginable proportions. AIDS cast a pall over an entire generation, while Summer suffered a spiritual crisis of her own, finding God and losing music — the inverse of a Faustian pact. Song ceased to be the most important aspect of her life, and though she occasionally continued to record, she had forsaken her most compelling subject. The voice remained, as evidenced as late as 1999 with a VH1 live special, but the material had run dry.

Post-Moroder, there was “Love Is in Control”, produced by Quincy Jones in 1982. It’s easy to see how pairing two such talents might have seemed like an infallible idea at the time, but the result was mediocrity, “Donna sings Michael Jackson”. The only saving grace the record offered was that at least it was representative of Thriller-era Jackson, and as such, constituted a small-scale improvement over “The Wanderer”.

“State of Independence”, from the same album, plays as an epilogue of sorts to Summer’s career. It remains the finest recorded version of the Vangelis-composed song, certainly better than the later Chryssie Hynde effort (yes, edging it over “the golden voice of rock”). Perhaps through the spiritual nature of the song, Summer mined a deep connection with the lyric, so that a certain elegiac beauty finds its way through. You don’t have to think “Jesus” to be uplifted by it, but it’s undoubtedly where Summer found inspiration.

Occasionally over the ensuing years, Summer would resurface, mostly through various compilations, but occasionally with new work that regretfully, added little to her legacy. As its name implies, the newly released double CD, The Journey: The Very Best of Donna Summer aspires to chronicle this story, and its release coincides with the publication of Summer’s autobiography: Ordinary Girl: The Journey.

The book, even for those with the smallest of expectations, is a disappointment. The majority perhaps — those who anticipated a simple chronological recollection, without pause for detail or question of motive — will find all they expected, peace undisturbed. Certainly nothing of what lies beneath is exposed here. Occasionally, the spiritually cleansed author will refer to shame regarding her past, but we are not privy to the events or to the behavior that caused her such shame.

Nor, necessarily, should we expect a full public confessional.

Except that, where it affects the artistic record, we are entitled an artist’s best effort to share a certain level of insight into that work… not least when they choose to sell their story to us. In this case, the two elements are inextricably linked, so that anything less is a cheat.

The new CD release is considerably more successful, yet in its own way equally as infuriating.

There have been previous attempts at career-defining Donna Summer retrospectives, including an early two-volume Greatest Hits collection, a Millennium Collection, and an Anthology. With this new package, one recognizes again that the labels’ refusal to release a complete, definitive edition belies not mere sloppiness, but calculated extortion. How else to explain such an edition, in which all pieces are gathered in place but fail to materialize on disc?

Disc One of The Journey is largely without fault. The early stand-out “Try Me, I Know We Can Make It” is omitted, but otherwise the single edits from all of the essential hits are here. And, if we are going to play the role of demanding complete-ists here, then we have to expect the best-forgotten Stock/Aitken/Waterman vehicle, “This Time I Know It’s For Real”, along with other assorted late miseries.

But Disc Two is where the problems arise.

Disc Two offers extended mixes of five songs, timing out at around forty minutes. Of those songs, only “I Feel Love” (the eight-minute version) would be considered essential, historically and aesthetically. A six-minute “Hot Stuff”, follows, and I can live with that too. But the final three tracks, including the dreaded Stock/Aitken/Waterman track (extended mix), are entirely without merit or historical note.

With thirty minutes of unused disc space, where is the absolutely essential 17-minute “Love to Love You, Baby”? Or, the 11-minute “No More Tears”? The extended “MacArthur Park” suite? What earthly reason could there be for not including these?

While it’s true that The Dance Collection, released in 1987, contains the 12″ versions of some of these tracks, you have to ask why the label would bother with a second disc at all here if they weren’t going to do it properly? In answer, one might only suggest that such an inclusive offering would negate the necessity for further collections.

Strangely enough, On the Radio: Greatest Hits Volumes 1 & 2, also released in 1987, remains in many ways the best collection. It doesn’t possess the remastered brilliance of The Journey (the quality is pristine), nor does it include any post-’70s material. However, what makes it unique is that in a remarkable show of foresight, the tracks are “mixed,” once again presaging the DJ/dance era and thus offering perfect context.

The book on Donna Summer is, effectively, closed. Which of these collections you select is up to you, but only the most serious of archivists out there need now await The Complete Donna Summer Box Set, rumored for release in the fall of 2050… if any of us are still dancing then.


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