A Long Way from Wonderland

“Alice went to Wonderland but I stayed home instead”.

— Donna Summer, “The Wanderer”, 1980

When Bonnie Raitt, Pat Benatar, and Carly Simon were among the nominees announced for Best Rock Performance, Female, at the 1979 Grammy Awards, few would have guessed that the queen of disco was also a contender. Though Donna Summer was the frontrunner in the pop, R&B, disco, and Album of the Year categories, she ultimately won the prize in the rock category for “Hot Stuff”, an irony that foretold the artistic journey Summer was about to embark on with producers Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte.

“Donna was hot as a pistol then”, recalls singer-guitarist Bill Champlin, himself a nominee that year in the Best R&B Song category. (He took home the award for co-writing Earth Wind & Fire’s “After the Love Has Gone”) Only days earlier, Champlin had been ensconced at Rusk Sound Studios in Los Angeles recording background vocals for Summer’s new album. What very few of Champlin’s peers at the Grammy ceremony knew was that Donna Summer, who ruled the better half of 1979 with three number-one singles and two number-one albums on the pop charts, was stepping out of disco’s strobe-lit boogie wonderland.

By 1980, Donna Summer had amassed enough currency in her career to take chances. In October, Summer astounded audiences with The Wanderer, a decidedly rock-oriented album that marked Summer’s liberation from the image-making machinations of her previous record company, Casablanca, and from the grueling celebrity lifestyle that sent her to the brink of suicide. (The album also inaugurated David Geffen’s eponymous record label.) Harry Langdon’s album cover photograph for The Wanderer depicts Summer clothed in layers of scarves and leggings, sitting atop a black bench with suitcase nearby, looking very much “the wanderer”. With one hand casually nested in her perfectly coifed hair, Summer’s gaze is direct and provocative. “I dare you to listen” is the implied message.

In the February 1981 Musician, Roy Trakin assessed The Wanderer as “disco diva Donna’s Inferno, a trip that will take us through her cold hell, up against fiendish temptation and out the other side to spiritual redemption”. Using rock as catharsis, Donna Summer issued a bold artistic statement that surprised listeners expecting another Bad Girls (1979). I had an opportunity to discuss this critical career juncture with Summer herself in January 2003 for a research project about black female singers and rock music. Did she lose her way when trading gowns for guitars? A closer listen to The Wanderer suggests that Donna Summer was anything but lost.

The Songs

“I view my singing as an acting piece, so every song is a different character. I approach each song based on the texture and the color and the ideas that are in the song”.

— Donna Summer

As one of popular music’s most bankable figures in the mid-’70s, Donna Summer had worked virtually nonstop for five years by the time she sat down to compose songs for The Wanderer. After relentless touring and averaging two albums a year since 1975, she desperately needed a respite. “I was home. I was actually pregnant at the time, and I had all the time in the world to really conjure new songs”, Summer recalled. What emerged were highly personal stories about spirituality and superstardom.

Emancipation from the shiny shackles of fame is a prominent theme on The Wanderer, particularly on the opening track. In the lyrics to “The Wanderer”, Summer insinuates that she’d tired of assuming the glamorous image propagated by Casablanca. Bad Girls did little to dispel the modern day Aphrodite image she was never entirely comfortable with, but the Donna Summer on “The Wanderer” is not the same Donna Summer who moaned “Love to Love You, Baby” for nearly 17 minutes in 1975. Instead, she warbles lyrics in an uncharacteristically deep voice not unlike 1950s rocker Gene Vincent (“Be-Bop-a-Lula”). The voice affectation is a vanishing act of sorts as Summer distances herself from the sassy, sexy “bad girl” image: “Slip down the back stair / on my toes and out the door / They didn’t hear now / they won’t see me anymore / ‘Cause I can’t take that nine-to-five /life is a bore”

Similarly, the world-weariness Summer projects on “Who Do You Think You’re Foolin’ ” (written by Sylvester Levay, Harold Faltermeyer, and Jerry Rix) reflects five years spent in the heat of a blinding spotlight. Singing in third person Summer cautions, “Fame is only a dream land away”, knowing full well that stardom is a tenuous phenomenon, based on a shaky semblance of reality. Summer and her background singers repeat the phrase “You’re a star” at the end of each chorus not with elation but with abrasive cynicism.

The elusive nature of fame and its soul-sucking power preoccupies the somewhat indecipherable “Grand Illusion”. Giorgio Moroder’s spacey, heavily synthesized sonic landscape creates a hypnotic mood for Summer’s otherworldly voice. She sings in what can only be described as a sped-up falsetto:

Oh grand illusion, likes to fade away

take my love and go out to play

It’s no intrusion, it’s like a rainy day

comes to wash the clouds away

and this pain of mine

The words are sung in a chantlike cadence, as if Summer wrote the lyrics in a meditative state. During the bridge, Moroder’s swirling synthesizer patterns make it seem Summer is being circled by a benevolent celestial force that will wash away her pain. Imbued with its munificence, her voice takes on an operatic, seraphimlike vibrato: “Find the melody / that puts our hearts in tune / Simple symphony/that makes us feel brand new”.

She addresses spiritual rebirth more directly on three other songs: “Looking Up”, “Running for Cover”, and “I Believe in Jesus”. The latter is Summer’s resounding declaration of redemption. Summer had become a born-again Christian only months before recording The Wanderer and “I Believe in Jesus” was the most explicit expression of her renewed faith.

Less overtly spiritual, but more musically compelling, is “Looking Up”, which sounds like the single that never was. For one, Summer sings in her trademark, full-bodied voice rather than the camouflaged tones on the title track. Summer’s lyrics, co-written with Pete Bellotte, take flight with Moroder’s propulsive dance-rock arrangement. Building on its fervor of guitars, drums, and keyboards, “Looking Up” contains a bracing chorus-to-bridge transition. Just before the second chorus ends, Summer swoops up in her falsetto to sing an angelic “oooh” that fades in an echo to the sole beat of Keith Forsey’s drum. It’s merely seconds long, but the sudden suspension of the rhythm section, save the drumbeat, creates an energizing anticipation. The keyboards and guitars quietly return and Summer self-harmonizes a type of prayer in a soft, sung-spoken voice:

And since that rainy day

the clouds just stay away

You chase them with your love

the greatest love I know

‘Cause in the darkest hour

you’ll come with sunny showers

My life is yours today

don’t ever go away

Of the songs about spirituality, “Running for Cover” captures Summer and her musicians in all-out rock mode. She explained its inspiration to me in 2003: “That was right at the time when I got converted, and I think that I was looking for a way to say what had happened without being obvious. I was trying to explain it in a metaphor that I was running for cover, for protection”. It stands as one the most dramatic songs Summer ever wrote.

From the unnerving, high-pitched keyboard tones that open the song, “Running for Cover” is steeped in an eerie, claustrophobic atmosphere. Summer, who composed the lyrics and music, sings about “running scared” in the city over a sparse bass and drum background. Hers is a nefarious urban space, replete with unsavory temptations, from which she seeks both refuge and salvation. “I was always alone and afraid, such a pity / little girls just don’t know what comes out of the dark / But the devil waits in heat/ and I’m on that dead-end street.” Her narrow escape from the “devil” is documented musically. As the beat quickens, so does the urgency of her singing until she bellows “The devil’s in the park and it’s already after dark“. Guitarist Steve Lukather unleashes a manic solo that perfectly conveys Summer’s fear and escape.

The rock edge of “Running for Cover” is repurposed with a pop feel on “Cold Love”, where Summer nurses the wounds of unrequited love in a the tune that illustrates Summer’s character-driven approach to singing. Like the title track, it’s not readily apparent who is singing the song. Critic Dave Marsh noted in his review Rolling Stone review that Summer “punches across” the tune like the “ultimate Anglo-rock singer”. Summer says, “I just approached it like a rock and roll singer. I didn’t think that I’m black or white. I just thought ‘How does rock and roll get sung?’ “

Summer convincingly inhabits each story on The Wanderer to the point where her voice is virtually unrecognizable from one cut to the next. The falsetto on “Breakdown” reflects the fragility of romantic love, while the nursery rhyme about nocturnal dwellers on “Nightlife” is sung with a throaty sneer. “Stop Me” is altogether different with Summer hollering “But if you’ve heard this all before / don’t let me carry on no more” to a scorned lover over a new wave cum hard rock arrangement. Critic Stephen Holden singled out the cast of characters that so typify Summer’s singing on the album in his review for The Village Voice, “Not since I Remember Yesterday has Summer adopted so many different voices. There’s the caterwauling street kitten, the breathless little girl, the tough rocker, and the stagey diva” (1981).

The “supporting cast” for Summer’s characters on The Wanderer is a trio of male background singers who give a distinct shape to each song. Bill Champlin brought session vocalists Carmen Grillo and Tom Kelley to the project, and their voltaic vocalizations broadened Summer’s sound from the disco diva-isms that mark her earlier work. As Grillo recalls, “We would do these pyramid types of things. We thought, Why don’t we all hit the same note and then it will sound more people-y? We would all sing the low note, then we would all sing middle note, then we would all sing the high note”.

“Last Dance” this certainly was not.

The Reaction

“I think that they were kind of taken aback because they were expecting a big dance record and I didn’t go there. I specifically didn’t go there so that they would not continually pigeonhole me, not because I didn’t like dance music — I love dance music — but I wasn’t in dance mode. I was in ‘writing something else’ mode”.

— Donna Summer (2003)

Here are the statistics: The Wanderer earned Summer a gold album, two Grammy nominations, a top-five single in the title track, and nearly unanimous praise among critics. Writing for Billboard, Ed Harrison remarked, “The singer has chosen to experiment…veering gradually in new directions and in doing so has progressed as a performer and a writer” (1981). Robert Christgau wrote in his Consumer Guide, “Personally, I delight in the synthetic perfection of the thing” (1980). In Rolling Stone, Dave Marsh commented, “It’s Summer who pulls everything together with such intense purposefulness that the album is finally a complete and convincing statement of innocence, faith, joy, terror and the ability to deal with life head-on” (1981).

Audiences and radio programmers, however, were a bit confused. The woman who only a year earlier playfully chanted “toot toot, beep beep” was earnestly proclaiming her devotion to Jesus. Whereas Summer’s first two singles on Bad Girls were chart-topping smashes, the follow-up singles to “The Wanderer” — “Cold Love” and “Who Do You Think You’re Foolin’ ” — scraped the bottom of the Top 40. How did someone so ubiquitous one year become so difficult to program the next? Quick to defend the first artist he signed, David Geffen explained the struggles of promoting a rock record by a black female artist to the Los Angeles Times:

The problem with Donna’s album is that it’s a rock record, but rock stations aren’t playing it because of a prejudice against black artists and female artists. When you look at a rock station playlist and can’t find a single black act, I think there’s something radically wrong, and it has nothing to do with Donna Summer. And Donna has the misfortune in terms of rock radio to be both black and a woman.

Tom Hadges, the program director at KLOS FM, hypothesized, “It’s a difficult thing to try to reverse an image. The people who bought her albums before aren’t buying the new one and rock audiences aren’t willing to put their money down on a Donna Summer album right now”. The compartmentalization of radio formats and audience’s resistance toward Summer’s change in style clearly hindered the record. Not wishing to gamble further, Geffen hired Quincy Jones to direct Summer towards a more conventional R&B sound for her subsequent album (Donna Summer, 1982)

About the reception of The Wanderer, Summer remains philosophical: “If you’re an artist, you have to do your artistry. Sometimes there’s a conflict and people don’t want your artistry to be what it is and so you make the adjustment to try to please them. At that point I wasn’t trying to please anyone but myself. That’s not my best selling record but at the same time, I think it certainly was one I felt that I was being true to myself. I was not allowing myself to be pigeonholed where people were trying to put me, but I was taking them with me on this journey. We were going to ‘wander’ around and we were going to go to places that they hadn’t been with me. That’s what The Wanderer meant to me”. Listeners who accompanied her on the journey heard an artist who simply refused to stagnate. Summer may have left “wonderland”, but she found her soul.