100 Essential CDs – Number 64– Donna Summer – The Donna Summer Anthology

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The Donna Summer Anthology (P0lygram 1993)

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With three studio albums in my Essentials list it is no surprise that I am recommending a career retrospective for all the Donna Summer I have so far missed out.  There are quite a number to choose from but I have gone for the double CD Anthology which appeared in 1993 and was the first up- to -that point complete career collection with 34 tracks spanning 17 years.

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 Donna Summer was born LaDonna Adrian Gaines in 1948 and as a teenager won a part in the German production of “Hair”.  She married Austrian Helmuth Sommer and anglicized his surname to become her stage-name.  The marriage lasted three years, the name much longer.  In Europe she began working with Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte leading to her first smash hit “Love To Love You Baby”, one of my all-time favourite Disco tracks which I covered when I reviewed her first essential album “A Love Trilogy” which was released in 1976.  The version on this album is the US single version, which is not actually my favourite.  The British single mix is harder to find but feels more of a complete track.  From “Love Trilogy” we get the single versions of “Could It Be Magic” and “Try Me, I Know We Can Make It”, which really demands to be heard in its entirety.  “Spring Affair” is taken from “Four Seasons Of Love” and was the track which attracted the most attention in the discos but in the UK the ballad “Winter Melody” became the hit.

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 From 1977’s “I Remember Yesterday” we get the 60’s girl-group pastiche of “Love’s Unkind” and her only UK number one, the phenomenal I Feel Love”, which really was the sound of the future and is probably one of the most significant dance tracks of all time, propelling electronic dance music to the forefront, a position it still occupies today, over forty years later.  There’s three tracks from the essential “Once Upon A Time” album.

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By this time Disco was huge and her Casablanca record label joined forces with Motown to put together a disco movie starring Donna and featuring a double album soundtrack.  The music was at times over-produced and grandiose but the film was actually a rather understated piece which also starred Jeff Goldblum and The Commodores but it was the music that made the most impression with the best , sung by Donna, getting an Oscar , the sublime “Last Dance”, which was written by  her co-star Paul Jabara.  This is a track which has grown in reputation over the years but I have always loved it.  It’s changes of pace were deemed a little confusing at the time which might explain why it did not even make the Top 50 in the UK.  In the US it became her second Top 3 hit.

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 The double album “Live And More” became a huge seller in the US, giving Donna her first number 1 album.  A lot of these sales were fuelled by the “studio” side which comprised three tracks put together in a non-stop close- to- eighteen -minute medley, of which two are included here.  “The MacArthur Park” suite took a distinctly weird Jimmy Webb song which had been a hit when growled by actor Richard Harris and turned it into something fabulous.  It is here in a lengthy six and a half minute promotional single version which gives it a chance to show its epic sweep and once again the changes of pace which were to be a feature for Donna in the latter disco years.  Her first US number 1 single (“I Feel Love” had inexplicably stalled at #6) it got to number 5 in the UK.  This eases into, as it did in the original album, the almost as good “Heaven Knows” in which Donna sings with fellow Casablanca signings Brooklyn Dreams.  This got to number 4 in the US but a lowly 34 in the UK.  This was a significant track in Donna’s life as the following year she was to marry lead singer Bruce Sudano, with whom she would spend the rest of her life.

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 The first CD has really peaked here as far as I am concerned but is rounded off by four tracks from the huge “Bad Girls” album.  Two of the tracks most associated with Donna are the title track (US#1, UK#14) and “Hot Stuff (US#1, UK#11) both here in their full 12” version.  There’s more changes of pace in “Dim All The Lights” (US#2,UK#29).  Of the tracks from this US double platinum #1 album, the biggest seller in her career I have always preferred the more electronic European feel of “The Anthology’s” closing track on the first disc, “Sunset People”.

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 CD 2 opens with a real tour-de-force which topped off Donna’s most commercially successful year with her third US number 1 single of 1979.  More of a singing contest than a track it paired the Disco Queen with the Showtunes Queen- Summer vs Streisand.  It’s incredible to think that at the start of Donna’s hit career many people thought that she could not even sing and here she is matching one of the most celebrated singers note for note.  In the UK this became Donna’s third Top 3 hit.  Her final hurrah to disco came with “On The Radio”, another song which has become more familiar in the UK over the years, at one time it was a regular choice for competitors on TV talent shows and soap star turned pop star Martine McCutcheon significantly bettered Donna’s original number 32 placing when she took it to number 7 in 2001.  In the US it reached number 5, which was her lowest chart placing for a couple of years.  It’s a song with a slightly odd narrative, I never understood how a letter which felt out of a pocket in an old brown overcoat ended up being read out on the radio, but then Donna had been convincing when she left her cake out in the rain.  It’s a great vocal but lyrically just a little strange.

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 And then in the US, disco was over.  The response from Summer, Moroder and Bellotte was to release an album with a distinct rock-chick feel.  Summer had moved away from Casablanca Records with its strong disco emphasis and signed up to Geffen Records.  It was a new start but I, for the first time, didn’t really buy into it.  As someone who had always preferred her more European sounding tracks it was a step too far into the rock arena.  Donna was keen to get away from the sexy disco siren image not least in part because she had become a born-again Christian.  Commercially, her UK fans agreed with me as it became her lowest selling album to date.  The title track reached number 3 in the US but follow up “Cold Love” stalled at 33, although did garner Donna a Grammy nomination for best female rock vocal.  Her next album was not even approved for release by her new label.  From it we get the title track “I’m A Rainbow” and her version of “Don’t Cry For Me Argentina” played straight, which became a staple in her live shows.  It was not released until 1986 and it marked the last album in the ten year partnership of the artist with Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte.

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 The next album had more than an element of reinvention about it.  It is unusual for an artist this far on in their career to release an eponymous album- 1982’s “Donna Summer” being set out as a new start.  Producer Quincy Jones did a very good job, the songs have a range of style from jazz standards, to ballads, to rock tinged tracks.  From this we get US#10, UK#18 “Love Is In Control” and the odd but fascinating version of a Jon & Vangelis song “State Of Independence” which put Donna in front of an all-star gospel choir including Michael Jackson and Dionne Warwick.  This became the big hit track in the UK reaching number 14 and giving Donna her highest UK studio album chart placing since “I Remember Yesterday”.

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 There wasn’t too much that was great about the next couple of album releases, “Anthology” cherry-picks the most worthwhile tracks from “She Works Hard For The Money” and “Cats Without Claws”.  The very good title track from “All Systems Go” is here.  Her one album dalliance with Stock Aitken and Waterman brought about one of her (and their) best ever recordings.  I consider “Another Time And Place” (from this we get “This Time I Know It’s For Real” and “I Don’t Want To Get Hurt) to be an Essential CD.  The magic didn’t carry on for her next album “Mistaken Identity” but two of the better tracks are here.

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 This CD does end with a good enough reason for the Summer fan to purchase “Anthology” as in 1992 Donna guest vocaled on a track by old friend Giorgio Moroder on a project called “Forever Dancing”.  This track “Carry On” seemed to turn back the years and I  I wish it could have led on to more recordings with the producer and his greatest muse.

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 Post “Anthology” Donna made the occasional single -the best being her number 21 UK hit “Melody Of Love” from 1994 and a fairly breath-taking version of “I Will Go With You (Con Te Partiro)” from 1999 which took the song better known as “Time To Say Goodbye” out of the funeral services, for which it has become a staple and into the dance clubs.  I thought this would be a huge hit for her but it wasn’t.  Her final album “Crayons” released in 2008 after a 14 year gap after her previous very worthwhile Christmas album was a strong attempt at giving Donna a contemporary club edge and healthy sales seemed like it could be the beginning of a new phase in her recording career. 

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 Her death in 2012 came as a complete shock and was one of those passings that makes you feel that a phase in your own life has come to an end.  Her final illness was kept quiet as lung cancer claimed her.  It was Donna’s belief that this was brought on by toxic dust she inhaled by being in the proximity of New York on 9/11.  She was the artist I felt that I had grown up with and even when some of her recordings in the mid 80’s did not inspire me greatly I was always delighted when her music was in the charts and she was in the public eye.

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 I’ve gone for “Anthology” because it does have a number of those tracks on CDs which I never made the transfer from vinyl to.  There are omissions, especially with tracks which hit bigger in the UK (no “Winter Melody”, no “Down Deep Inside” no “Dinner With Gershwin”).  If you are looking for these tracks I suggest you go for “The Journey – The Very Best Of”, which got to number 6 in the UK charts in 2004 (but still no “Winter Melody”) or the three disc “Ultimate Collection” (2016 UK#30) which has all of the above, some of Donna’s German pre-hit recordings as well as tracks that I have never owned and which the completist in me is telling me to purchase.  58 tracks, I’m sure it’s only a matter of time…………………………

 

Donna Summer in a live tribute to David Foster from 2008 bringing the show to a resounding close with “Last Dance”.

 

The Donna Summer Anthology now only seems to be available on Amazon UK as a used import with prices ranging from £1.95 to £700.38 (you make your choice!).  In the US it is more readily available new currently for $29.99 and used from $1.98.  There are many other Donna Summer compilations available.

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The Pure In Heart- Susan Hill (Vintage 2005) – A Murder They Wrote Review

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The third Susan Hill novel I’ve read this year came about when I pulled “Read a Crime or Thriller novel” from the box for my third book in the year long Russian Roulette Reading Challenge that I am taking part in at Sandown Library.  I’d always thought Hill was most celebrated for her sparse, short horror tinged works of which “The Printer’s Devil Court” was an example but I am much preferring her crime series featuring Detective Chief Inspector Simon Serrailler of which this is the second out of nine full length works. 

 Here, Hill feels like a very different novelist as she writes at length and allows the plot considerable time to unfold.  “The Various Haunts Of Men” had Serrailler pretty much in the background and I felt he was one of the least interesting characters but he’s pushed centre stage for this follow-up published a year later.

 This is a very readable novel but I can’t help but feel that they author is toying with her readership.  Last time round the crime was a long time coming, here, it happens quicker but is far from the only thing going on, which makes it unusual compared to most other police procedurals where the solving of the crime dominates.  There are momentous events happening in the Serrailler family and Hill is prepared to devote as much time to these as the unfolding of the case, but, and here’s the thing, it doesn’t frustrate, it doesn’t feel purposely slowed down and it all feels relevant.  The odd crime reader may feel a little cheated but I personally think her style has enriched her characterisation and her feel of Lafferton, the small town where these novels are set which has already endured in just two books a serial killer and this time the disappearance of a nine year old boy on his way to school.

 I’m enjoying the family stuff and look forward to seeing how plot seeds sown here will develop in subsequent novels.  However, I’m still not buying into the main character’s love life, his hot and cold emotions are being developed as a flaw but it feels a little tacked  on, as it did in the last novel, and as a result a little unconvincing.

 Susan Hill likes to provide surprises along the way and has once again achieved this.  She takes risks, not so much with characters, as in the debut (if you have read it you will know what I mean) but here with the actual case.  Things may not go exactly the way the reader expects it to and I like that.

 I’m also liking that it feels like a traditional police procedural and yet it’s not a traditional police procedural.  I can see the parallels with her horror writing as it is what is under the surface which most unsettles.  I’m fascinated to see how this series continues.

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 The Pure In Heart was published by Vintage in 2005

The Hoarder – Jess Kidd (2018)

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Jess Kidd’s 2016 debut “Himself” attracted a lot of attention and was shortlisted for awards.  I was of the opinion that it introduced us to an impressive new voice and I was delighted to interview her and have my review published alongside the interview in NB magazine Issue #90 when “Himself” was one of the featured titles.  I thought the book fizzled with life, with its setting of an Irish village in the mid-1970s where the author introduced us to memorable characters in a mystery tale which seamlessly took in elements of magic and the supernatural.

 With “The Hoarder” she has largely done it again and produced her second strong read.  This time we are in present day West London where main character Maud Drennan has started work as an agency care-worker for Cathal Flood, a difficult elderly man and the hoarder of the title.  It’s not just him thwarting Maud’s plans to put things in order as the supernatural draws the care-worker into a mystery involving a disappearance and a possible murder hidden deep within the secrets of the house.

 As in “Himself” main character Maud is able to see ghosts but here they are a host of Saints who act as her spirit guides and I must admit that this aspect does not work as well for me as it did last time round.  In “Himself” main character Mahoney was also aided and abetted by an unlikely side-kick, the wig-wearing Mrs Causley who memorably sees herself as “Miss Marple.  With balls”.  In this novel this role is taken by another unlikely candidate the wig-wearing, agoraphobic, transsexual Renata, who for me did not sparkle quite as much as her predecessor (but who could also fit Mrs Causley’s description!)

 This time around, however, I did find the mystery element of the novel more satisfying yet I did miss that great sense of the outsider coming into a tight-knit community theme which worked so well in “Himself”.  I suppose there is a danger when an author’s second novel has a similar feel to the first that comparisons will be made.  There is no doubt that if you enjoyed the debut then you will get much out of this and if you enjoy this as the stand-alone novel it is then I urge you to seek out her first book where everything feels just a little fresher and where her imagination gleams just a little more brightly.

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The Hoarder was published in hardback by Canongate in February 2018

The Visitors – Catherine Burns (Legend Press 2017)

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There’s something down in brother and sister John and Marion Zetland’s cellar and we get to find out really early on what it is in this gripping, compulsive debut.

 I’m not spoiling things by saying it’s Eastern European girls tricked into the country by John and kept as prisoners and sex slaves.  This novel focuses, however, on Marion, now in her late fifties, dominated by her brother and almost in complete denial as to what is going on in their house.  Marion has done little with her life and looks back on a past filled with regrets whilst not functioning in the horrific reality of the present.  This makes for incredibly tense reading.  It is a tale of loneliness (charity shop toys fill the role of friends) and neglect in an environment where evil lurks down the cellar steps.

 If this sounds a little too sordid the author has a masterful hand with characterisation and her depiction of Marion will remain long in my mind.  There’s dark humour amongst the dark themes which I appreciated and which kept me reading to the point where I found it very difficult to put the book down.  This is a very accomplished debut, a combination of crime and horror with a strong literary fiction feel which should make it appeal to more than those who make their reading choices from the darker areas of genre fiction.  Publishers Legend Press seem to be building up a great reputation with high quality first-time authors.  I will be fascinated to see what the author comes up with next.

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The Visitors was published in hardback by Legend Press in 2017 and the paperback is due to appear on 1st June 2018.  Many thanks to the publishers for the review copy.

100 Essential CDs – Number 68– Donna Summer – Another Place And Time

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Another Place And Time – Donna Summer (WEA 1989)

UK Chart Position – 17

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It had been nearly twelve years since Donna Summer’s previous essential album “Once Upon A Time”.  In the meantime her career had reached stratospheric levels with US number 1 pop albums (“Live And More” and “Bad Girls”) and had also hit the doldrums.  Disco had been and gone and in the US there had been a backlash against Disco artists so Donna  found herself needing to diversify, not always with great results.  Her career was also further complicated by her becoming a born-again Christian causing her to play down some of the raunchier hits in her back catalogue and then there was a comment she was reported to have made about AIDS which seriously affected her standing with the gay record buying market, who had been amongst her strongest supporters since day one.  Donna Summer always denied making such statements but it did have a significantly detrimental effect on her career.

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Throughout the 80’s Donna continued to record with some success but the career lacked consistency and the quality of albums was patchy.  She did come very close to being essential with her 1982 release “Donna Summer” produced by Quincy Jones.  Donna was pregnant at the time of recording and claimed not to have responded well to Jones’ methods of working.  There were some great tracks on this album and a lot of musical styles which showed the versatility of the artist on big gospelesque numbers like the Vangelis penned hit single “State Of Independence”, on Bruce Springsteen rock and with a jazz standard “Lush Life”, in which, whatever Donna herself thought, she turned out one of her greatest vocal performances.  This album also marked her move away from Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte for the first time.

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Later 80’s albums (here I’m including “She Works Hard For The Money” and “Cats Without Claws” )just didn’t do it for me.  Her “All Systems Go” album from 1987 was the first in her hit career not to make any impression on the US and UK album charts.  It wasn’t even a bad album, her star had just waned.  Around this time I saw her perform live for the first of two times at the Royal Albert Hall, London, where there were protests outside against her reported comments.  She was excellent that night, as she was when I saw her again some years later but it did seem like the hits might have dried up.

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Like both other veteran female performers Tina Turner and Liza Minelli it was the British who saved the day.  Turner had become a global star again following her association with Heaven 17 and Minelli found herself making pop charts for the first time ever when she worked with the Pet Shop Boys a bit later on  in the same year that Donna made her comeback.  And it was a comeback,  scoring in the UK her highest charting album for 11 years and three Top 20 singles. In the US it gave her a first Top 10 single for 6 years.  In 1989 Donna was back and it was thanks  to Stock, Aitken and Waterman.

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This song-writing and production team, known as the Hit Factory by the time they began working with Donna had scored number 1 singles for Kylie Minogue, Jason Donovan, Rick Astley, Dead Or Alive, Sonia and Mel and Kim amongst others with a high-energy sound which was spawned in the gay discos and taken into the pop charts in the UK and Europe with alarming frequency.  Working with one of the original disco legends seemed a sensible move for all concerned.

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“Another Place And Time” has ten tracks written and produced by the team with two tracks penned alongside the artist.  Why it works so well as an album is that for the first time since her peak of her work with Moroder and Bellotte it gave her a clear identity as a performer, the songs feel cohesive.  True, they fitted perfectly into the pop-dance pocket which Stock, Aitken and Waterman had found for themselves and the songs could have worked easily as well for Kylie or even Hazell Dean but the Summer Legend gave the whole thing a little extra sparkle and the end result was something really very special.  Stock, Aitken and Waterman were reputed to say that this was their favourite of the albums they worked on, and it is easy to see why.

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The album’s star turn comes in at track three and is certainly indicative of both the best of Summer and SAW’s work.  “This Time I Know It’s For Real” is an absolute gem of a single.  Released a month or so before the album it soared up to number 3 in the UK, a position she had last attained ten years before with her vocal battle-to-the-death duet with Barbra Streisand “No More Tears (Enough Is Enough)”.  It got to number 7 in the US, where there had been a certain amount of record label scurrying around before it appeared on Atlantic Records.  It saw her back at the top of the Billboard US Dance charts and was a big hit, in amongst other markets, Norway (#3). Ireland (#4), France (#6), Netherlands (#5) and Canada (#7).  It’s a joyous song which celebrates love and wants to proclaim it anyway possible.

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The CD opener “I Don’t Want To Get Hurt” followed its predecessor up the charts reaching number 7 in the UK.  It was a smaller hit in Europe (although got to number 3 in Ireland) and was not released as a single in the US.  It might have been tempting to put out a whole album of tracks aimed at the dance floor but there is variety here, with slower tracks such as the title track and “Breakaway” which was the track on the album which refused to die as it was released as a single not far off two years after the release of the album and made the UK Top 50. 

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Donna also made the UK Top 20 with the closer “Love’s About To Change My Heart”.  On the album this has a great instrumental coda which rounds things off perfectly which was not present on the single mix.  The album version was much better.  The slow start kicking into an uptempo track brought to mind what felt like a bit of a trademark from Donna’s golden era, present on some of her biggest hits from her golden era (“Last Dance”, “No More Tears”, “On The Radio”, “Dim All The Lights” and, especially, “Macarthur Park”).  This felt like a touch of genius from the production team who were showing their ability to update the sound and still please the fans of long-standing.

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They certainly got mileage from the denim jacket photoshoot!

Donna Summer and Stock, Aitken and Waterman.  It all seemed to fit together so perfectly as I had expected it to do right when I heard about the collaboration.  Perhaps the most surprising thing about it was the front cover art which saw Summer in Japanese Geisha make-up.  One gets the feeling that this was Summer’s idea and this is confirmed by credits which state she came up with the concept with photographer Lawrence Lawry.  Donna Summer was also a painter and the image has the feel of some of her artwork.

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 Driven By The Music by Donna Summer

In the US label issues meant that sales were damaged by high levels of import purchases and by the time the album appeared on the Atlantic label a high chart placing seemed out of the question.  Having said that it still performed better than its predecessor.  Back in 1989 this seemed just like a taster for more good stuff to come.  Donna fitted into the Hit Factory set-up so well that I was ready for a long association with the producers.  A second album was proposed but due to difficulties with record label contracts never happened.  What felt like a return to previous chart glories was too short-lived.  This would also be the last essential Donna Summer release.  Her 1991 Atlantic album “Mistaken Identity” was sadly without much identity.  Returning to Mercury she put out a first class Christmas album (there’s only one essential Christmas album) in 1994 and her 2008 swansong “Crayons” was a big success in her homeland and certainly had its moments and could have paved the way for an even bigger career renaissance in her sixties.  Donna Summer sadly died aged 62 in 2012. 

 

Another Place And Time is currently available from Amazon in the UK for £7.82 and used from £0.09.  It can be downloaded for £7.99.  In the US it is available for $16.99 and used for $15.93.  In the UK it is available to stream on Spotify.  

100 Essential Books – Bookworm: A Memoir Of Childhood Reading – Lucy Mangan (Square Peg 2018)

 

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Thank you, Lucy Mangan. This book has brought me so much pleasure. I have relished every word, laughed out loud and been bathed in a warm, nostalgic glow which has made me late back from tea breaks and almost missing bus stops. I found myself yearning for a “snow day” so I could just stay at home and fully immerse myself in the author’s childhood.

Lucy Mangan truly deserves the title “Bookworm”. Reading, as a child, at every opportunity, eschewing social situations and getting through vast numbers of books makes her a true authority on children’s literature from a child’s perspective. I didn’t think I read as much when I was young as I do now but I realised I must have done as a sizeable number of books Lucy devoured I had also read. She is a few years younger than me but the world of juvenile publishing did not move as fast as it does today and many of the books in our libraries and schools in the 70’s had been published a generation before. I didn’t come from a home with a lot of books and whereas Lucy’s Dad provided her with a regular supply from when she was quite young, my Dad tended to do the same for me with comics. I have two older sisters so much of their abandoned reading material became mine, because as Lucy rightly points out as a child the bookworm will read whatever is available, so my knowledge of books involving characters such as “My Naughty Little Sister“, or set in girls boarding schools or about girls with ponies (the last being my sister Val’s staple reading diet) is probably greater than most of the men who will read this book.

Lucy is lucky enough to still possess her childhood books. She obviously didn’t have a mother so keen to donate “treasures” to jumble sales to either be sold for a few paltry pennies or occasionally bought back by myself.

Her memoir reinforces the importance of libraries. I can still remember the very first library book I borrowed, (it was a picture book version of “Peter And The Wolf” with a yellow cover. I took it out many times) so that experience obviously firmly imprinted itself in my West London mind as much as it did for Lucy on the South of the River in Catford.

Some of the titles alone brought back great memories – “Family From One End Street”, “Tom’s Midnight Garden”, “The Saturdays” “The Phantom Tollbooth”, “The Secret Garden”, “Charlie & The Chocolate Factory”, “Lion Witch & The Wardrobe”, The “William” novels were all great favourites with both Lucy and myself. (No mention of a couple of others I was obsessed by “Emil & The Detectives” and “Dr Doolittle”, maybe they were moving out of public favour by Lucy’s time).  She shares her strength of feelings against certain things, she had a limited tolerance of talking animals and fantasy (which saw off both “Babar The Elephant” and Tolkien) and does so in a way which is both stimulating and very funny.

Through the books she read we learn much about her family life which brings in a whole new level of richness into the work. I’m also totally with her on the subject of re-reading, which in my teaching days was often a bugbear for some parents who wanted their children to forge ever onwards to “harder” books. She puts this over masterfully;

“The beauty of a book is that it remains the same for as long as you need it. It’s like being able to ask a teacher or parent to repeat again and again some piece of information or point of fact you haven’t understood with the absolute security of knowing that he/she will do so infinitely. You can’t wear out a book’s patience.”

As well as examining the past she looks to the future and to her own young son, not yet so fussed about reading and announces: “It is my hope that our son will read our amalgamated collection and become the world’s first fully rounded person.” I love that!

Expect perceptive insights on all the major players and books from the period – from the still very popular Enid Blyton (“She was national comfort reading at a time when mental and emotional resources were too depleted to deal with anything more complex”), the religious elements (which also completely passed me by as a child) of CS Lewis (“no child ever has or will be converted to Christianity by reading about Cair Paravel, Aslan, naiads, dryads, hamadryads, fauns and all the rest. If they notice it at all, they are far more likely to be narked than anything else. And they probably won’t notice it at all.”), the development of the first person narrative dating from E Nesbit’s “Story Of The Treasure Seekers” to her 80’s obsession with “Sweet Valley High” (that whole publishing phenomenon passed me by as I was no longer a child by then).  Her thoughts on the joys of reading pile up one after another in this book. I cannot imagine enjoying a book about children’s literature more. It is an essential read for all of us who like to look back and who like to feel we are still young at heart!

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Bookworm was published as a hardback by Square Peg in March 2018 . Many thanks to the publishers and Netgalley for the review copy.

100 Essential Books – Ladder Of Years – Anne Tyler (Vintage 1995)

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This is only the second Anne Tyler novel I have ever read.  2015’s “A Spool Of Blue Thread” was my introduction to her work and I described it as “a highly readable, high quality work with bags of appeal.”  I reviewed it under my 100 Essential Books thread and it appeared in my end of year Top 10 at number 3.  Although I haven’t read much by her I do know that she is a writer many readers hold dear for her beautifully written tales of American life.  This book confirms this.

“Ladder Of Years” was her 13th novel and appeared in 1995.  There’s a 1982 copyright at the front of the book which suggests it may have been around in some format for a considerable time before that publication.  Like many of Tyler’s novels it features a family living in the Baltimore area.  The most striking thing about it is how calm and quiet it is as a novel which places it at loggerheads with the dramatic decisions characters make but on this occasion this makes it seem all the more effective.

 Forty year old Delia Grinstead is feeling taken for granted, by her husband, a GP who practises from their home, the same house her father ran his surgery from; by her adolescent children and by other family members.  An infatuation with a younger man reaches a dead end and one day on an extended-family annual beach holiday Delia just walks away along the sands and into a new life.

 We’re never totally sure why she does this other than she fancies a change.  There’s no fireworks and little emotional trauma on show as Delia just knuckles down and begins again somewhere new.  It’s beautifully written, the reader knows how selfish Delia’s act is yet still wills her to succeed.

 The title refers to a metaphor used by one of the older characters who employs a playground slide ladder to convey how we climb up through life, with others following close behind leading to the moment when you have to go over the top and commence the slide downwards – there’s no turning back.

 The introduction of a couple of cats into the narrative caused me momentary stress (in case something bad happened to them) but Vernon and George are great cat characters who enrich the lives of those they meet.  As with “A Spool Of Blue Thread” I couldn’t imagine a book which examines the details of American middle-class family life would have much resonance for me, but I was wrong and I’m not yet sure how Tyler has managed with both offerings to really reel me in.  It could be seen as a simple tale of a female mid-life crisis but it is much richer than that implies.  There’s no gimmicks and no real set pieces here.  When there is a dramatic situation – a confrontation at a family event, Delia’s walking out and last- minute wedding jitters, for example, they are pretty much underplayed for their dramatic potential and it really works.  It is just the quality of the writing and the deftness of characterisation that has me hanging on every word, not wanting it to end and that is what makes it a five star read.

 I actually don’t think that us Brits can fully engage in  quite the same way with feeling that we know these characters, their locations and lives in late twentieth century Baltimore anywhere near as much as her American market would and this also adds to the achievement in winning me over.  I did have some reservations about the ending but then life doesn’t always turn out as we expect, so why should it in fiction?

 Structurally, “The Ladder Of Years” is a simpler novel than “A Spool Of Blue Thread” and I think it may just be behind it in the impression it has made on me but without doubt Anne Tyler scores 2 from 2 for me with five star essential reads.  

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I read the 1996 Vintage paperback edition of “Ladder Of Years”.  It was first published in the UK in 1995 by Chatto & Windus.

100 Essential CDs – Number 85– Donna Summer – Once Upon A Time

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Once Upon A Time – Donna Summer (Casablanca 1977)

UK Chart Position – 24

US Chart Position – 26

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By 1977 the Disco era was in full swing and Donna Summer was certainly being worked hard to capitalise on this.  Her last essential album “A Love Trilogy” had been released in May 1976 and by the end of that year “Four Seasons Of Love” had  arrived.  This tied in with the Christmas market (I got it as a Christmas present that year, I recall) and actually had a free 1977 calendar inside.  Visually, it was certainly different to what had gone before as the soft-focus images of Donna were replaced by strong, sharp photos .  Donna was perched on a moon on the front cover and posed as Marilyn Monroe in a recreation of the iconic white dress blowing-up scene from “The Seven Year Itch”.  Musically, it felt a little stingy, with four tracks covering the seasons and a reprise of one track which had gone on for too long anyway.  It didn’t perform nearly as well as the two albums which preceded it and it did seem like Donna’s career might be one of diminishing returns.  In the US it proved to be the second album in a row without a Top 40 hit single.  In the UK, bizarrely for a woman known as the Disco Queen, it was the pretty ballad track “Winter Melody” which caught the public imagination and its number 27 chart placing meant she could no longer be considered a one-hit wonder.

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Everything changed in the summer of 1977 when the album “I Remember Yesterday” hit the streets.  It’s a strong album with a first side of three retro pop tracks, which took in a disco take on the 1940’s with the title track and two 60’s girl-group inspired tracks.  On the second side amidst the strong soul ballad and okay disco tracks was the sound of the future.  Left until last, “I Feel Love” was completely different to anything we had heard before and set a benchmark for electronic dance music which can still be felt today.  It is often credited as being the most influential dance track of all time.  The record buyers of 1977 loved it, the single became Donna’s only UK #1 and got to number 6 in the US.  Donna’s superstar status which I had believed in from the first moans of “Love To Love You Baby” was confirmed.  Each one of the side 1 tracks became a UK Top 40 hit and by mid 1977 Donna was inescapable in the UK.  A change of distribution from GTO who had put out her records to her US label Casablanca meant that both labels were putting out product.  Her sublime song taken from the soundtrack of the hit movie “The Deep”, “Down Deep Inside” gave her a third Top 5 hit , “Love’s Unkind” from the GTO released album reached number 3 and 10 months later the fourth track to be released from the album “Back In Love Again” reached #29.  The album reached #3 in the UK and #18 in the US.  At the time I loved it, but I don’t consider it to be essential now.  It does have essential tracks upon it and although it felt much more like a traditional album than what had been released before it just falls short, as an album, of her very best releases.  I think the first side medley is just a little cutesy although there was no denying its commercial appeal in 1977.

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“Once Upon A Time” was the follow-up and Donna fans who were not being saturated in her product didn’t have long to wait as this appeared in November 1977.  What’s more this was a double album, which was certainly putting  demands on the purse strings of record buyers, as these were expensive and not always the best value for money.  On previous albums there had rarely been as many as five tracks, here there were fourteen plus a couple of reprises.  This was Donna’s best chance to show us what kind of artist she really was over more than a handful of songs.

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Once again there was a concept.  Here (and I know this doesn’t sound that promising as I write it) the concept was based around a poem written by Donna of a girl inhabiting a fairy tale world entering real life and looking for love and the tracks were contained within “Acts” as in a play.  It was “Cinderella” with a disco beat and what we have here is really the blueprint for a musical that never happened.  You don’t need to buy into the theme to make this album work.  It contains some great tracks from the Summer/Moroder/Bellotte team with Donna penning more thoughtful lyrics rather than refrains to fit in with the electronic visions of the musicians.  It was a much broader album than all that had gone before and the additional length meant that Donna could offer more variation without disappointing her disco fans.

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This was recorded once again at the Musicland Studios in Munich and yet it is the most American sounding album to date with the European influences which dominated her previous material now used more subtly.  With this selection of songs Donna switches between a narrator’s role and main character as it follows (not always perceptibly) the framework of a modern-day fairy story.  We start off firmly in fairyland with opener “Once Upon A Time” which always sounded like a hit single to these ears.  There’s an epic sweeping film-score introduction which settles into a strutting, mid-tempo number and very good use of backing singers.  It’s very much the Overture to Act One .  It sets out the concept of the album, musical themes from it will be used from to time to time culminating in the final track where Donna largely speaks the poem which links the whole thing to a slower version of the track, which is nowhere near as bad as it sounds.

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The rest of Act One takes a darker turn with “Faster And Faster To Nowhere” where the tempo speeds up and the whole thing becomes a little trippy;

“It’s a nightmare, daymare, it’s a bad ‘mare not matter which way ‘mare”

After the sweetness of the previous track this driving slice of simmering paranoia works really well, even the male bass voice intoning that we are on “a trip to nowhere” hits home.  In case we’re getting too chilled there’s an extra sugar coating on “Fairy Tale High” with a wide-eyed coy performance from Donna saved from absolute tweeness by some good things going on in the rhythm arrangements especially handclaps and a good bit of electronic wizardry from Moroder mid-way through.  This gives way to the rockier sound of “Say Something Nice” one of the more ordinary tracks on the album.  It gives an indication of the direction Donna will increasingly move towards over the next few years as she attempted to move away from the disco tracks which defined her.

onceupon8Bellotte, Summer and Moroder

 When I bought this album I would have been more than happy with a selection of tracks along the lines of “I Feel Love” so it is no wonder that the side I played most on my vinyl copy was Act 2, which boasted the stronger disco tracks with a couple of them having that bleak, industrial feel that I really loved and were reminiscent of what both Kraftwerk and Pink Floyd were doing at the time.  “Now I Need You” is the album’s high-spot and once again was never released as a single.  It’s a cross between “I Feel Love” and the later hit she had with Quincy Jones as producer “State Of Independence” with its big gospel-esque choir which manages to add warmth and colour to the coolness of the arrangement.  A dominant pulse beats throughout with something sounding like someone pumping up a tyre.  The beat, Donna in whispering mode and the choir make a real gem of a track, which has only got better with time.

onceupon9Moroder, Summer and Bellotte in later years

 The bleakness continues with “Working The Midnight Shift” with its great electronic introduction.  These two tracks would still sound good on the dancefloor today and with Donna being a popular choice for remixers , it’s quite surprising that reworking of these two tracks have not ever made the charts. The disco side closes with “Queen For A Day”, a more pop influenced proposition with some pretty daft lyrics but some real creative work from the production team going on really lifts this.

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 Act 3 sees Donna getting rocky once again with “If You Got It Flaunt It” and slowing the whole thing down for a couple of ballads “A Man Like You” and “Sweet Romance” which show her versatility as a performer as probably never before.  “Sweet Romance” is a quasi-religious track as Donna turns to higher forces to find the man she is looking for.  There’s a Caribbean feel to “Dance Into My Life” in its which reminds me a little of another hit track she would have in later years when she worked with British teen group Musical Youth for “Unconditional Love”.  Although this is Disco flavoured it would be very hard to dance to as it stops and starts throughout.

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You have to wait for Side 4 to get the two UK Top 20 hits off the album and they come back to back.  “Rumour Has It” (UK#19) is a track I wasn’t that fussed about at the time and was surprised it was chosen as a single but I do think it has stood the test of time and sounds as good (if not better) than it did then.  The bigger hit “I Love You” (UK#10) is a much better proposition which brings us back to the “Cinderella” theme as Donna reverts to being the narrator of the moment when this particular Prince Charming meets his love.  It’s warm and joyous and boasts a great performance from Donna.  The theme is rounded up with “Happily Ever After”, an attractive but unsensational track before Donna speaks her way through the main musical theme with the poem which is central to the concept.  It’s a rather odd finale and veers close to the self-indulgent but there is something about it, especially once it gets going about mid-way through when it has a kind of “War Of The Worlds” feel .

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At this point in her career Donna was performing better chart-wise in the UK and Europe than in her homeland.  This album spawned two sizeable UK hits but only “I Love You” would just scrape into the US Top 40.  This would change when she began a run of 8 US Top 5 singles (including three #1s) in 1978 and 1979.  These were the golden Summer years and there were some great singles but album wise there would be nothing more that I would consider essential with Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte and after their partnership ended there would be some substandard work with other producers.  I always suspected that she would be back with a top quality album but we had to wait a while for it.

 

Once Upon A Time  is currently available from Amazon in the UK for £10.30 and used from £5.58.  It can be downloaded for £8.99 . In the US it is available for $7.39 and used for $3.39.   In the UK it is available to stream on Spotify.

The Young Victoria – Alison Plowden (1981) – A Real Life Review

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Like many people my knowledge of the early years of Queen Victoria’s reign has been based upon what I have seen in the ITV drama series “Victoria”.  There were still things that I was unsure about, namely, how the line of succession played out so that she came to the throne in the first place.  For my second book in the Russian Roulette Reading Challenge at Sandown Library I pulled out of the hat “a book with a green cover” and I chose Alison Plowden’s non-fiction work because a) it had a green cover and b) I wanted to know more about the young Victoria.

 Plowden’s book was written in 1981 although I read a paperback reprint from The History Press which was published in 2016.  It falls firmly into the category of popular history, there are no references to get you leafing through to the back of the book, a shorter bibliography than one might imagine and an author’s note which credits especially two biographies, one from 1972 and one from back in 1964.  Plowden has synthesized this information into her very readable work which suited my purposes but may frustrate the more serious historian. 

 It does read like a novel, especially with its characters that we know from the TV series here being fleshed out and it was a little surprising to find that the ITV drama does not deviate too far from the facts as presented here. 

 The characters who feature strongly in Victoria’s early years and are brought to life well by Plowden are her mother, the Duchess of Kent, whose relationship with her daughter became strained during the teenage years largely because of the influence of Sir John Conroy, who placed himself and his family close to Victoria and her mother and who the Princess came to hate.  Victoria had the most time for her beloved governess Baroness Lehzen and for Dash her dog.  The book ends with Victoria’s marriage to Albert but the most fascinating relationship here (as it was in the early episodes of the ITV series) is the one between the young Queen and Prime Minister and mentor Lord Melbourne with Victoria demonstrating anti-Tory tendencies in her desire to keep him in power.

 I still haven’t totally got the succession to the throne bit as her grandfather had so many children that it all gets a little confusing and I could have really done with a family tree appendix to sort this all out in my head.  Inexplicably, the edition I read devoted two pages at the back to completely the wrong tree, that of the House of Tudor, which has no relevance whatsoever to Victoria’s time.  That is a bad mistake from The History Press that I hope was put right in subsequent editions. 

 Alison Plowden was best known for her non-fiction on the Tudor period so that suggests that the family tree here was intended for another of her publications.  She wrote around 25 books mainly on female historical figures.   She died in 2007.

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Young Victoria was first published in 1981.  I read the 2016 History Press edition.  The History Press have republished a number of her books.

100 Essential CDs – Number 9 – Donna Summer – A Love Trilogy

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A Love Trilogy -Donna Summer (Casablanca 1976)

UK Chart Position – 41

US Chart Position – 21

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The worldwide success of Donna Summer’s debut hit “Love To Love You Baby” took everyone by surprise.  The singer spoke of the recording of it as just messing around in the studio and did not expect it to be a single.  Recorded in Munich, it was the producers Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte’s nod to another controversial European success, the French legend Serge Gainsbourg’s and English actress Jane Birkin’s “Je T’Aime Moi Non Plus”.  Like the French track, the steaminess ensured that it was not going to get many daytime radio plays.  With Disco becoming increasingly a commercial force this track took off and when Neil Bogart, head of Casablanca records heard it, he demanded a longer track.  Moroder and Bellotte extended it to an 18 minute epic and put it out on one side of Donna’s second album release, named after the track.  This is the song that paved the way for the 12 inch single and pop music was never the same again.

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It became a huge hit and the album was propelled into charts worldwide on the strength of this track alone.  I believe the 7” version which was released on the GTO label in the UK and got to number 4 is one of the greatest singles of all time. (I think the US had a slightly different edit, which didn’t build to the great choral “Love to Love you baby baby” bit towards the end).  As an entire side of an album it felt overly stretched and somewhat looped.  There isn’t the great progressive build of the single. The rest of the album, apart from the single’s b side “Need A Man Blues” and the fragile ballad “Whispering Waves” indicated the speed with which it had been put together to capitalise on the title track’s demand and consisted of largely throwaway pop/rock tracks where the artist lacked a clear identity.

lovetrilogy4Donna Summer with Giorgio Moroder

With this second album a lot of learning had taken place and all that learning is synthesized (in more ways than one) to produce an absolute classic recording-the finest of Donna’s career and the zenith of her work with Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte.  In the intervening months since the release of the previous album Disco had continue to grow as a musical force and the world was ready for an album that was out and out disco and not one that contained a couple of disco-friendly tracks over a mishmash of soul, R&B and pop.  Technically, the production team had also moved on and were able to achieve a greater, more coherent electronic sound than on the previous  album.  Skills that were continue to build until they came up with one of the most important dance tracks of all time with the genius “I Feel Love” a complete game-changer a couple of years later- but that was still in the future.

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Although I played the single “Love To Love You Baby” until it virtually wore out I did not, at the time, buy the album.  It just didn’t seem very good value, when I knew I had the best tracks as a single but I was determined to buy this one as soon as it was released.  On the GTO label in the UK it was a thick slab of vinyl, for some reason,  it was certainly the thickest album I ever owned.  When vinyl got wafer-thin and the edges razor-sharp by the mid 80’s when we were being pushed to buy CDs, putting on “A Love Trilogy” felt reassuring and solid.  And play it I most certainly did.  There must be very few albums I have played more than this one over the years.

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Whilst browsing on Amazon I discovered a review for this album that I’d written 15 years ago, back in 2003.  I think this is the very first review I ever published, so motivated was I to keep this album in the public consciousness and that review is still there today with the massive total of 25 people who have found it helpful!  Here is what I said back then:

 

Summer’s second album is superb. At various times in my life I have worked out what my favourite albums or CDs would be and this one is always there somewhere – it is an album which meant so much to me at the time, I knew every single note of it. Amazingly, it still sounds outstanding today. It was the follow up to her “Love To Love You Baby” album, which was a decidely hit or miss affair and did not suggest that Donna would be around too long as a recording artist. The format is similar, with one long track which took the whole of the first side of the vinyl version and three shorter tracks on the second side. The long track (at 18 minutes) is “Try Me I Know We Can Make It” which is broken down into sections like “Try Me”, “I Know”, “We Can Make It”, before coming together for (you guessed it) “Try Me I Know We Can Make It”. A single was released but it was nowhere as good as the extended mix. It became a small hit in the States but didn’t really do a great deal of business over here in the UK. “Could It Be Magic” was the stand out track, a cover version of a Barry Manilow song, which was just so exciting made even more so by a breathy spoken introduction and a middle section which many ways seemed even ruder than “Love To Love You Baby”! How this wasn’t a huge hit I will never know- the Take That smash revival of the song seemed to owe more to this version than to Barry’s. I was obsessed by this album- I played it over and over again. It seemed so creative, so very then. I would still argue that it was Donna’s best album – yet sales wise it certainly did not capitalise or build on the success of the first album. Do not miss out on this CD.

lovetrilogy2The back cover of the original vinyl LP

Fifteen years on and I agree with every word.  Why this was so far superior to what had come before was largely due to the “Try Me, I Know We Can Make It” track.  True, it is largely made of those eight words repeated in various combinations many times over but the whole thing really builds and feels a much more organic piece than the extended version of “Love To Love You Baby”.  There is so much going on here and it is so creative.  It really is Moroder’s masterpiece.  Also, what works well  is that the Summer-Moroder-Bellotte partnership here feels equal and this is as much the producers’ album as the vocalist.  Donna’s vocals are often wispy and ethereal, sounding as if she’s been recorded in an oxygen tent but it gives the whole thing a beauty and vulnerability and makes the sound extremely intimate (if an eighteen minute disco epic could be called intimate).  The mystique of Donna Summer the artist is still strong here.  You can’t tell exactly how good a singer she was (that was the case on the first album).  Also, like the first album you can’t really tell what she looks like from the album cover which opted for soft focus- maintaining the 70’s soft-core porn aesthetics which had adorned the art work of “Love To Love You Baby”.  There was still mileage to be had in portraying her as a kind of mythical sex goddess, which fitted in superbly with the hedonism of disco.

lovetrilogy11I would imagine Donna would come to hate this picture but it fitted in with the mood of the time.

I still think “Could It Be Magic” is the stand-out track but the second side of the album was not plumped out by filler as its predecessor had been.  “Wasted” and “Come With Me” are both great tracks which fit in well with the concept of the album and also sound great on their own.

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Photographers were also keen to convey a more wholesome image

Commercially, it may have been a little ahead of its time.  In the UK the Manilow cover version got to number 40, just one place above where the album stalled.  It would be many years before Donna would again put out an album that did not have a US Top 40 single on it but I think this was never a singles album.  It is heard best as a whole.  The Canadians got it, as it became a Top 10 album there, reaching a higher position than “Love To Love You Baby” had but for most markets, commercially it was a bit of a backward step for Donna and The Munich Machine.  I  think Donna sounds great throughout and that the production team of Giorgio Moroder, Pete Bellotte,  arranger Thor Baldurson and engineers Juergen Koppers and Mack & Hans, on the evidence here demand recognition as being amongst the most important pioneers of electronic dance music.

 

A Love Trilogy  is currently available from Amazon in the UK for £14.83 and used from £8.21.  It can be downloaded for £7.09 . In the US it is available for $7.39 and used for $2.39.   In the UK it is available to stream on Spotify.