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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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 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.

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 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.

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 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.

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.

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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.

 

100 Essential CDs – Number 67 – Silver Convention- The Best Of: Get Up And Boogie

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The Best Of: Get Up And Boogie – Silver Convention (Hot 1994)

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It’s to Germany we go for this slab of unadulterated guilty disco pleasure and  these under-rated early stars of the Euro-Disco music canon.  Silver Convention were the brainchild of two producers Michael Kunze and Silvester Levay whose use of synthesized disco predates what came out of Munich by the more famous pairing of Giorgio Moroder and Donna Summer. 

In the 1970’s we liked  to put faces to our acts, anonymous production teams were never going to cut it so a trio of singers were put together to represent the vocals of Silver Convention. Over time, the girls evolved from background singers to much more of a girl group, even representing Germany in the 1977 Eurovision Song Contest, but the vocals continued to take a less important role than the production and were often little more than a chant.   There was world-wide success for a short period of time, mainly three albums out of a five studio album career .  I am sure they are the only act ever to take part in the annual Eurovision extravaganza having previously scored an American number 1 pop hit.  (In the event they didn’t win Eurovision coming a middle of the table 8th in a year when France took the prize).  This fifteen track CD represents many of their finest moments.

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Kunze and Levay still working together after all these years

In the mid 90’s Hot Productions re-released for the mainly American market Best Of compilations from artists many of whom were making their first appearance in CD format.  I bought this CD in Miami which is where the label originated from.  Disco stars such as The Ritchie Family, D C LaRue, Carol Douglas, George McCrae, Divine and a number of artists produced in the UK by Ian Levine were recognised and many of these CDs have become quite collectable.  Amazon has this CD listed new for £78.99.  In the UK a vinyl compilation from 1977 reached the Top 40 album charts.  More readily available currently is a double CD from the Dutch Smith & Co label from 2003 called “The Very Best Of..” which does have more tracks but opts for the shorter single releases rather than the full-length versions of the disco classics we have here.

Silver Conention 3 Sylvester Levay, from former Yugoslavia, arrived in Munich in 1972 and teamed up with Michael Kunze, Czech born, who had grown up in Southern Germany and studied in Munich.  The two formed a song-writing team and scored their first German chart-topper in 1970 with a song called “Du” by Peter Maffray, the biggest German language song of that year.  International success came about when they made a record initially as Silver Bird Convention.

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That track, a delightful piece of Euro-Disco entitled “Save Me” was recorded using backing vocalists including Roberta Kelly, who would go on to work with the German productions of Donna Summer and have a Giorgio Moroder produced career of her own including the great Euro-hit single “Zodiacs” in 1978 and even put out a Disco gospel album.  At a music convention, one Pete Waterman, then working in promotion at Magnet Records picked up on the track and the shortened name act was signed to the label in the UK.  This resulted in a Top 30 UK hit in mid-1975 some months before Donna Summer put Munich on the musical map with “Love To Love You Baby”.  It also scored well in Belgium, Spain and the Netherlands.

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Considering Levay and Kunze were primarily songwriters they were not going to win any awards with the lyrics of this song which are basically “Baby save me, save me I am falling in love”.  Maybe to protect his song-writing reputation (?) Kunze used the pseudonym Stephan Prager for the first two albums. “Save Me” was distinctly wordy compared to the next hit which blew the whole Silver Convention concept sky-high.  “Fly Robin Fly” kicks off this album in its full length 7 minutes and 44 seconds glory.

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A bass line which I have always found a little chilling moves into soaring strings and the lyrics which contains a total of six words repeated in various combinations “Fly/Robin/Right/Up/To/ The/Sky.  It’s the string arrangement that has it though as it rises and descends with the speed and accuracy of the robin onto the worm.  The echoey vocals with the slight Germanic accent combine brilliantly and form the blueprint of Silver Convention.   In New York, the Disco scene was kicking off and this became one of its early huge hits crossing over to the American pop charts where it topped the charts for three weeks towards the end of 1975 and won the Grammy for best R&B Instrumental Performance.  They were the first German act to top the American charts and Euro-Disco was born.  It was a huge international hit and topped the charts in Norway and made the Top 3 in, amongst other markets, their homeland, Belgium and Canada.  In the UK it went a couple of places higher than their debut reaching #28.

Silver Convention 7That earlier track, “Save Me” is up next and is less electronic sounding and features a sprightly saxophone solo.  My seven-inch single of “Fly Robin Fly” morphed in its last few seconds into “I Like It” which was the B-Side in the UK to that single although on their first album this track preceded it.  Here it follows “Save Me”.  By the release of these tracks Silver Convention had become Penny Maclean, Linda G Thompson and Jackie Carter, the latter being the only remaining vocalist from the “Save Me” sessions.  The quality is maintained with another track from that debut album “Another Girl” which is richer in melody and features the lovely German “V” sound when they sing “Woman”.  This is Euro-Disco combined with the sound Barry White perfected for Love Unlimited with just a hint of Abba.  Once again the strings vie for dominance over the girl’s harmonies and spoken interludes and this is one of my favourites from the group.  I think with hindsight and the explosion of Euro-Disco music which came afterwards from the likes of Boney M, Cerrone, Baccara etc it’s easy to forget how different this all sounded.  The album topped the Billboard R&B Charts (certainly the first German act to do so) and reached number 10 in the US pop charts.  The “All Music Guide To Soul” rates the album five stars and describes it as  having “a uniquely European take on American soul-pop and disco.  Arguably the group’s most essential release.  “Save Me” is a dance classic.”

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They had some reputation to maintain for its follow-up.  Lead track from the second album “Get Up And Boogie” is just a tad irritating.  It does work better in its full length version included here as you get electric piano solos and good bass work.  In the single version the beat is a bit lumbering, the girls’ vocals sound a bit whiney and the “That’s Right” male voice sample makes the whole thing a bit stop-start.  The record-buying public gave it a thumbs up and any fears that the group might have  one-hit-wonder European novelty status in the US were allayed when it just missed out on being their second chart-topper, getting to number 2.  It became their biggest hit in the UK reaching number 7, topped the charts in Canada and made the top 10 worldwide including The Netherlands and Spain. 

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There were a couple of better tracks from the second album included on this CD.  “San Francisco Hustle” is their entry into the geographical hustle stakes which, a year on from Van McCoy introducing us to the dance had hit variations of “The Latin Hustle” “The Spanish Hustle” and was still with us in 1978 when Hi-Tension gave us “The British Hustle”.  The San Francisco version provided a very attractive track, although maybe too slow to dance the hustle?  It’s a melody-rich track which could have provided another hit, as could “You Got What It Takes”, which once again has that “Voman” pronunciation which always appeals to me.

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Their record labels went for “No No Joe” as the next single.  It’s a nod towards the sexualisation of disco that had gone mainstream following the huge success of “Love To Love You Baby”.  It was probably the same decision making that led to their UK label putting out the album (and a repackaged first album) with handcuffed naked female cover art.  For some reason handcuffs had been an image associated with the band since the first album.  This caused much publicity with Woolworths refusing to stock the album.  The solution was to overlay the cover with splashes of white to cover up anything deemed offensive but actually to make the whole thing more tantalising for those interested.  I think it could have been possible to pick off the overlaid white, but I’m not sure.  It’s not even easy to find the artwork for these covers nowadays, even on the internet as they were soon phased out, but I had a vinyl copy. In the UK “No No Joe” wasn’t going to attract much radio-play and so was double A-sided with earlier track “Tiger Baby” but it underachieved in most markets.

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Third long player “Madhouse” was promoted as a disco concept album, with tracks loosely linked around a “world is a madhouse” theme.  It had a poem on the back cover which attempted to link the tracks and was a funkier effort.  The 7 minute title track (not included here) felt similar to what Norman Whitfield was doing with Rose Royce and Undisputed Truth but with the Munich strings and German accented vocals.  The best track  on show was actually the mid-tempo “Everybody’s Talkin’ Bout Love” which brought back the lushness of a Love Unlimited type track and was far more of a song than we’d had from them before.  In the UK it reached number 25.

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By this time the group’s personnel had changed.  Levay and Kunze were still pulling the strings but by now Penny McLean had been joined by Ramona Wulf and Rhonda Heath.  Linda G. Thompson had a shot at solo fame with a turntable hit “Oh What A Night”.   Ramona also got plenty of club play with a solo cover version of “Save The Last Dance For Me.” More successfully, in 1975 Penny had scored a big international hit with a solo track, the  histrionic “Lady Bump” which had topped charts in her Austrian homeland and Germany.  (Check out the YouTube video of her doing her best to sing it live in front of a European gyrating audience- it’s a kitsch classic) She also released a solo album. 

 

 Levay and Kunze were still very much behind the group and attempted to boost waning sales by entering the 1977 Eurovision Song Contest. “Telegram” is a good piece of girl-group pop, which has morse code punctuating the song and a singalong chorus (a chorus in a Silver Convention song, that’s almost a first!) The trio arrived in London the on-paper favourites but as ever the vagaries of the Eurovision voting system saw them off. (That year UK came second with Lynsey De Paul & Mike Moran’s “Rock Bottom”- a prediction of future Eurovision attempts perhaps?)  “Telegram”, although now meaningless in our time of instant e-mails, remains a Eurovision fan favourite and often appears on compilations.

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The last hurrah for the group came with “Blame It On The Music” from the fourth album called either “Summer Nights” or “Golden Girls” depending on where you live.  This is a great Abba-esque track with flurries of strings which shows the direction the girls could have taken.  Soon after the release of this album Penny left the group, and was replaced to concentrate on her solo career and was replaced by Zenda Jacks.

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The last two tracks on the compilation come from 1978 album “Love In A Sleeper” which brought them some success in Europe.  Here arrangement duties were taken by American disco producer John Davis with some tracks being recorded for the first time outside Munich at Sigma Studios in Philadelphia. Long-term the writing was on the wall and the group slipped away back into obscurity.

 The producers Levay and Kunze, however, continued to thrive.  Michael Kunze worked on translations of hit musicals and adapted many of the big Broadway shows for German audiences including Evita, Cats, Mamma Mia, A Chorus Line and Into The Woods.  He has developed his own musicals including one based on Daphne Du Maurier’s “Rebecca” and with Sylvester Levay again a hit German language musical based on the life of Mozart.  Levay himself spent much of the 90s in the US composing TV and film scores before reuniting with Kunze for the theatrical productions.  Both have gone on to much respectability in the music business but I hold out a hankering for their early work of swirling synthesized strings, repetitive lyrics and the lushness of the German EuroDisco sound of Silver Convention. Below is the video for the US #1 hit single.

And because looking at these videos have given me so much pleasure the last couple of days here is that Eurovision song entry featuring much of what the Strictly Come Dancing judges refer to as arm-ography.

 

The Best Of: Get Up And Boogie is currently available from Amazon in the UK for £78.99 and used from £12.99.  In the US it is available  from $17.35.  Other Silver Convention compilations are available.  The majority of the studio albums are available to stream from Spotify in the UK.

 

 

100 Essential CDs – Number 34 – Kylie Minogue- Light Years

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Light Years- Kylie Minogue  (Parlophone 2000) 

UK Chart Position – 2

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By the Millennium Kylie Minogue had been churning out UK hits for twelve years but things had gone just a little awry.  After her excellent 1991 album for PWL “Let’s Get To It” (another of my Essential CD’s) attained disappointing sales Kylie moved away from the security of Stock and Waterman and joined the more street-cred label Deconstruction where her first single release “Confide In Me” became her 7th single to reach number 2 in the UK charts.  The subsequent album was her second to give her a name check but this time she had matured to “Kylie Minogue” rather than the more teen-sounding “Kylie” of the first album.  The number 4 placing gave her biggest album success for 5 years and produced two more hit singles demonstrating a cooler Kylie.

Where it went a little wrong for me was with the follow-up where Kylie became so cool that she seemed to have distanced her original fans and became embroiled in indie-chic which just didn’t seem like the Kylie we had known and loved.  “Impossible Princess” was actually Kylie’s most personal work, as she had co-written all the songs and had a significant part to play in production and the whole image of the album.  This was the Kylie that she wanted to be at that time and there were collaborations with the Manic Street Preachers and Dave Ball from Soft Cell. Unfortunately (and somewhat surprisingly) the title of this album was deemed inappropriate in the UK following the death of Princess Diana and it was referred to as “Kylie Minogue” – her second album in a row titled thus.  It was a top 10 album although sales in her usually supportive UK were deemed disappointing.  In Australia it did reach number 4.  I never bothered to get it as it was a Kylie that I didn’t really buy into at the time.

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Confusingly, both Deconstruction albums had the same title in the UK

Following this disappointment Kylie left Deconstruction and got herself a deal with Parlophone and made this clever “comeback” album which won back all the fans who were no longer sure as well as many more.  It became her first album to top the charts in her native Australia, gave her a UK number 2 (her previous chart-topping album had been 11 years before), scored her a 5th  UK number 1 single as well as three more Top 10 hits.  The Kylie that we knew and loved was back with a vengeance. She may have gone on afterwards to have bigger selling albums but for me this is the career highspot and still sounds excellent 17 years on.   Of the 14 tracks on show Kylie received co-composition credits on 9 of them – other names involved in the writing include Robbie Williams with hit-making partner Guy Chambers and 80’s mega-star Paula Abdul.  There is one cover version, a highly successful version of a Barry White song recorded for his girl group Love Unlimited.

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Spinning Around in gold hot pants

Opening track “Spinning Around”certainly spun things around for Kylie when it entered the charts at number 1 in July 2000, her 27th Top 40 hit, prior to the release of the album.  It’s a great club track helped by a video in which Kylie sported what became an iconic pair of tiny gold hotpants.  The song itself was written by a pair of future American Idol judges Kara DioGuardi and Paula Abdul with the intention of being on a comeback album for Abdul whose eleven year career had tailed off somewhat.  With that album being temporarily shelved the song was given to Kylie, for whom it was perfect.

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Paula Abdul who could have been Spinning Around at the top of the charts

“On A Night Like This” became the follow-up single released just before the album and became her 8th number 2 hit.  It has more of a Europop feel than the opener, enhanced by the odd touch of a Spanish guitar sound and the whole thing feels very Ibiza.  This fits in with the concept of the album with artwork by Vincent Peters being based upon a photoshoot in Ibiza. I actually think this is a stronger track than the chart-topping opener.

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Kylie gets the first of her nine writing credits with “So Now Goodbye” which feels like a classic disco track and the first of three tracks produced by Johnny Douglas.  It’s a great singalong song with strong hooks.  It’s not the greatest of the Disco-tinged tracks on offer but if it had been on most of her previous albums it would have been the stand-out track.  On “Light Years” the quality has been seriously upped.  Further proof of this is “Disco Down” which perfectly recreates the time when Kylie could “boogie in my dreams/To Le Freak and Dancing Queen”.  It’s not subtle but it is great.  The vocodered male “burn this disco down” interludes makes it feel really quite funky with Douglas on production duties it is a real crowd-pleaser.  The whole thing builds beautifully.

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Kylie and Robbie Williams

The sublime disco continues with “Loveboat” written by Kylie with Robbie Williams and Guy Chambers,  a track with as much summer in its pores as Wham’s “Club Tropicana”.  The “ba-ba-ba” vocals give it a Pearl & Dean coolness, there’s French lyrics and the whole thing is exquisitely Mediterranean (or what a couple of Brits and an Australian see as Mediterranean).  Kitsch levels are ramped to high with its nod to the ultra-camp 70’s TV series of the same name- but unlike this series this track certainly goes somewhere.  It’s also a perfect track for the kind of highly visual performance which would go on to dominate Kylie’s career.

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All aboard the Loveboat baby!

Things get just a little rockier with “Koocachoo”, but in a finger-snapping cool rock world.  It takes us away from the Disco camp for a four minutes but we are certainly plunged back with the anthemic “Your Disco Needs You” – the greatest Kylie track not released as a UK single, although it charted in some territories.  The power of Disco is here seen as the cure to world’s ills and Kylie is the recruiting officer.  It’s as tongue in cheek as the best of Robbie Williams, who with Guy Chambers took on writing duties.  From its opening Pet Shop Boys influenced “Go West” vocals (something Robbie was still using with his 2016 release “Party Like A Russian” ) from the breathy reprise of the word “ass”, to the French section (translated into other languages for different markets), to the great build of female operatic voices and its explosive ending, this is a real statement and a “follow that!” track.  It is for me the undoubted highspot.

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Following that is the much more gentle but classy Spanish influenced track “Please Stay” with it’s handclappy castanet feel and guitar sound.  As the fourth single off the album it reached number 10 and provides the perfect cool-down after the previous track. It is another of the first-class tracks. Things get even gentler for the only ballad on the album, the very pretty “Bittersweet Goodbye” written by Kylie with producer Steve Anderson.  Although some might think of “Light Years” as Kylie’s disco album, when you listen to the whole thing the range of styles of tracks is impressive.  The same writing team works on next track “Butterfly” although this is produced by American club DJ Mark Picchiotti and it is back to the more contemporary club feel of the opening tracks .

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It takes a brave artist to cover a Barry White song with their lushness and complex arrangements but Kylie gives Love Unlimited’s  1973 hit “I’m Under The Influence Of Love” a great go.  There isn’t quite the build as there is in the original  but this is a very good Kylie cover even if it doesn’t eclipse the original where I love the soon to be  Mrs Barry White’s Glodean James’ vocal and the whole girl-group sound his production gives this.  I do love the swirling opening bars of Kylie’s version .

Kylie vs Love Unlimited – both under the influence!

The William/Chambers/Minogue next collaboration “I’m So High” is the least successful of their tracks and is the only track which smack a little of album-filler.  It leads into the duet with Robbie, “Kids”, which became chart runner up number 9 when it attained second position when released as the third single.  It feels more like Williams than Minogue, with its “Let Me Entertain You” rocky vibe, but it doesn’t feel out of place and saw the duo paired in a swimming pool for the closing moments of the video with its typically unsubtle Williams champagne cork popping for the video’s climax!

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Closer track “Light Years” has the feel of Giorgio Moroder and sees Kylie as our space age purser for the trip of our lives.  It’s “I Feel Love” meets Crown Heights Affair’s “Galaxy Of Love” with a great heap of Kylie kitsch.  A strong closing  nod to all that has gone on before.  With this release Kylie had tweaked the image somewhat and the public was back with her.  Her next album “Fever” contained the international smash hit “Can’t Get It Out Of My Head” which topped the charts in over 40 countries and gained sales of over 5 million.  That album saw her back at number 1 in the UK, Australia, Austria, Ireland and Germany amongst others and took her to number 3 in the US Billboard charts, returning her to the worldwide market stronger than she had ever been.  “Fever” is another first-class, but not essential album.  Kylie’s subsequent albums have been strong but have never attained the heights of the two early Millennium albums.

Kylie may have started out with a music career tacked onto her soap star celebrity status but through hard work and a shrewd awareness of what was going on around her, perhaps even more successfully than the Queen of Reinvention, Madonna, she has remained much loved for thirty years.  She has battled breast cancer and many broken relationship headlines (There are rumours which link her currently to Prince Andrew).  The public have always adored her.  We, of here consider her a national icon and she is not even British!  In 2010 she was proclaimed the most powerful celebrity in Britain in a survey of brand identification and only The Queen has had more Madame Tussauds waxworks made of her – showing the sheer power of her longevity and ability to reinvent.

“Light Years” , for me, remains her finest moment.

Just in case you doubt the power of disco here’s Kylie recruiting the whole of the Royal Albert Hall!

Light Years  is currently available from Amazon in the UK for £2.53 and used from £0.01. It can be downloaded for £9.99. In the US it is currently $8.15 new and used from $0.56 and downloaded for $12.49.  In the UK it is also available to stream on Spotify. 

100 Essential CDs – Number 93 –Harold Melvin & The Bluenotes – The Very Best Of

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The Very Best Of Harold Melvin & The Bluenotes (Sony 2014)

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It was back in 1954 that Philadelphian Harold Melvin formed a doo-wop group.  They had a good reputation, were a popular live band and recorded on a number of small record labels.  Commercial success eluded them.  The best of the early tracks is a song called “Get Out (And Let Me Cry)” which became popular in the UK Northern Soul Scene.  (It reached number 35 in the UK Pop Charts in 1975 when re-released on the Route label).  Fifteen years into their existence a drummer joined their touring band.  His name was Teddy Pendergrass and when lead singer John Atkins left in the early 70’s Teddy took over the role of lead vocalist.

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In 1971, 17 years after their formation, this struggling group got a break and were signed by the very up and coming Philadelphia International Records by the two men behind the label Kenny Gamble and Leon Huff who saw the raspiness of the Pendergrass voice as an excellent foil to the lush orchestration which was to become the selling point of this new Philadelphia sound.

At long last success came, but they are still very much an under-rated group and should have been bigger commercially.  The hit single tally is 4 US Pop Top 2o hits and five UK Top 40 hits for the Philadelphia International label, all of which are included on this seventeen track album.

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When fame came there was always going to be an issue and that was the group’s name.  By the early 70’s we were used to performers in groups being pushed to the front – Frankie Valli and The Four Seasons, Diana Ross and The Supremes, Smokey Robinson and The Miracles the list goes on.  But here the problem was Harold Melvin was not the lead singer, even though the casual listener would have assumed he was.  Harold Melvin and The Bluenotes featuring Theodore Pendergrass was tried but just didn’t exactly slip off the tongue.  It was going to cause tensions.  There were four albums before the group were faced with Pendergrass’ departure.  Even within these Melvin was experimenting with other voices on the tracks, including female singer Sharon Paige. The record label, seeing where the unique selling point of this group was kept Pendergrass on as a solo artist, where he became an R&B legend.  The group found a new lead singer in David Ebo and moved to ABC records and a return to relative obscurity.

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These seventeen tracks are taken from the golden four year period and have stood the test of time.  They are a combination of classic soul ballads and uptempo numbers which due to the lushness of the Philly orchestration are early disco classics.  For a long time this group was not best served by compilations.  I favoured the ten track “Super Hits” (Epic Legacy 2000) but there are obvious omissions and a couple of the tracks in their full-length version are a little over-realised.   This compilation adds seven more tracks, generally in their single length or Part 1 versions and is therefore my choice as an Essential CD.

 

Some of the other hits compilations that have been available over the years

The album kicks off with a bang and one of those early disco classics which is here presented in its full-length six and a half-minute form.  “Bad Luck” became the group’s third US hit in 1975 when it reached number 15 but never became a UK hit.  The opening funky bass-line would have perhaps been more recognisable to us Brits as it was used by The Ritchie Family in their hit disco-medley “The Best Disco In Town”.  From this it explodes into a sing-a-long stormer from the group- not their best uptempo track but close to it.  The standard is maintained for the O-Jays-ish “Satisfaction Guaranteed (Or Take Your Love Back) which is archetypal uptempo Philly Soul and reached number 32 in the UK when issued as a single in 1974.  This track is inexplicably absent on the “Super Hits” compilation so it is great to hear it here.  It was one of the stand-out tracks on their second “Black And Blue” album.  It features one of the great in-intro grunts on record, sounding  like a bear being awoken from its slumbers.

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“Wake Up Everybody” was very much a swan-song for the group, their last US Pop hit reaching number 12 and number 23 in the UK in 1976.  Philadelphia were quite hot on political message songs with songs such as “Love Train”, “Let’s Clean Up The Ghetto”, and “Let Em In” doing well for the label.  In fact, the output of the label was very much either love songs, message songs or have a good time dance tunes.  “Wake Up Everybody” is the Blue Notes’ most significant message song, intended to stir us out of our mid 70’s lethargy and self-centeredness.  (Things haven’t really changed).  Headed off by a lovely piece of piano glissando this is a great tune.  Message songs can come across as naive but there’s something about Teddy’s call to get motivated to help out the community which I’ve always found appealing.

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The big hit is next which really kick-started the Philadelphia International career for them.  “If You Don’t Know Me By Now” is a true soul classic and one of Gamble & Huff’s best songs and productions.  It seems like Teddy, in a ten year relationship, is not going to change so it’s a bit of a like it or lump it situation.  In late 72/early 73 this reached #3 in the US and #9 in the UK.  The chart honours for this particular track, however, go to Mick Hucknell of Simply Red who took it to the very top of the US charts and number 2 in the UK in 1989.  I’m sure even he would admit that the original version is the best.

There’s still a couple of disco anthems to be enjoyed beginning with “The Love I Lost” (US#7, UK#21 in 1974).  This benefits from being shortened from the album version where the “I lost you, sorry I lost you” refrain goes on too long.  As a three and a half minute single it is perfection. This song also had a new lease of life in 1993 when West End featuring Sybil took it to number 3 in the UK.  And talking of a song with an extended lease of life…

“Don’t Leave Me This Way,” a Gamble and Huff song written with Cary Gilbert began life as an album track on the “Wake Up Everybody” album.  A slow moody start, with tom-tom intro it ripples into an impassioned disco track.  Over at Motown they decided to give it a Hal Davis “Love Hangover” treatment for Thelma Houston which just exploded causing the Blue Notes version to race up the charts in the UK alongside Thelma.  In the US it gave Thelma her only US number 1 single, the biggest hit of her career.  In the UK it became Harold Melvin’s biggest chart success peaking at number 5 where Thelma had to make do with a number 13 placing.  I love both versions of this song.  To complex matters there was a third even bigger excellent version nine years later when The Communards topped the UK charts in 1987.  I’d be hard pushed to pick my favourite of the three versions of this song.  By 1977 when the group were in the UK Top 5 there was no chance of them capitalising with new material as by this time they were Teddy Pendergrass-less and recording for ABC.  The impetus caused by this re-release did see their ABC debut “Reaching For The World” getting a limited amount of UK action, reaching 48, but that is beyond the scope of this album.

Don’t Leave Them This Way – The Blue Notes, Thelma Houston & Communards

The writing on the wall can be heard on the track “To Be True” which comes from their 1975 album of the same name as the vocalist here is none other than Harold Melvin himself.  It’s a nice enough track but I find myself willing Teddy to make an appearance.  It is certainly still Harold Melvin and The Blue Notes but it’s not Harold Melvin and The Blue Notes as we knew them and that shows why this group was unlikely to do that much after Pendergrass’ departure.  To a certain extent I feel this way about the two tracks which feature Sharon Paige, “Hope That We Can Be Together Soon” is very much a Paige/Pendergrass duet and did in fact top the US R&B charts.  Sharon is given a bigger bite of the cherry with “You Know How To Make Me Feel So Good” and my reservations here apply.  It looks like I’m pushing Teddy into his solo career here, but I’m actually not.  What I really like is the juxtaposition between the group’s vocals and the lead.  You can tell their roots are in doowop and really like Gladys Knight and The Pips it is this interplay which make this group great.  This works so well on the bluesy “Yesterday I Had The Blues” and in the magnificent disco treat of “Tell The World How I Feel About Cha Baby”.  Here they are certainly not relegated to backing singers as they have the song’s hooks  but the group sound and the Teddy lead just work really so well.

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Elsewhere on the CD, away from the hits, you get the excellent “Where Are All My Friends” a time-old tale of friends vanishing when you hit on bad times, “Be For Real” which is a musical lecture from Theodore to his lady who looks down on people and “I Miss You” one of the great soul songs about loss which is almost animalistic in its howling passion, which can make it a little difficult to listen to.

The song that really feels out of place is the one minute 45 section snatch of the show-tune “Cabaret” sung in harmony very much in the same style as Motown would occasionally employ with The Four Tops (with “Mame”) and The Temptations (with “That’s Life” and “Hello Young Lovers”).  Was this an attempt at broadening the appeal of the group?  Berry Gordy over at Motown would at one point deliberately record tracks like these for his acts in order to chase the lucrative older white album-buying market which would lead to lucrative supper-club bookings but it feels a little late in the day (1973) to be doing this.  Was it just a way to show that this group were every bit as good singers of more traditional fare as the Tops and the Temps?  I’m not sure but it is less than two minutes out of an hour-plus of super-soulful sounds.

Harold Melvin and Teddy Pendergrass

Harold Melvin continued to plug away with various incarnations of The Blue Notes and died in 1997.  Teddy recorded two of the best singles of all time in his long solo career, his debut release “The Whole Town’s Laughing At Me” which promised so much and even better than that is “Can’t We Try?” which contains one of the most heart-felt male R&B vocals ever.  I preferred him more as a loser of love than the Barry White-esque Love God he was sometimes made out to be in tracks such as “Turn Off The Lights” and “Close The Door”.  In his homeland he recorded a run of big selling albums and was an essential live performer.  In 1982 things changed overnight when a horrific car accident left him paraplegic.  There were years of health issues over the years with musical comebacks and much charity work.  He died in 2010 at the age of 59.

These are the glory days of these Philadelphia International’s superstars career.  Listening to this album shows what a great ballad group and also what a great group of uptempo material they were.

The Very Best Of Harold Melvin & The Blue Notes  is currently available from Amazon in the UK for £3.99 and used from £2.72. It can be downloaded for £6.99. In the US this CD is harder to come by but other compilations are available.  In the UK it is also available to stream on Spotify.

100 Essential CDs – Number 4 –Fame– Grace Jones

Fame- Grace Jones   (Island 1978)

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What’s this then?  Two consecutive Grace Jones studio albums in the Top 5 Essential list.  I’m making no apologies for this.  After the superb “Portfolio” we were offered more of the same and I for one lapped it up.  Released a year after the debut, sales were lower and this has gone out of print more often than its predecessor but it still sounds as good as when it was released and is an undervalued cult classic from the disco era.

True, there wasn’t a great deal of moving on from “Portfolio” but disco was still hot in 1978 and a great deal of energy had been lavished on Grace to ensure that the quality was there so why change things too much?  Tom Moulton was back on board as producer – some of the same musicians and backing vocalists (The Sweethearts of Sigma) are back doing sterling work.  Perhaps some of these tracks were even recorded at the same time as those on the debut.  Information is a little vague on this.  The quality artwork by Richard Bernstein is back, which went a long way to mythologizing the image of Grace Jones, a tactic which would be employed throughout her career.  The back cover of the vinyl edition (although not the CD copy I own) contains perhaps one of the most stunning Jones illustrations ever, in a sailor’s cap, looking like Marlene Dietrich crossed with a panther. Pencils and paint on the front cover show that Jones is being viewed as a piece of artwork –and remember this is some years before Jean-Paul Goude famously begins to really play around with the visual image of the performer.  The cover would have been seen as ultra-fashionably chic, once again cementing the Jones philosophy of merging the modelling and the music, the performance and the person.

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Musically, there is some movement.  The first side of Grace’s debut was her Broadway medley of three cover versions of recent show tunes, reformed into disco tracks.  Perhaps by 1978 this particular bubble had burst and Grace is given three original songs to combine in a medley which is perhaps one of the greatest segues of three tracks since Gloria Gaynors “Experience” album and her (Casanova Brown/Do It Yourself/How High The Moon) trilogy.  On “Portfolio” you had to wait for the beginning of side 2 to find the jewel in the crown, here Grace kicks off with the best track on the album and one of my all-time favourites.

By 1978 Disco had become far more European in flavour and Donna Summer’s megahit “I Feel Love” from the previous year had been a game-changer in that music had become more electronic.  Here, however,  Jones, always a radical, has eschewed the synthesizer for that big orchestral sound and some of the best session R&B musicians around, giving the lushness of the very best of the Philadelphia International sound – ironically from an artist who would find greater fame by stripping her music back to its bare minimum.  But here in 1978 the fuller sound was having one of its last hurrahs with  musical arrangements carried out by John Davis who had a number of club hits as the man in charge of his Monster Orchestra. He replaced another orchestra leader, Vince Montana from the Salsoul Orchestra who had performed the same duties on  “Portfolio”.

The side one medley was written by Jack Robinson with James Bolden for two of the tracks and Gil Slavin for the third track.  Robinson knew disco as he had written some of its biggest hits, including “I Love To Love” for Tina Charles, the sublime “If You Want It (Do It Yourself)” for Gloria Gaynor, “Strut Your Funky Stuff” for Frantique and would go on to write for that most bizarre of 80’s recording acts, Princess Stephanie of Monaco.

In many ways first track “Do Or Die” can be seen as a natural successor to the Gaynor track but Grace’s vocal imbues the whole thing with an edginess that makes you wonder just what is going on.  Vince Aletti in his much referred to (by me) “Disco Files” tried to sum the whole thing up in his Record World column of July 1978  by stating “Jones remains an erratic singer, subject to bizarre vocal fluctuations that turn nearly every song into a reckless, daring roller coaster ride- both unsettling and exhilarating.”  He felt that she had found a perfect match with Robinson’s lyrics which are “sometimes frankly unsophisticated but often approach the direct spare energy of the great romantic pop songs; a modern equivalent of the 60’s girl group mentality – more knowing, more ironic- but still soppy around the edges.  So the songs are frequently as brash, presumptious, exaggerated and ultimately, endearing as the singer.”  I think he has hit the nail firmly on the head on this and it is this heady combination which brings me joy every time I listen to this album.  I love a bit of irony with my music and the greatest disco music has this in spades- think Chic, “Young Hearts Run Free”, anything by Dr Buzzard’s Savannah Band and/or Kid Creole all coming with a healthy dose of bittersweet irony which adds to their greatness.

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In the first line of “Do Or Die” I think Grace is telling us she is an “operator” (that odd vocal inflection coming immediately to the fore).  She “can sell an Eskimo snow” and there is probably no doubt about that.  There’s a lot going on in the rhythm and percussion department of this song.  It’s boastful and yet she may have met her match as the man she is after is telling her he’s not interested.  Jones isn’t taking no for an answer, even if he is chasing her with a gun (!).  She’ll get her man if it is the last thing she’ll do and boy, do we believe her.  That other great one-off Eartha Kitt covered this song on her album “I’m Still Here” but Jones’ version has the full-frontal attack which makes this great.  It was released as a single by Island in 1978 and attracted considerable attention in the clubs in the US, Canada and Spain it did not cross over to the pop charts.  For a disco record it’s surprisingly uncommercial.  There’s a subtle(ish) key change into “Pride”, a song which feels a little like “Sorry” from the first album as it is more understated.   In the complex world of Jones emotions Pride is being both proclaimed and rubbished “what good is pride alone at night?”  There’s a good little percussion breakdown mid-way with some funky bass guitar by Jimmy Williams doing battle with the percussion of Larry Washington and the Sweethearts of Sigma offering some very Salsoul Orchestra sounding support before Grace storms back into the song with her usual gusto.

“Fame” is another tale of lost love.  In fact, there’ s quite a bit of unrequited love in this album.  For the first album Grace was defiant, yet here there’s more vulnerability and maybe this change is another reason it gets the thumbs up from me.  This track doesn’t quite have the magic of the preceding two.  Grace is both claiming and blaming fame here.  Taken as a whole these three tracks add up to eighteen minutes of high quality disco.

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The second side of the vinyl copy opens with a track which unashamedly follows up from the high point of “Portfolio”, but as “La Vie En Rose” was the best thing Grace ever recorded perhaps it’s no surprise that there would be an attempt to re-create this.  It’s Grace’s version of another French standard “Autumn Leaves”, known originally as “Les Feuilles Mortes” written by Jacques Prevert with English lyrics by Johnny Mercer.  The introduction has Grace whispering in French over a violin solo by the quaintly named Piggy Pigerino, then the “La Vie En Rose” feel kicks in.  It lacks the amazing build which that track had.  There is, however, a nifty bit of what sounds like steel guitar after the first verse.  By mid-way through any intention that this isn’t “La Vie” part 2 gets thrown out of the window and even the “La Vie En Rose” chant by Grace is substituted by “Les Feuilles Mortes”.  There’s the same combination of the two languages with Francophile Grace slipping easily between the two.  There’s no marks for originality here but you can’t blame them for trying and it still all works.  It was released as a single in France where “La Vie” had been a big hit, but it did not chart.

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“All On A Summer’s Night” is this album’s “That’s The Trouble” thematically and Grace is back in casual mode after a one night stand.  Wah-Wah guitars hit a groove while Grace intones that it “may be love or it may be just the wine” and “maybe I should feel a twinge of shame/we’re almost lovers, I don’t know your name”. The percussion break is a little static, which sounds a little dated nowadays but Grace pulls this one off with great aplomb.  “Am I Ever Gonna Fall In Love In New York’s City” sees Grace looking for the real thing in a song which is so delightfully corny and cheesy.  She’s just the girl from Tennessee searching for love and lamenting that “There’s no future in single bars/nothing but the one night stars”.  Grace really sings in the introduction – probably more than for entire albums of her later career .  The song is repetitive and I think this might be a case of a song which only Grace could get away with.  That deadpan vocal delivery allows her to pull off kitsch with panache.  Everything is thrown at this song and Grace emerges shining.

Closing track “Below The Belt” unites Grace with Pierre Papadiamandis who penned the original songs on “Portfolio”.  It’s not as good as those tracks although it has that Philadelphia International sound and is certainly more subtle than some of the tracks on display here and does not reduce the sense of exhilaration this album gives me.  Vince Aletti aptly concludes in his contemporary review of the album- “Fame is a marvellous combination of chutzpah and charisma from which Grace emerges quite triumphant.”

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Artists and their muse – Warhol, Jones and Keith Haring

But once again the anticipated commercial crossover didn’t happen.  In Both Italy and Sweden she found herself getting her second Top 30 album (Italy 15, Sweden 22) and it did make a very brief appearance in the US Top 100 albums, which “Portfolio” had missed out on.  But the club scene loved it enough for Island to try for three in a row the following year with “Muse”.  By 1979 Disco had gone completely above ground and with everyone from Ethel Merman to Johnny Mathis and The Rolling Stones making disco and an underground artist with cult appeal would find it harder to compete.  “Muse” is not an essential album by any means as it begins to feel like over-treading a formula.  It was an album that took Grace’s plan for world domination almost back to square one.  It is not without its merits, particularly the track “Don’t Mess With The Messer” and the Disco meets Gospel of “Saved”.  Once the 80’s came along many Disco Divas were finding their recording contracts being terminated.  However, Island Records could see that Grace had a shelf-life beyond Disco and by returning her back to her Jamaican roots gave her the fame that “Fame” only promised.

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I have such a huge soft spot for the disco stylings of Grace Jones and anyone wanting to explore this period of her career should seek out the three CD set “The Disco Years” which packages the first three albums together for the first time.  The fact that this was not released until 2015 shows there is still a great demand for these early tracks.  Deservedly so.

The edited version of “Do Or Die” below comes from an Italian music show and words will fail you………………………….

 

 

“Fame” is available from Amazon.co.uk from £6.99 and it can be streamed from Spotify For more Grace the three disc set “The Disco Years” is currently available for £11.46 (it is also newly available on vinyl).  In the US it is available used from $16.21 but the three disc set can be bought in a number of audio formats.

100 Essential CDs – Number 1 – Portfolio – Grace Jones

Portfolio- Grace Jones   (Island 1977)

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So here it is – the album which I will save above all others from the theoretical burning building (at least I hope it’s theoretical- I don’t want to actually have to make the choice).  This is the CD I play probably more than any other and have done really since its release back in 1977.  It was not a big seller yet has remained consistently available.  It is the ultimate cult album from one of the ultimate cult artists.  It did establish Grace as a hit artist in a number of markets gaining a Top 30 placing in Australia (27), Sweden (22), Italy (9) and The Netherlands (8).

Grace Jones was born in Jamaica and had a very strict upbringing.  Things got tougher for her when her parents migrated to America, aiming to settle there before bringing the family over so Grace and her siblings were brought up for a time by very devout church-going relatives.  Grace was always going to rebel.  She eventually joined her parents in Syracuse and the awkward tall teenage girl drifted into acting and then modelling.  It became clear to Grace that if she wanted to make it as a model she would have to get away from the USA as her brand of exoticism was too much for the conservative model agencies.  She moved to Paris where she became for a time one third of a modelling agency where the two other girls on the books were her friends Jerry Hall and Jessica Lange.  It was the image of Grace Jones that first caught my attention.  I remember a photo of her being published in “Record Mirror” and I bought this debut album on the strength of that photo without hearing a note.  Never has an impulse buy paid off so well.

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Grace was in France really not knowing of the disco explosion that was happening in New York in the mid 70’s.  She had made some demos in Paris and a New York couple called Sy and Eileen Berlin, who had been in the clothing industry but were looking to move into music took note.  Grace’s early tracks were lined up for a label they had planned called Beam Junction.  The popularity of the early singles led to a record label with Island Records the home of many Jamaican recording artists and  run by the man who would become a great friend of Grace’s, Chris Blackwell.  Grace, in her 2015 autobiography “I’ll Never Write My Memoirs” had this to say;

“The fact that I made disco music was an accident, really.  When I made my first records, I didn’t think of them as being disco.  I made them in France and the word discotheque is a French word, but it did not have the meaning that it was beginning to have in New York.  I didn’t characterize them as anything.  They were simply songs with a little bit of soul and rhythm, echoes of singing in church, a sense of something showy whipped up by being in Paris with all the fashion, around all the people making it happen.”

Back in America genius record producer Tom Moulton was brought in to mix the tracks Jones had already recorded and eventually to put together the other songs which made up this seven track debut.  Grace may have not been aware of disco initially but she recorded the perfect disco record which clearly illustrates what disco was all about.  As well as the rhythm and melodies there was the hedonism, the camp sensibility, the excellent production values and for me most of all the chutzpah of Grace the artist with a voice that could hover towards the flat end of the scale performing with such gusto that she just had to become a household name.

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Producer, re-mixer and disco legend Tom Moulton

The look of the album also suggested something different.  I have held onto my vinyl copy because the CD could not reproduce fully the look and feel of the album.  The Warholesque artwork was not by Andy, who would become Grace’s big Studio 54 disco pal but by Richard Berenstein who worked for Warhol’s “Interview” magazine who was one of the first of many who would manipulate the image of Grace Jones from photographs.  Grace’s face is in tones of purples and greens on the striking blue background of the front cover and on the back as a disembodied head in reds and purple with a glittery tongue.  Grace Jones had arrived.

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The first side of the album also summed up Disco.  Grace was not the greatest singer yet the idea was to get her to tackle three demanding recent Broadway tunes which would segue into one another and would use some of the greatest Philadelphia session musicians.  Vincent Montana Jnr, the vibe player and brains behind the Salsoul Orchestra was brought in to do the arrangements and the celebrated backing vocalists, known as The Sweethearts of Sigma, Barbara Ingram, Carla Benson and Evette Benton were on hand should Grace find herself deviating too far from the melody.  The result is around eighteen minutes of sheer joy, which I turn to whenever I need a boost- the ultimate guilty pleasure.

It wasn’t that original to disco-fy old songs.  Gloria Gaynor had exploded onto the pop charts and was heralded the Queen of Disco by raiding the Motown songbook and older songs such as “Tangerine” (Salsoul Orchestra), “What A Difference A Day Makes” (Esther Phillips) were becoming mainstays of this recent form of music.  The song chosen for Grace’s Broadway medley were quite recent showstoppers.  The whole thing kicks off with “Send In The Clowns” from “A Little Light Music” (first produced on Broadway in 1973) which had that year already just survived a vocal version by Elizabeth Taylor in the film version but whereas Taylor seems apologetic Grace is going for it.  Grace’s vocal is unique and gells excellently with the “sweet” background vocals.  Her unusual phrasing, long notes and just-on-key performance are all used for excellent effect.  There’s great work going on in the piano and rhythm section. The track moves with a flourish  into “What I Did For Love” from 1975’s “A Chorus Line”.  There is no doubt that Grace is camping this up with a vengeance.  The backing girls are given more to do here and their harmonies are sublime.  The rhythm, crashes, builds, breaks down and builds up in a template for the disco sound.  The third track is the weakest of the three, but then the song “Tomorrow” came from “Annie” which opened the same year as this album was released so would have been less familiar  and Strouse and Charnin’s song is never going to be of the same quality as the Sondheim and Hamlisch tunes that precede it.  Once again Grace gives it her all- although it does get a little repetitive before the end.  It does however, perfectly fit the concept and the production and musicianship is excellent.

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Grace at Studio 54

If the producers had gone for more of the same for the second side then maybe we would have a very good solid disco concept, not startlingly original and probably not essential.  It is the second side that makes this album for me – bringing remixed versions of her tracks originally recorded in France with another French standard which is one of the highpoints of the whole Disco era.

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The second side kicks off with Grace’s finest moment  of her long music career, her version of a 1945 song with lyrics originally written by France’s most famous chanteuse, Edith Piaf.  “La Vie En Rose” needs to be heard in its seven and a half minute glory. (The video below from a 1977 European pop show is the edited single version).  The lengthy introduction with woodblock and guitar builds things up beautifully into a kind of bossa-nova feel which would have ensured this went down a storm in Latin discos.  It’s coming on for two minutes before Grace makes her entrance, speaking in French before easing into the familiar melody.  This works because of its sense of exotic – the French lyrics, the latin rhythms and Grace soaring her way vocally.  This track is often a staple of live shows and Grace has said of the song, “That’s a very special song to me. Oh God, I cry every time I sing it. I had quite a few French lovers, so every time I sing it I think about them.”  I love Grace’s vocal on this.  At the time of its release music journalist Vince Aletti was writing a column in Record World which he put together in the five-star rated book “The Disco Files” .  This is what he had to say about this track;

“building to an emotional peak from a minimal, delicate, seductively languorous arrangement of piano, guitar and percussion.  Grace, singing in both French and English, uses the simplicity of the production as the perfect foil, strutting across it, purring, growling, shouting and whispering like an actress working her lines for all they’re worth.”

I couldn’t put it better myself.  This track gave Grace her first international hit single going Top 5 in France, Italy and the Netherlands.  In the UK Grace had to wait another nine years for it to be re-issued as a double A side with “Pull Up To The Bumper” where it did more than help that track get to number 12.  Grace has never had a Top 40 hit single in the US, so that decision to make a move to France to find fame might have been the right one after all.

Grace goes unusually passive on the next track, the apologetic “Sorry” which certainly has that Philadelphia feel.  It’s a tale of jealousy written by Jones alongside Pierre Papadiamandis.  Jones has been caught out after a rendezvous with an ex-lover . The rap “he loves me too and he’s not jealous of you” shows where Jones is coming from.  The song is basically trite but Grace pulls it all off with panache.  This was a double A sided single with “That’s The Trouble” written by the same song-writing team and this is a great, infectious track where everyone appears to be having a good time.  Taken at quite a fair old pace, Grace laments being followed by men who fall in love with her instantly.  “Every man I see taking every little thing so heavily”.  Grace isn’t into commitment but those around her seem to be.  This is establishing the Grace Jones image of a strong, attractive, desirable woman.  She performed this song many times live in nightclubs, including Studio 54, and those booking her really did not know what they were getting- occasionally bare-breasted, painted, or even with a leopard on a chain – this lady was certainly coming from a different place from previous disco divas.

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Her gay appeal was established very early on with her first single release which becomes the closing track of the album.  In “I Need A Man” Grace is not going to be wasting her time cooking (it was hard to imagine Grace cooking!).  She ‘s out to get her man “then at night I won’t be lonely/knowing I’m the only one”.  The song is predatory, sexual and yet has a yearning which shows the contradictions of being Grace Jones.  It also has a fervour which could almost be described as gospel-esque, although it’s not religious salvation Grace is looking for. The track was an instant success in the Discos and took Grace to the top of the American dance charts.  In a track from her later “Slave To The Rhythm” album,  (“The Frog And The Princess” ) narrator Ian McShane relates the words of her lover and manager Jean- Paul Goude who spoke of the ambiguity  of his first viewing of Grace watching her sing “I Need A Man” in a New York nightclub “Les Mouches”  and looking like a man, to a room full of gay men.  He knew then that this radical, electric performer would be his muse.  When Grace ends the track with the spoken “perhaps that man is you!” you can’t help but smile nor have a slight shiver up the spine!

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The complexity of the artist is evident from this first album.  Rebellious and radical yet prepared to perform a Broadway medley this is just what Grace Jones was all about.  Predictably unpredictable merging the worlds of fashion and music, a punk sensibility with disco.  I knew she was going to go far.

Portfolio is is currently available from Amazon in the UK for £7.33, used from £1.97 and as a download for £6.93.  In the US it is currently $8.99 new,  used from $1.79 and download for $5.99.  It is also available to stream on Spotify in the UK .

100 Essential CDs – Number 70 –Off The Wall – Michael Jackson

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Off The Wall – Michael Jackson  (Epic 1979)

UK Chart Position – 5

US Chart Position – 3

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1979 and disco music is dominating the airwaves.  A little late to the party were a group who were made for the uptempo disco sound – The Jacksons.  Since leaving Motown they had dabbled with Leon Gamble and Kenny Huff who imbued them with the smooth Philadelphia International Sound.  Although “Show You The Way To Go” became the first UK number 1 for the group in 1977 the hits had tailed off, especially in the US where this UK chart-topper only reached #28.  However, things revived for them as towards the end of 1978 the group were back in the UK Top 10 with “Blame It On The Boogie”, a cover version of a song written and recorded by British songwriter Mick Jackson.  This set off one of those chart battles which saw Mick reach number 15 with the original and The Jacksons get to number 8.  The US passed on both versions, surprisingly, as over here it is one of the disco songs that the group is best known for.  Fortunes changed when they kept with the disco theme and released “Shake Your Body (Down To The Ground)” which took them back to number 7 in the US (their first Top 10 hit in three years) and to number 4 in the UK.  This funky little dancer gave a boost of confidence to the lead singer and got him thinking about more solo work.

Chart battle – Jackson v Jacksons

By 1979 Michael’s child solo star days were well behind him.  His last couple of albums for Motown had not been big sellers and the twenty-one year old had emerged from an awkward adolescence not exactly brimming with confidence about his future in the music business.  He was excited about the ascendancy of Disco music and was an occasional visitor to Studio 54.  He had never had much creative control of his music when he was with Motown and began looking for a producer who he could work with and who would be prepared to encourage and nurture him as a songwriter and performer.  He contacted Quincy Jones, who had produced him on the movie soundtrack for “The Wiz” and Quincy suggested himself.

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Quincy Jones

This was a good match right from the start.  Quincy had been around for years and had won Grammy awards as a Jazz musician, producer and arranger and had scored a number of films.  From the mid 70’s his solo work (solo in that it was released in his name, but really ensemble pieces with artists who he would work with for many years) had formed into a sound that was very much his own, a blend of sophisticated funk.  This crossed over into the pop charts with his work with The Brothers Johnson, especially “I’ll Be Good To You” (US#3- 1976).  Jackson could easily be incorporated into that sound.  Michael was brimming with ideas but needed some help in bringing them alive.  In J.Randy Taraborrelli’s biography “Michael Jackson: The Magic And The Madness” (1991) he quoted Jones remembering that Michael was “very, very introverted, shy and non-assertive.  He wasn’t at all sure that he could make a name for himself on his own.  Neither was I.”

During their work together, choosing a selection of songs for the album more than a little magic obviously happened because the end result when it was released in September 1979 was a sensation. For me it remains the best solo Jackson album, even though it wasn’t his biggest seller.  Michael Jackson, the adult superstar had arrived.   The fact that something special happened was backed up by Quincy Jones who had certainly changed his tune when he prophetically said;

“We accomplish so much in a single session, it stuns me.  In my opinion, Michael Jackson is going to be the star of the eighties and nineties.”

It’s not so much of an album as a laying out of wares.  Jackson is putting out the shop stall which will see him right for the rest of his career.  The opening track, and first hit off the album was a game-changer.  Jackson mumbles his way through the intro (we hadn’t heard that before, but we’d hear it again) there’s an early showing of what becomes a trademark “Whoo!” and for the first time Jackson is singing in a falsetto voice, so very different from the hard-singing belt it out juvenile of “I Want You Back”.  We’d not heard Jackson like this before and we liked it.  The song itself, written by Jackson, has great production but is, dare I say it, a little empty and repetitive.  It was good enough in 1979, however, as it became the lead single for the album.  “Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough” became his first US number 1 pop hit for 7 years and reached number 3 in the UK.

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With history behind us we might think that this album would have been one of the biggest hits of the late 70’s, but it did not top the charts either in the UK or US (it did in Australia).  It did, however, hang around the charts for ever and has been a solid seller ever since of over 20 million, which is a paltry amount compared to the 65 million+ of “Thriller”.  It did become, however, very much a singles album as it was the first album ever to have four US Top 10 singles taken from it and on a ten tracker that is pretty impressive.  It’s as if Jackson needed this album as a springboard to becoming a phenomenally selling album artist from this point on.

Jackson has three compositions on “Off The Wall”, one written with Louis Johnson of The Brothers Johnson and he keeps his contributions very much geared towards the dance floor.  “Working Day And Night” is a solid dancer but for me my favourite of the three is the Jackson/Johnson track “Get On The Floor”.  However good Jackson’s own tracks are there are better on show.

The real find was British songwriter Rod Temperton who had to this point been known as a songwriting member of British band Heatwave, most famous for “Boogie Nights” which closing track “Burn This Disco Out” has the definite feel of.  Temperton is responsible for two of the stand-out tracks which both became hit singles.  “Rock With You” is a subtle little dancer, which gave Jackson his second US number 1 in a row (UK#7) and “Off The Wall” (US#10 UK#7) marries this new Jackson sound with the Quincy Jones sound perfectly.  With the backing vocals and feel of the song Quincy would incorporate this sound in later recordings both attributed to himself, and with George Benson and Patti Austin amongst others.

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Rod Temperton

It may have been the lack of confidence as to how well this album would sell which would lead to song selections of two of the biggest superstars of the 70’s.  Stevie Wonder’s “I Can’t Help It” was written alongside the then-Supreme Susaye Green and with its Stevie Wonder feel is a nod back towards the Motown days as well as sounding very contemporary.  “Girlfriend” is written by Paul McCartney, starting off a musical relationship which would lead to one of the poorer tracks on “Thriller” and a reciprocal arrangement on the ex- Beatles 1983 “Pipes Of Peace” album –  “The Girl Is Mine” and “Say Say Say”.  McCartney has Jackson as something of a tell-tale in this song – a role he had certainly played before in the Jackson 5’s “I Saw Mommy Kissing Santa Claus” in which he is a right snitch and which for some reason I have to listen to every Christmas.  I think “Girlfriend” is the best of the Jackson/McCartney association.

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Carol Bayer Sager and David Foster’s song “It’s The Falling In Love” had already been a US chart-topper in 1975 for Hamilton, Joe Frank and Reynolds.  It reached #33 in the UK as we were not so fond of this type of country influenced soft-rock over here and it sounded like it was by a team of solicitors! Jackson and Jones transformed this into a lovely soul ballad and drafted Jones’ musical muse of the time Patti Austin for some lead vocal lines and this ends up certainly one of the tracks that has got even better with time.

This leaves us with one track, another game-changer.  “She’s Out Of My Life” was an early example of the frail, fragile ballad that Michael and also sister Janet would return to again and again in their careers.  It really shouldn’t work – it is so full of emotion that the whole thing could come off as cloying.  The vocal purposely lacks confidence and the vulnerability of the singer shines through.  There’s even what was reputed to be real tears towards the end causing the vocal to further crack.  This is miles away from the vocal on “Got To Be There”.  It’s understated and performed with such honesty that it won the public over getting to number 10 in the US and performing better with us sentimental Brits getting to number 3.  It always feels like we are eavesdropping into something we shouldn’t be and any song which features the word “cavalier” is alright by me.  For anyone who wants a less understated version of this song written by Tom Bahler let me point you in the direction of Patti Labelle and her “Classic Moments” CD where she matches Jackson in the overwrought stakes yet typically gives it all she has got.

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Michael Jackson reaffirmed his superstar status with this album.  He had hoped that sales would have been higher and he was disappointed with only winning one Grammy (Best R&B vocal performance for the first single).  He told everyone he would try harder next time.  Reuniting with Jones the pair came up with “Thriller” in which they went for a more broader appeal.  For me that album has a rockier and poppier edge (and that is even more the case with “Bad”) than the more R&B styled “Off The Wall”, which is why I prefer this first collaboration.  However, there might very well be 65 million people who disagree with me.

Off The Wall is currently available from Amazon in the UK for £3.00, used from £2.83 and as a download for £6.99.  In the US it is currently $4.99 new,  used from $1.00 and download for $9.99.  It is also available to stream on Spotify in the UK .

Postscript:  As I am doing this run-down of Essential CD’s alphabetically rather than chronologically my next 100 CD post will be the one I have put at the top of the pile.  Any ideas what that could be?  A look at those I have favoured might give you some inkling – but I don’t think I’m that predictable….Only two weeks to wait.