Once Upon A Time – Donna Summer (Casablanca 1977)
UK Chart Position – 24
US Chart Position – 26
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
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.
Bellotte, Summer and Moroder
When I bought this album I would have been more than happy with a selection of tracks along the lines of “I Feel Love” so it is no wonder that the side I played most on my vinyl copy was Act 2, which boasted the stronger disco tracks with a couple of them having that bleak, industrial feel that I really loved and were reminiscent of what both Kraftwerk and Pink Floyd were doing at the time. “Now I Need You” is the album’s high-spot and once again was never released as a single. It’s a cross between “I Feel Love” and the later hit she had with Quincy Jones as producer “State Of Independence” with its big gospel-esque choir which manages to add warmth and colour to the coolness of the arrangement. A dominant pulse beats throughout with something sounding like someone pumping up a tyre. The beat, Donna in whispering mode and the choir make a real gem of a track, which has only got better with time.
Moroder, Summer and Bellotte in later years
The bleakness continues with “Working The Midnight Shift” with its great electronic introduction. These two tracks would still sound good on the dancefloor today and with Donna being a popular choice for remixers , it’s quite surprising that reworking of these two tracks have not ever made the charts. The disco side closes with “Queen For A Day”, a more pop influenced proposition with some pretty daft lyrics but some real creative work from the production team going on really lifts this.
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.
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 .
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.