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

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Once Upon A Time – Donna Summer (Casablanca 1977)

UK Chart Position – 24

US Chart Position – 26

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

onceupon8Bellotte, Summer and Moroder

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

onceupon9Moroder, Summer and Bellotte in later years

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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A Love Trilogy -Donna Summer (Casablanca 1976)

UK Chart Position – 41

US Chart Position – 21

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

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

lovetrilogy4Donna Summer with Giorgio Moroder

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

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

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

 

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

lovetrilogy2The back cover of the original vinyl LP

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

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

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

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Photographers were also keen to convey a more wholesome image

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

 

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