Summer’s version of I Feel Love was a huge hit in 1977 and would contribute significantly to establishing her as the queen of disco. She had a ‘greatest hits’ collection in the shops at the start of the 80s, and I Feel Love became her first release of the 80s when Casablanca (her record company at the start of the decade) took the opportunity to reissue it at the beginning of 1980 (the original hit was on GTO records); they also had the track remixed and reissued it on 26 November 1982 (it made #21 on the chart in that form). (The original version of the song would appear in record racks again on 1 February 1988, this time on the reissue label Old Gold.) Summer herself was almost in scope for this blog, having appeared on the cover of Smash Hits herself – but in June 1979. The 80s were a patchy decade for her though, with a series of triumphs and failures and some very bad press. Here’s a quick summary.
Continued promotion for albums released in 1979
Two Summer albums were released in quick succession in 1979: the studio album Bad Girls and the double-album of greatest hits, On The Radio; both required continued promotion into 1980. The first single in the list above was recorded especially for the hits compilation; the latter two were taken from the studio work; Sunset People was included on both. As Summer had just quit Casablanca, the record company that issued all these singles, it seemed they were determined to make as much money out of her past recordings as possible. On My Honor for example had previously been the B-side of 1979’s Bad Girls single; for this issue the record company just flipped the plug side, putting it out again complete with the same catalogue number.
Never Lose Your Sense Of Humor was a duet with her label-mate, Paul Jabara, from his album The Third Album. He had collaborated with Summer twice before, and wrote her classic hit Last Dance. His biggest success was probably co-writing It’s Raining Men for The Weather Girls, which was included on his fourth album.
The Wanderer (1980 album, released 24 October)
In the last two years of the 70s, it seemed that Donna Summer was guaranteed a hit with every single she released in America. She had seven Top 10s including four #1s on the Billboard chart from 1978-1979; the 80s began with her eighth consecutive Top 10 hit, On The Radio. Her first single for her new record company, Geffen, was the title track of her first album under that contract, The Wanderer, and it was business as usual: it hit #3. But from now, the appetite for her records would be similar to the attitude taken over here in the UK: she was only as good as her next single. If the song was particularly strong, she’d find herself in the Top 10; otherwise, she might struggle to make the lower reaches of the Hot 100.
Summer was David Geffen’s first signing for his new company. It was a chance for her to have a fresh start: a recently born-again Christian, the track I Believe in Jesus that closed the album affirmed her faith and connected her with the gospel music she had been familiar with prior to her recording career. Most of her albums featured music from a variety of different genres, but The Wanderer purposefully avoided the disco she had made her name with and concentrated on rock and new wave elements. It wasn’t entirely successful; it fell short of the US Top 10 and had a very brief run on the chart compared to her previous works. In the UK it sold poorly and none of the singles made the Top 40; for the rest of the decade her recordings for Geffen would be released by Warner Bros in Britain.
I’m A Rainbow (1981 album, unreleased)
Rumours that a completed double album by Summer and her usual team had been submitted to, and rejected by, Geffen just weeks before it was due out in October 1981 abounded until the extant material from the project was finally released by PolyGram in 1996. That the project was that advanced before it was shelved was denied by co-producer Harold Faltermeyer: he said that much of what had been recorded was still in demo form only when work stopped, and that no album title had been selected. (Fans suggested that the album was to be named after I’m A Rainbow, a track recorded for it composed by Summer’s husband, and that the artwork for the following year’s Donna Summer, which featured a rainbow effect in the background, was originally intended for this album.)
What is true is that Geffen records thought a change in musical direction was needed at this stage, and that another album with regular collaborator Pete Bellotte (who had produced all her previous studio albums, together with Giorgio Moroder from her second album onwards) would not be right commercially: it might please existing fans but it wouldn’t gain her any new listeners. With the backlash against disco in America at its peak, and Summer so closely associated with the genre, it was back to the drawing board. It meant, of course, no new material from her for around 18 months at a critical point in her career.
(The idea that the I’m A Rainbow album is some sort of ‘lost classic’, by the way, is not borne out by a listen to the tapes. Much of the material is distinctly average and Geffen was quite right to cancel it. At best, there are just enough strong songs for a single album.)
Donna Summer (1982 album, released 23 July)
The sleeve notes for this album read like to “who’s who” of the American recording industry of 1982. Names as surprising as Bruce Springsteen turn up: he wrote the track Protection and played guitar on it, joined by members of the AOR band Toto whose own album, Toto IV, was to be a major hit in the same year. Other writers contributing material to the collection – and the list of names is the longest for any Summer album – include Michael and Dan Sembello and David Batteau ((If It) Hurts Just A Little) and Rod Temperton (co-writer of several tracks). Summer’s stunning cover of the Jon and Vangelis song State Of Independence involved an ‘All-star choir’ providing background vocals – Michael Jackson was in there, as well as other luminaries such as Dionne Warwick, Lionel Richie and Stevie Wonder. Dave Grusin arranged the synthesizers on the cover of Lush Life that closed the set… Anyway, you get the idea: pick up a copy of the album and read the credits for yourself.
It took a long time to complete the record; as long as six months perhaps. She was pregnant at the time, which may account for some of the delays, but in the main it came down to a matter of control. She had left Casablanca because she felt she had a lack of say in her career. Of this album, she would later state that she felt it was a Quincy Jones album (he produced it) that she happened to sing on.
She Works Hard For The Money (1983 album, released 1 July)
Summer’s dispute with Casablanca’s parent company rumbled on in the early 1980s and the court’s view was that contractually she still owed them an album. Consequently, She Works Hard For The Money appeared on the Mercury label; frustratingly for Geffen, perhaps, the title track was one of her biggest hits of the decade.
It was during a promotional tour for this album that she was alleged to have made notorious remarks that amounted to an assertion that AIDS was God’s punishment for homosexuality. The newsworthiness of the story was that she appeared to have insulted her core audience: the gay community. Exactly when and in what context the comments were supposed to have been made, and when and how they were first reported, is unclear: such has been the confusion that the whole incident has approached the status of urban myth. But certainly at the time, enough people believed what was being reported: stories of mass burnings of Summer records were received from America; in Britain DJs banned her records in gay venues. The release of the Bronski Beat single that inspired this article caused controversy; they were attacked for covering her songs.
She repeatedly denied that she made any such comment, both in interviews and in writing. But she was criticized for a perceived delay in responding to the allegations, and for her words falling short of an apology when she did speak. She put it all down to a misunderstanding. Regardless, the scandal never went away: by failing to take numerous opportunities to deny outright that she disapproved of homosexuality, the matter was referred to regularly for the rest of her career.
Cats Without Claws (1984 album, released 7 September)
None of the singles from this album was a hit in Britain. In fact, between 28 January 1984 and 17 October 1987, she failed to clock up a single week on the Top 75.
All Systems Go (1987 album, released 12 October)
Brenda Russell, who had sung in the ‘All-star choir’ on State Of Independence in 1982, wrote the lead single from this album. An intelligent lyric set to a sophisticated groove, Russell had intended Dinner With Gershwin for an album of her own but was persuaded to give it to Summer instead. It was the perfect single for Summer to return with after her absence during 1986, but sadly it did little to help sales of its parent album: All Systems Go was, regrettably, a flop.
Why this should be is a mystery. As usual it was a quality production and there wasn’t a duff track to be found. When the title track was issued as a single, Tom Hibbert was reviewing the singles in Smash Hits (13-26 January 1988): “She is 38 years old. She is a trifle biffy in the head (making sexy heavy-breathing disco one moment; finding a friend in Jesus and being horrible about homosexuals the next), but this woman can sing like a dream. This may not be her finest moment (that was State Of Independence, the greatest record ever made) but it’s completely fab nonetheless, a crisp and swinging pop tune with admirably absurd references to outer space. Bravo, as they say, madam.” Undoubtedly she was in fine voice and belted the song out. Edwin J Bernard, reviewing the album for Record Mirror, suggested that with Summer’s kind of powerhouse vocals she’d be far better matched with production from the UK’s Stock Aitken Waterman team – which is exactly what happened next.
Another Place And Time (1989 album, released 13 March)
Put the right singer with the right producer(s) and you have a hit. Well, that’s the theory anyway. Stock Aitken Waterman (more detail tomorrow) collaborated with a number of ‘name’ artists who came to fame in the 1970s, but often with little reward. Their 1985 single The Heaven I Need with The Three Degrees for example was one their finest pieces of work, but it was only a minor hit despite the quality of the girls’ vocals and the superb production. One of the few significant successes they had with an established act was this album with Summer.
It nearly didn’t happen. Despite David Geffen himself recommending that Summer record with Stock Aitken Waterman, the Geffen board decided to drop her from their company on hearing the finished album and plans to release it were shelved. In the UK, however, Warner Bros saw the potential. Very much perceived as a ‘comeback’, lead single This Time I Know It’s For Real was a smash hit here and across Europe. Eventually, Atlantic records in the US (another part of the same WEA group that Geffen was distributed by) picked up an option to issue the album stateside.
Another Place And Time yielded more singles than any other Summer studio album. In addition to the four listed above, all of which were hits in the UK, Breakaway was also issued as a single in 1990 (as part of the promotion for a new ‘greatest hits’ collection). It was a pleasingly successful way for her to end the decade.
NEW SINGLES on sale from Apr. 8
The BUGGLES On TV (Carrere CAR232)
The ALARM The Stand (IRS PFP1014)
The BELLE STARS Sweet Memory (Stiff BUY174)
HEAVEN 17 Temptation (Virgin VS570)
NEW EDITION (Bobby Brown) Candy Girl (London LON21)
THOMPSON TWINS We Are Detective (Arista ARIST526)
BRONSKI BEAT and Marc ALMOND Love To Love You Baby/I Feel Love/Johnnie Remember Me (Forbidden Fruit BITE4)