It’s a shame that Donna Summer died from cancer today at 63 years old. It’s a shame that just about anyone ever dies. She was a major figure in the music world when I was a teenager. She was the undisputed Disco Queen. A part of my youth has died. However, I couldn’t stand the music of Donna Summer.
When disco developed quite innocently, to my ears and points of references, out of the Sound of Philadelphia music of my early ’70s youth and the first few cool singles I’d heard dubbed as “disco” that were coming out of some little studio in Miami, Florida from a group of musicians involving George McCrae and KC and the Sunshine Band, it was fun music. A little geeky? Sure. Music meant to be danced to, which was something I was (and still am) ill-equipped to do? Certainly! But it had a good beat and you could sing along to it.
Then producer Giorgio Moroder found Summer singing back-up for Three Dog Night and dragged her over to Europe, where she emerged as the first fully codified Disco Star. Moroder and Summer codified the THUMP, THUMP, THUMP beat and the detached “plastic soul” vocals that would come to characterize Disco, with a capital, demolish-able D. To my ears voice sounded almost as unattractive as Cher’s dull, husky shouting. Summer eventually brought in electric guitars to further “butch” up her sound. I remember people thinking this was a good idea. I thought it did a disservice to both dance music and rock music. I truly disliked the music of Donna Summer as much as I disliked the “corporate rock” of Journey and their ilk that was popular on FM rock stations. The rock guitars seemed to buy Summer a little rope with the rock crowd, but I missed the goofy sounds of the likes of KC and the Sunshine Band. Instead the melodrama of Summer’s “Last Dance” was all the rage. When that stupid Chicago DJ, Steve Dahl, held the stupid Disco Demolition Night at old Comiskey Park I hoped it was Summer’s records getting demolished above all others. I hoped some Journey albums accidentally got thrown into the pyre as well.
In 1979, I experienced my only positive association with the music of Donna Summer. My close personal friend and founding bandmate Andy (aka andyr) and I were seeking a drummer who would be stupid brave enough to join us absolute beginners in forming a punk band. A schoolmate named Stuart (Stewart?) introduced us to a kid from his neighborhood who played drums. We drove to his house one day after school. Stuart took us to this kid Seth‘s house. Seth (aka sethro) barely said a word. He led us to his bedroom, where he had an honest-to-goodness drum kit set up. I didn’t bring my guitar to this tryout, mind you, because I really couldn’t play. Seth was trying out for us. All we needed to see was that he could play, because even at that time, deep in our dreamworld, we were aware of the fact that a drummer couldn’t fake it.
We tried to make small talk with Seth and discuss influences, hoping he was also into Elvis Costello and The Clash, but getting a full sentence out of him at that time was like pulling teeth. (Funny to think that he’s now a dentist.) Finally, without explanation, he plopped Donna Summer’s Bad Girls album on his turntable and started drumming along. Then he drummed along to a Bad Company record. Andy and I sat on his bed in a combination of horror and deep admiration: horror at his choice in music; deep admiration at his ability to actually play his instrument. He was immediately offered the job. He quit our nascent band—wisely—a month or two later, the day before our first show, telling us we were nowhere near ready. Somehow we found some guy named Joe to get us through that first ungodly mess of a show. Somehow Andy, Stuart (on electric piano), and my neighborhood friend Mike (on second guitar—a different Mike than the one some of you know from our eventual “real” band, taking “lessons” from me) found a way to get over how unprepared we were and talk Seth into joining us for what has to this day been a series of musical disappointments woven through many of the most cherished moments of my life.
Your music was a bummer, Donna Summer, but thank you for bringing us a drummer.