May 172012

"It's got a steady beat and Seth could drum to it."

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.


  18 Responses to “Disco Queen Donna Summer Dead at 63: Feel Free to Say Something Nice About Her Music, Because I May Not Be Able to Do So”

  1. tonyola

    I think you’re being a little harsh. Disco had already become cliched and codified by 1976 – popping basses, chuckawucka guitars, electric piano vamps, and swooping strings all propelled by a relentless 120-bpm beat. What Moroder and Donna Summer did was fuse the electro-robot sensibilities of krautrock with Donna’s silky-smooth singing, creating something altogether new in the process. “I Feel Love” is in many ways a brilliant song and it opened the way for new-wave dance, electronica, and techno. You don’t have to take my word for it – listen to David Bowie:

    One day in Berlin … Eno came running in and said, ‘I have heard the sound of the future.’ … he puts on ‘I Feel Love’, by Donna Summer … He said, ‘This is it, look no further. This single is going to change the sound of club music for the next fifteen years.’ Which was more or less right.

    RIP Donna – you’ve changed the world more than what Mr. Mod gives you credit for.

  2. Happiness Stan

    Mr M, I was just about to send this when I saw that you’d beaten me to it, and I’ve gone with a personal perspective as well.

    There are two Donna Summer songs which I not only like but which now seem so totally connected to the moment when I felt that I’d snapped from being a kid to an adult that I couldn’t help but feel a pang when I heard the news.

    I can’t find a clip of the execrable Legs and Co dancing to it on Top of the Pops, so here are Hot Gossip from the Kenny Everett Show

    She didn’t come over here to promote the single, so this was how we experienced them through the medium of telly.

    I was fourteen in 1977, I’d just seen the Stranglers on Top of the Pops and decided that punk was where it was at, even though – having not yet discovered the heady combination of the John Peel show from ten until midnight and a pair of headphones – I had not worked out how to actually hear any of it. We started off by going to record shops and asking them to play anything that looked interesting. Record shops didn’t have booths over here, they just played it on the shop record player wired to speakers around the shop. It didn’t take them long to work out that not only did we have no money so were never going to buy any of the records but also that most of their customers didn’t like listening to the first two Ramones albums and “Damned Damned Damned”, which were about the only punk albums they ever stocked.

    I’ve been thinking a lot about that year lately, our eldest is fourteen and I try to think back and remember how I was thinking at that age so that I can try to understand what’s going on in his head. Apart from the relief of the prospect of finally being able to listen to music that wasn’t the mid-seventies soul and MOR slop served up on constant rotation on the only TV and radio outlets we had over here in those days, I can also remember noticing that there were girls out there who weren’t my younger sisters, and who I wouldn’t have minded getting to know if I hadn’t been so painfully shy. I still have what Mrs H describes as a huge chip on my shoulder about being sent to an all-boys Grammar School, but which I prefer to see as a righteous and justifiable anger about being fed into a sadistic and systematically disfunctional institution, with the only positive I have taken from it being a determination to never inflict such daily humiliation on our children.

    I’d heard it a few times on the radio, but the first time I really got into the groove of “I Feel Love” was when the fair came to town, as it did in the summer of every year. It set up about half a mile from our house, and went on later into the night than they are allowed to these days. My bedroom was unbelievably cold in the winter, and equally uncomfortably hot in the summer months, and with the windows open I could hear the music being played on the biggest rides, and for two weeks practically every other song was “I Feel Love”.

    I tried to resist it, honestly I did. I wanted to be able to look my friends in the eye and be able to tell them that this was just disco pap like all the other disco pap, flap my school blazer open like a caricature of some flasher from the finale of a Benny Hill Show and surreptitiously point to the “Disco Sucks” badge pinned to its inside pocket to remind myself and those whom I trusted not to snitch of my anti-disco credentials.

    Laying awake in the heat, thinking about humans with chests, fried on teenage hormones, I eventually had to concede defeat, and I’ve loved that record ever since. Doing the sums, she was exactly twice my age – but had a much sexier voice. I still think that she had an incredibly sexy voice. The BBC banned “Love to Love You Baby”, which meant that like so many records which had gone before – “Je T’aime”, “Urban Guerrilla” by Hawkwind, the Judge Dread singles – the only way to hear them was to buy them, and eventually either me or one of my friends did so. I like it, but not as much as “I Feel Love”, but more than any of her other singles.

    I know that none of us are getting any younger, but sixty-three is no damned age to die these days. Bloody cancer.

    I can’t pretend that I’m any sort of fan, but the inner fourteen-year-old me looks back at the summer when everything seemed to change, and somehow most of what I remember seems to pivot around that song which feels like it has been lodged in my head to mark the turning point into adulthood, and also serves occasionally to remind me when I come to think of it that musical snobbery tends not to get one anywhere in the end.

  3. Happiness Stan

    Well said, Tony.

  4. “I Feel Love” is pretty cool, but show me codified disco before Summer and Moroder came along. It stopped being innocently fun as that team got their groove on. I’m speaking objectively, of course. Seriously, I thought her music pretty much sucked and sucked the life out of disco. Bowie, Eno, et al only talk about “I Feel Love,” which is different. If rock snobs couldn’t bring “Krautrock” into the conversation they’d have no interest in her music. I don’t hear them raving about “Hot Stuff,” “Bad Girls,” and “Last Dance.” Oh, maybe that shit inspired Bowie’s Let’s Dance album. Now there’s something to be proud of!

  5. tonyola

    “…show me codified disco before Summer and Moroder came along.”

    OK, you asked for it…

    Bazuka – “Dynomite”
    Rhythm Heritage – “Theme from SWAT”
    Silver Convention – “Get Up and Boogie”
    Van McCoy – “The Hustle”
    Sylvers – “Boogie Fever”
    Walter Murphy – “Fifth of Beethoven”
    Leo Sayer – where do I begin with him?

    These and dozens (hundreds?) more 1975-1976 singles cranked out by the disco machines used the cliches I talked about to stultifying effect. What little fun disco originally had was sucked out by the end of 1974. Moroder/Summer broke the mold with “I Feel Love” and even if her other singles didn’t quite hit that peak, they were still better than 90% of the other disco singles out there. Let’s not forget that she was one of the few disco divas to successfully transition to new wave with “She Works Hard For the Money”. Donna Summer might not be the most immortal of rock figures, but there are so many late-’70s dancesters and popsters that were far worse. She’s earned her place in the pantheon.

  6. “Theme From SWAT” and “The Hustle” are excellent in their own ways. Anything by Leo Sayer is hilarious – how can you pick on him?

    OK, you’ve pointed out some pre-1976 turds, but you can’t get by “I Feel Love,” can you? Boy that Krautrock Kredibility goes a long way. “She Works Hard for the Money” sucks so bad it’s not funny. If that’s new wave give me fucking Pat Benetar!

    What IS her pantheon? That’s kind of what I’m getting at. She’s Disco’s Indisputable Queen, making her, to paraphrase an old friend, Queen Shit on Poop Hill.

    Again, I don’t mean to be insensitive to the woman. I’m actually saddened that she – or just about anybody – had to die at 63. She seemed like nothing but a dedicated entertainer. She didn’t do anything to hurt anybody, at least not intentionally. When I sat down to write about her death I decided to make it personal. Something – someone – vital to my life came to me through the music of Donna Summer, and for that I’m thankful. But I’m not going to reel off phony platitudes about her deep ties to Krautrock and how she changed the landscape of what I have found to be among the most horrifying scenes on earth, that is, the hipster douchebag dance club. That’s my idea of HELL, and her music was a prime force in making that hell possible. Her music and the lame merging of disco and rock are ultimately responsible for making Michael Jackson’s wildly successful Thriller album the drag that I find it to be.

    I in no way mean to equate Donna Summer with someone who’s music I find objectionable because I sense they’re an “asshole,” like Don Henley or Billy Joel. Right or wrong about those kinds of artists, that’s not what I mean to suggest here. She was a great…woman.

  7. These are nice words on your experience with the woman’s music. Thank you.

  8. tonyola

    “Theme from SWAT” excellent? Ironic hipster alert! I kind of suspected it all along, you know.

    I was never in any way a fan of disco but I still recognize that Donna remains one of the signature artists of the style because she and her collaborators pushed the boundaries. Can you recognize that even Poop Hill might have a few gems buried within? Are you going to tell me next that the Trammps’ “Disco Inferno” isn’t a great song? Besides, I imply that I enjoy or at least tolerate some of her other singles beyond “I Feel Love”, so you need not continue wearing out the Krautrock angle.
    As for the merging of disco and rock, how about all the rock groups who clamored upon the disco bandwagon? Stones, ELO, Rod Stewart, KISS, even the Grateful Dead, for chrissake. They did more damage than Donna ever managed to do, and they are the ones responsible for Thriller.

    I just don’t understand your venom towards Donna Summer. But, hey, we all get bugs up our asses once in a while, don’t we?

  9. Most of Saturday Night Fever is excellent. There was still good disco alongside Summer. She took command of the worst faction.

  10. misterioso

    Harsh but basically fair, and glad to see others have already pointed out the relative virtues of “I Feel Love.”

    As I have gone back over the past 20 years or more and revisited some of the music of my youth that I more or less reflexively hated at the time (e.g., disco), in the process discovering many performers and songs to have charms previously unseen by me. But not so much with Donna Summer.

    Except “I Fee Love” and maybe “On the Radio” or “Dim All the Lights,” on a good day.

    Nonetheless, rest in peace.

  11. R.I.P. Donna, you were a wonderful entertain-ah.

  12. ladymisskirroyale

    I’m verklempt, really.

    Not all of us were raised within a radio station signal of soul and funk music, let alone The Sound of Philadelphia. Some of us had to grow up in the wastelands of AM radio without older and wiser siblings to lead us into music that reflected better taste. I will admit to being that person, and as you, my friends here at RTH have probably figured out, my continued tolerance bordering on love for some pretty crappy music is reflection of that upbringing and exposure.

    Arizona, in the 70’s was really white. I don’t recall being able to access soul or funk music via the radio at all. Different was The Doctor Dimento Show. So when Donna Summer came along, she made an impression on me. She was tall and slender, wore really slinky clothes, and had a voice very different from Karen Carpenter, Helen Reddy, Olivia Newton John or Marie Osmond or the other female voices of the 70’s. Parents could sniggle about the vocal orgasms in “Love to Love You Baby” and I didn’t really understand their winks/nudges until I was older, but “I Feel Love” was sleek beauty and “Macarthur Park” was rich theatrics. Those songs REALLY stood out. I was also taking ballet and playing classical piano at the time, so Donna Summer felt so rebellious and outré.

    Sure, her music changed and crossed into drivel pretty fast, but I’ve always liked the sound of her voice. And she has certainly inspired a whole lot of music (Rock Pantheon indeed!) – consider (mini-Donna Summer) Irene Cara in Flashdance just a few years later, Yaz(oo), Grace Jones, Eurythmics, Erasure, Communards/Bronski Beat, and more recently, Hercules and Love Affair. And would “Heart of Glass” existed without the Summer/Moroder template?

  13. ladymisskirroyale

    Knighthood bestowed, tonyola.

  14. Clearly I picked the wrong day to launch a musical tirade against Donna Summer. Good stuff, ladymiss, especially the pour about “Heart of Glass.”

  15. Happiness Stan

    I can certainly relate to your experience of growing up with what was served by radio stations rather than what one wanted to hear.

    I know that the first of the post-punk electronic bands which I suspect you enjoy as much as I – Human League, Vince Clarke-era Depeche Mode, New Order etc – would probably at the time have claimed that their music came out of listening to Kraftwerk and Throbbing Gristle, but I can’t quite see that they didn’t owe as much to “I Feel Love”, (and the Stevie Wonder synth singles from a few years earlier).

  16. ladymisskirroyale

    But, HS, didn’t you at least have the Peel shows?

    I will admit to continuing to have a fondness for dance music, even the most highly produced, cheesy “European” stuff out there (however, rap as dance music does absolutely nothing for me). I’m suspecting that this “appreciation” is firmly rooted in my early ballet training and an obsession with “Heart of Glass.” I literally sat by the cheesy am clock radio I owned for hours on end waiting for that song to play again. Obviously, this was considerably before learning anything about New York music of the 70’s, NoWave, etc.

  17. Happiness Stan

    Firstly, there was only one (am) national radio station over here playing pop music. Peel was on FM, because they switched Radio 2 (the MOR oldies station) off at ten and switched to his show, presumably to frighten the old folk to their beds.

    There were also local stations where the same top twenty and oldies records were played by DJs with funny accents and not so funny jokes. If you lived in London (which we didn’t) you could listen to the same records interspersed with adverts, on Capital Radio, and if you lived in the east or south-east (which we did) you could sometimes get a signal from the pirate station Radio Caroline who played Eagles and Fleetwood Mac album tracks all day and night every day and night. We could sometimes get a signal from Radio Luxembourg, which would fade in and out and get mixed up with a weird little test signal which I still find myself humming from time to time, and listen to strange ghostly renditions of the same records being played on Radio One, with some Eagles and Fleetwood Mac to demonstrate their non-commercial credentials. So really it was Radio One or nothing, and “I Feel Love” and “Roadrunner” were about as exciting as it got. We are talking seriously unthreatening pop music on a state-owned monopoly, and it’s difficult to imagine even Soviet Russia being more prescriptive about what the proletariat should be allowed to listen to.

    John Peel’s shows were on between 10pm and midnight, tucked about as deeply into the dark end of the schedule as to be invisible to anyone who wasn’t considered certifiable by the suits who ran the BBC in those days, from Monday to Friday, (the Friday was dropped at the end of the seventies to make way for a Heavy Metal show), so tended not to be listened to by a pre-teen or young-teen audience who needed to be up and in school the next morning. Plus there was the matter of his complete disdain for anything commercial, which was enough to frightened even the most sleep-deprived pre-teens away.

    His show was never widely listened to other than by insomniac music nerds, and the principal reason so many tapes are in existence was because people like me would record them to listen to the next day and never got around to erasing them.

    I didn’t start listening to them until the summer of 1977, when my constitution caught up with my hunger to listen to music that no-one except for this strange old man and my mate Dinos seemed to share my taste for.

    His shows were never easy listening, he would casually drop in an entire prog or dub-reggae album, uninterrupted for its entire 40 minutes, an entire live performance of “Dark Side of the Moon”, or extremely long experimental pieces which he had no idea what speed to play them at.

    Obviously he also played some brilliant, life-changing and genre-defining stuff as well, but one always got the impression that this was more by luck than design, and once bands started having hits he tended to just not play their records and move on. Which was how it should have been, but at no time did he get comfortable or allow his audience to. Sometime in the mid-1980s or thereabouts he resurrected something he’d done once or twice in previous years and allow his listeners to nominate and vote for their “Festive Fifty” favourite records of the year to be played over Christmas week, and he would regularly grumble with heavy sarcasm and disbelief about some of the records which got in.

    It is only slightly better now, we have 6Music, a digital BBC station which plays the sort of music which most Townsfolk would probably consider enjoyable, and the year before last the BBC announced that it was being closed down. It was eventually saved after a lot of protest, but demonstrated clearly the low regard which anything other than top twenty pap is held by those in charge of British broadcasting.

  18. cliff sovinsanity

    How about RIP Gene Siskel and the Montreal Expos

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