Sunday, 12 January 2014
126 The Summer Collection - Donna Summer
Purchased : 7 July 1989
Tracks : She Works Hard For The Money / Bad Girls / On The Radio / Stop Look And Listen / Last Dance / MacArthur Park / Heaven Knows / Unconditional Love / I Love You / No More Tears ( Enough Is Enough )
This was purchased from Soundsearch on cassette for £2.99 or thereabouts. I think it was a case of my having gone in there, not finding anything exciting but not wanting to leave empty-handed.
I was a big fan of Donna's in the late seventies from "I Feel Love " which sounded like nothing I'd ever heard before but that and a number of other big hits from that period are absent here. Instead there are three tracks from her 1983 LP "She Works Hard For The Money " by which time I'd lost interest in her . It makes this a schizophrenic album but there were at least two great tracks to make it a worthwhile purchase.
The main reason for the odd track selection is the complicated history of Donna's labels. In the USA all her early records were released on Casablanca but in Europe they were licenced to a number of other labels such as GTO in Britain until 1978 when Casablanca ended the arrangement. By that time she'd already had the biggest hits of her career in Britain. Then in 1980 she left the label for mixed fortunes on Geffen. Casablanca was then bought out by Polygram who inherited a huge financial mess. Their lawyers found that Donna still owed Casablanca another album ; fortunately she already had enough material in the can that Geffen didn't like so she was allowed to use that to make up "...Money". Confusingly Polygram then put it out on another label they'd acquired, Mercury, presumably because of Casablanca's negative associations with drugs and excess. Donna then returned to Geffen and Polygram / Mercury put this out late in 1985 from the tracks they had easy access to as the last drops to be squeezed from Casablanca's main cash cow.
Even so, having 3 out of the 10 tracks from her most recent LP ( as with Eponymous ) and just one from her ambitious 1977 double album "Once Upon A Time" is a strange and disappointing decision.
Anyway "She Works Hard For The Money" is the first track , a huge hit in the State it was a modest 25 over here despite tons of airplay in summer 83. Co-written with producer Michael Omartian it's a tribute song to blue collar women ( not about prostitution as many speculated ) set to a sequencer pulse very similar to the contemporary Maniac by Michael Sembello. Donna's voice sounds surprisingly low in the mix and a bit cramped if truth be told. It's also got a pretty boring chorus so I think we called it right.
"Bad Girls " from the album of the same name ( from whence also came the omitted "Hot Stuff ") was one of the biggest hits of her career in the States, a number one compared to 14 here where it was rubbished by John Lydon during his infamous appearance on Juke Box Jury in 1979. Co-written with the male vocal group Brooklyn Dreams it's a solid slice of Chic-like funk with police whistles and a backing chant of "Beep Beep Yeah" for hooks. The actual song , which is definitely about prostitution , is rather slight.
"On The Radio " was a new track which gave its name to a 1979 compilation put out to mark her original departure from Casablanca. It also featured in the 1980 film Foxes. It didn't make the Top 30 here but reached 5 in the States. A Summer / Moroder composition it follows the Love Hangover template of starting out as a soul ballad and then morphing into a disco workout. It concerns a woman hearing an anonymous love letter read out on the radio and appropriating it to herself. Donna's voice is magnificent throughout and it's probably her most under-rated single.
"Stop Look And Listen" was another single from "She Works Hard For The Money" but didn't really do much business anywhere peaking at 57 in the UK in 1984. Written by Summer and Omartian it's a plea for greater social awareness sparked by seeing a homeless man on the streets set to a stilted electro-funk backing with a wobbly bassline and plenty of fake brass. Summer's vocal gives it some class but lacking a strong chorus it outstays its welcome.
"Last Dance " is from the 1978 disco film Thank God It's Friday in which Donna has a small part. It won an Oscar - the song not her acting. It was written by Paul Jabara. Giorgio Moroder apparently disliked the song and his kitchen sink production only emphasises how weak it actually is. The British public seem to have shared his reservations and it stalled at 51.
By contrast you don't get songs much stronger than "MacArthur Park " and Donna's version gave her a first number one in the US and restored her to the Top 5 over here in 1978. I wasn't familiar with the Richard Harris version when it first came out but loved this . It was also in the charts at a very happy time in my life so it was one of the main spurs to buying this LP. I would say it's a contender for best cover ever. Moroder and Bellotte's production is superb with the orchestral flourishes and mid-song synth break and the brass breaks which sound like they're going to morph into the hallowed Pearl and Dean theme from 70s cinema breaks give it an extra Proustian rush. Donna's vocal is beyond perfect ( and anything in Houston or Carey's repertoire ) - the way she glides from an anguished "On no" at the end of the second chorus into a "yee-ha !" to herald the synth break is just thrilling ( what another blogger would call the punctum ). With the exception of this compilation's closing track she was right - she never would have that recipe again.
"Heaven Knows" was on the same "Live And More" LP and released as a follow up single but it's very much a case of after the lord mayor's parade and it didn't make the Top 30 here. Donna wrote it with Moroder and Bellotte and performed it with the Brooklyn Dreams. Their Joe Esposito is the second , Bob Seger-ish lead on the track. That apart it's the sort of unexceptional disco workout that was beginning to sound a bit tired by 1979 with Chic in their pomp.
"Unconditional Love " is the third 1983 track here, a pop-calypso number recorded with temporary teen sensations Musical Youth whose fortunes were already fading by the time it was released ( this was to be their last appearance in the Top 20 ). Their contribution is substantial so it was rather ungenerous not to credit them on the label; it's very unlikely that it would have reached number 14 in the UK without them. It's pleasant enough in its woolly liberal unthreatening way although coming from two non-Rastafarians ( Summer and Omartian ) the referenes to "Ja's love " are a bit jarring if you'll excuse the pun.
"I Love You" was the first UK release on Casablanca and released while the last GTO single "Love's Unkind" was riding high in the charts. Its premature release may have deprived Donna of the honour of dethroning Mull of Kintyre which instead went to Althia and a different Donna. Despite the uninspiring title and chocolate box storyline it's an interesting track with Moroder and Bellotte's production halfway between the robotic brutalism of "I Feel Love " and the cinematic sweep of "Macarthur Park".
That just leaves "No More Tears ( Enough Is Enough ) " a real clash of the titans. Tin Pan Alley meets operatic disco as Donna duets with Barbara Streisand and stays with her. The song is roughly a game of two halves starting in Streisand's comfort zone then shifting gear into a Hi-NRG workout . Both women more than acquit themselves in each others' territory and it's endlessly fascinating working out who's doing what. It's also a strong song , an empowerment anthem ( albeit written by two blokes ) about cutting your losses and walking out on an unsatisfactory man. The best bit is when it quietens down three quarters of the way in and then both women build it back up again to the shouty climax. Kept off the top here at the end of 1979 by Pink Floyd and Abba it went to number one in the US but has been strangely neglected since perhaps ( like Under Pressure ) for lack of a video. They did a brief photoshoot together but never performed with each other.
There are better compilations of Donna's work than this especially as she had more hits after it was released but it added two great songs to my collection at a discount price so it did the job.