Reviewed on this page:
Lady Of The Night - Love To Love You Baby - A Love Trilogy - Four
Seasons Of Love - I Remember Yesterday - Once Upon A Time... - Live And More -
Bad Girls - The Wanderer - I'm A Rainbow - Donna Summer - She Works Hard For The Money - Cats Without Claws - All Systems Go - Another Place And Time - Mistaken Identity -
Christmas Spirit - Live & More Encore!
The only superstar performer disco ever produced, Summer has a
good voice and substantial songwriting talent, but her great gift is
acting: she projected a hedonistic sexual image so effectively she
became the poster child for 70s excess. Born in Boston, Donna Gaines moved to Germany, married some guy named Summer, and appeared in musicals including Hair and
Godspell. After running into producers Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte, the
17-minute heavy breather "Love To Love You Baby" brought Summer to
international prominence, and she was crowned the Queen of Disco.
She and Moroder cranked out an amazing number of successful singles
and albums from 1976 to 1980, going their separate ways after the
disco backlash. Since then, Summer scored a number of hits in
different genres (even picking up Grammys for gospel recording),
but her sales have been inconsistent, and nowadays she's basically
just a top-flight nostalgia act.
Lady Of The Night (1974)
Originally released only in The Netherlands, and nearly impossible to find in the States to this day. Written and produced by Moroder and Bellotte like the followups, but it's folk-rock ("Born To Die") and pop ("Domino") rather than dancefloor-oriented.
And weirdly enough, there's a strong Shangri-Las influence, from the striking tympani opening on "Lady Of The Night" to the tragic, sound effect-laden soap opera "Hostage."
There are a few touches which foreshadow the partnership's future, though: the title track is the first of their prostitution sympathy songs, and it sports an incongruously chipper, keyboard-led middle.
The piano-based, orchestra-heavy arrangements vaguely recall early Elton, but they're remarkably clumsy ("Wounded") and contrived ("Little Miss Fit").
And although Summer's voice is strong ("Hostage," which sounds like a 70s TV cop show version of "Breaking The Law"), the song material is bland and boring ("Friends").
Note that some early demos and covers ("Na Na Hey Hey"; "Back Off Boogaloo") recorded by a pre-fame Summer have been released under titles such as Shout It Out, Remixed And Early Greats, and should probably be avoided.
Love To Love You Baby (1975)
I don't know why people act like Casablanca's idea to pad the title track out to 17 minutes was such an innovation: the
backing track sounds like an Isaac Hayes outtake, right down to the wah-wah guitar and repeated
pentatonic bass riff. But where Hayes' arrangements have imagination and a coherent flow, this track sounds like it was
spliced together to fill out an album side. I'm forced to conclude that this record's place in history is due entirely
to Summer's pornographic vocals. The album's other side barely hints at Summer's other talents: her vocals on the absurd
"Need-A-Man Blues" and the Roberta Flack ripoff "Whispering Waves" are breathy, high-pitched and
anonymous; the only place she really gets to sing is on the Aretha-style piano pop-rocker
"Pandora's Box." I'm not surprised reviewers at the time thought Summer was a fly-by-night novelty act; she as well as
producers Bellotte and Moroder came a long way from this weak early effort. (DBW)
A Love Trilogy (1976)
A big step up from the previous album, as Bellotte and Moroder invent
their formula all at once: strident strings, robotic rhythms,
sweeping suites, campy covers (Barry Manilow's "Could It Be Magic").
Summer also gets to sing at full voice, instead of just cooing and
simpering. The sidelong "Try Me, I Know We Can Make It" is infinitely
more listenable than "Love To Love You," with the shifting arrangements
milking a two-chord progression and one-line lyric for more
entertainment than you'd think possible. The ballad "Come With Me" and
forgettable "Wasted" bring the disc to a weak conclusion, but this is
probably the most underrated of Summer's Casablanca work. (DBW)
Four Seasons Of Love (1976)
This disc is a concept album of sorts, with Donna whispering one
long disco ode to each season. Although the lyrics are minimal, the
arrangements are mostly unimaginative, Donna doesn't get to sing at
full strength, and the opening "Spring Affair" is an obvious ripoff
of Diana Ross' "Love Hangover," this
still ends up being a thoroughly enjoyable listen. If you don't
listen too closely, the hypnotic dance groove soothes while it
entertains, and the finale "Winter Melody" is quite tuneful. This
does exactly what a disco record is supposed to do: maintain a
simple, sexy mood over backing that changes just enough to keep
your attention while never surprising or disconcerting. (DBW)
I Remember Yesterday (1977)
By this release, Summer and producers Giorgio Moroder and Pete
Belotte had been releasing an album every six months, and they were
so short of new material they resort to an awful 30's tribute
(title track, in two insufferable versions), a Supremes ripoff, and really monotonous
disco tunes with shockingly hokey lyrics ("Love's Unkind," "Take
Me"). Even then the material's at its worst Summer's voice is
engaging and likeable, but often it's so far back in the mix it's
hard to hear her over all the 4/4 synthesizers. The one classic cut
is the relentless "I Feel Love," and the ballad "Can't We Sit Down
(And Talk It Over)" is also enjoyable, but the rest of the disc is
amazingly weak. Proceed with caution. (DBW)
Once Upon A Time... (1977)
A double studio album telling a modern version of Cinderella, and it's notably free from the lapses of taste that mark most of Summer's catalog: no grating self-parody or blatant ripoffs, and well-used strings bring a lush quality to both disco numbers ("Faster And Faster To Nowhere") and ballads ("Happily Ever After"). It seems that this time around they focused on writing good melodies rather than gimmicks - the entire set was written by Summer, Moroder and Bellotte, and I suspect that at this point Summer was beginning to contribute to the music as well as lyrics. As for the story, it's not brilliant but it works better than most concept albums because it doesn't get too abstract:
Summer works in plenty of direct numbers that stand on their own, like "Say Something Nice," "Working The Midnight Shift" (a working-class anthem presaging "She Works Hard For The Money") and the moderate hit "I Love You." Meanwhile her voice sounds great - she's not turning cartwheels to show off her versatility, just singing the way she does best. Though the album doesn't contain any of her most memorable hits, overall it's easily her best, and the fact that the tracks haven't been played to death may enable disco cynics to approach this with a fresher attitude than most of her work. (DBW)
Live And More (1978)
A double album, three sides live and one side of new studio material. Sides one and three are just Donna knocking out her big hits at top-speed, backed by a band that seems to be on autopilot - I can't imagine anyone wanting to hear these takes in preference to the studio recordings. In between, she slows things down for kitschy balladeering like "The Way We Were" and a new composition dedicated to her daughter ("Mimi's Song"), where the sincerity of the sentiments is undercut by the Vegas-style performance and banter. Still, side two is the record's highlight, because at least you get to hear Summer doing something diferrent. The new material includes the fine hit single "Heaven Knows," a punishingly long cover of "MacArthur Park,"
and the incredibly repetitive five-minute "One Of A Kind."
Somehow, this became her first #1 album. Also this year, Summer contributed several new songs to the
Thank God It's Friday soundtrack. (DBW)
Bad Girls (1979)
This two record set (available on one CD) may be Summer's peak as a composer: she wrote "Dim All The Lights," a
delightful conventional disco song with one of her patented slow
openings and co-wrote the title track, a fun, silly mix of
children's nursery rhymes with a shallow look at the lives of
prostitutes, and wonderful rhythm guitar on the verses. The other
memorable achievement was "Hot Stuff," a timeless tale of desire
with rock guitars and a great riff. Unfortunately, the rest of the
album is completely predictable, contrived, and dull: Summer
contributes a number of bland ballads ("All Through The Night" is
the best), and Moroder & Bellote kick in with
robotic tunes that aim for the trance-producing effect of "I Feel
Love," and miss ("Sunset People"). All the tracks here are short,
with no side-long epics, but it gets claustrophobic anyway, partly
because song after song has exactly the same damn disco drums.
Harold Faltermeyer, who perpetrated "Axel F," perhaps the most
annoying single piece of music this side of Tears For Fears'
"Shout," spews synth solos on too many tracks here ("Journey To The
Center Of Your Heart"). (I'll give him credit, though, for
arranging the entire album and co-writing "Hot Stuff.") Honestly,
I can't recommend much besides the three singles, and you're
probably better off with a good greatest hits package. Her commercial highpoint; this went to #1 as did the title track and "Hot Stuff." (DBW)
On The Radio (1979)
A greatest hits collection with a few non-album hits, including the
title track, "Last Dance" from the Thank God It's Friday
soundtrack, and the #1 duet with Barbra Streisand "No More Tears
(Enough Is Enough)." (DBW)
The Wanderer (1980)
The beginning of the end; the title track (not a remake of the Dion hit) went to
#3, but in shifting to pop-rock (and leaving Casablanca Records)
she turned her back on the disco which made her name. Worse, Moroder and Bellotte (who again did most of the writing along with Summer and Faltermeyer) have no interest in variety this time, and track after track sounds like a rewrite of "Hot Stuff" ("Nightlife"). Except of course for "Stop Me," a remarkably accurate Blondie ripoff. Certainly more professional than her first records, but also duller. Summer's album-closing "I Believe In Jesus," pleasant though unenlightening, marked the beginning of her "born-again" period. Most of the musicians are the usual old hands; the only notable guests are Lee Sklar and Steve Lukather. (DBW)
I'm A Rainbow (rec. 1981, rel. 1996)
Produced by Moroder and Bellote to get Summer back into dance music after the previous record's move toward rock, but
the record company gave this two-record set the thumbs down, and it remained in the vault for over a decade. Surprisingly,
it's very good, certainly more consistently enjoyable than Bad Girls, though the high points aren't as high.
Along with the technosynths of "Romeo" and "End Of The Week," and the "Hot Stuff"-like rock of "Leave Me Alone," there's
a lot of variety - "I Believe (In You)" is a snappy duet with Joe Esposito that presages late 80s pop, "Sweet Emotion"
is a lovely midtempo piece, "Brooklyn" is a funky tribute to Donna's daughter with a melting melodic middle that
would've done Earth Wind & Fire proud. Oddest of all is "To Turn The Stone," with synths
imitating bagpipes and what may be genuine Scottish percussion (!). Then there's her measured rendition of "Don't Cry For
Me Argentina," which she does a hell of a lot more convincingly than Madonna. There are lots
of subpar tracks ("True Love Survives," "People Talk," "Melanie") but everything's under five minutes, so it keeps
moving. If you're a fan you owe it to yourself to check this out. (DBW)
Donna Summer (1982)
Produced by Quincy Jones, and it gets his usual formulaic treatment. First there are the
zillion session musicians (Toto, Ernie Watts, Greg
Phillinganes, Louis Johnson, you name it). Then there are the superstar guests:
Bruce Springsteen plays guitar on "Protection," which he wrote, and the superstar chorus on "State Of Independence"
includes Michael Jackson, Lionel Richie, Kenny Loggins, Dionne Warwick and Stevie Wonder
among others. And of course there are outside songwriters: Summer gets just two cowrites as most tunes come from hired
guns like Rod Temperton and David Foster; the lite reggae "State Of Independence" was written by Vangelis and Jon Anderson. As you'd expect, the production is too slick, taking no chances, and Summer's voice is
way in the back - of all the Summer albums I've heard this is the one where her personality is most submerged, as even
her cover of Billy Strayhorn's "Lush Life" is just MOR mush. Despite the single "Love Is In Control (Finger On The
Trigger)" (yet another Top Ten hit), this is one to skip. (DBW)
She Works Hard For The Money (1983)
Produced by Michael Omartian, and his instincts were perfect, dumping LA pop for the emerging wave of high-energy dance
music that replaced disco. Almost everything is synth and drum machine based (though the band includes Nathan East on bass and Mike Baird on drums), but it manages to stay catchy and exciting
thanks to solid songwriting (virtually all by Summer and Omartian). The riff-filled title track was a smash hit, with
Summer belting like never before, and another reggae tune, "Unconditional Love" (with Musical Youth) was an MTV
favorite. There's a fair amount of filler ("Tokyo," the preachy "Woman") but it's never grating. At this point it still
seemed Summer could overcome the death of disco and remain a top-seller. (DBW)
Cats Without Claws (1984)
Whoops. A dismal flop, again produced by Omartian. The approach is not too different from the last record, but it's
slower, not nearly as tuneful, and just plain no fun to listen to. The band is the same on every track, and the
arrangements are so bland and impersonal you feel like you're listening to the same tune ten times in a row. The single
was a listless cover of the ancient "There Goes My Baby" though again nearly everything was written by Summer and
All Systems Go (1987)
Determined to make a comeback, Summer took three years to make this record, and used several different producers: Harold
Faltermeyer is back for six tracks, and he's dropped the out-of-control synths in favor of bland mid-80s dance pop
("Love Shock," title track) and ballads ("Jeremy," the overwrought duet "Only The Fool Survives" with Starship vocalist Mickey Thomas). Brenda Russell's
"Dinner With Gershwin," produced by Richard Perry was a single; it's a very clever song
although Russell later made a more enjoyable recording of it herself. Summer's voice is in fine form, and she's at least
trying to come up with original ideas: "Voices Cryin' Out" is an interesting experiment, with her vocals rising out of a
sea of background voices. The record's best track is probably "Fascination," a sophisticated ballad with lovely
pseudoclassical guitar work by co-author Eddie Schwartz. All in all, not a
brilliant effort but more deserving of commercial success than several of her better-selling albums. (DBW)
Another Place And Time (1989)
Produced and written by Stock Aitken Waterman, the Brit pop trio
responsible for a string of 80s pop hitmakers like Rick Astley.
They were past their prime by this point, but hey, so was Donna (I kid).
Most of the tracks are robotic synth-dance with laughably
clichéd romance lyrics, including the popular single "This
Time I Know It's For Real" (co-written by Summer). The ballads are
not as irritating, but equally uninventive, except for the fine, uplifting "Sentimental" (which Summer also co-wrote). You can argue that SAW
were the Giorgio Moroder of the 1980s, but at its worst disco
still had a modicum of melodic interest and musicianship that's
almost totally lacking from this set.
Summer collectors shouldn't pay much for this one. (DBW)
Mistaken Identity (1991)
Yes, this is that blond wig and leather jacket cover. Produced by Keith Diamond, who co-wrote nearly everything with
Summer and a small army of collaborators, and it's one more attempt to stay current, this time with a mix of LaFace/Jam & Lewis-style dance pop and house music (the gimmicky "What
Is It You Want"). It's contrived and derivative, but still comes across a hundred times better than similar efforts like
Diana Ross' Workin' Overtime, because Diamond comes up with some
effective tunes ("Get Ethnic," "Fred Astaire"), and Summer has a strong enough voice to make herself heard over all the
insistent synth percussion ("Cry Of A Waking Heart," which features a great jazzy piano solo from Eve Nelson). (DBW)
In 1993 Summer contributed "La Vie En Rose" to an Edith Piaf tribute album.
Christmas Spirit (1994)
A reunion with Omartian; the track list is pretty predictable
("White Christmas," "O Come All Ye Faithful"), with an Amy Grant
tune ("Breath Of Heaven") and three originals co-written by Summer.
It's heavily orchestrated, achingly sincere and devoutly dull. In
such a run-of-the-mill context Summer's voice sounds positively
ordinary, and her voice is still the best part of the record. I
don't expect much from Christmas albums as a rule, but only the
most devoted Donna disciple will rate this above standard Christmas
Live & More Encore! (1999)
A classic example of an undoubtedly enjoyable show that doesn't stand up to repeated listening: Summer's lost nothing
after a quarter-century in the business, and the non-stop retinue of hits ("I Feel Love," "On The Radio," "This Time")
is exhilarating, the first time through. Then the thinness of the backing and the small-mindedness of the note-for-note
recreations really starts to get to you. There are three new songs: the ballad "My Life" from the forthcoming
musical about, well, Summer's life, and two lame Cher-like studio dance cuts: "Love Is The Healer" and "I Will Go
With You (Con Te Partiró)."
The weirdest moment of the performance is an acoustic intro to "Dim All The Lights" with Summer doing a Rod Stewart imitation(!).
The band is Mike Hanna, Scott Hallgren, Ross Walters (keyboards); Randy Mitchell (guitar); John Billings (bass); George
Perilli (drums); Darryl Tibbs (percussion), Ross Walters (horns); and Mary Ellen Bernard, Yvonne Hodges and Bruce
Sudano (backing vocals). Produced by Summer and Sudano, co-produced by Hanna. (DBW)
Summer co-wrote every song, and seems determined to hit every style under the sun: samba ("Drivin' Down Brazil"), Afropop ("Bring Down The Reign"), ballad ("Be Myself Again"), retro-90s hip hop ("Stamp Your Feet"), retro-80s synth-dance ("Science Of Love")... There's even an acoustic love song ("Sand On My Feet"), and the record's best cut is a slide-propelled country blues homage ("Slide Over Backwards"). (Single "I'm A Fire," though, is a generic, clattery number along the lines of "Love Is The Healer.") Summer has always had more genre flexibility than she's given credit for, but it's still surprising that the production - by Toby Gad, J.R. Rotem, Greg Kurstin, and other people I'm not familiar with - is so busy and invasive, erring on the side of irritation when most mature singers are tending toward the soporific.
The tunes themselves are lightweight but not terrible, and it's nice to hear Summer in such good voice after all this time. Her lyrics, though, are irritatingly self-promotional ("The Queen Is Back") and trite ("Fame (The Game)"). Ziggy Marley duets on the bubblegum reggae title track; the only other notable guest is Miri Ben-Ari.
Dim all the lights.