Donna Summer: Best of the Rest

Regular readers of this blog will know that, when I don’t think an act has had quite enough glory in terms of their #1s, I rank a Top 10 that takes in all their chart hits… I’ve done Status Quo, T Rex, Dusty Springfield, Buddy Holly… (If you’d like to, you know, check them out.)

For Donna Summer, the high priestess of disco, I’ve decided not to rank her Top 10 (I partly can’t be bothered, and I partly don’t think I’m enough of an authority on her back-catalogue…) So, instead, here are simply my faves from among her other big UK hits. And by ‘other’, I mean not her mind-blowing, game-changing, solitary chart-topper ‘I Feel Love’. You can read my post on that here. In chronological order, then:

‘Love to Love You Baby’ – #4 in 1976

Donna announced herself on charts worldwide with this sensuous slice of low-key disco. Actually, it’s more than ‘sensuous’, it’s ‘steamy’. Actually no, it’s more than just ‘steamy’, it’s downright ‘sexual’. She loves to love her baby, and has all the moans and groans to prove it. The BBC refused to promote it, so obviously it became a huge Top 5 hit… It was one of the first disco records to get an extended remix. A seventeen-minute (!) extended remix to be precise.

‘I Remember Yesterday’ – #14 in 1977

If I were ranking these songs… This’d be my #1. Summer’s ‘I Remember Yesterday’ LP, a collaboration with Giorgio Moroder, was an album with a concept – a disco-based journey through different musical ages. The title track saw the duo take on the Jazz Age. Disco music that you can do the Charleston to? Yes please! And how about Donna’s top hat and tails in the video above?

‘Love’s Unkind’ – #3 in 1978

From the roaring twenties, to the girl-groups of the fifties and early-sixties. It’s a little strange to hear a woman who spend much of her breakthrough hit faking an orgasm suddenly singing a song about schoolgirl crushes: Just the other day I was prayin’ he would give me a chance, Hopin’ he would choose me for his partner for the High School dance…

‘Rumour Has It’ – #19 in 1978

Pure disco, but with added funk and some rocking guitars. I love the strutting, synthy bassline in this one. Only reached #19, though…

Last Dance’ – #51 in 1978

It takes a lot of guts to write and release a disco song that takes a full two minutes to actually become a disco song. The slow build up to disco perfection… It’s also clever marketing to write a song that practically begs the DJ to play it at the end of every single night. Deserved much better than a forgettable #51 peak.

‘Hot Stuff’ – #11 in 1979

Speaking of criminally low chart positions… You don’t often talk about memorable disco ‘riffs’, but this is probably the ultimate. Donna’s sitting home and is, let’s be honest, horny. Dialled about a thousand numbers, Almost rang the phone off the wall… (I highly doubt it’d have taken her a thousand attempts to find a willing man, but still.) I love the unashamed sexuality here, especially from a woman, who just wants to bring a wild man back home. Even that time Prince Charles did the ‘Full Monty’ dance to it couldn’t ruin this classic…

‘Bad Girls’ – #14 in 1979

A song written in solidarity with prostitutes, after Summer’s assistant was wrongly accused of being one by a police officer. Like everybody else, They want to be a star… Another disco classic, just as the genre was about to implode. Maybe that’s why it charted so low in the UK, though it was a huge US #1. Toot, toot… Beep, beep!

‘Love Is in Control (Finger on the Trigger)’ – #18 in 1982

In the eighties, Summer moved away from her partnership with Moroder, and released a 1982 album produced by man-of-the-moment Quincy Jones. Full of nice period-details: the sax, the squelchy bass, the MJ-esque high notes… It showed that Donna was going to keep you dancing long after disco had died.

‘This Time I Know It’s For Real’ – #3 in 1989

Every diva needs a comeback. After Moroder and Jones, Summer turned to Stock, Aitken and Waterman… And it worked, delivering her into the UK Top 10 for the first time in a decade. In my humble opinion, this is one of the best examples of that tinny, plastic SAW sound – precisely because they reigned in the tinny, plastic sound just enough. Get used to it, though, because in a few years pretty much every song that features on this blog will be drenched in it…

409. ‘I Feel Love’, by Donna Summer

The Jacksons and Hot Chocolate were merely our disco’s warm-up acts, setting the tone and getting the audience limbered up. The headline act is ready now. Ms. Summer will take the stage…

I Feel Love, by Donna Summer (her 1st and only #1)

4 weeks, from 17th July – 14th August 1977

This is a shift forwards. They come along every few years, number ones that announce a new phase, a new sound, a real moment in popular music. ‘Rock Around the Clock’, ‘How Do You Do It’, Rock Your Baby’… Rarely, though, do the records in question sound as if they are from another galaxy altogether.

The first thing that hits you, after a short fade in, are the Moog synthesisers. They are harsh, drilling into your brain. We’ve had synths before, plenty of times, but not used like this. This feels like a slap in the face. Meanwhile, Donna Summer’s voice floats high above: ethereal, echoey… so unhuman that it could be as computerised as the music. It’s like her vocals were recorded years before, like this is already the remix.

It’s so good… There’s not much to the lyrics, really. Donna Summer is not the star of the show here – although her vocals are a huge part of the song’s appeal, and its legacy. I feel love, I feel love, I feel lo-o-ove… The stars are Giorgio Moroder’s synths: clanking, chirping, burping away. He layered them, he overdubbed them, he played them slightly out of sync with one another… They’re a world away from ‘Son of My Father’… You start to get a little dizzy if you play this for long enough at a high volume. I can’t imagine what it would have done to you in a sweaty disco in 1977. But you can picture it – the lights, the vibrating speakers, the amyl nitrate in the air…

It’s not a particularly nice song. It’s not one for any old time of day. But it is spectacular. And it’s not disco, at least not the kind of sparkly, flirty disco that’s been the dominant sound of the past few years. It’s dance music. EDM ground zero. (Though I’m not saying this invented dance music in one fell swoop. That’s the problem with only reviewing the chart-topping singles – it’s not an exact overview of popular music as a whole.) But what’s for sure is that it sounds not unlike something a big-name DJ could produce in 2021.

The best bit – sorry Donna – is when everything falls away but the metallic beat. We’re left with a thumping heartbeat, and what sounds like a mouse rattling around in your skirting boards. On ‘I Remember Yesterday’, the album this single is taken from, each track was designed to sound as if it were from a different era. ‘I Feel Love’ was the final track. The future.

For your pleasure, you can choose from the four minute single edit, the six minute album version, or the eight minute extended 12” mix. (We could stretch a case for this being the longest #1 single yet, but we’d be chancing it.) The #1 that this most reminds me of – not in terms of sound, but in terms of impact and weirdness – is another futuristic hit: ‘Telstar’. That, though, was an isolated one-off. Not many subsequent records have sounded like ‘Telstar’. Large swathes of the 1980s will sound like ‘I Feel Love’.

It is a shame that Donna Summer’s only UK #1 is this. Not that it’s not great, but she isn’t the main thing about it. If this was a more recent release, it’d be Giorgio Moroder ft. Donna Summer. The producer would be the star. In the US, this wasn’t a #1, but her other classics were. ‘Bad Girls’, ‘Hot Stuff’, ‘No More Tears (Enough Is Enough)’… I may have to do a Donna Top 10 very soon, as I’m not happy with her just having one appearance on this blog. She passed away in 2012, recognised as an influence on every disco act, every dance act, and every black woman who had hit the charts ever since.

310. ‘Son of My Father’, by Chicory Tip

Time for something a little different. A record with a glam rock beat to it – as is becoming the norm – but with twiddly, electronic bits too. Think Joe Meek producing a Slade song, sung a sarfLahndan accent.

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Son of My Father, by Chicory Tip (their 1st and only #1)

3 weeks, from 13th February – 5th March 1972

The initial riff is simple and repetitive; but effective. It drills into your head and stays there. There’s a reason why this song lives on to this day in football chants. And at the end of each line there’s an electronic flourish. It sounds futuristic, but also old-fashioned in its simplicity. And then completely of its time thanks to the glam-stomp. An impossible record to place…

Adding another layer are the lyrics. This is no love-song, nor a party anthem. It’s a song about breaking with tradition. In the first verse, a mum is advising her son as he grows up: Be just like your dad lad, Follow in the same tradition, Never go astray and stay an honest loving son… (Though to be honest I’m relying on ‘LyricFind’ here, thanks to the thick accent and the mix, which pushes the synthesisers right to the front.)

Son of my father, Molded, I was folded, I was preform-packed… It’s an anthem of frustrated youth, of the need to make your own way in the world. It’s got a message… Which is overshadowed by the fact that this is the first completely electronic #1. It’s just, to my ears anyway, synthesisers and hand claps. (I know, there’s a bassist in the video below.) We’ve had ‘electronic’ chart-toppers before… ‘Runaway’ by Del Shannon, and The Tornadoes seminal ‘Telstar’, but none so completely sold to the sound. The solo here is a fifties piano-rag, but one beamed in from another planet.

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‘Son of My Father’ was based on a German hit from the year before, the melody of which was composed by none other than Giorgio Moroder. Moroder himself had released a version with English lyrics – listen to it here, it’s slightly faster and with a bit more ‘oomph’ to it, I think I like it better – but it did nothing. Then Chicory Tip got hold of the song and sold a million with it.

By the end of the song, the son has broken away from the pressures of his family and tradition. Son of my father, Changing rearranging into something new, Collecting and selecting independent views… But he’s still the son of his father. You can reject the past while still respecting it. I like it.

It’s a strange little song. I have to keep reminding myself that it really is quite ground-breaking. It’s easy to lose sight of that, and to get distracted by the fact that it’s also a catchy pop hit. Chicory Tip had been around since 1967, without much success. ‘Son of My Father’ was their first hit of any kind, and they scored two further Top 20s in its wake. They released one album before calling it a day in 1975, though they soon reformed in different versions that still tour.

So then. We have a huge #1 smash, combining two of the 1970s foremost sounds: glam and electronica. (Throw in a dash of disco and it would have been a hat-trick.) This is a big hit, and a big step forward.