Saturday, May 26, 2012

Better as a Single: "Hot Stuff" by Donna Summer

Donna Summer's death in May of 2012 turned out to be just one of many, another in a tragic list of back-to-back celebrity passings, to the point where she seems, in death as in life, to be little more than 'something somewhere between Whitney Houston and the Bee Gees'.

While that's a horrible take on her considerable legacy, it is a testament to how confused Summer's place in musical history is - undisputed queen of a genre that has been badly maligned down the decades, top-notch singer in a genre that values machines, moral Christian famed for sex-kitten purring and decadent paeans to fleshly love, and all-American girl who flourished in a very European idiom. And lastly, a humble, reluctant celebrity promoted with so much hubris that not only is this current album, her most famous a double-album, it is rather amazingly one of four consecutive double-albums released between 1977 and 1979.

Bad Girls was designed to launch Summer as a 'breakthrough' artist, to expand her audience and her palette beyond a limited genre whose star, Summer and team correctly surmised, was already starting to fade. In that it launched two number one singles and was the best-selling album of her career, it was a marked success. Measured by the album's ability to eke out a new career for its singer, though, one would need to consider the project a failure: disco is all Summer is remembered for, and disco remains the defining sound of this album and of its very best tracks - the flirtations with rock guitar or conventional balladry remain irrelevant distractions next to the main business of a repetitive drum beat with which to while the hours away on the dancefloor.

Sadly, of course, disco was also Summer's downfall. Rehabilitated though it might by now be, disco was eradicated from the public's consciousness in the 1980s with a fervour that approached Stalinesque. Anybody with the 'taint' of association with disco failed commercially, as they floundered to find new niches in a post-disco world order. Summer fought with her record label, fought with her faith, and fought with a public image as a vapid sex-obsessed piece of fluff. A cover image of Summer as a tarted-up hooker hanging by a lamppost was never going to help with that, but the contents of this album offer lots of dignity: the dignity that comes with creating memorable, expressive music designed to bring listeners to a dance-induced state of bliss. That within a few years of its creation people would give into the knee-jerk conservative impulse that this studio-crafted music 'sucks' is an expression of blinkered bigotry at its worst. It's a relief that Summer lived long enough to see her reputation salvaged.

Bad Girls

Side one
  1. Hot Stuff (5:14)
  2. Bad Girls (4:55)
  3. Dim All the Lights (4:40)
  4. Journey to the Center of Your Heart (4:36)
Side two
  1. All Through the Night (6:06)
  2. On My Honor (3:32)
  3. Love Will Always Find You (3:59)
  4. Our Love (4:52)
Hot Stuff: keep (side one, track one)

The shorthand on this track is that this is Summer's 'rock-disco' crossover, but I have to admit that all these years later, it's tough to hear quite what this has to do with rock music except for a slightly distorted electric guitar riffing away in the background and, of course, a solo that shows up at the song's halfway point. More interesting, in my opinion, is the cheesy little arabesque keyboard line that serves as the song's actual main hook. And it does have to be mentioned that Summer really was a hell of a singer when she wanted to be. The song is probably a bit overlong, to tell the truth (on an album shorn of the side-long excesses that marred her earlier albums), but it's still quite irrepressible.

I didn't immediately make this my track one just because it was track one on the double and Donna Summer's biggest hit. But it's certainly an attention-grabbing tune, and it makes more sense opening the album than stuck somewhere in the middle.

Bad Girls: keep (side one, track two)

This song, the album's title track and Siamese twin to 'Hot Stuff', couldn't care less about crossover success, really - it's unrepentantly dancefloor-oriented, with brass all over the place, propulsive rhythm guitar, disco whistles, and backing vocalists singing all kinds of nonsense in counterpoint. It is a lot of fun, but it could have been a lot more fun - what's holding it back is a strangely 'moral' take on the topic of prostitution: Summer was always the most reluctant of libertines, and while maybe that tension added a lot to her career as a whole, this particular track could use a little more abandon.

Most of this album is programmed to run together seamlessly into twenty-minute segments of music - album covers of the era called this NON-STOP DISCO MIX! For my purposes, it means that songs which seem like natural bedfellows on the double do so on the single as well - and so as this follows 'Hot Stuff' as side one track two on the double, so it does on my smaller album.

Love Will Always Find You: keep (side two, track three)

The only song on side one of the double not to have been released as a single, this song, with its simplistic vocal melody and cheerfully inane 'Latin' horn line, is admittedly a bit of a throwaway on an album without many of those. And yet its silliness is completely infectious, and its cotton-candy charms are a good deal of fun. It's empty, it's insignificant... but hell, isn't that a compliment for a disco tune?

My single-length summary follows the flow of the double to such an extent that it might even seem like I wasn't trying. But I did have my reasons... In any case, this is the sole track on my entire eight-song album that is greatly removed from its overall position on the album, moving from early in the album to late in it, as side two, track three - a 'pick-me-up' after a two-song slow segment.

Walk Away: lose

Like the best funk, this particular tune grooves hard while somehow seeming laid-back and unhurried. And like the best funk, it features an amazing clavinet line. It's a well-constructed song, yet for some reason it fails to take flight. Well, I guess it's walking, not flying. Plus it's got a sax solo. Who in God's name invented the sax solo?

Dim All the Lights: keep (side one, track three)

I first had this top-two single down as an unfortunately generic ditty tricked up with timbales and digital effects on the vocals until a quick glance at the songs Wikipedia page showed me that (a) it's a solo composition (intended for Rod Stewart, of all people), (b) Summer holds a note for sixteen seconds in it, and (c) you can use it to check if a watch is running at the right speed. This all made me listen to the song, and its great rhythm guitar line and propulsive chorus, with fresh ears. And I liked what I heard.

This track, and the one that follows it, winds up being a second two-song suite. Since I had an overall idea of the flow I wanted for this album, the last-minute addition of this track presented a bit of a conundrum for me: it obviously needed to be next to its Siamese twin, and that meant that those two tunes would have to be tracks three and four on side one. The overall flow is good, but unfortunately the slow introduction means that the NON-STOP DISCO MIX! that is side one gets interrupted. Ah well, so be it.

Journey to the Center of Your Heart: keep (side one, track three)

Prog-disco! Now that's exactly what the world needs! Well, the lyrical conceit and the guitar riff at the beginning are as close as the song gets to progressive rock, really, as the noodling synth line belongs equally to the two genres but that propulsive guitar line and that amazingly kinetic brass arrangement could belong to nothing but the world of disco. In any case, this is a deliriously giddy song, well aware of just how silly it is and profoundly unconcerned. This is great party music. Hell, it's great music for pretty much any purpose.

This is side one, track four, as explained above.

One Night in a Lifetime: lose

Bad Girls manages more melodic and sonic invention than one might have thought possible within the disco genre, but it is a double-length and, as such, is bound to fall victim to the problem of 'filler' that plagues all double albums (and is my very raison d'ĂȘtre on this site). A sustained side and a half as an impressive achievement, but the quality control sinks just a bit here, as this song - which, with its piano lines and memorable chorus, is not all that bad in isolation (and almost made my final cut) - represents a dip in quality to 'merely decent disco music'. There's nothing to embarrass across these four sides, and it's a strong album indeed whose weakest moments are when it's 'merely decent'.

Can't Get to Sleep at Night: lose

By now that relentless disco drumbeat has been carrying on, unchanged, for more than half an hour, and the songs are starting to sound the same - this particular one features a jolly roller-rink organ and a few other 'personality' quirks but otherwise little else to distinguish it. It's a decent enough song in its own right, but by now, at the halfway point of this double length, the listener really just calling out for some diversity.

On My Honor: keep (side two, track two)

After two sides (a full disc's worth) of non-stop disco, the album is programmed to 'take things down a notch', with a full side of slow-tunes. Inasmuch as the best disco often resembles R&B balladry with a double-time dance beat, and seeing as this is clearly the music Donna Summer wanted to sing (her name is on the writing credit of every song on this side, two as solo compositions), this side ought to be a highlight. While it's quite good, though, it's kind of beside the point, in that what one really wants from Donna Summer is ultimately dancefloor abandon. In any case, this track, the album's shortest, is a beguiling little thing, a well-constructed ballad with a chorus melody reminiscent of a million songs before but with a moving vocal performance that really sells the song. And there's a steel guitar, right out of Nashville. And you know what? It sounds good. Donna Summer must have been some sort of musical alchemist.

I wound up including two of the slowies - two in eight is 25%, or a decent ratio for a disco performer trying to expand her repertoire. But the question of where to put them is vexing; putting them side-by-side would not normally be my first choice, but I have this time, with this one in particular being side two track two, so that you can either view the whole album as having a slow-dance segment toward the end before ramping it up to end on a high (like high school dances were always programmed) or following the utilitarian format of the original in allowing you to conveniently skip over half a vinyl side if the rhythm is moving you.

There Will Always Be a You: lose

The problem, of course, with slow songs is that it's more difficult to dress up a substandard song with sonic accoutrements. Not to say Summer doesn't try, with a strange little quasi-operatic introduction and a hushed ambiance. The vocal melody is decent enough too, but the overall effect is underwhelming, and filled with the sense that this kind of thing is perhaps not the best use of Summer's ample talents.

All Through the Night: keep (side two, track one)

With a spoken introduction just as preposterous as any other spoken introduction in history, with an obtrusively synthetic synth line dropped on top of the otherwise organic arrangement, with a six-minute running time, and with melodic similarities to every other song ever to bear the title 'All Through the Night', this song doesn't start out very promising. But as it kicks into gear and reveals itself as a lighters-aloft stadium anthem ranking right up there with 'Purple Rain', its many glories reveal themselves. This is a wonderfully dramatic piece that tugs all the right heartstrings - with cynicism perhaps, but with precision too.

Side two, track one, for reasons explained above, under 'On My Honor'. I put this first and not that because starting the side with the spoken-word intro seemed pleasingly perverse.

My Baby Understands: lose

With a more active drumbeat than on the rest of side three, with a vocal delivery that reaches the level of 'guttural' at times, and with odd outbursts of crunchy electric guitar, the best word to describe this one final slow-song is 'interesting'. Unfortunately, 'interesting' is not the quality that determines what makes the final cut and what doesn't.

Our Love: keep (side two, track four)

After the slow-song side three, side four ramps the tempo back up for a sustained twenty-minute blast of sequenced 'deep' dance music at its most European. The three songs on side four have a kind of sequenced pulse much more evocative of the club music of the 1980s and 90s that it influenced than the disco genre that influenced it. This particular track isn't much of a song, really, with a chorus that consists of little more than a single sentence shouted over sequenced and artificial-sounding drums (that actually are a dead ringer for 'Blue Monday' half a decade later). And yet somehow it's completely wonderful - ecstatic, profound and moving. This is music for long after midnight, after you're already soaked in sweat and after you've shed those early-evening inhibitions. This song could, indeed, 'last forever'.

And I finished the album (side two, track four) with its most ecstatic moment, pushing ahead into the eighties and indicating roads soon to be taken, though not by Summer herself, who was about to lose the plot, musically.

Lucky: lose

This particular tune has several ingredients that ought to make it successful: the sequenced pulse is evocative and hypnotic, the song Summer sings over top of it quite attractive. The mood throughout is sensual and ethereal. The main problem with it, though, is that it's essentially 'I Feel Love' part two, sounding more or less exactly like that earlier revolutionary single but suffering, as it's bound to, from diminished returns. That earlier single is jaw-dropping from start to finish. This repeat is too much of a good thing.

Sunset People: lose

The final track on Bad Girls is also the longest one. It's a peculiar tribute to the Sunset Strip and, more to the point, (sonically at least) to roads in general - in a way, it's Giorgio Moroder's take on Kraftwerk's 'Autobahn', overlong at a quarter the length. The tempo is bizarrely uncertain, lurching forward and dragging backward as it attempts to convey a sense of mood it never quite grasps. The whole thing is far too formless and uncertain to really leave much of a positive impression.

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