A Weekly Song: Episode 17 - Donna Summer
Yeah, but which Donna Summer track?… They’re all about love, baybeeh…
In the late seventies, I lived in a small, picturesque suburb of Zürich in Switzerland. My dad had taken a job there, which is how I came to spend some formative years being indoctrinated with the idea that human beings can maintain high levels of foresight, enlightened efficiency and a caring attitude to the environment, all while remaining fiercely independent.
Switzerland is where I became a writer, a cartoonist, an explorer of lakes and mountains, a decent skater and a lover of music. I still cannot ski however, as a collision with an alpine bush when still quite young and not terribly confident cured me of the misapprehension that this winter sport was easy to master.
Perhaps all those things would have occurred anyway – I’d already begun making my own comic strips – but it was Switzerland’s lack of easy socialising at weekends that caused me to make my own entertainment and immerse myself in my own imaginative world, which included making up stories and characters with silly voices to entertain my younger sister. Other activities included copying out professional comics to see how they worked (I amateurishly duplicated the whole of Marvel Comics’ adaptation of Star Wars in the hope that it’d help me draw better spaceships, although what it actually taught me was that drawing people was harder.) I also often found myself mucking around with my dad’s cassette tape recorder, performing playlets and sketches and recording bits of music off the TV.
Swiss TV in the late seventies was mostly crushingly dull aside from broadcasts of The Muppet Show on Saturday nights, which was dubbed into German. I thank the Muppets to this day for teaching me what small amount of German I learned (and have since forgotten because I never practiced it). The actors who dubbed the Muppets did amazing jobs of recreating the intonations of Jim Henson, Frank Oz et al.
Careful repositioning of our TV aerial* allowed us to pick up the German station Channel ZDF, which transmitted Mondbasis Alpha Eins and Raumschiff Enterprise, known in other territories as Space: 1999 and Star Trek respectively. There was also an occasional series of dubbed science fiction movies, which included my first time viewings of such classics as Zardoz, Phase IV, The Andromeda Strain and Silent Running.
This SF movie series, imaginatively titled SCIENCE FICTION, had an animated intro that featured rockets launching, flying saucers zipping by and space sirens enticing unwary (and of course only male) space travellers into all manner of psychedelic space phenomena. The music that accompanied this opening sequence was a pulsing, machine-driven piece with a clattering undertow of a beat that climaxed in an orgiastic mushroom cloud of flanged synthetic strings and a euphoric female vocal that quickly faded out.
I duly taped this fantastic intro off the TV, and listened to it over and over. Unknown to me, at roughly the same time in Berlin, Brian Eno walked into Hansa Studios where he was working with David Bowie and Tony Visconti recording either Low or “Heroes” and announced, “I have heard the future.” Then he played them this same track, and they all knew it was true. I also understood that certainty, but you will appreciate that I, a callow youth, heard this under somewhat different circumstances, where I’d heard only an edited clip, the instrumental middle section with the identifying vocals rapidly faded at the end. Plus, even though I was at a juncture where I was aware of David Bowie (see here), I wasn’t quite yet at the stage where I was saving my pocket money to buy his latest albums.
Of course, Eno, Bowie and Visconti knew that this ecstatic slice of futurism was Donna Summer’s I Feel Love, as produced by the now-legendary Giorgio Moroder, and I didn’t. I wouldn’t know until a few months later when I heard it in a shop and my mum bought the cassette tape of it and all Donna’s other hits up to that point, which we played endlessly in our car and at home on Dad’s tape machine.
When I got back to the UK in the early eighties, in the school playground I discovered that you weren’t allowed to like Donna Summer, because it was “disco,” and this contravened the “Disco Sucks” act of 1978 wherein arbiters of musical taste and gatekeepers of culture decreed that electronic and/or fun dance music wasn’t “real” because it wasn’t being played by “actual” musicians but was instead constructed by engineers and producers in the recording studio. Worse, I committed social atrocities for liking dance and soul music as well as the Sex Pistols, Ian Dury and the Buzzcocks (although I think Ian Dury quite liked dance music too). So, in fear of this social stigma, I initially hid my love for Donna Summer and pretended I didn’t like dancing, which hasn’t ever been true, not ever.
A little later, when I got into Bowie, Roxy Music and Brian Eno and came across that apocryphal tale of Eno playing I Feel Love to his appreciative pals, I felt vindicated. There was nothing wrong with liking Donna alongside Dury, Summer alongside the Pistols and indeed, disco alongside rock and whatever the hell else you fancied listening (or dancing) to.
In an age where electronic music is now literally everywhere and both made and consumed by anyone and everyone, including the real musicians who at the time eschewed it, it’s strange to recall the hostility that existed between “rock” and “disco” camps, as if enjoying yourself in slightly different ways was somehow an act of cultural desecration that should logically result in war.
Like many attempts to categorise something as abstract and ever-evolving as popular music, the labels were artificial, handy at the time so that the vinyl product could be identified by both distributors and potential customers and sold. Back then, little did we know that Donna and Giorgio, together with punk, post-punk electronica and the likes of the BBC’s Radiophonic Workshop were ushering in an era where making music became a more egalitarian pursuit all round. Now, non-musicians could have a go, building their own home studios, creating their own homemade pop music and soundtracks on evolved versions of the same machines that were once damned as soulless. Like all tools we invent, it is of course how you use ‘em that counts – whether you want them to be conduits to human artistic expression or not. If you still think “disco sucks,” and you don’t like dancing, I can’t help you.
*It occurs to me that younger readers might not know what TV aerials are – instead of phone lines and cables, we had these coathangers that magically enticed stray transmissions out of the air and into your goggle box, often with extra snow and static.
I Feel Love - 12” version with the extended instrumental middle eight that so caught my ear as a child.