REVIEW: Donna Summer – Once Upon a Time – 25th Anniversary of Donna Summer’s Once Upon a Time

by: Jason Shawhan

It was an incongruous pairing of sound and image. Tourists being mowed down by a runaway car, chaos reigning and, from the car’s radio, a familiar, plaintive voice. “That’s Donna Summer!” I said to my friends while immersed in the computer game Grand Theft Auto III, trying to avoid rolling their car after taking out several police officers and prostitutes with a particularly vicious sideswipe. It was Summer’s voice, from “Sweet Romance,” a harpsichord-based ballad from her 1977 opus Once Upon a Time…, now sampled as the refrain for Black Rob’s “By a Stranger,” which is how it came to be in the game.

Just in time for its 25th anniversary, Once Upon a Time… is creeping back into the zeitgeist. Conceived as a musical storybook for Summer’s daughter Mimi, Once Upon a Time… is a concept double album (divided into four acts, one per side on the original LPs) about fairy tales, love and life’s cruel realities. The basic narrative follows a nameless girl on her journeys in the land of Never-Never, including her rendezvous with destiny and true love. Timeless archetypes, to be sure, but ones that Summer and her songwriting partners and producers, Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte, explored in new ways–namely, by conveying them through the sounds of disco and its adult concerns.

Once Upon a Time… yielded only one hit single, the dreamy and euphoric “I Love You,” but the record still went multiplatinum–the first of Summer’s four consecutive double albums to do so (in just three years). The record received mixed reviews upon its release, its detractors citing its opera-like conception as heavy-handed; today, it stands as perhaps the most ambitious and fully realized dance music album ever made.

A Nashville resident for the past seven years or so, Summer has long been hailed as the Queen of Disco, but that designation fails to do justice to the many musical forms–from funk and rock to blues and gospel–over which she and her collaborators demonstrated mastery. What is rarely addressed, and what certainly distinguishes the Summer/Moroder/Bellotte (S/M/B) collective from most dance groups, is the strength and versatility of their songwriting. It isn’t just the enduring nature of so many of Summer’s singles; it’s the boldness and reach of the albums on which they appeared.

Love to Love You Baby (1975) and A Love Trilogy (1976), for example, devoted their entire first sides to experimental, vampy versions of their respective centerpieces. “I Feel Love” from 1977’s I Remember Yesterday took all the loops and programs Kraftwerk had been working with, injected some soul into the machine and helped pave the way for contemporary electronic music. Act 2 of Once Upon a Time… is devoted to this kind of sound–Eurodisco before it had a name, Hi-NRG and synth-pop several years ahead of their time. The triptych of “Now I Need You,” “Working the Midnight Shift” and “Queen for a Day” that comprises side two of Once Upon a Time… is almost curiously removed from time, sounding at once retro and futuristic.

Musically, Once Upon a Time… is a marvel, quintessentially disco yet more than just simple bass-line vamps over thumping kick drums and eighth-note percussion sequences. The chorus to “Rumour Has It” has an amazing lead-in where the hi-hats go double-time, the staccato feel marvelously conveying the movement of a rumor through a community. A similar adventurousness pervades the paranoid delusion of “Faster and Faster to Nowhere”–the only appearance nightmare makes on an album of dreams and fantasies. Using analog vocoders, unearthly screeches swirl in the mix and Donna breaks down in fear; it’s the epitome of catharsis on the dance floor.

Nowhere is the ambition inherent in the S/M/B collective’s songwriting more apparent than in the funk-sass of “If You Got It Flaunt It.” The track takes a Mel Brooks maxim and reworks it as a bluesy strut, wherein the record’s protagonist throws shade at “catty creatures” who try to diminish her as a human being. This flirtation with the chords and structure of the blues would lead to one of Summer’s finest lesser-known songs, the funky “Love Will Always Find You” from the following year’s Bad Girls. S/M/B’s experiments with rock reached their fruition with that record, particularly on “Hot Stuff” and the equally imperious title track.

Like their latter-day counterparts Timbaland and Missy Elliott, S/M/B were constantly evolving creatively. Not content with letting any of their songs embody just one particular style, they began to blend tracks together, taking DJs mixes and combining them with artful segues to create a continuous record, one in which the beat didn’t stop and the BPM defined an entire side of the record. Take “Queen for a Day” from Once Upon a Time…: In keeping with the rest of the record’s second act, the track is completely synthesized; yet as it progresses, it devolves into piano, congas and strings. The effect is staggering. The stop-and-start dance beat of “Dance Into My Life,” however, may be the most revolutionary aspect of the album, foreshadowing Summer’s Oscar-winning “Last Dance,” which actually comes to a complete stop before revving back up again.

The album’s centerpiece, and what may be the finest example of intricate composition and arrangement for synthesizers, is “Working the Midnight Shift.” The track, a mournful lament about the painful costs of working nights, is equally ethereal and visceral. Half the sequencers seem to be working in a minor key, and at least a couple of banks are putting out a major key, and over it all–those cool glissandos of sound waves–is Summer’s voice, weaving a counterpoint with her backup singers. The overall feel is something akin to what Phil Spector might have done with Ralf and Florian of Kraftwerk. Summer was equally at home with R&B, funk, rock, the sexy purr of the clubs and the clarion call of the church. Above all, she meshed magnificently with machine, forever changing the sound of popular music.

On its 25th birthday, Once Upon a Time… sounds as fresh as ever, even as the soundtrack to mowing down tourists in cyberspace on Grand Theft Auto. That said, given the album’s energy and conceptual adventurousness, it could just as easily become a Broadway musical. Those are pretty much the two extremes of modern popular culture, and it’s rare to find something that can span that much social and emotional distance.

Frankie Knuckles: Beyond the Sound Factory (1991 Interview)

Frankie Knuckles: Beyond the Sound Factory
by Andy Reynolds

This is most definitely not Frankie Knuckles’ first interview. He is the most popular DJ in the world. He DJs at one of the best nightclubs in the world: Sound Factory. “The Whistle Song” – the first single off his Beyond the Mix album – has hit No.1 positions on radio and club charts across Europe and is getting pop airplay on the top station in New York – Hot97. Frankie’s a popular boy. Especially with me. I’m at Sound Factory at 3:30 every Saturday night – other clubs simply don’t enter the picture. Sound Factory is about dancing, sweating, and working out whatever needs to be worked out right there on the dancefloor – Sound Factory is therapy. Frankie and I talked about Sound Factory, his music, and his album.

Andy Reynolds: So how do you choose what you play at Sound Factory?
Frankie Knuckles: Vocals are really important to me – good voices, good vocals, good lyrics – as well as the music and rhythms that go underneath them. Sometimes it can be a song that just has a good rhythm to it. I try to stay away from a lot of nonsensical music – songs with samples that have been used, used, and overused. To me, there’s nothing that’s that exciting about playing a bunch of records like that throughout the evening. There are a couple that I will play – that (I) know automatically will work well – but I generally try to break up the evening.

Andy Reynolds: When you get your crowd up to a peak, what’s that like for your up in the booth?
Frankie Knuckles: It’s crazy. I never really get a chance to focus in on it because when I do get the room going like that there’s a ton of people that try to rush the booth at the same time. It breaks my concentration up.

Andy Reynolds: People have to realize that you have to concentrate!
Frankie Knuckles: Well, on the average, people don’t. And I’m not just talking about people that are hanging out. I mean industry people. They have to be in that booth and they always have something they got to say while I’m trying really hard to feed off the energy that’s coming back from everybody on the dancefloor. When the room starts taking off, I don’t know, I guess a lot of people feel that they need to be right there…

Andy Reynolds: They need to be on that dancefloor. They don’t need to be in the booth!
Frankie Knuckles: I agree with you there, but I think they feel the need to be in that booth where all that energy is coming from.

Andy Reynolds: How do you decide where to go from a peak?
Frankie Knuckles: That’s generally instinct. That depends – I have to pace myself considering that the fact that I’m playing eleven to twelve hours. I try not to wear everybody out early. I build it up to a certain peak and then I try to change directions a little bit here and there without dragging everybody’s energy level down. When I change directions it’s to give people a chance to catch up with themselves so they don’t wear themselves out too early and say, “well, I can’t take it anymore,” and then before you know it they’re all out of there and the room would be empty by six o’clock. It’s like teasing them, you know, but I just like to keep the relationship lasting between the audience and me.

Andy Reynolds: Is that a long night for you?
Frankie Knuckles: Its definitely a long night that actually starts going by pretty quickly – especially between the hours of three and eight in the morning – those hours generally fly by.

Andy Reynolds: How do you feel out the crowd when it’s around 9:00?
Frankie Knuckles: I can tell the audience that’s there is generally feeling a lot more physical – people hanging on one another, dancing in one another’s arms, playing with each other like that – it’s kind of a romantic kind of thing and I’ll try and play on that for a while. Sort of sleazy rhythms, but not sleazy songs.

We asked him a bit about his album, Beyond The Mix. The project was produced by Frankie, John Poppa, Eric Kupper and Danny Maden. Appearing are the notable talents of David Morales, Peter “Ski” Schwartz, Shelton Becton, Lisa Michaelis, Roberta Gillian and Paul Shapiro.

Andy Reynolds: How do you feel about your first single, “The Whistle Song,” a very underground record, being added first at Hot97, New York’s No.1 pop station?
Frankie Knuckles: I’m really shocked, I’m going to tell you. Everybody knows that the music on the underground club scene is for the most part instrumental. My whole perception of “The Whistle Song,” when me and Eric (Kupper) were working on it, was to make it very underground – (something) afterhours and underground clubs could really relate to. On a commercial level they said it’s a nice instrumental, but that’s all it is. [Laughs] Well, I mean [laughs], they’ve definitely blown my mind – being number fourteen on the pop charts in England, and it’s number two or number one on most of the radio stations over there. It’s really kind of scary. It’s great, but I never looked at it as being a pop record! Not at all, not in the least – and for it to be the first single off the album and for it to go pop, that’s an amazing thing.

Andy Reynolds: On the album I really like “The Right Thing” – now that’s a pop song!
Frankie Knuckles: [Laughs] I get tickled from everybody that has gotten copies of the album and that have listened to it, you know… The thing that I was scared about the most about this album was being able to develop something that Virgin wouldn’t be afraid to get behind. I figured if I gave them three songs on that album that could work well for radio, then the rest of the album could be pretty much a piece of cake, because I can do enough club stuff that will work really well for the clubs, and they’ll have three songs on the album that they can pull for radio. As it stands they can’t make up their minds, you know [laughs], they can pull almost any track off the album, you know, according to them (and work it) for radio, which is really a nice feeling – that they feel that strongly about it.

Andy Reynolds: What do you look for in a mix of your own work? And how do you feel about other people mixing your work?
Frankie Knuckles: I don’t know, I’ve never had anything of my own mixed by somebody before – other than David (Morales). I know David’s work and I know his approach, I never preconceive anything where he’s concerned, I’m always surprised by anything he does. With this album I’m going to have an opportunity to have some other people come in and mix things. There’s a number of people I want to have mix different songs off the album – Bobby Konders, Pal Joey, Tee Scott, David Todd – people that I have a lot of respect for. I want them to be able to play around with some of this stuff. I never thought that this album would warrant this much importance – that people would be calling way in advance to try and get mixes on the album. It’s one thing to be a producer and a remixer, but it’s another thing to be a producer slash artist, and then the responsibility of deciding who’s going to mix your stuff is resting in your lap – a bit different.

Andy Reynolds: And lastly, what is your favorite remix that you’ve done?
Frankie Knuckles: Favorite record remixed to date would probably be “The Pressure” by Sounds of Blackness. I’d like to think that of all the records that I’ve ever mixed, that’s probably the best thing I’ve ever done.

Frankie can be heard every Saturday at Sound Factory (New York) – 1 am until 12pm. Some advice on your first visit to Sound Factory from Frankie: “If I have friends who are coming from out of town, I tell them, look, go out Saturday, have a good time running around the city taking things in, then lay down and take a nap and don’t get up until about 2 or 3 in the morning. I tell people to get there around anytime between 2:30 and 3:30, from that point on.”

Originally published as a cover story in DMR (Dance Music Report), April 17 – 30, 1991. Reprinted with permission of original writer.

At the time this interview of Frankie Knuckles was published, author Andy Reynolds was the Creative Director/Editor of US dance trade, DMR (Dance Music Report), co-owned by Tom Silverman of Tommy Boy Entertainment and Vince Pellegrino of Pellegrino Promotions. Subsequently, Reynolds worked for several dance labels including West End Records (owned by Paradise Garage financial backer, Mel Cheren), where he served as general manager from 1999 – 2002. He is now a book and music publicist and can be reached via email.