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.