With all the fan excitement around the recently announced reissues of Donna Summer's back catalogue - starting with a reissue program covering most of her albums from the 1980s and into the early 1990's, as well as a proposed overhaul of her Casablanca catalogue, I thought this would be a good time to post this old article from from 1982. I was in a local record store recently, where they had a small bin of old rock magazines stashed in a corner. Looking through them, I noticed this issue of NME with a Donna Summer feature story. Surely whatever it was would be worth my two dollars or so..
Published right when she was promoting her Quincy Jones-produced self-titled album, her first away from the Moroder team; it seems the writer, Barney Hoskyns, wasn't exactly convinced (and didn't seem to think Donna was either). Seemingly happy to retreat from the craziness of the previous decade, as a born-again Christian, wife and mother yet on the professional side, trying to find her musical footing all over again; whether one agrees with the writer's assessment of her 1982 'Donna Summer' album, the article captures Donna in a definite transitional period in her life and career. Not the most in-depth piece I've read on her, but perhaps one of the sharpest.
From Sex Goddess to Bad Girl to American Superwoman
Interview: Barney Hoskyns, Photos: Peter Anderson
Donna Summer, once the siren of the G-spot, has grown up to become a wholesome American woman with a religious conscience. Now she's searching for a new musical baby...
He's paid his rent, he's president
She's all right
She's on your TV screen tonight”
Donna Summer hates Hollywood but tonight she's sitting in its very TV heart.
She's on The Merv Griffin Show, the mid-evening parley session hosted since before you were in diapers by the prime-time personification of homely silver-haired slickness. Out of all America's TV personalities, only Johnny Carson has asked more celebrities more meaningless questions than Merv.
There's an hour to go till taping time, and in her dressing room, making-up from an enormous bag of tubes and pencils, Donna Summer is cursing the trappings of womanhood. Somewhere inside there's still a tetchy Boston tomboy; you can feel the petulance in her sharp, nasal voice. There's no Bel-Air languor, no heavy-lidded resignation to the lifeless ritual that awaits.
If Hollywood is the last intact American community, Summer hasn't settled in. For her, stardom is just a job.
In an adjoining room sit a manager, a mother, a baby and a bodyguard. Baby fails to observe the thin line that divides family from showbiz and tries to bust her way into the dressing-room; Donna's mom, a short, sagacious lady wrapped in a well-to-do ball of matronly plumage, keeps the infant in check.
On this side of the line, Summer slaps some more rouge into her cheekbones.
“This whole business is such a drag for women,” she sighs. “A man can just jump in the shower, wash his hair, and he's ready. For a woman, the preparation takes hours. Sometimes y'know, I really hate being a woman.”
Strange sentiments, you might think from a woman whose career has run an entire gamut of feminine images from goddess to prostitute to the current nouveau American superwoman. Is the maternal Donna Summer her own girl at last?
“Well, I just want people to know me as I am. I don't want to portray any false images as a person. I don't think there are many sex symbols left – I hope people have a more realistic opinion of me now. It's important that they know that stars, in a worldly sense, have a very important role in life, and it's a big responsibility to other people to conduct yourself in an appropriate way, so that other people who become successful don't think you're supposed to act in a certain way.
“I think that when rock groups act violent or nasty or negative to other people, I don't condone it. It's no good to shun any kind of people, even when they get on your nerves.”
Through old lip-gloss, Summer's new worldly sense speaks loud, but has anything really changed for the better? Julie Burchill says “few things are such bets chartwise as a Bible-bashing black” but actually 'Donna Summer' isn't doing particularly well. Burchill advises Prince to haul his ass over to Summer's songwriter – but which one of the album's credited 17 does she mean?
Sex may not shock, but if truth is to be told, the last thing Donna sold was that hot Moroder stuff on Sunset Strip.
The fact that Britain has taken 'State Of Independence' to its heart doesn't in itself alter the obvious fact: that the extraordinary pneumatic icon created and patented in a German laboratory – a trans-American goddess of the computer age – has been reduced to a clothes-horse. Style has become a front.
In conjunction with God, inc, Quincy Jones and the Hollywood all-stars have pulled down Moroder's subliminal statue of liberty and given you – Donna Summer, A Woman. Like her transatlantic inversion Grace Jones, the former siren of the G-spot is just... living her life.
All very well, you might say. That Bad Girl riff was degrading, exploitative trash. It turned up some awful good sounds though, didn't it? I mean, like a whole world better than this set. You see, with Moroder and Bellotte and Faltermeyer, Summer was part of a team and a perfect concept: techno-sleaze. Shove the ethics for a moment: it worked. More, it was one of the great moments of American history!
With Jones and Temperton, on the other hand (and as many Porcaros as you can fit in one studio), Donna Summer is just another artiste on another nobodaddy's books. 'Donna Summer' is the album where “the woman” steps out of her shell like Venus reborn from a recording console.
Mind, you could see it coming. 'The Wanderer' was an obvious if bizarre transition state (a high fashion tramp waiting for the train to arrive), and Geffen scrapped a further Moroder-produced album that no one wants to talk about... but to give Donna Summer a once-over Diana Ross job, to make a tasteful superstar record even more brazen than 'Diana', that's nothing short of criminal waste.
Musically, 'Donna Summer' is another case of picking up on the swings of what you lose on the roundabouts. A party bag of jarring, overdone tricks. If you don't like her rocking out with Springsteen (US Bonds meets Boney M), try her off-the-wall ('In Control'); or should you fail to appreciate the meticulous Donna-goes-'40s gloss of 'Lush Life', there's always the full-blown Hare Krishna Hollywood of 'State'.
Folks, there's sommat for everyone, but nothing for someone that worships the lost goddess of 'Once Upon A Time' and swims yet in the rapturous ethereal strains of 'Now I Need You' or 'Working The Midnight Shift'. For the bereft and abandoned, the only consolation is the late Patrick Cowley's 16-minute 'mega-mix' of 'I Feel Love' – discreetly slipped out by Casablanca in a British-only release and clearly pointed at the flourishing meat market of Earl's Court.
Enough of personal grievances. Let's talk. As it happens, I don't get enough time to press my case with the lady herself. It would have taken a very gentle build up to argue that the hooker of 'Bad Girls' was a more liberated object of our attention than the chic Barby (sic) doll of 'Donna Summer'. Especially with a born-again Christian. So instead, I imagine to myself that I was reporting for People magazine.
Considering Giorgio Moroder replaced unpredictable humans with programmable machines, was it easier working with him or Quincy?
“It was much easier working with Giorgio, for sure, because I kinda grew up with him and Pete (Bellotte), and to make the transition to a new producer is very hard. It's like starting all over again, learning to walk again, learning what to say and what not to say.”
Did you feel comfortable with all the songs, say 'Lush Life', which struck me as a little forced?
“That particular song was real hard. It broke my chops trying to sing it, only because you really have to try to complement the backing without making something that it's not. I had never sung, nor personally heard the song before, so it became a real labour of love.
“As a matter of fact, Quincy produced that album with almost no help from me – which is unlike me, but at the time I was pregnant, so it's really more his album.”
It doesn't surprise me. Did you invite the heavenly choir of Michael Jackson, Kenny Loggins, Dyan Cannon, et al?
“Um. No, Quincy did. When Quincy calls, people drop what they're doing.”
'Lush Life' is a pretty cynical song, isn't it? “Romance is mush, stifling those who strive / I'll live a lush life in some swell dive / And there I'll rot with the rest / Of those whose lives are lonely too...” A lot of Americans today are lush – how many are just plain lonely? Or does love always find them in the end?
“I think generally an awful lot of people are confused about what love is. They're not able to give love because they've never really known it. What they consider love is sex, possessiveness, and juvenile infatuations that don't last very long.
“When I speak of love, I mean love as in 1 Corinthians, 13, which tells you exactly what love is and what it is not. Even now I'm reconstructing my point of view of love. People fight and kill each other in the name of love, and that's wrong. Love doesn't do these things, so they're not love. They're bitterness, they're hatred, they're anxiety.”
Do you really believe what you sing in 'Livin' In America', that it is a country “of the people, for the people, and by the people”?
“That's not what I believe it is, but what it should be. What I believe is we have to go back to the beginning. We shouldn't lose faith because we are the people who can change it. We have the power and we should use it.”
But when you sing “You know the time will come / For each and everyone”, you know that's not true...
“It's symbolic when I say that. Whether it's black or Chinese or Mexican their time will come and they're going to have to focus on that problem and deal with it – unlike, say, Germany, where if they don't like a certain kind of people they just get rid of them.”
Woah! Talking of Germany, do you think the fabled Euro-disco sound was as innovative as most people seem to?
“I think in its time, yeah, it was very different and I'm thankful that I was the person it was designed for. But I don't look back, I look forward, and what I'm searching desperately for now is a baby in music, a new musical baby, as if I was pregnant and waiting for the birth of a child.”
What do you think of 'Once Upon A Time', in my humble opinion your incontestable masterpiece?
“You're one of the first people to have said that, but I think that was structurally the best album I've ever recorded.”
Were you disappointed by the reception and sales of 'The Wanderer'?
“In my opinion the album did great, because prior to 'The Wanderer' album I had always gone out on the road with every album. I'd always been there pushing the record on TV and radio.
“ 'The Wanderer' had no publicity of any kind, not in America at least, and I wasn't even there to give people a new image. As far as image went, it was a blank. It was riding on whatever momentum had been set for two years, plus I was in a law suit here and having babies there.”
So you didn't feel like you were out in the cold?
“No, because you can't always do business. Sometimes your life becomes your life. For a couple a years I was playing real life!”
What's it like being a mom?
“Well, it's kinda confusing, it's hectic, but I still wish I'd started having kids earlier.”
How do you protect your privacy?
“I find the older I get, the longer I've been successful, the easier it becomes. I guess because I feel more comfortable with it, people feel more comfortable with me. I have a bodyguard who lives with me, but he's more for my children. When I go out, I go out alone.”
Does being the mother of three children mean you won't be performing live?
“I don't know. Right now I'm trying to recuperate from the last baby, and I try not to project forward more than a month at a time. If I was just a normal person who didn't have other worldly concerns, maybe it wouldn't be so bad.”
Do you enjoy performing live?
“Oh, it's the best. It's instant reward – or instant disapproval.”
Do you like LA?
“Nope. Not at all. I'd love to live in the country, by a lake someplace, where I could ride horses or just be away from it all.”
Would you say you were a good businesswoman?
“My manager says, yes!”
Is your life isolated? How many close friends would you say you had?
“I have a lot of people that I love, but they're more like my family. Is my life isolated? Oh yes, there's certainly not a lot of freedom. You have to be careful what you say, and even if somebody's nasty to you, you have to be exceptionally nice to them. When you assume a role, you have to continue to portray something that you may not be, so as soon as you feel a person is watching, no matter who it is, you have to be acting that role out.
“But I think my manager would tell you that I'm pretty much the same person at home as when I'm out. I may have more make-up on, but.. hey, don't I seem like a natural person to you?!?”
Before I can plead ignorance of the meaning of the word “natural”, there's an abrupt knock at the door. It's Nellie, her personal assistant, shouldering her way in and calling time in a curious Eliza Doolittle half way to refinement English accent. She informs Donna that Merv is waiting.
Two minutes later, on camera, Griffin blands out with a chat-show query to end 'em all.
“Tell me, Donna, is it true that every recording star needs an image?”
Openly grimacing at the banality of this question, Summer stalls, but quickly composes herself to meet its bold challenge.
“Well, Merv, even a tomato has an image.”
Donna Summer is no ordinary tomato, but her current phase lacks the necessary fatal glamour, perhaps even a certain subtle vulgarity. With her extra-curricular activities as a mother taking up so much time, nothing is coming from Donna herself. Perhaps the musical baby is a reunion with Giorgio Moroder.
As it says in Corinthians, “when that which is perfect is come, then that which is in part shall be done away”.
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