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Donna Summer Tag

Soul Serenade - HeatwaveRod Temperton died recently. Although he never had a hit record under his own name, his fame as a songwriter, producer, and member of the band Heatwave insured that he will never be forgotten.

Although Temperton made his name in American R&B, he was born in Lincolnshire in England. His father didn’t read him bedtime stories. Instead he stuck a transistor radio in his crib. As a result, Pemberton’s interest in music began at a early age. Temperton played drums in his early bands, but after high school he went to work in a frozen food factory and played music on a part-time basis.

In my ongoing effort to stay warm during this cold winter I’m featuring one of the hottest tracks of the 1970’s this week.

If you were around in those days, you know that in the late ’70s disco was all. Everyone, from big-time rock bands like the Rolling Stones and the Eagles to pop stars like the Bee Gees and ABBA, jumped on the bandwagon. The genre also made it’s own stars, producing legends like Donna Summer, KC and the Sunshine Band, and Chic.

In which we look at once common curiosities of pop culture that don’t exist anymore, be it because of changing tastes, the fragmentation of culture, or merely the fickle nature of fads.  In the late '70s in the Netherlands, most disco music came in bootlegged medleys

The years immediately following the “Death of Disco” weren’t the easiest for Donna Summer, who had been the most successful artist to emerge from the genre. She began the Eighties on a hot streak, with the greatest hits compilation On the Radio becoming her third consecutive album to top the charts (and also her third straight DOUBLE album to top the charts). However, it was her last album on Casablanca (the label that had helped guide her to success) and she emerged at the end of 1980 on a new label (the fledgling Geffen Records) and a new sound, embracing elements of new wave and rock. The resulting album, The Wanderer, was not as successful as previous efforts-probably partially due to the change in sound, partially due to the new label and partially due to the disco backlash. Unfortunately, Summer would never fully regain her footing.

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Here are even more songs by artists whose names begin with the letter S, as we continue looking at singles that charted below #40 on the Billboard Hot 100 in the 1980s.

Barbra Streisand
“Promises” — 1981, #48 (download)
“Memory” — 1982, #52 (download)
“Left in the Dark” — 1984, #50 (download)
“Make No Mistake He’s Mine” — 1984, #51 (download)
“Emotion” — 1985, #79 (download)
“Somewhere” — 1985, #43 (download)

barbra-streisandIf you’ve been reading this series for a while you’d definitely think I’d be ripping into Babs about now. I really tried to, but everything I was writing seemed forced which made me realize that I don’t really have that many issues with her. I will never ever voluntarily pick up a Streisand record and I’m cursing myself for listening to all of these on my iPod as they are now most likely going to show up in shuffles more often, but it is what it is. I give her credit for trying to stay relevant with the times. She could record anything and her fans would stick by her, but her collaborations in the ‘80s were actually okay.

I’m a big Bee Gees fan, so I actually enjoy “Promises” which came off what goes down as a very good record, Guilty, written by Barry and Robin Gibb. “Left in the Dark” is clearly a Jim Steinman song and is just as good as the majority of his material and “Emotion” is actually semi-hip. Even “Memory” and “Somewhere” while no big favorites of mine are Barbra at what she does best.

Obsessive fans know the sheer agony of waiting years, even decades, for their favorite oldies (ahem, classic) artist to finally release a new album of substandard material on a record label no one has ever heard of. Amazingly, some of these ancient relics manage to claw their way back from the brink of blinding obscurity. Anything to escape the horrors and degradation of the hotel casino circuit. Here are a few examples from the recent millennium.

The B-52’s — Funplex

Rock Lobster! Yes, it’s been approximately 8,000 years since Miss Fred Schneider screeched those immortal words and summed up the state of an entire inebriated generation. The nation’s collective lobster was indeed rockin’! Fred, Kate Pierson, Cindy Wilson, Ricky Wilson & Keith Strickland came streaming out of Athens, GA with sky high hairdos, thrift store fashion sense and a jubilant, camp attitude that no other group could match. Despite being labeled (and often dismissed) as a mere gimmick or cult band, they continued to spin off numerous iconic albums and singles. The B’s eventually reached their glossy, funky zenith in 1989 with the hit album Cosmic Thing. The band thrilled devoted fans and earned legions of new ones when they got their global groove on with the shiny, happy single “Love Shack,” baby.

Despite a huge mainstream breakthrough, an endless 16 years went swishing by before the group finally unleashed their seventh party platter with 2008’s Funplex. Music director Keith Strickland recruited producer Steve Osborne (of New Order & Sophie Ellis-Bextor fame) to pull the band’s retro sound solidly into the current decade. Suddenly they were off the oldies circuit and back into the studio where they belonged — making candy-coated musical extravaganzas. Funplex retains the band’s trademark cool quirks and dizzily enjoyable style of neon dance pop. This time around the recipe stirs in equals parts throbbing synthesizers and drum machine beats and then seals it over with an Aquanet sheen. Sometimes you’ll wonder if you’re trapped in a thumping remix on an infinite loop – one that you may never want to end.

The giddy title track “Funplex” discovers delirious leading lady Fred in glorious kitsch mode, shouting tales about malls and diet pills — timeless themes, indeed. High-haired harlots Cindy and Kate are still spinning gorgeous, effortless harmonies as if thirty years had simply stood still. The single was served up in January 2008 and took its party out of bounds where it reached #14 on the Billboard Hot Dance Club Play chart. One track in and it’s already obvious that betting on Steve Osborne has resulted in an eclectic jackpot. Stroll further through the carnival and you’ll find even more sideshow attractions and electronic feats of strength. Classic B-52’s beats collide with what passes for modern dance on “Eyes Wide Open.” Robots of various genders invade Fred’s dreams in “Love in the Year 3000.” Second single “Juliet of the Spirits” flew to #8 on the Billboard Hot Dance Club Play chart. “Ultraviolet” finds Fred extolling the virtues of highway rest stops and g-spots. Yeah, that sounds about right. These highlights, paired with dancefloor shakers like “Hot Corner,” are a sweet, high reminder of the band’s long-ago glory days. We can only hope it won’t take until the year 3000 for those days to return.

Is all of this inspired by early-era rock, Beach Boys harmony or just plain musical schizophrenia? Yes, it is! Funplex topped off at #11 on the Billboard 200 Albums chart and sold approximately 30,000 hot platters in its first week of release. Overall a nice return to form for music’s premiere party band. The whole shack shimmies, kids!

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Living where I do (the San Francisco Bay Area), the Napa Valley is quite close to my abode.  If you’ve ever been to a winery (or participated in a wine tasting), sometimes they do vertical tastings of wines from various years to highlight how different one vintage is from another.  Since it’s a new year, and I wanted to stay away from a “Best of 2008” mix, I thought I would do a vertical tasting/listening of songs that were released in years ending in the number nine.

As I surveyed the musical landscape from 1959 to the present, I was struck by the way in which a musical style essentially peaks around this time of a decade and then lingers a bit into the new decade only to be eclipsed by another style.  And even though the songs in this mix aren’t necessarily the most popular or most representative of what was going on in popular music, they were popular enough that they reflect the zeitgeist of that particular year.


“I Need Your Love Tonight,” Elvis Presley
(download)

Vintage 1959.

Before Elvis became a mythological figure (or an object of comedic ridicule), his songs of loving and longing were wonderfully solid and, as they used to say on American Bandstand, “Had a great beat and you can dance to it.”  I have to admit, however, that because I’m not a big fan of The King, I hadn’t heard this tune before.  But after repeated listens, I do love the lyric: “I got the Hi-Fi high, and lights down low.”  Clearly, Elvis was not shy when it came to “business time.”

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Over the next year Terje Fjelde has agreed to listen to nothing but David Foster on his iPod. He’s loaded the thing with over 1,200 songs produced, arranged, composed, and/or played by David Foster. A deal with the devil? He keeps wondering.

It’s time for another Theme Week! I’ll leave it up to you to figure out what’s the theme, though. It should be pretty obvious.

I heard Donna Summer’s “Livin’ In America” (1982), produced by Quincy Jones, for the first time when I watched a documentary about Quincy released around the same time as his album Back On The Block in 1989. He had invited a bunch of hot rappers such as Ice T, Melle Mel, Big Daddy Kane and Kool Moe Dee to join him along with a stellar cast of musicians but, me being a very pale and very Scandinavian teenager, I just didn’t get the rap and hip hop thing at all in 1989. Well, I still don’t for the most part, but that’s another story. Anyway, I was for all purposes hoping for The Dude, Part 2 at the time of its release, and thus Back On the Block turned out to be a huge disappointment. It just didn’t sound smooth enough for me at the time by far, which I guess is kinda telling — and utterly and completely incomprehensible: Have you ever heard “Setembro (Brazilian Wedding Song)” or “The Secret Garden”? Smooth as silk. Or “Tomorrow (Better You, Better Me)” with a very young Tevin Campbell on lead vocals? The only thing with an edge on it is Tevin’s braces.

Still, that’s probably why I remember “Livin’ In America” so well from the soundtrack – it was one of very few tracks with Quincy’s smooth, early 1980s pop sound. I loved what I heard and went straight out and bought Donna Summer from 1982 and I was happy as a hippo for months, playing my new old Donna Summer album all the time whilst everybody else was listening either to the Stone Roses or Roxette. I was so out of touch with anything resembling hipness. Some things never change.

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Donna SummerIn 1979, Donna Summer could do no wrong — she was, in fact, riding high with three Top Ten hits in a row. So no one blinked when Summer and collaborators Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte decided her next album would be her third double-LP release in a row, an opus packed with 15 extended songs. Once Bad Girls was unleashed, Summer immediately notched two Number One hits in a row with the more-rock-than-disco “Hot Stuff” and the record’s title track. “Dim All the Lights” very nearly followed those singles to the top, stalling at number two for two weeks. After dominating radio all year with Bad Girls, Summer had yet another number one in ’79 with a one-off duet with Barbra Streisand, “No More Tears (Enough Is Enough).” Summer fever was high.

So high that even album tracks from Bad Girls were being pulled for radio and club play. “Sunset People” (download) was the last song on the album, a closing ode to Los Angeles nightlife (giving shout-outs to the Rainbow Bar & Grill, the Riot House and the Whisky) that was huge in the clubs and even crossed over to some Top 40 radio stations. Full of sequencers and drummer Keith Forsey’s metronome foot, the bubbly synth number recalls Moroder’s work with Sparks that same year, particularly “The Number One Song in Heaven.” I have vivid memories of “Sunset People” being a staple on Cleveland’s Disco 92, our local dance station that went all disco for about a year or two in the late ’70s. Of course, I was only four years old in 1979, so I’m mostly going by sense memory here. Honest. Ahem.

Summer was so hot that year, she even got her own TV special to promote Bad Girls, complete with über-campy dance numbers and “visualizations” of the songs. Check out this performance of “Sunset People” with Donna playing multiple roles, including a homeless woman. Make sure you stay tuned after that to see her do a live vocal for “Bad Girls” dressed as the flyest New Wave hooker ever! And waitaminnit! Is that Twiggy and Debralee Scott, aka “Hotsy Totsy” from Welcome Back, Kotter as two of the ladies of the night? Why, it is! And if that’s not enough star power for ya, how about Pat Ast?

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As Prince said, “I think I wanna dance!” Sometimes in the weekly Mix Six shuffle it’s easy to forget the lasting impact of disco on the culture at large. Go to any wedding reception where there’s a DJ who can read the crowd, and soon enough you’ll be hearing some of the tunes featured here.

Disco was certainly loved — but also hated — when it originally surfaced in the popular culture of the ’70s. Many were praying that disco would ultimately implode and go away … forever!

Wrong! Hahaha.


“Jupiter,” Earth, Wind & Fire

The horns, the harmony, and the badass funk of it all. There’s just something about these EWF albums of the mid- to late ’70s that’s pure funk gold. Can I get a “Hell, yeah?”

Hey, Popsters! You’re back for more weekly mixing fun, eh? Good. I’m glad you’re here, and I hope this week’s mix starts to spark some discussion about when a particular genre of music surfaced from the underground and became mainstreamed. You’ll probably quibble with my choices, but that’s okay, because it’s tough to find one song that basically says, “This is the definitive point where, say, hard rock, grunge, ’90s bubblegum pop, new wave, or disco started.”

So what I’ve assembled for your enjoyment is a collection of songs that, for me, signaled that a musical genre had come up from the underground to become part of the mainstream.