Friday, May 18, 2012

RIP Donna Summer

Donna Summer, who passed away Thursday,  was considered the "Queen of Disco." And she did have a lot of iconic songs from that era: "Love To Love You Baby," "Last Dance," "MacAuthur Park," "Bad Girls," "Hot Stuff," "On The Radio," etc. But there's one song of hers, above all others, that I consider to be her greatest:

"I Feel Love" - with its eerie synthesizer chords, its galloping baseline, Summer's sparse yet seductive lyrics - is not only one of the best songs of the disco era, but a song whose impact has been felt in pop music far beyond the end of disco. As The Guardian music critic Jon Savage explains:
I Feel Love was and remains an astonishing achievement: a futuristic record that still sounds fantastic 35 years on. Within its modulations and pulses, it achieves the perfect state of grace that is the ambition of every dance record: it obliterates the tyranny of the clock – the everyday world of work, responsibility, money – and creates its own time, a moment of pleasure, ecstasy and motion that seems infinitely expandable, if not eternal.

Back in 1977, I Feel Love was a radical breakthrough, and was designed as such. It was started as a cut for I Remember Yesterday, an album that producer Giorgio Moroder originally planned as a mini-tour through dance music history: a Dixieland number here, a Tamla number there. To complete the project, he needed what NME called a "next-disco sound".

"I had already had experience with the original Moog synthesisers," Moroder told NME in December 1978, "so I contacted this guy who owned one of the large early models. It was all quite natural and normal for me. I simply instructed him about what programmings I needed. I didn't even think to notice that for the large audience this was perhaps a very new sound."
It was indeed a very new sound, one that influenced everything from the synth-pop and house music of the 1980s to the rave and trance music of the 90s to the techno and dance music of today:
Speaking to Summer's genre-bending influence, house-music forefather Frankie Knuckles called her unforgettable hit "I Feel Love" one of the most commercial electronic pieces of music ever written.
"Today you can hear its influence on all popular Dance music, House, Techno, Trance," he told MTV News in a statement. "She was deemed 'The Queen Of Disco.' She's been sampled and ideas of her songs have crept into today's popular dance music by everybody. Her association with [legendary record producer] Giorgio Moroder set the tone for what Dance Music is all about."
The reception of Summer's iconic 1977 anthem essentially revolutionized music, not to mention the rest of her chart-toppers that would soon follow.

"One day in Berlin, [Brian] Eno came running in and said, 'I have heard the sound of the future,' " David Bowie famously wrote in the liner notes to Sound and Vision. "He puts on 'I Feel Love,' by Donna Summer. ... He said, 'This is it, look no further. This single is going to change the sound of club music for the next 15 years.' Which was more or less right."
Summer died at the age of 63 of lung cancer, even though she did not appear to be a regular smoker. She will be missed, but her influence will always endure.

UPDATE: Donna Summer is not the only disco icon to pass away in the last few days. Robin Gibb of the Bee Gees died on Sunday after a long battle with liver cancer. He was 62.

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