donna summer: the original dance-punk

May 25, 2012

From 1974’s Love To Love You Baby until 1983’s She Works Hard For The Money Donna Summer was an unstoppable force on the pop landscape. Spawning 14 Top 10 singles in her decade long collaboration with producer Giorgio Moroder, Donna Summer’s soulful coo has had a profound influence on nearly every female pop vocalist from the last 3 decades. In memory of her tragic death from lung cancer last week, we’re looking at her slightly less celebrated legacy as the godmother of dance-punk.

Words by Nathan Leigh

If you grew up in the 80s and 90s the musical narrative you were taught went something like this: once upon a time there was a genre called disco, which was a watered down whitebread version of funk, and any association with it permanently tainted an artist with “selling out,” which was of course music’s one unforgivable sin. Then punk rock, disco’s polar opposite, came around in ’77 and smashed disco forever. And we all lived happily ever after. Ice cream cake for everyone!

Of course disco’s image has been effectively rehabilitated over the last decade or so, but it still bears the stigma of “commercial music.” The polished dance-floor fodder is still considered less authentic, or at least, less sincere than its ancestors in funk and soul. And there’s certainly some truth to that. The BeeGees falsetto harmonies are polished to the point where it’s hard to hear the human behind them. And KC and the Sunshine Band’s songs may be catchy and fun, but no-one’s going to quote ‘Boogie Shoes’ as a deep, meaningful personal statement.

But working with Italian producer Giorgio Moroder, Donna Summer made a name for herself not just by making the most out of disco’s limitations, but by exploiting the cracks, and making them into uniquely personal art. She burst onto the scene with the notoriously sexy ‘Love To Love You Baby,’ a single that will be held forever as proof that, no, Mom, music these days is NOT more explicit than when you were a kid. The song oozes sexuality as Donna moans and groans her way through 17 minutes of steady crescendo. The song was dangerous, it was sexy, it was provocative, it was real. For a Top 10 dance single it was downright punk rock. 40 years later the song is still controversial as a landmark statement of proud, defiant, liberated, feminine sexuality.

Her followup, 1976’s concept album Love Trilogy failed to capture the same popular success as Love To Love You Baby had, but the bizarre ambition of the multi-movement 18 minute first side ‘Try Me, I Know We Can Make It,’ has held up surprisingly well. Donna Summer’s half-whispered soulful vocals simmer with a hushed intensity. Another concept album followed at the end of 1976, Four Seasons of Love.

In 1977, Donna Summer released a track that would have surprising ripples, essentially forming the blueprint for the next 30 years of dance music. ‘I Feel Love’ layers phasing synth bass on top of a four on the floor synth drum beat. Where disco had featured repetetive rhythms, ‘I Feel Love’ added variety by effecting the synth lines beyond recognition. The knob-tweaking of the song essentially birthed Detroit techno 10 years early. During the recording of Bowie’s Berlin Trilogy, legendary producer (and former Roxy Music keyboardist) Brian Eno famously commented “I have heard the sound of the future. This is it…This single is going to change the sound of club music for the next fifteen years.”

It wasn’t long after that the first wave of punk broke and crashed on American shores. What began as a rebellion against the heavily arranged sanitized mass-production of disco quickly fractured under the weight of its own nihilism. The punk scene, which in truth was never unified to begin with, broke into factions as bands rebelled against stylistic purity tests, while others embraced a more distilled hardcore form of punk. One of the first groups to break off were the groups who became known as “post-punk.”

Inspired by the passion of ’77 punk but feeling like Hardcore and Oi had taken the fun out of punk, bands like Gun Club, Gang of Four, ESG, Joy Division, and Siouxsie and the Banshees began looking to their former enemies in disco for inspiration. The new sound used disco’s four on the floor beat and snaky bass but with more driving guitar. Where disco was often content to be the musical equivalent of a disco ball, all shine and sparkle without substance, post-punk (and it’s essentially identical twins dance-punk and no wave) aspired to be passionate music you could dance to.

Siouxsie and the Banshees were the first band to be called post-punk by Sounds Magazine in 1977. The term is complicated by the fact that a pre-Sex Pistols Sid Vicious played drums early on, and a already-in-The-Cure Robert Smith played guitar on tour to support their second album. Once again proving that any genre with “proto,” “post,” or “neo,” in the title is probably a crappy definition. Siouxsie Sioux borrowed the poetry of Patty Smith, the intensity and sincerity of early punk, but put it on top of a disco beat, sang with Donna Summer’s own breathy soulfulness.

New York bands like ESG further distilled post-punk into dance-punk, adding back in the auxiliary percussion of disco and unabashedly poppy melodies. Playing a disco beat but stripped of any of the elaborate production, ESG helped define a new DIY form of dance music.

Meanwhile the punk revolution was having its own impact on Donna Summer. With disco fading behind punk and metal’s ascendancy, she began integrating rock elements into the album Bad Girls. The albums bold songs about prostitution featured distorted guitars and heavier bass than previous efforts. It was the biggest commercial success of her career, spawning the hits ‘Hot Stuff’ and ‘Bad Girls.’ Donna Summer had survived the death of disco, but she had ultimately only one final hit, 1983’s working woman anthem ‘She Works Hard for the Money.’

By the mid-80’s Donna Summer’s addiction to painkillers had come to a head and in recovery she became a born-again Christian. She disowned the open frank sexuality of her earlier work and refused to perform ‘Love To Love You Baby’ in concert. Donna alienated her gay fan-base by making homophobic comments in the height of the AIDS crisis. An apology to activist group ACT UP in 1989 proved to be too little too late, however. Donna Summer continued to release new material and tour, but never recaptured the success she had in the earlier part of the decade.

By the 90’s, many of the sounds and techniques she had pioneered at heir height were commonplace in dance music. ‘I Feel Love’ was sampled by nearly every DJ and electronic music producer in the world. Meanwhile, the ingredients set by Siouxsie Sioux and Donna Summer became the recipe for the next 30 years of dance-punk. Donna Summer’s intense but simmering vocal can be heard in everyone from Santigold to Le Tigre, MIA to New Young Pony Club. Her frank sexuality, and fearlessness in the face of controversy inspired a new wave of dance-punk artists in the 2000s. By proving dance music could rise above its rhythm and be soulful, personal, innovative, and daring, Donna Summer became an inspiration and a legend.