Someone found a letter you wrote me

summer_on_the_radio_hollandOn 15 March 1980, “On the Radio” by Donna Summer peaked at #5

All through this blog, I’ve been pretty derisive of disco for being mindless and boring.  I was worried that “On the Radio” by Donna Summer was going to be more of the same awful disco.  Musically… it kind of is:  it’s in a more somber, pensive key than most other disco, but other than that, there’s the same kickdrum-violin onslaught that makes for easy but boring djing.  But the lyrics are actually something else entirely.  The song starts with what is a familiar feeling for most people, being wistful for a lost love, but it doesn’t address it in the usual terms.  In the usual disco song, the singer would sing something like, “I heard a song on the radio and it reminded me of you.”  But this is different:  “Someone found a letter you wrote me and they told the world just how you felt.”  These lyrics personalize the synchronicitous relationship of a random event with one’s daily emotions:  it highlights how when we have strong emotions, whatever they are, ambient events suddenly have meaning.  Of course the song didn’t fall through a hole in the pocket of his overcoat, but that Donna can think that some random song could have been written by her estranged man makes for a much more heartfelt sentiment.

This approach also sets up tension more direct lyrics can’t establish:  “On the Radio” could turn into a stalker song, an unrequited love song, or a happy reconciliation song, and the interesting lyric makes us actually care which way it goes.  We don’t know what kind of character Donna is until she resolves her emotions.  This is an effective way to spice up a worn genre, pull a listener’s interest in, and win over a curmudgeonly jade like me.  So let it not be said that I categorically hate disco — I can like it when it lets me consume the music, not just listen to it.

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Turn up the old Victrola

220px-Dim_All_The_Lights_(Holland)On 12 January 1980, “Dim All the Lights by Donna Summer was at #98, its highest position in the 80s.  Its peak position was #2 in 1979. 

What’s with all the filling women up like cups?  We had Crystal Gayle’s “Half the Way“, and now Donna Summer’s “Dim All the Lights“, which uses the same vaguely pornographic metaphor for loving someone to their fullest.  Apart from that, and Donna’s ability to hold notes for longer than most, I really don’t have much to say about this song; at surface it’s your standard disco song, if slightly better than average.

So instead I’ll talk a bit about Giorgio Moroder.  You may not know who he is, but you’ve undoubtedly heard his work numerous times:  he’s a legendary producer of disco and new wave singles, and I have a love-hate respect for him.  I hate him for the disco.  He imported to the US the horrible, most obnoxious traits of European disco:  jaunty, gallop beats, overuse of dramatic key changes, and a blinkered devotion to happy major key compositions even when the lyrics of a song are downbeat or angry, yet with no sense of irony.  Actually, lack of irony is perhaps Moroder’s greatest sin; everything he does is to be taken at simple face value.  When it was disco — particularly with Donna Summer — it was generally bland and uninteresting.  But when he got to playing around with synthesizers — it would be too generous to say he pioneered with them — he found a lush sound sometimes dipped into darker territory.  Sure, he still secreted brainless singles like “Together in Electric Dreams” (with Phil Oakey of The Human League), but he also had the brilliant Midnight Express soundtrack, which included the dark, urgent, and entirely synthesized  “The Chase“.  He produced the soundtracks to Scarface (complete with a single with Debbie Harry) and Cat People (complete with a single with David Bowie), he worked with Berlin and Kenny Loggins on singles from the Top Gun soundtrack,  and every kid of the 80s knows the title song to The NeverEnding Story:  That’s Giorgio Moroder working with Limahl of Kajagoogoo fame.  Not everything he did was gold (I hate the NeverEnding Story theme song, and his reworking of the silent film Metropolis to have an all top-40 new wave soundtrack was predictably unironic to say the least), and he’s certainly not as challenging as Cabaret Voltaire in his use of synthesizers, but he certainly left an indelible mark on the early 80s and left the place rather more interesting than when he found it.

We won’t waste another tear

nomoretearsOn 5 January 1980, “No More Tears (Enough Is Enough)” by Barbra Streisand and Donna Summer was at #21, its highest position in the 80s.  Its peak position was #1 in 1979. 

Oh, God, it’s disco.  I mean, when it starts, “No More Tears (Enough Is Enough)” sounds like the standard, schmaltzy Barbra Streisand duet, complete with the corny old-timey reference to an earlier decade (“it’s raining, it’s pouring”, if I’m not puking, I’m snoring).  Admittedly the second voice is Donna Summer, and I suppose that should have been a hint… but it goes on for one minute and forty-five seconds like that.  Can you blame me for thinking — hoping — that it was just going to be a ballad?

But no, when Barbra goes into that long, limpid note, there’s the buh-dump of the kick-drum, and the blood turns to ice in your veins because the disco starts to flow in all its clichéd glory.  It tried to outdo “I Will Survive” as a female-empowerment anthem by having not one but two divas screaming about how horrible the men in their lives are.  I won’t go into the awfulness that this stereo assault of colorless dance slop is — you can hear it for yourself — but I will ask this one question:

When am I supposed to listen to this song?

It’s clearly a dance song, but its introduction is so long and lugubrious that you really can’t play it at a club; no club music can possibly lead into it in any reasonable manner.  It’s perhaps reasonable to expect it to be played at weddings as a transition from slow songs to fast songs, assuming perhaps that the DJ forgot his copy of “Don’t Leave Me This Way“, but is this really a song you want to play at a wedding?  It’s all about kicking that no-good two-timing man out of your life, not marrying him.  The start of the song makes it sound like waiting-room fodder, but then the song’s ample disco body is far too fast for the podiatrist crowd.  It could easily be the song for the end credits of a movie, but it wasn’t that, at least not until k. d. lang and Andy Bell covered it for *shudder* the Coneheads movie, and they perhaps wisely took all the disco out of it.  I’m trying to imagine the traditional Barbra Streisand fan listening to this on an album; after all the usual crooning, this would come as quite the shock.  It’s far more suited to sit alongside the rest of Donna Summer’s work; it probably goes very well with the rather good “Hot Stuff“.  If you look at the Wikipedia page for “Enough Is Enough”, sure enough, Donna Summer performed it live all the time, whereas Barbara only did as a tribute to Donna after she died, and then only a bit of it.  Which leaves radio, which is the perfect format for a song like this, a song so schizophrenic that it can only exist sandwiched between two bouts of a vinyl jock chattering about how great the track is, or maybe between the weather and the traffic report.  And radio’s all that matters for the Hot 100, kids.

As an aside, my thanks to the music gods for the single format; the version of this song that was released on Donna Summer’s Greatest Hits album is eleven minutes long.  Enough is enough!  I’m stopping at 4:48!