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Monday, January 02, 2006

When New Wave Happens to Older Artists – Donna Summer

Things weren’t really happening for Donna Summer in 1980. The Queen of Disco and the sound she and producer Giorgio Morodor ushered in had fallen out of favor, replaced by New Wave, which was basically disco (four on the floor beat, off-beat open high-hat, lyrics about sex) with a dumbed-down punk aesthetic and major label approved moniker. Donna had also left her longtime label, Casablanca Records, to become one of the flagship artists (along with John Lennon) for a new start-up helmed by a guy named David Geffen.

So to say it was a considerable gamble for Summer to embrace New Wave and release “The Wanderer” on a new label isn’t entirely true. “Considerable gamble” implies there’s a lot to lose, and let’s be honest, at this point, Donna had enough riches and chart showings to keep her set for a while. It was a pleasant surprise when the title track became a Top 3 hit – it looked like Donna just might shake off the disco tag and move along with the times. All it would take is a couple more strong singles off the album…

“Cold Love” was the follow-up to “The Wanderer,” a straight-ahead rock track with a little bubbling synthline underneath to give it that New Wave sheen. “Cold Love” had a lot going for it – a strong, riffy start, a hooky verse, an always-terrific vocal (one thing that was a slam-dunk for any Summer song, no matter how weak) – all it was missing was a chorus.

Okay, so it had a chorus: ”Cold love / cold love / another shot of rock & roll love”. Fine. I guess the rest of the song was so strong, this chorus just came off a little weak and “Cold Love’s” chart showing ultimately reflected this. On to single #3, then.

“Who Do You Think You’re Foolin’” is okay, not as strong as “Cold Love” and certainly nowhere near as catchy as “The Wanderer”, yet it was still able to struggle into the lower reaches of the Top 40 (#40, to be exact – hey, it’s Top 40!). Lyrically, it treads the same ‘ol, same ‘ol, how fame isn’t all it’s cracked up to be, the only true riches are found within yourself, blah blah. I’m actually surprised this single did as well as it did – it’s nothing too special.

Summer continued to notch chart hits thru the rest of the 80s, hitting the Top Ten with “Love Is In Control (Finger On The Trigger)”, “She Works Hard For The Money”, and her return to straight-ahead disco (err, sorry, “dance music”), “This Time I Know It’s For Real”. She continues to tour and record, scoring dance hits, including her recent Top 5 dance hit, “I Got Your Love”, so her dalliance in New Wave didn’t do any lasting damage, and was probably the first step in showing her range and versatility.

Not every older artist who dabbled in New Wave could say the same, however…stay tuned…

”Cold Love” peaked at #33 on the Billboard Pop Singles Chart in 1981.
“Who Do You Think You’re Foolin’” peaked at #40 on the same chart in 1981.

"The Wanderer" is currently out of print, but you can find used copies on Amazon.
posted by John, 3:49 PM