By Jason Shawhan
It was an incongruous pairing of sound and image. Tourists being mowed down by a runaway car, chaos reigning and, from the car's radio, a familiar, plaintive voice. "That's Donna Summer!" I said to my friends while immersed in the computer game Grand Theft Auto III, trying to avoid rolling their car after taking out several police officers and prostitutes with a particularly vicious sideswipe. It was Summer's voice, from "Sweet Romance," a harpsichord-based ballad from her 1977 opus Once Upon a Time..., now sampled as the refrain for Black Rob's "By a Stranger," which is how it came to be in the game.
Just in time for its 25th anniversary, Once Upon a Time... is creeping back into the zeitgeist. Conceived as a musical storybook for Summer's daughter Mimi, Once Upon a Time... is a concept double album (divided into four acts, one per side on the original LPs) about fairy tales, love and life's cruel realities. The basic narrative follows a nameless girl on her journeys in the land of Never-Never, including her rendezvous with destiny and true love. Timeless archetypes, to be sure, but ones that Summer and her songwriting partners and producers, Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte, explored in new ways--namely, by conveying them through the sounds of disco and its adult concerns.
Once Upon a Time... yielded only one hit single, the dreamy and euphoric "I Love You," but the record still went multiplatinum--the first of Summer's four consecutive double albums to do so (in just three years). The record received mixed reviews upon its release, its detractors citing its opera-like conception as heavy-handed; today, it stands as perhaps the most ambitious and fully realized dance music album ever made.
A Nashville resident for the past seven years or so, Summer has long been hailed as the Queen of Disco, but that designation fails to do justice to the many musical forms--from funk and rock to blues and gospel--over which she and her collaborators demonstrated mastery. What is rarely addressed, and what certainly distinguishes the Summer/Moroder/Bellotte (S/M/B) collective from most dance groups, is the strength and versatility of their songwriting. It isn't just the enduring nature of so many of Summer's singles; it's the boldness and reach of the albums on which they appeared.
Love to Love You Baby (1975) and A Love Trilogy (1976), for example, devoted their entire first sides to experimental, vampy versions of their respective centerpieces. "I Feel Love" from 1977's I Remember Yesterday took all the loops and programs Kraftwerk had been working with, injected some soul into the machine and helped pave the way for contemporary electronic music. Act 2 of Once Upon a Time... is devoted to this kind of sound--Eurodisco before it had a name, Hi-NRG and synth-pop several years ahead of their time. The triptych of "Now I Need You," "Working the Midnight Shift" and "Queen for a Day" that comprises side two of Once Upon a Time... is almost curiously removed from time, sounding at once retro and futuristic.
Musically, Once Upon a Time... is a marvel, quintessentially disco yet more than just simple bass-line vamps over thumping kick drums and eighth-note percussion sequences. The chorus to "Rumour Has It" has an amazing lead-in where the hi-hats go double-time, the staccato feel marvelously conveying the movement of a rumor through a community. A similar adventurousness pervades the paranoid delusion of "Faster and Faster to Nowhere"--the only appearance nightmare makes on an album of dreams and fantasies. Using analog vocoders, unearthly screeches swirl in the mix and Donna breaks down in fear; it's the epitome of catharsis on the dance floor.