Donna Summer ‘Once Upon A Time’

Freewheeling through time and space, Kris Needs continues his adventures in sound. This month: Donna Summer’s ‘Once Upon A Time’

Last month was pretty monumental as Wonder, my partner in Secret Knowledge, flew over from the US and laid down some killer tracks with Nina Walsh at Facility 5. Inevitably it evoked memories of 30 years ago, when we were on the Sabres Of Paradise label she ran with Mr Weatherall and ‘Sugar Daddy’ was ripping up the clubs.

As our song had been inspired by Giorgio Moroder’s groundbreaking Donna Summer productions, it got me remembering even further back to 1977 when I’d spend long nights laying out ZigZag, the UK’s first serious music monthly, by hand. It was the height of punk, but my soundtrack was often Chic and Donna Summer as it was the golden age of disco, and this  was where the real innovations were happening.

That year’s ‘Once Upon A Time’ took the continuous DJ-friendly track segueing pioneered by Gloria Gaynor two years earlier and applied it to Donna’s third concept work – a “disco opera” around the Cinderella story – on the genre’s first double album. In 1977, it was genuinely startling to hear Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte’s electronic beats and sequencers  driving the disco express – notably the techno-presaging ‘Working The Midnight Shift’ and ‘Faster And Faster To Nowhere’ – and sending that magical voice over juddering pulsescapes that predated acid house by nearly a decade.

In November 1991, I realised a personal ambition by interviewing Donna for Echoes, and I took Wonder along to meet one of the last great divas. She was lovely, and unsurprisingly the two ladies clicked uproariously, particularly after Wonder told Donna she’d been inspired to follow her in settling in Munich during the 1980s. 

My day was made when Donna said we looked like we shared the same hairdresser and called me “a naughty boy” for thrusting forth my ‘Love To Love You Baby’ LP to be signed. She seemed genuinely surprised when I raved about ‘Once Upon A Time’ as an electronic game-changer. 

“They play that album? That’s hysterical!” she guffawed. “I can’t imagine anyone playing that! I would have marked ‘I Feel Love’ as the absolute beginning of the techno thing. You just go, ‘Wow!’. When I heard it for the first time, I was spellbound. You don’t know when you do something what it will become down the line.”

Meanwhile, closer to home, another somewhat seismic album is finally being unleashed this month – Woodleigh Research Facility’s ‘Phonox Nights’. Wallow in it!

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Freewheeling through time and space, our renegade columnist ventures out on his further adventures in audio. This month, 1969…