The death of Donna Summer from cancer last week had a particular affect on me, as she is responsible for one of my favourite albums of all time: the underrated Once Upon A Time (1977). Released between I Remember Yesterday, home of ‘I Feel Love’, which galvanised British audiences, and Live and More, which kick-started the imperial phase of her success in the US, the album is probably best remembered for the ecstatic disco hit ‘I Love You’, a staple of her Greatest Hits albums.
So what’s so special about it? Well, for a start it’s solidly a concept album, arguably the first disco opera or song-cycle, and a black urban update of the Cinderella story for the disco. Other Black fairy tales updates of the era, such as The Wiz, are clearly an influence, and particularly Diana Ross’ portrayal of the shy young Dorothy. The 16 tracks are artfully sequenced over the LP’s four sides to create an operatic narrative of clearly defined ‘acts’ (the arc for which has become somewhat lost in the CD re-releases). Donna plays a desperately lonely fantasist dreaming of her Prince Charming. Oscillating between giddy disco fantasies of romantic dreams come true (‘Fairy Tale High’) and scenarios of urban dystopian nightmare (‘Faster and Faster to Nowhere’), the first side paints a picture of a rather disturbed young woman starved of human warmth (‘Say Something Nice’ is the ultimate disco low-esteem anthem).
Side two is the real gem, though: admirers of Giorgio Moroder’s Krautrock influenced metronomic Disco will thrill to the precision pulsing and flanging of the synthesizers & drum machine familiar from ‘I Feel Love’. Those more sensitive to the lyrics won’t know whether to dance or slash their wrists listening to ‘Now I Need You’ as well as ‘Working The Midnight Shift’, a poignantly atmospheric tableau of emotional isolation waitressing in a shitty diner. On side three, the tone shifts yet again as Donna takes matters into her own hands, tarts herself up for a night out at the disco and shakes her booty (‘If You Got It Flaunt It’) right into the arms of Prince Charming (‘A Man Like You’). The upbeat mood of course doesn’t last as, in a gender twist on the Cinderella tale, her beau does a bunk from the disco and, fearing she will never see him again, she sings a heart-rending prayer for his return (‘Sweet Romance’).
Side four resolves the story in classic fairy tale fashion as Charming comes searching (‘Rumour Has It’), true love is established (‘I Love You’) and they disco off into the sunset together (‘Happy Ever After’). Or do they?
It has always seemed to me that the end of this story is one written by a classic untrustworthy narrator. It seems far more realistic that the socially awkward fantasist with the naïvely breathy little-girl voice, so delicately portrayed across the first two sides, would be more likely to retreat further into her fantasy world and make the ending up than actually pull Mr Right down at the disco and live happily ever after.
“Rumour has it all around the town. Someone’s looking for a girl like me, where can she be found?” Yeah, right. Pull the other one. You’re a lonely waitress with a fantasy world bigger than your ample disco wig, and still probably fighting off the greasy wandering hands of your sleazy boss in the diner. The final spoken lines “And one day she did awake and found herself somewhere else beside her a brand new face of someone that she loved” are backed by such melancholy piano music (a reprise taking us full circle back to the opening theme ‘Once Upon A Time’) that the happy ending is musically undermined and we end on a very ambiguous note.
At least, that’s how I interpret it anyway. Most likely, no such plot complexity was in the minds of the team of Summer, Moroder and Pete Bellotte as they spontaneously threw it together in the 3-day recording session that ended with Donna being hospitalized for exhaustion. The album was never intended to be a double anyway: inspiration and a ballooning plot stretched it way beyond the artistic parameters of the concept albums they had recorded before, such as Four Seasons of Love. Its moderate success inadvertently set the template for their output for the rest of the ‘70s – the next three albums were all doubles, topping the charts in America.
The final twist may be nothing more than subtext, but it is so real for me that I sometimes actually find myself crying during the everything-turns-out-alright-in-the-end party on side four as I contemplate how hopelessly lost this poor delusional creature must be. These themes of fantasy and isolation must have struck a chord with gay audiences at the time, many of whom would have still been very much struggling with the social realities of the closet and social exclusion.
Summer and Moroder made many great recordings after this: big hits ‘Macarthur Park’, ‘Heaven Knows’, ‘Bad Girls’ and ‘Hot Stuff’ were still yet to come, but they never again made anything that so compellingly begs to be listened to as an album from start to finish. It truly is a journey with far more depth and complexity than you would ever expect to hear in a disco album. If you happen to be a little maudlin after Donna’s sad death, as I am, it may also happen to be a good soundtrack for your emotions.