The Rock’s Backpages Flashback: Donna Summer’s Disco Orgasmatron
In memory of disco queen Donna — one of the sanest and smartest singers I ever interviewed — we present Richard Cromelin's Rolling Stone interview with the girl who'd just set the world's dancefloors alight with the 17-minute spectacular 'Love to Love You, Baby'——Barney Hoskyns, Editorial Director, Rock's Backpages
BEVERLY HILLS — The question was: how do you take a recording-studio orgasm on the road?
"I'm sort of eager to find out myself," Donna Summer answered. On the verge of taking her hit single, 'Love to Love You Baby', on a two-and-a-half-month American tour, Summer gave 'Love to Love You' a live trial run at a string of press parties.
"The audience," she said, "was groaning worse than I was."
'Love to Love You Baby', Summer's 17-minute vinyl aphrodisiac filled with rapturous moans, groans, murmurs and yelps, is more than just a Number One record. After Time magazine dubbed it "a marathon of 22 orgasms" and the BBC banned the single, it became a bona fide cause celebre.
"Everyone's asking, 'Were you alone in the studio?'" said the 26-year-old Summer. "Yes, I was alone in the studio. 'Did you touch yourself?' Yes, well, actually I had my hand on my knee. 'Did you fantasize on anything?' Yes, on my handsome boyfriend Peter."
'Love to Love You', Summer's first venture into a disco style, marks the third phase of her career. First, she left her native Boston seven years ago to do Hair in Munich. Then, she began to record in Munich under the direction of Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte.
Last year, Moroder noted that 'Je T'Aime, Moi Non Plus', Jane Birkin and Serge Gainsbourg's heavy-breathing 1969 smash, was selling again in England, and Summer jokingly suggested that they do their own "love song." Moroder took her seriously, adapted a chorus she'd written, cut the track and brought her in for the fateful vocal session.
If Summer had had a hard time singing 'Love to Love You' (only when Moroder cleared the studio and dimmed the lights did she finally capture the voluptuous feel she was after), listening to the thing presented an even stiffer test.
"I didn't want to hear it," she said. "I heard a couple of oohs and aahs once and I — black people don't get red — I was blue! I love the music, I just wished that I hadn't sung it. But it doesn't bother me anymore."
Summer can laugh at the controversy ("If I'd known seven years ago that all I had to do was groan, I would have been groaning!") but her artist's lament is serious: "I have so much more to offer." Her U.S. tour should give her the chance to prove that she's something more than the Linda Lovelace of pop music.
"You can only be trapped by something that's stronger than yourself," she observed, "and I don't consider it to be stronger than myself. I don't intend to let an image make me."
At her first live performance, though, Summer seemed to wallow in the image. Amid flashing gold lights on the percussion and keyboard stands, she approached the microphone borne on the shoulders of two men in loincloths. Dressed in a white dress trimmed with gold and a sparkling gold headdress, she sang her intro numbers with her knees bent and her head thrown back, undulating her crotch in a circular motion at the audience.
Finally, she left the stage while Smoke, a Casablanca horn-rock band, did a transitional number and the lights went out. When they came back on, there were smoke bombs billowing and three modern dance couples engaged in simulated humping. As Donna returned to sing 'Love to Love You', the couples assumed a variety of Kama Sutra positions. At one point, three men lay supine in a row while Donna squatted over each of them. It looked as if she'd been trapped by something stronger than herself.