I always felt Donna Summer belonged in the second tier of female soul singers, below Aretha, Gladys and Dionne and alongside Irma Thomas, Candi Staton and Dee Dee Warwick, which isn’t bad company. What she had going for her, the thing that marked her out, was a hint of sadness in her tone. Even when she was at her most exultant and ecstatic (the obvious examples being “Could It Be Magic” and “I Feel Love”), there was a darker emotional undertow. I imagine it was that sense of ambiguity which caught Giorgio Moroder’s attention back in the mid-’70s. And somehow it was rendered even more potent by the contrast with the Munich producer’s machine-tooled beats.
Long after she and Moroder had parted company, she put her name and voice to a pop-disco masterpiece that illustrates better than anything what I’m trying to describe. And it came, much to my astonishment, from the team of Mike Stock, Matt Aitken and Pete Waterman, with whom Summer decided to work after hearing the hits they’d made with Rick Astley. That was in 1987, and things weren’t going well in her relationship with David Geffen’s label. Her last hit, “She Works Hard for the Money”, had been four years earlier. Looking for a new angle, she made an album with Stock, Aitken and Waterman. But when Geffen heard it, he didn’t like it. As Waterman relates in the notes to the newly remastered and expanded reissue of Another Place and Time, the record company president asked for more guitars. Waterman, quite properly, told him where to get off and a stalemate ensued.
To break it, Rob Dickens, the head of WEA, Geffen’s European distributors, played the unreleased album to Ahmet Ertegun, who loved it. Which is how it came to be released, on the Atlantic label in the US and WEA in Europe, two years after being made. And how Donna Summer came to make her way back into the top 10 in the US and the UK with a perfectly standard, upbeat and affectless SA&W song called “This Time I Know It’s For Real”.
But the track Ertegun heard first, and the one that sold him on the project, was the one I’ve always been crazy about. Another SA&W composition, it’s called “Love’s About to Change My Heart”, a slice of pure pop-soul-disco that plays to every one of the singer’s strengths. From an out-of-tempo intro to a Moroder-ish four-on-the-floor that qualified, in 1989, as a retro gesture, aided by the producers’ meticulous attention to building and releasing tension constantly throughout the track, Summer takes a good tune and a lyric worthy of Hal David — “I’m waiting for the doorbell to chime / I always lived one day at a time / I thought that I was getting on fine / Never felt that I was alone until you changed my mind” — and soars. Give her a song like this, and she could make it sound like she’d lived it.
The three-CD reissue of the album contains many remixes and offers no fewer than nine versions of “Love’s About to Change My Heart”, which shows what a dancefloor favourite it was, even if it failed to make much noise on the charts. But the version I love is the first one I heard, the producers’ own mix for the original issue on a 45rpm single. Everything about its beautifully detailed three minutes and 43 seconds is perfect, including two moments of absolute pop transcendence created by the producers. The first comes at 2:24, when Summer is reflecting on her changed emotional state. “What did I know?” she asks, and her own voice suddenly appears from another direction, overlapping and repeating the final syllable with a gospel howl, like her subconscious mind bursting out from beneath the narrative. If you were dancing you’d throw up your arms and howl along. And then, at 3:02, the pounding 128bpm rhythm is cut for a full 10 seconds, leaving Donna and the backing choir hanging in the air, a cappella, until the beat comes crashing back in, with the choir commenting — encouraging or warning? — like a Greek chorus: “Changin’… changin’… changin’…” until Donna joins in — “Change me… change me…” and the piece starts to fade. Weirdly, that touch of genius isn’t on the album version.
Luckily, the single version is the last of the nine extra mixes on the third disc of the reissue. It’s a record I’ve loved for 25 years. In fact I’m going to play it again now, over and over again, as loud as I can get away with.
* The photograph above appears on the reissue of Another Place and Time, on the Driven by the Music label, credited to the Donna Summer Archive.