Sunday, March 15, 2009

All Systems Go: Donna Summer's Pop Peak

The 1980's were about change and Donna Summer exemplified that reinvention. Closing the 1970's, she left disco behind to adventure broader pop peaks and valleys. Signing with Geffen Records, Summer began a creative, tumultuous, and exciting period in her musical evolution. All Systems Go (1987), Summer's 13th long player and final outing with Geffen Records, is one of Summer's finest records.

The History
Summer's Cats Without Claws (1984) was her first chart stumble in sometime. While it spun off a respectable single in her cover of The Drifters classic "There Goes My Baby," it didn't resonate with an album buying populace. That, coupled with her rumored (though adamantly denied) remarks against the gay community during the height of the AIDS epidemic didn't help matters. The same audience who put Summer in her trajectory to wider successes possibly felt betrayed. It can be stated that her resistance to not cater to post-disco dance music, despite several uptempo hits from 1980 through 1984, also alienated casual fans.  Three years separated Cats from All Systems Go. In that time, Summer regained focus and circled herself with a talented crew to put together All Systems Go.

The Record
Harold Faltermeyer, a principal from Bad Girls (1979), returned to the fold with newcomers Peter Bunetta, Rick Chudacoff, Richard Perry, and Brenda Russell. Summer wrote seven of the nine songs, an assertion that she'd only relinquish her artistic reign to a degree. Summer shaped an engaging piece in All Systems Go that carried her personality as heard on the energetic glow of the title track. One of Summer's most underrated singles and tracks overall, the spacious song had enough room for Summer's voice to blossom and shine throughout.

The percussion tempered "Bad Reputation" played a cooler cousin to "Bad Girls," whereas the jittery wit of "Love Shock" used Summer's character singing style to sell the electric lyrics: "Supersonic, catatonic male, I think you're coming around but you're still looking pretty pale!"  "Dinner With Gershwin," written by Brenda Russell, was the lead single. A pulsating, organic beat politely pounded with piano topping and several eccentric programming shifts where Summer used her lower register for the verses. The song detailed the impossible analogy of meeting great (but deceased) thinkers/inventors/artists across time to getting next to that perfect guy.

Two adult-pop numbers "Jeremy" and the duet "Only the Fool Survives" (with Mickey Thomas of Starship), were pleasant if flat when compared to the triumvirate of balladry perfection that closed Systems. The Quiet Storm of "Fascination," the inspirational "Voices' Cryin' Out," and Sade jazz of "Thinkin' 'Bout My Baby" without question acted as a cornerstone to Summer's vision for All Systems Go and its diversity.

The Impact
Commercially, All Systems Go was another disappointment. Three singles were lifted from the project: "Dinner With Gershwin," "Only the Fool Survives," and the title track. Of the three, "Dinner With Gershwin" was the most sizable and legitimate success, on both sides of the pond. In England, the song landed at the lofty perch of #13, while Summer came in at #10 on the U.S. R&B side. The title track charted at #54 in Britain, and "Only the Fool Survives" released to America and Japan but did not chart. The record itself did not place in any territories.

"Dinner With Gershwin" Music Video

Departing Geffen Records, two years later Summer resurfaced on Atlantic Records with her official "comeback" single and album in "This Time I Know It's For Real" and Another Place & Time (1989). All Systems Go remains Summer's last album to stretch itself style wise, a proud proclamation of her indomitable strength. Four stars out of five.-QH

[Editor's Note: All Systems Go is out of print. It is the more accessible and inexpensive of her Geffen/'80's albums to find, with prices ranging from $16-45, depending on the seller, its condition, etc. Look for used copies of it on eBay or Amazon. For more recent information on Donna Summer, visit: or]

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Luxury & Heartache: Culture Club's Underrated Fourth LP

Culture Club is one of the most talented pop acts of their era. Lead singer Boy George (George O'Dowd), Roy Hay (guitars/keyboards), Mikey Craig (bass), and Jon Moss (drums/percussion) produced some of the finest blue-eyed soul and pop making them a sensation. Their discography has aged well and is readily in print barring their fourth LP, From Luxury to Heartache (1986). The neglect is possibly due to Luxury's commercial failure and critical indifference. Despite this, Heartache is one of the more interesting albums that Culture Club cut.

The History
From Luxury to Heartache came on the heels of the excessive Waking Up With the House On Fire (1984). Conflict over artistic direction, its crux the romantic tension between Moss and George, seeped throughout the Waking album. Desperate for a new direction Culture Club removed Steve Levine, principal director behind their first three records, and brought in Arif Mardin. Mardin was known for his work with Chaka Khan, Bette Midler, Hall & Oates, and Carly Simon among others. His brilliant synthesis of soul and pop was ideal for continuing their blue-eyed sound, but assisting in its evolution.

The Record
A dance spin was placed on the record and reared its head on the dark and dim "Heaven's Children" and "Too Bad." Unfortunately, the production sounded too big on songs like these and drowned out the band element Culture Club was known for.

Thankfully, there were songs that found them working out their new identity with success, such as the lead single "Move Away." "Move Away" had George in excellent voice, even with his increasing drug habit. The deterioration of his relationship to Moss proved to be his best muse lyrically.

The songs of Luxury touched on whimsy ("Work On Me Baby"), the Moss/George split ("Come Clean"), and sexual/social identities ("I Pray," "Sexuality"). Not everything worked, but it made for mesmerizing listening nonetheless. The classic Culture Club pop popped on "Gusto Blusto" and "God Thank You Woman." The latter was the second, and final, British single from the album. With its contagious fiddle breaks it was a bright slice of pep. "Gusto Blusto," slated to be the second American single, had a rowdy tang that exemplified that the group wasn't George's brainchild but four individuals working as a whole. Heartache was another self-contained record under Culture Club's belt.

The Impact
The initial single "Move Away" started the project off, commercially, on a positive note. It was a hit in both their largest markets: America (#12) and Britain (#7). When the record released in April of 1986, reviews were mixed and sales slumped. The record charted on the U.K. Album Chart (#10) and the U.S. Billboard Hot 100 (#32). "God Thank You Woman" was Culture Club's lowest charting single at that time in England (#31), while "Gusto Blusto" had its Stateside release cancelled. The chilly reception owed to the changing music market, Culture Club's colorful image marred them as campy. Though the look of Culture Club had been dialed down to a tasteful, if assimilation, style for the project, it was too late. The explosive nature of George's drug problem culminated with the overdosing death of keyboardist Rudetsky in George's home. Turmoil boiled and the record fell away in the ensuing chaos. The group wouldn't reform until 1998.

"God Thank You Woman"
Directed By: Steve Barron

Later years would be kinder to Heartache, in terms of its stature in fans eyes. Not rising to the peaks of their fifth album, the divine Don't Mind If I Do (1999), it does stand as a better record than Waking Up With the House on Fire. From Luxury to Heartache isn't a perfect album, perhaps it wasn't meant to be. Its target of classy transition was the mission of the day. Three and a half out of five stars.-QH

[Editor's Note: Virgin Records no longer issues this on CD. It was never pressed on CD in America, but in England it was. Up until 2002, you could find this as an import CD title, which is how I got my copy, but currently it is officially out of print across the board. One can locate an affordable copy via or through eBay.-QH]