Wednesday, October 20, 2010

Donna Summer's "The Wanderer" 30 Years Later



The QH Blend has widely discussed the year of 1980 in terms of its connection to the dissolution of disco. Some acts survived, many more struggled. Donna Summer symbolized a phoenix from the ashes of a musical movement in which she was its figurehead. The Wanderer, her eighth album, was a bigger gambit for Summer. The creative freedom earned on this long player allowed Donna Summer to become the pop presario she always hinted at.

History
After the triumphs of Lady of the Night (1974) and Love to Love You Baby (1975), Summer climbed through the rest of '70's on the back of several conceptualized works that synthesized black dance and European pop into an art called "disco." By 1979, Summer had achieved dominance commercially and exemplified that her transition from the underground to the mainstream hadn't soiled her artistic flow.

On the horizon was a looming anti-disco sentiment that sat next to Summer's discontent with her image. Summer was ready for a cleanse. Gracefully sealing off her glory days with On the Radio: Greatest Hits in '79, Summer left Casablanca Records and jumped aboard Geffen Records. The label swap marked a experimentally rewarding period that encompassed her second decade.

The Record
Never a slave to the conventional
"9 to 5" black female vocal prototype, Summer always explored wider options with her voice. Longtime partners in production Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte had planted the seeds for Summer's rock revolution with cuts like "My Baby Understands" and others on Bad Girls.

The Wanderer, another concept record, dealt with a woman attempting to flee from the mundane. She gets swallowed by the big city and love, but emerges spiritually reborn. The journey mirrored Summer herself who had just become a "born again Christian" at this time.

Lean, but filling, The Wanderer downplayed any  beats and swirling orchestras for clean, keen guitars, enthralling programming and snappy brass. The title song, with its spazzy character driven vocal, was wacky, weird, and wonderful. Said character singing stayed in effect on each song, making the narrative of the record richer. Summer siren sang along the roiling tidal wave of ambience that was "Grand Illusion." On "Cold Love" and "Stop Me" her voice burned with passion and defiance. She was as soulful as any drab belter and tackled tracks like the gospel shaded "I Believe in Jesus." Summer was taking no prisoners with what her voice could achieve on this album.

The musical map of the LP was strewn with rock externally, but the pop ("Looking Up") and soul lines ("Breakdown") didn't hide. Prose wise, Summer maintained her tale telling with "Running For Cover" and "Who Do You Think Your Foolin'," both identity searching anthems.

The Impact
The Wanderer was an immediate critical hit when released on October 20th, 1980. Rolling Stone  ranked the record in second place in a year-end tally behind Bruce Springsteen's The River. Stone's final assessment gifted The Wanderer with a total of four stars.

Pop culture site Pop Matters Christian John Wikane wrote of The Wanderer in April of 2007 stating:


By 1980, Donna Summer had amassed enough currency in her career to take chances. In October, Summer astounded audiences with The Wanderer, a decidedly rock-oriented album that marked Summer’s liberation from the image-making machinations of her previous record company, Casablanca, and from the grueling celebrity lifestyle that sent her to the brink of suicide. (The album also inaugurated David Geffen’s eponymous record label.)

Harry Langdon’s album cover photograph for The Wanderer depicts Summer clothed in layers of scarves and leggings, sitting atop a black bench with suitcase nearby, looking very much "the wanderer.” With one hand casually nested in her perfectly coiffed hair, Summer’s gaze is direct and provocative. “I dare you to listen” is the implied message.
Audience reception was understandably split. Summer's primary audience, a white, dance-pop crowd were still stepping to remaining throes of disco's last stomp. Summer's colleague, Diana Ross' "Upside Down" and its parent album diana (1980), represented that mentioned, accessible end of days abandon. Those that did respond saw the greatness Summer's broader pop. Being a black woman in a predominantly non-R&B sound on The Wanderer was confusing for the few black fans Summer did have.


"The Wanderer," Circa 1980



All of these conditions reflected in the commercial outcome, a gold seller with a U.S. Top 10 hit for the title track and two U.S. Top 40 hits ("Cold Love," "Who Do You Think You're Foolin'"). Summer, the first black woman to win a rock Grammy the year before with "Hot Stuff" was nominated for a rock Grammy in 1980 ("The Wanderer") and 1981 ("Cold Love").

Summer continued to maintain her muse throughout the remainder of the 1980's up through her recent release, 2008's CrayonsCrayons patterned itself close to The Wanderer in tone, evidence that pop at its best is an energetic, evolving force. The Wanderer stands resilient in the face of labels, influential and vital. Five out of five stars.-QH

[Editor's Note: Like majority of Donna Summer's 1980's work, The Wanderer is out of print and expensive to obtain. I luckily snatched up a mint copy for $38 in 2007, the prices tend to ebb and flow ranging anywhere from $50-$70 for a CD copy at online music retailers.-QH]

6 comments:

H said...

This very radiant article was insightful and thought provoking. I am curious as to who were some of her musical influences as well as those who Ms. Summer influenced. I know there are many who would disagree with what Beyonce did with “Love to Love You Baby”, but I will say I did like the song. However, I attribute my enjoyment of Beyonce’s version to the memories I have from Donna’s original version.

Jennifer said...

Awesome post! I'm such a fan of this album...is it bad I have it framed as a vinyl on my wall? I thought Donna did a fantastic transition from disco to new wave with this, and 'The Wanderer' says it all, considering a lot of funk/disco/soul artists were in limbo at that time. Strangely, I never liked the title track, but everything else like "Looking Up", "Breakdown", "Cold Love" and "Grand Illusion" are just great. Top 3 of Donna albums along with 'All Systems Go' and the 1982 Donna Summer.

Anonymous said...

WHEN THE WANDERER CAME OUT I WAS ALL OF ALL OF 4MONTHS OLD I'VE ALWAYS KNEW WHO DONNA WAS MY MOM LITERALLY THOUGHT SHE WAS DONNA SUMMER AND OUR FIRST PICTURE TOGETHER AS MOM N SON SHE HAD BAD GIRLS HAIR I'M A HUGE DONNA FAN I'M SAD TO SAY I NEVER HEARD THE WANDERER UNTIL 2008 N IT HAS NEVER BEEN OUT OF MY CD CHANGER IN MY CAR I THINK IT TRULY IS ONE OF HER BEST ALBUMS EVER AND WITH ALL THINGS DONNA UNDERRATED! LOOKING UP IS MY FAVORITE TRACK FOLLOWED BY COLD LOVE N BREAKDOWN ONCE UPON A TIME IS MY FAVORITE I SO WISH DONNA WOULD PUT THESE TRACKS BACK IN HER LIVE SHOWS

Anonymous said...

Im in the minority of long time Donna Summer fanatics as "The Wanderer" is my favorite Donna LP. I liked that her vocal which sometimes was overpowered by the Disco production was spotlighted. I liked the lyrical story that the album seemed to have. I think it was actually my first ADULT lp, where I saw it as a whole entity and not just filler & hits. I would have loved if Donna would have continued down this road muscially, but understand that it is a business. Its ashame that TO THIS DAY she is not more appreciated for that WONDERFUL VOICE. She is the best singer out there and as a songwriter (which is almost never discussed)is great too.

Jorge said...

I LIKED THIS ARTICLE A LOT WITH FEW WORDS EXPRESSED A LOT,I'VE BEEN A DONNA SUMMER FAN SINCE I HEARD "LOVE TO LOVE YOU,BABY" FOR THE FIRST TIME BACK IN 1976 UNTIL TODAY, I AGREED THAT SHE IS ONE OF THE MOST UNDERAPPRECIATED ARTISTS,BUT I DON'T CARE ABOUT MEDIA CAN SAY ABOUT HER,TO ME SHE IS THE BEST SINGER AND A GREAT WRITER,NONE OF THE SINGERS OUT THERE HAS HER POWERFULL VOICE,STYLE,PASSION,CARISMA AND V ERSATILITY TO SING.THE WANDERER IS ONE OF MY FAVORITE ALBUMS BECAUSE IS ROCK ORIENTED,MY FAVORITE TRACK IS "COLD LOVE" AND "I BELIEVE IN JESUS" I WISH THEY COULD PUT OUT IN THE MARKET THE REMIXES ALBUM.

Nick said...

I am a devoted fan of Miss Summer. I readily accept the creative expressions she continues to gift us throughout her illustrious career. Through disco, show tunes, gospel, rock, country, pop, soul,rap and world music, just to name a few, Donna always hits the mark with her choices.
Even if they may not be the biggest hits they are always looked at in retrospect as incredible gems that have a life well beyond the year of their release.
The Wanderer is one of my favorite of Donna's musical babies because it was a real departure for her audience. Donna had it in her all the time. But no one really knew until this album hit the stores. I was 11 years old when the Wanderer was released and even at that young age I was aware of the brave step Donna took, out from under the 70's mirror ball and straight into the rock-edged synth laden eighties. A seemless transition with no fear and no apologies.

I believe if this album were to be released today, it would surpass the gold status it acchieved in 1980 and spawn a top ten hit with "Cold Love". Who do I need to know to get this album re-released??
I thank you for this wonderful anniversary article. It was fun to time travel with you. One thing I want to ammend in your article is that the title of the song from "Bad Girls" that you referred to is called "My Baby Understands", not "My Baby Cares For Me". And this one is a true stunner. Everyone should go back into their record collection and break out the Bad Girls album and take another listen to this song and hear Donna burn like only she can. Positively HOT STUFF!!!!