Groove Column: on Donna Summer

I’m on a train to the Robert Johnson club in Offenbach, trying to decide what Donna Summer track to play tonight in her memory. There are so many amazing cuts to choose from:  ‘Our Love’ with its hints at what would become New Order’s ‘Blue Monday’, the new-age gospel of ‘State of Independence’ or the behemoth ‘I Feel Love’, a record which casts a huge shadow, a template and an inspiration for so much of what we’ve done since, yet which thirty-five years after it was made still sounds radically like the future.

Too much DJing has been in memoriam recently; two weeks ago it was a segue of MCA’s brilliant revisionist acapella from Sureshot (‘I want to say a little something that’s long overdue, that disrespecting women has got to be through’) into Intergalactic. In the past months it’s been Whitney Houston, Darryl Pandy, Michael Jackson, Kenny Hawkes. Every death, however keenly felt, is also a defiant reminder that dance, once dismissed as a mere ‘craze’, the provenance of teenagers, is well into it’s forties now, a permanent part of the cultural landscape, ubiquitous but still thrilling.

Summer’s career tells in miniature the story of how dance music got to where it is now – the criss-crossing of musical influence across the Atlantic, the collision of white European pop and the black American soul, the at-first-controversial mixture of the human and the machine-wrought, an erotics of bodily pleasure threatening to eclipse pop’s tales of romance. And when Moroder, Bellote and Summer ripped out disco’s heart and put a motorik sixteenths bassline in its place, a new form began that we haven’t nearly finished getting to grips with.

In the end I choose the bittersweet ‘Last Dance’ from the movie, ’Thank God It’s Friday’, her vocal simultaneously coquettish and insecure, defiant and elegaic;  ‘it’s my last dance, my last chance for love tonight’. As death forces us to take stock it also gives us a chance to say thanks. Millions of us will dance to Donna Summer and the musics she inspired this weekend, disappearing into that delicious eternal present, joyously flicking our fingers in the face of our inevitable ending for a few hours at least. For a moment, a wish is granted.

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