Classic Songs of My Youth Revisited #30

Donna Summer – Dim All the Lights

I will never not be annoyed by people who make mistakes when writing about Disco Demolition Night. It happened again recently in a most unexpected place: an article about 1970s hockey superstar Guy Lafleur (who, I shit you not, put out a disco record in 1979).

To recap: in 1979, either Steve Dahl, a dumbass disc jockey from Chicago, or his handlers convinced Chicago White Sox owner Bill Veeck, who never missed out on a chance at pulling off an oddball promotional stunt (see Gaedel, Eddie if you doubt me), to let him blow up a bunch of disco records between games of a baseball double header at Comiskey Park on July 12. The results were predictable to anyone with the first clue about explosions and human behaviour: the field was left a mess and the fans ran wild, leading to the second game being cancelled and Veeck’s White Sox having to forfeit.

What always annoys me is the idea that this event arose out of some sort of populist revolt against disco for taking over our radio airwaves. There is no doubt disco was running out of steam, as all massively popular cultural movements inevitably do, usually from a mix of consumer fatigue and the appeal of the new. But it was still immensely popular in 1979. Other than two ballads and the soft rock of the Doobie Brothers’ “What A Fool Believes”, every Billboard number one song so far that year had been a disco or disco-adjacent tune. At the very moment fans were streaming into Comiskey, Anita Ward’s “Ring My Bell” was atop the charts. It would be followed by a five-week run from Donna Summer’s “Bad Girls” before The Knack took control of the charts, and soon faced their own backlash. Clearly, disco wasn’t the problem – idiots were.

And those idiots? A lot of racists, most likely. Fans showed up at the game with records by such artists as Stevie Wonder, Marvin Gaye and Smokey Robinson. Definitely not disco. But Black, which a lot of White folks either seemed to think made them disco, or they just didn’t care about the reason for the protest, just its target. (Homophobia likely played a part as well.)

But let’s talk about Donna Summer. I owned a few disco albums (and a lot of singles), but Summer’s “Bad Girls” is the only album that I played repeatedly when it came out and still enjoy listening to today. It’s unfair to call a lot of this disco: there’s soul and pop and rock and something called hi-NRG and a bunch of other stuff, and all of it is lethal. I particularly love the banner along the bottom of the front jacket cover: “Over 70 minutes of music”. The volume isn’t that big of a deal in the oversized streaming age: it’s that every one of those 71 (to be exact) minutes earns its place, unlike the often unlistenable bloat of something like Drake’s “Certified Lover Boy”.

Though not the biggest hit, “Dim All the Lights” was, even then, my favourite of the album’s singles. It doesn’t turn up much on playlists, which is too bad, because it is still great. It’s a song about sex, of course (“You can use me all up / Take me bottom to top” and “Turn my brown body white” – how did that line get onto 1979 radio?), but there are also old-fashioned notions of love and commitment, with the reference to a Victrola a lovely signalling device. It starts out sultry and languid, a slow jam before such things had a name, but with a buzzing energy underneath and a vocal from Donna that lets you know this won’t be a ballad. She draws you in, then, as the disco beat kicks up, holds a note for an impossibly long time. After that, it’s just breathless, the beat never letting up, with even the changes hanging onto the thumping backdrop. It’s a song built for extended forays to the dance floor, and there has got to be a great 12-minute remix out there somewhere. (There is an official seven-minute version that, unfortunately, doesn’t seem to understand what makes the song great.) I particularly love the little bits that sound like a worn-out steel drum during the instrumental break from 2:49 to 3:21. And after the processed vocals that follow that break, it’s chilling when Donna’s pure voice kicks in again at 3:54, and takes you home (blending into “Journey to the Centre of Your Heart” on the album).

So, yes, I love this song, and the whole album. It was Summer’s peak, commercially and artistically, and although she didn’t have a pop hit after 1989, she continued to top the dance charts regularly almost up to her passing in 2012. Even now, this music seems fresh and timeless, and I am happy to get into the trenches with anyone dumb enough to try and argue that all disco was intended to be disposable. Although it was much maligned in its time, there were genuine artists working in the genre, with all-time great albums from the likes of Chic, and even better singles, like Sylvester’s “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)”. Of course, there were hacks just churning out records to fit demand, but every genre has its version of Stock, Aitken & Waterman. I was too young to participate in the disco era, but I’m pretty sure I can conjure what it must have felt like to be a young urban adult in 1977 by cranking up “I Feel Love” and letting the beat take over. That’s art, my friends.

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