Happy 30th Anniversary to Donna Summer’s thirteenth studio album All Systems Go, originally released September 15, 1987.
Politely overlooking the few scattered singles that preceded Donna Summer’s debut LP Lady of the Night (1974) between 1968 to 1971, the singer and songwriter had logged a decade of unprecedented musical activity with the arrival of Cats Without Claws, her twelfth album, in the fall of 1984. The Boston ex-pat’s ascendancy to full-fledged disco siren was seemingly effortless, but the second phase of her career housed triumphs and setbacks. Summer departed Casablanca Records in 1980 and signed to David Geffen’s maverick imprint Geffen Records to helm her most unshrinking pop, culminating with Cats Without Claws. The album, despite its venturesome material, was a commercial miss and Summer took two years away to review 10 years of musical majesty.
During that break Summer’s artistic heartbeat hadn’t abated. Instead, it led her to reconnect with an old peer who had worked with her in the past, Harold Faltermeyer. Faltermeyer, who had gone to Hollywood to write movie music, was receptive to reteaming with his old friend. He was one of several producers, musicians, and songwriters that joined Summer to begin plotting her thirteenth album. Some of those notables included Richard Perry, Brenda Russell, Michael Omartian, Peter Bunetta, Rick Chudacoff, Siedah Garrett and John Bettis.
As All Systems Go formed, Geffen was pleased that Summer was open to streamlining her more esoteric pop tastes that had become prominent during her tenure at his label. Initially, Geffen signed Summer with the idea of her being the ultimate renovation from disco singer to an approachable diva, with “occasional” creative inclinations. What he got was a woman who was uncompromisingly her own artist. In Summer’s defense, Geffen had promised almost unequivocal creative freedom for her, a sparking point for her acrimonious departure from Casablanca Records. Geffen did not make good on this promise, shelving her ninth album I’m a Rainbow in 1981 (later released in 1996) and coercing a collaboration with hitmaker Quincy Jones on its replacement, the mildly received Donna Summer (1982). To say that the relationship had soured between Geffen and Summer was an understatement.
Returning to the construction of All Systems Go, Summer had been taken with the glossy album oriented rock fare that had gained traction on the airwaves by the mid-to-late 1980s. And even with her past complexities regarding contemporary R&B, its “Quiet Storm” format piqued her interest and found its way into the album’s sonic DNA too. Of course, there was still room made for Summer’s own pop abstractions, some danceable, some just wonderfully weird. Rallying these disparate aesthetics was that voice that had conquered numerable genres. Summer’s incomparable range made every song vibrate right off the album and directly engage its listeners.
Logging in at nine tracks―five of them superb ballads―All Systems Go showcases a reinvigorated Summer, conscious of chart competition, without employing cloying trickery. The record is eager to be what it is: a tasteful, modern pop album. The album opening title track is a cascading, coruscating synth-track, its clean, irresistible melodies aurally perfect.
Though the only dance jam on the set, barring the funky flipside “Tearin’ Down the Walls” that featured as the B-side to the album’s inaugural single “Dinner with Gershwin,” “Bad Reputation” didn’t slouch with its guitar sneer and spirited percussion. Its socially conscious stance also prolonged the presence of “message music” in Summer’s oeuvre. Of the five ballads, the Sade inspired “Thinkin’ ‘Bout My Baby,” which closed the long player, is a highlight. Sensually charged, it was a career best for Summer.
Four singles were elected to represent All Systems Go, “Dinner with Gershwin” (US #48, US R&B #10, US Dance #13, UK # 13), “All Systems Go” (UK #54), “Only the Fool Survives” and “Fascination.” The record itself, released on September 15, 1987 in America and the preceding day internationally, continued her sales slump. In the years since its release, All Systems Go has largely been remembered for one of its singles, the Brenda Russell penned, Richard Perry produced “Dinner with Gershwin.” A “new old fashioned” pop gem that was lyrically astute, musically adventurous, it has become one of the singer’s most beloved moments.
Geffen greenlighted Another Place and Time (1989), the successor to All Systems Go, but dissolved Summer’s contract upon that record’s completion. To get the record to audiences, Warner Brothers’ global arm―who had handled distribution for her Geffen output―welcomed Summer to their roster, while Atlantic Records signed her in America. With direction from the UK production trio Stock-Aitken-Waterman, Summer scored her biggest hit on both sides of the Atlantic since “She Works Hard for the Money” with the album’s lead-off track, “This Time I Know It’s For Real.”
Even with its low profile in her discography, All Systems Go is just another sterling sample of musical excellence―and diversity―from Donna Summer, the singer who commanded more than just mere disco.
Editor’s Note: Read more about Harrison’s perspective on Summer’s ‘All Systems Go’ album in his forthcoming book, ‘Record Redux: Donna Summer,’ available December 2017. His current books ‘Record Redux: Spice Girls’ and ‘Record Redux: Carly Simon’ are available physically and digitally now.