Donna Summer: 'I Do Know How I Survive'

With a helping hand from Quincy Jones, Jon and Vangelis, Stevie Wonder, Michael Jackson, Dionne Warwick, David Geffen and more, Donna Summer created the archetypal Balearic beat banger in 1982. Balearic Mike explores the origins of ‘State of Independence’ and examines its enduring appeal…

In October 1982, the second single from Donna Summer’s eponymous LP was released. Initial reaction was mixed to say the least. Forty years on it’s considered a groundbreaking and genre-defying electronic music masterpiece, a song that Brian Eno has described as “one of the high points of 20th century art.”

Originally written and recorded by Jon Anderson and Vangelis, it appeared on their 1981 LP ‘Friends of Mr Cairo’. Although the original is a brilliant slice of futuristic electronic pop, it’s an odd choice of a track to cover, crawling along at about 80 bpm and sounding like a reggae tune performed by The Clangers, with no discernible chorus or real vocal hook to speak of. ‘Hot Stuff’, Summer’s 1979 raunchy disco rock slam dunk it certainly is not.

The early-80s were a troubling time for Summer and her career. Following the ‘Disco Sucks’ backlash of 1979, she had jumped ship from Neil Bogart’s Casablanca Records to join David Geffen at his new eponymous label. Still working with her production team of Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte, her debut album for Geffen, 1980’s ‘The Wanderer’, was a commercial and artistic failure, with both the singles and the LP failing to break the top 40 in the UK.

It’s a confused album, with what seems like a conscious attempt to move away from disco – by then a dirty word – but no clear idea on where to go, although the track ‘Grand Illusion’ is a wonderful, druggy, slo-mo slice of electronica. Alarmingly for Geffen, most of his new label’s debut records – with John Lennon’s ‘Double Fantasy’ the sole exception – were also commercial flops, so something drastic had to happen… and drastic it was.

David Geffen allegedly canned Donna’s next LP, ‘I’m a Rainbow’, demanding a hit. In order to perform this miracle, he insisted she switch producers and record with Quincy Jones instead. Jones had just produced a run of hit albums, including Michael Jackson’s ‘Off the Wall’, George Benson’s ‘Give Me the Night’, and The Brothers Johnson’s ‘Light Up the Night’, so he seemed like a pretty good bet.

The new LP took six months to record at Westlake Audio in Los Angeles and featured a host of collaborators and co-writers (17 in total). The recording process wasn’t a great experience. Summer didn’t really hit it off with Jones, and soon after the album’s release she tellingly told the NME’s Barney Hoskins: “… it’s really more his album.”

The sound was highly polished, as was Donna’s new image, presenting her in a far more conservative style. Out was the sexy disco diva in a backless figure-hugging dress who sang ‘Bad Girls’, and in was power dressing, shoulder pads and a look fit for this new era of Reaganomics.

Subsequently, the album didn’t achieve its stated objective. Despite opening track and lead single ‘Love is in Control (Finger on the Trigger)’, being a sizable hit on both sides of the Atlantic, the LP itself actually did worse than the previous album.

However, tucked away in the middle of the LP, at the end of side one, is the epic cover of ‘State of Independence’. Jones builds a bed of electronic elements, starting with the Linn LM1 drum machine, then a Roland MicroComposer and a pair of Roland Jupiter 8 synthesizers. He tightens the rhythms from the Jon & Vangelis version by adding a fabulous Mini-Moog bassline to the original pulsating, repetitive bass part. Later he would claim that Michael Jackson stole the bassline for ‘Billie Jean’, but quickly backtracked on his remarks.

Over this futuristic, electronic backing, Donna does what she does so well, bringing humanity to the machine-made landscape that’s been created for her. Adding a soaring, soulful vocal, which is truly one of her best. Giving real substance to the sometimes trite, quasi-religious/spiritual lyrics. Then the cherry on the top arrives in the form of the huge all-star chorus that Quincy assembled, consisting of Michael Jackson, Lionel Richie, Dionne Warwick, Stevie Wonder, Kenny Loggins, James Ingram, Brenda Russell, Christopher Cross, and a host of others. The effect is overwhelming, bringing to mind African vocal choirs like Ladysmith Black Mambazo, and lifting the song to stratospheric heights. Incidentally, the elephantine chorus is said to have been the inspiration for the single ‘USA For Africa’, so perhaps every silver lining does have a cloud.

Issued as the second single, ‘State of Independence’ was a big hit in the UK, despite the mixed reviews: ‘… grand, laughable … a typically overblown affair about religion’ scathed Paolo Hewitt in Melody Maker, while Smash Hits’ David Hepworth claimed: ‘The final chorus … is truly awesome’. It was a big hit in parts of Europe as well, going to number one in Holland, but failed to break the top 40 in America. A fate it shares with a similar single from earlier in the year, with a similarly huge Balearic/dancefloor legacy.

Earlier that summer, Carly Simon had released the Chic-penned ‘Why?’ on both sides of the Atlantic. In the UK it went top 10, and after a Balearic revival in the summer of 1989 which saw the track reissued again, it went on to become a club classic. In the US however, it stalled at number 74 and disappeared. Perhaps America just wasn’t ready for those reggae-influenced grooves yet?

In Italy, ‘State of Independence’ found favour on the Cosmic-Afro club scene, with Italian Ibiza/Amnesia veteran Leo Mas telling me: “In the Afro scene in Italy I think everyone has played ‘State of Independence’, with those African-style choirs…”.

It’s quite likely, though, that since it was first played from the LP, that Cosmic Club DJ Danielle Baldelli may have pitched it up to 45 rpm, as he did with tracks like Allez Allez’s ‘African Queen’ and Yellowman’s ‘Zungguzungguguzungguzeng’.

Manchester DJ Kath McDermott, resident at Queer clubbing institutions such as Flesh at The Hacienda and Homoelectric recalls when she first heard the song, and its long-lasting impact on her as a music-mad kid and a budding DJ.

“1982 was a magic musical year for me as a pop obsessive growing up in a house where my clone Dad would play tracks he had heard on the dancefloors of seedy Mancunian gay clubs,” she says. “’State of Independence’ arrived… post ‘Bad Girls’ and ‘On the Radio’ and before Donna’s Christian/AIDS-related rant and temporary fall from grace in 1983.

“I loved it as soon as I heard it on the massive kitchen boom box. Uplifting, epic, innovative, soulful, and unusually chuggy. It sounded so fresh with its futuristic electro production. I’ve never felt the urge to play ‘I Feel Love’ in a club. When I used to play Flesh, in the Gay Traitor, this would be my Donna choice. An anthem of a different nature, but to me equally as uplifting when you want to pull a Balearic trigger. Especially in a hot mess of an ecstatic crowd in a wet basement on a Wednesday night.”

In the UK, as 1988’s acid house-fuelled second summer of love turned into 1989’s Soul II Soul and Italo-house-fuelled summer of rave, the bpms began to lower once again, and McDermott wasn’t alone in searching for slower, more chugging sounds. Tracks like ‘Why?’ and ‘State of Independence’ began to find a place on the dancefloor, as DJs once again looked for the Balearic beat. After the impact of Primal Scream’s ‘Loaded’ a whole flood of 98 bpm beauties emerged.

Indeed ‘State of Independence’ took on a new lease of life in 1990 under the guise of The Moodswings track ‘Spiritual High’, a gorgeous, psychedelic version with a beat borrowed from Jazzie B and co, and a few lines from The Beatles’ ‘Tomorrow Never Knows’. It was a Rocky & Diesel end-of-nighter at the Boy’s Own-affiliated cockney shindig, Yellow Book, and the track that Danny Rampling closed his Saturday night Kiss FM show with. The remake was such a staple on the UK Balearic Network that it hung around for a couple of years, eventually becoming a minor chart hit in 1992 when re-recorded with The Pretenders’ Chrissie Hynde reinstating the original lyric/vocal.

But the song wasn’t finished then. As the 20th century made way for the 21st, the arrival of the internet gave musical archaeologists and record diggers the world over a new lease of life. Hitherto unknown musical scenes, movements and genres were constantly being unearthed, and rediscovered by hungry DJs and dancers alike. In recent years some wonderful cover versions of “State of Independence” from all around the world have come to light.

Danny McLewin of Psychemagik released a stunning re-edit of a little known Brazilian take, by an artist called Dayana, on his Undercover Lovers label a few years back, while last year the new imprint Naya Beat Records – focusing on uncovering rarities and oddities from the subcontinent and South Asian diaspora – included a version on their debut compilation LP. This cover, by Canadian–Pakistani singer Musarrat Nazir is called ‘Hosh Nahin Hai Ji Mujhe’ and breathes further life into Summer, Jones and Jon and Vangelis’ enduring track.

In 2022, the song made a memorable appearance on the small screen in Nicole Lecky’s funny, moving and incredibly dark BBC3 mini-series, ‘Mood’, adapted from her own one-woman-show Superhoe. Lecky performs the song a cappella in a startling scene which flits from harsh reality to surreal dream sequence, casting a brilliant ray of sunshine just as the storyline is about to take its darkest turn. The Moodswings remake also appears on Pete Wiggs and Bob Stanley’s recent superb compilation, ‘Fell From the Sun: Downtempo and After Hours 1990-91’, a collection of music which seems remarkably relevant again.

So, it seems like Brian Eno may have been right. In the BBC Arena documentary ‘Another Green World’ when asked for his favourite productions he singles the track out once more, while working on a version of it with the singer Andrea Corr for her 2011 solo LP.

“I’d have to say: ‘State of Independence’ by Donna Summer,” he answers. “Putting the crudely mechanical… this kind of Germanic robot thing… against the incredibly sexy, emotional, organic, gospel singing. It sounded so far ahead of people who thought they were making modern music.”

But then Eno has always been a bit of an admirer of Summer it seems. At least according to David Bowie, who was quoted outlining Eno’s love for her in the Eno biography ‘On Some Faraway Beach’ by David Sheppard.

“Eno came running in and said: ‘I have heard the sound of the future.’ He puts on ‘I Feel Love’ by Donna Summer. He said: ‘This is it, look no further. This single is going to change the sound of club music for the next 15 years.’ Which was more or less right.”

So, happy birthday to Donna Summer’s ‘State of Independence’. Not bad for your second-best track.  

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