Key Tracks: Donna Summer’s “MacArthur Park”

Nate Patrin remembers the moment when Donna Summer finally got to hear her voice

Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte’s work with Donna Summer is hailed for its innovative ability to have taken disco sensibilities mainstream, yet without compromising what made it work on the dancefloor. Their two ’77 album releases – the era-hopping I Remember Yesterday (which gave us the still-futuristic “I Feel Love”) and the romantic Once Upon a Time – put them at the forefront of disco as a catalyst for big ideas, where the music could branch out into genre-warping theatricality.

When Summer put out a double live album the following year, she had enough material to showcase her hits, but she also had moments where she revealed a way with classical musicianship. The “My Man Medley,” which features early 20th century popular music that incorporates the Gershwins, Duke Ellington and Shelton Brooks, was her live set’s best example of this versatility, but it was a studio bonus cut that became the album’s oddball hit – “MacArthur Park.” Despite being a cover of a decade-old pop song, under Summer’s command, it became an epic medley that took up an entire side of an LP. Happenstance, ingenuity and talent somehow made this weird idea work – and at a time when everybody involved seemed incapable of misstepping.

By the time ’78 rolled around, the original song had aged into adult-contemporary purgatory.

Jimmy Webb’s “MacArthur Park” has been relegated to the Other Sixties when pop music history is told: the stuff that gets back-burnered as schmaltz for squares, when the more exciting work by the Stones and Hendrix was going down. According to a ’82 Rolling Stone profile, Webb himself eventually bristled at the potential reputation his compositions would earn him. He rejected a $40,000-a-week Caesar’s Palace offer to “come out and play ‘MacArthur Park’ and collect my money,” in fear he’d be alienated from the counterculture he felt more in keeping with.

By the time ’78 rolled around, the original song had aged into adult-contemporary purgatory: not just kitsch, but dated kitsch (and not to mention preposterous comedy fodder). To its credit, though, “MacArthur Park” exhibited a sense of versatility as a future standard. Its first two big successes were interpretations by Camelot lead Richard Harris and Outlaw Country pioneer Waylon Jennings, and its melodramatic baroque-pop stylings, run through a series of complex orchestral movements, made it one of the era’s more ambitious compositions. But despite its admitted impact on more revered rock standards – legend has it the length of “MacArthur Park” freed the Beatles to vamp up the ending of “Hey Jude” until it pushed past the seven-minute mark – it eventually aged as if it were a relic of a time before rock: where Nelson Riddle dramaturgy bordered on Broadway camp, but hadn’t yet been superseded by the notions of three-chord rebellion and authenticity.

Jimmy Webb - MacArthur Park

The easy listening style had become its own format by the late ’60s, so by the time radio narrowcasting effectively cordoned it off, it had become not merely a subgenre but the perceived antithesis of rock. Meanwhile, Webb’s subsequent bid at singer-songwriter respectability made him critically acclaimed yet commercially overlooked, and he grew disillusioned with the baggage of his notorious hit. “I don’t think it’s a very good song... I hardly remember the person who wrote [it],” he told Rolling Stone. Granted, that person had been riding high. After making his name with lavish pop hits like “By the Time I Get to Phoenix” and “Up, Up and Away,” Webb’s “MacArthur Park” took that ambition even further – and it almost didn’t happen.

Webb had made a point of visiting The Association in the studio during the recording of their ’68 album, Birthday. According to a Chuck Miller retrospective in Goldmine, they’d been struggling to get things right in the studio for 15 hours straight when Webb walked in. He had a 24-minute long cantata to play for them – one of the movements including the song that would become “MacArthur Park,” which the band loved. But Webb said that it was the full cantata or nothing. The Association were dead set against devoting an entire side of their LP to a suite that none of them had originally worked on, especially with most of the songs earmarked for the record already written.

Webb himself has stated that this isn’t quite the case, and that “MacArthur Park” always had its own autonomous nature. (Ironically, it was Association producer Bones Howe who put him up to the challenge of writing something so ornate.) But its complexity made it a hard sell: the 7-plus-minute length was distinctly unfriendly to the “three minutes and out” ranks of the Top 40. But after meeting Richard Harris for a brainstorming session, and bouncing off song idea after song idea, Webb left Miller with “MacArthur Park” as a last-minute shot in the dark. Fortunately, Harris took to it.

“‘MacArthur Park’ was at the bottom of my pile,” Webb told The Guardian in 2013. “By the time I played it, we had moved on to straight brandy, but Richard slapped the piano. ‘Oh, Jimmy Webb. I love that! I’ll make a hit out of that, I will.’” They recorded it, and it spent ten years delighting and confounding listeners by the time it struck Giorgio Moroder with a flash of inspiration. A conversation with Moroder reveals the background of why and how he rehabilitated “MacArthur Park” for the dancefloor.

Donna Summer - MacArthur Park [Suite]

“Pete Bellotte and myself were thinking of just doing a remix, or re-doing of one of the great songs. We were kind of waiting. I remember that I was driving in Los Angeles, on the Hollywood Freeway, and I heard the original song on the radio. I thought, ‘That’s it – that’s the song we’ve been looking for for almost a year.’” It was a ‘right place, right time’ kind of situation – or at least, a fused snapshot of Los Angeles in two certain modes: between an ornately tragic version of ’68, and the high fever, young money hedonism that fueled the city ten years later. The original song is indelibly tied in to MacArthur Park as a locale, the Los Angeles landmark across the way from the life insurance company where Jimmy Webb’s girlfriend worked.

The depiction of the park as a once romantic locale, where lost love became a rained-on picnic and a ruined cake, was high kitsch, but it was a particularly Hollywood kind of kitsch: in keeping with the final moments of a film industry driven by elaborate musicals rather than countercultural edge. Like its first singer, “MacArthur Park” was a Camelot in a Bonnie & Clyde world: big budget pomp that was to become sorely unfashionable in the face of gritty, unflinching auteurism. By the time Summer took it on, the blockbuster was back – whether that meant the Laurel Canyon scene giving rise to Rumours and Hotel California, or the New Hollywood “movie brats” emerging with Jaws and Star Wars – and the pre-countercultural remnants of Los Angeles pop collided with its post-countercultural boom.

Moroder admits that the idea to cover “MacArthur Park” would never have come to him without that happenstance radio play. In ’78, Richard Harris was more renowned for starring in Jaws knockoff Orca than his recording career, which had wound down by ’74. Harris’s original version of “MacArthur Park” wasn‘t easy to come by, thanks to a record industry that hadn’t yet considered the benefit of back catalog sales. Moroder had to ask Casablanca Records president Neil Bogart to score him a copy and when he did, it was on 8-track. Giorgio had to buy a new machine just to play it. All that trouble reinforced his enthusiasm for the song, and what he envisioned that it could do for Summer.

There was some challenge in arranging it, too, even if the initial transformation from baroque ballad to disco showstopper came more naturally. “The original is relatively slow,” says Moroder, “but I definitely felt like this could be uptempo very well – it didn’t take anything away from it. Sometimes, with slower songs that you do fast, they lose a little intensity. But ‘MacArthur Park’ worked so well uptempo.” Wrangling with Webb’s arrangement took further work. “To be honest, it was a very difficult song to do, especially the brass, but we had the best musicians in town. This was a great song for Donna – with all those high notes, it was perfect [for her].” With this, they had an easy time playing to Donna’s strengths. “First, I tried a key that she could sing really high, but still with a big voice – that took an hour or two. I played a little piano and she sang it with my accompaniment. We found a key and we had Greg Mathieson do the arrangement – and then I did something very special.”

“MacArthur Park” is a portfolio of everything that Summer and the producers were capable of at the time.

That something special was Moroder playing the unusual role of backup singer on the first chorus. “That choir? The whole thing is me singing. I recorded about 20 seconds of all the notes, which I was able to sing on a 24-track. I made a loop of those notes, and put that loop in the [Solid State Logic] desk. I could form eight chords by having C-E-G right on the group. I played the chords by moving the track according to the chord that I needed.” The effect of Moroder manipulating his voice came to the forefront the following year, in his work on Sparks’ No. 1 in Heaven and his solo record, E=mc2, but even fans familiar with these cult classics would admit that the effect on this blockbuster hit is remarkable here, too – a sign of things to come.

The full-length version of “MacArthur Park” is a portfolio of everything that Summer and the producers were capable of at the time. It’s a feint at a string-soaked ballad: lifted up by Donna’s nuanced voice, shifted into high gear by a bitter yet joyous laugh, and then into piano-led disco drama. It’s been hinted at in histories like Peter Shapiro’s Turn the Beat Around that Summer chafed at the idea of having her reputation cemented as the sole human touch on synthesized music, particularly in the wake of “I Feel Love.” Yet although she’d have great moments in that mode before severing her partnership with Moroder and Bellotte – the Bad Girls deep cut “Our Love” and the smoke-and-neon ballad “Grand Illusion” are underrated highlights – “MacArthur Park” was weird and impassioned enough to serve as a statement. Summer was too multifaceted an artist to be deemed synthetic, as some skeptics thought.

The production was striking, too: distinct movements that not only touched on ideas that Moroder had worked with for years, but hinted at a wider span of genre interests and pop versatility yet to come. Its intro is pure chamber-pop: a layered, ballad-tempo curtain of pianos and synthesizers, which takes Webb’s composition to haunting places that Moroder would revisit in more decadent form on his later scores, like American Gigolo and Scarface.

Like her Live and More selections where she sings vintage jazz, it’s also a powerful framing of Summer as a performer whose past and future both drew from something bigger than disco. The supposedly anonymous and interchangeable vocals which detractors pinned on the genre were defied every time Summer had a moment like this intro – to let the church-raised, theater-trained emotional impact shine through. After she gives a heartfelt reading of the lines skeptics like to make fun of – “In love’s hot, fevered iron/Like a striped pair of pants” – she really draws out the soul of the “After the Loves of My Life” second movement (“I will take my life into my hands and I will use it/I will win the worship in their eyes and I will lose it”).

Once the intro ramps up into the uptempo heart of the song, we’re back into the Moroder/Bellotte wheelhouse. The instrumental runs through the lushness of strings, horns and congas still associated with the peak disco sound, a tensely pacing bassline transforming the ballad into a dance track. One of the best flourishes is a noodly little synthesizer riff that carries the billowy energy of the eurodisco sound that Moroder brought to the party: a subtly insistent melody that pokes back at the blaring horns, with a big grin on its face.

The catch, of course, was how to make a radio hit out of a 17 ½-minute experimental opus.

But there’s also a sound tucked deep in the full-length track that Top 40 radio’s four-minute spins left out. An instrument left off the 7-inch release rips through the gauze and echoes the chorus in bombastic fashion – it’s an electric guitar, played by seasoned studio hand Jay Graydon. The previous year, Graydon spent take after take perfecting the solo that would eventually make “Peg” the biggest hit from Steely Dan’s Aja. Here, he turns in a simpler but equally effective guitar riff that’s less smooth jazz than hard rock, prefiguring the AOR crossover attempts and new wave moves of Bad Girls and The Wanderer.

The complete version of “MacArthur Park” on the LP, then, pulls the neat trick of recasting the traditional medley as a sort of megamix – incorporating original compositions “One of a Kind” and future single “Heaven Knows” as interludes. The catch, of course, was how to make a radio hit out of a 17 ½-minute experimental opus. This wasn’t “Love to Love You Baby,” where the essence of the song’s steady, nearly relentless groove could be distilled to three radio-friendly minutes, and without losing its essence or identity. “MacArthur Park” was another matter entirely. “The problem that we had was that apart from the original song being about seven minutes long, it changes chords quite often,” remembers Moroder.

“It took a day or two to edit it, but we finally found a compromise between my musical tastes and Neil Bogart’s desire to have a radio edit. It came out nice at four minutes long.” “MacArthur Park” became Donna Summer’s first #1 hit – and, at least in the United States, Jimmy Webb’s only #1 hit. Telling him this, Moroder is surprised. “Really? Oh god. He didn’t send me a bottle of champagne, but that’s OK! I should’ve sent him one.” In lieu of champagne, Moroder, Webb and Summer got a mixed reception and a curious legacy out of the song. Generalist music press takes were skeptical at best.

A ’79 issue of Down Beat that deigned to examine disco and R&B crossover called “MacArthur Park” “one of the most baroque and grotesque affairs in all of pop history.” In the midst of panning Live and More, Tom Carson’s Rolling Stone review called it “interminable… a relic of some other time...that one hopes will soon be forgotten,” though in this case the “relic” was mainstream disco rather than adult contemporary. And Village Voice mainstay Robert Christgau claimed that “when her more is ‘MacArthur Park Suite,’ she makes you remember what less is supposed to be,” while admitting a preference for Andy Kaufman’s nervous, introverted recital.

What’s there to lose when you’re presented with such a “gimme” of an opportunity to show what a singer can really do?

At the other end of the scale, Summer earned a ’79 Grammy nomination for Best Female Pop Vocal Performance, though she’d eventually lose to Anne Murray’s soporific “You Needed Me.” Awards didn’t elude her entirely, though. Billboard’s February ’79 “Disco Forum V” showered Summer with them, largely off the momentum of Live and More and the hit single it spun off. “MacArthur Park” gained accolades for being both the “Best Disco Single LP Cut” and “Best Disco Style Rendition of 1978” – the latter category being an acknowledgement of disco as a transformative state that could retrofit just about any song to a 4/4 beat, even the gooiest of ballads.

But as it turned out, it was a risk worth taking, and not just because it valorized kitsch and challenged the fine line between good and bad taste. When it comes down to it, how much more preposterous are the lyrics to “MacArthur Park” than the works of Webb’s contemporaneous Los Angeles icon, Jim Morrison? More than that, what’s there to lose when you’re presented with such a “gimme” of an opportunity to show what a singer can really do? James Arena’s book First Ladies of Disco relates Pattie Brooks’ story of how the backing vocalist for Summer’s I Remember Yesterday first learned of Summer’s enthusiasm for the chance to sing “MacArthur Park”: “Up until then, she was always commenting, ‘Oh God, when are they going to really hear my voice?’” There couldn’t have been a more serendipitous and fascinating answer than this.

By Nate Patrin on April 26, 2016

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