Tag Archives: Donna Summer

Songs About Los Angeles: “MacArthur Park” by Donna Summer

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xaZim6ybvdA[/youtube]

Certainly one of the loopiest, most infectious, most brilliant songs (and only marginally about Los Angeles,) “MacArthur Park” is a tale of private madness born out of unrequited love, written by one of the master pop songwriters of the 20th century, Jimmy Webb. It was first recorded by Richard Harris in 1968.

Webb was born in Oklahoma, attended college in San Bernardino and moved to Los Angeles in 1965 to pursue a career as a songwriter. He connected with Glen Campbell, then a young session guitarist and singer, and wrote three of the songs that made him a star; “By the Time I Get to Phoenix,” “Witchita Lineman” and “Galveston.”

I remember the first time a friend drove me by MacArthur Park, not long after I moved to Los Angeles. It was mythic to me for two pop culture-influenced reasons: first and foremost, the song; and second, it was a location used in a harrowing episode of Six Feet Under, the HBO series about a family that runs a Los Angeles funeral home. (In the episode, the character David gets car-jacked and forced to drive to the park to buy crack.)

Today being May Day, it bears mentioning that on May 1, 2007, MacArthur Park was the site of a large immigration rights demonstration that led to a violent confrontation between demonstrators and police that drew international attention.

And then there’s this karaoke video of disco queen Donna Summer, who had a huge hit with it in 1978, and it’s probably the best known version of the song about how “someone left the cake out in the rain.” Extra points if you can follow the choreography.

Songs About Los Angeles: “Sunset People” by Donna Summer

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=W6hw9n-jvYI[/youtube]

People in Los Angeles often talk of the city having no center. “Sunset People” ignores that opinion. A simple song about a cultural Gordian knot of a place, almost cartoon-like in its depiction of the fabled Sunset Strip, “Sunset People” (written by Peter Bellotte, Harold Faltermyer and Keith Forsey; produced by Giorgio Moroder) was the last track on Donna Summer’s smash hit album Bad Girls, a dark collection of songs released in 1979 that was an inescapable part of the pop culture landscape as one decade gave way to another.

“Hot Stuff” and the title song were chart-topping hits and “Dim All the Lights” went to number two, but “Sunset People” remained an album track. That didn’t stop it from becoming one of Summer’s most popular songs, owing to it’s (re-)embrace of electronic dance music that had already been good to her and Moroder, giving them a huge international hit two years earlier with “I Feel Love”– the song that practically invented  electronica, trance and techno in one fell, Kraftwerk-fueled swoop.

Today, “Sunset People” sounds cheesy at first, but the urgency of the thumping music rubbing against  Summer’s deadpan delivery of lyrics about a type of life above, below and on The Strip somehow makes it work.

Summer sings, “Foreign cars full of stars, tinted glass to hide the scars from Sunset;” exposing the tacky, shattered dreams and starry-eyed fantasies of its denizens that may read like a list of clichés to some, but anyone familiar with the  legendary boulevard’s ’70s and ’80s heyday may recognize glimmers of truth poking through.

I first heard “Sunset People” during my early days in NYC, when it was a sometimes dangerous,  thorny-to-navigate and relentlessly exciting place– not the soul-less corporate-retail bazaar it’s been reduced to today. Long before I lived in Los Angeles and so doubted its capacity for duality, “Sunset People” made me think again, as it hinted at a fast, dark domain lurking in the shadows of a languid, sunny world.