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45 at 45: The story of Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive

It’s the disco song to end all disco songs, and the ultimate karaoke tune that even ole Madonna’s appropriating on her current tour. A triumphant if bittersweet anthem to the oppressed and the depressed the world over, Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive, undoubtedly the most famous survival song of them all, is 45 years old. Fancy that.

Simultaneously marking the zenith and end of a decade dominated by disco, this ultimate ‘moving on’ song (first released the previous October on Gaynor’s album Love Tracks) provided a capstone and also served as one of the final mile markers in a cultural phenomenon that was dominant for much of the preceding decade. It became an anthem for dancers, the gay liberation movement and anyone sobbing over a bottle of wine and nursing a broken heart.

This paean to female empowerment is about moving on after a bad relationship. Or is it? Over the years, it has taken on meaning for people who have overcome just about any difficult situation, though the original subject matter was rather more mundane. For the song’s lyricist, Dino Fekaris, the inspiration was about  getting fired by Motown Records, where he was The Corporation’s staff writer who’d given the Jackson 5 their first three hits (I Want You Back, ABC, The Love You Save), among others. Says Fekaris: 

“They let me go after almost seven years. I was an unemployed songwriter contemplating my fate. I turned the TV on, and there it was: a song I had written for a movie theme titled Generation was playing right then (performed by Rare Earth). I took that as an omen that things were going to work out for me. I remember jumping up and down on the bed saying, ‘I’m going to make it. I’m going to be a songwriter. I will survive!’”

When Fekaris and his songwriting partner Freddie Perren were relieved of their Motown duties, they formed their own production duo and before the decade was out scored big with Peaches & Herb, taking Reunited to No.1 on the Billboard Hot 100. Sweet revenge on their former erstwhile employers, perhaps, but by 1978 they had I Will Survive in the can but nobody to sing it. The pair agreed that the next diva that came their way would get the song.

That diva was Gloria Gaynor, whose record company, Polydor, called Perren looking for production work on her cover of a Righteous Brothers song from 1975 called Substitute. They took the gig, and Gaynor agreed to record I Will Survive as the B-side. Not only was she in a physical imposition to relate to the sentiments of the song, but she felt it had a timeless message. “I love the empowering effect, I love the encouraging effect. It’s a timeless lyric that addresses a timeless concern.”

1978 wasn’t the best of years for Gaynor. The singer, best known for her disco reimagining of the Jackson 5’s Never Can Say Goodbye four years earlier , had only just cone to terms with the death of her mother when discovered that her former manager had squandered all her earnings and had incurred huge debts in her name.

Then, after a serious fall on stage, Gaynor woke up the next morning in the hospital to discover that she was paralysed from the waist down. Her career was put on hold as she was sidelined by spinal surgery, and for three months was forced to wear a back brace from her hips to her underarms. To cap it all, due to her enforced inaction, Polydor informed the singer they weren’t renewing her contract.

Talking of contracts, in 2009 Gaynor did the inevitable shifting labels re-recording thing…

There was a sense of real fury in her, but also finding inspiration in her determination to overcome her physical pain and disability. In discomfort and disarray, a wheelchair-bound Gaynor arrived at the studio and Perren and Fekaris had to put baffles under her arms to accommodate her. Then Dino realised he’d actually forgotten to bring the lyrics with him. Gaynor explains that “he just tore open a brown paper bag and wrote the lyrics out on that.” After reading them, she says she knew right away that the song was something special. No one was more perfect to sing I Will Survive, and, unsurprisingly, it became her signature tune, title of her autobiography and something of an epitaph.

The opening line, “At first I was afraid, I was petrified/Kept thinking I could never live without you by my side” are the only moments of doubt in the otherwise confident and resilient lyrics. The music reflects this shaky, uncertain ground with a wandering, unresolved guitar line and rustling percussion, while the orchestrated strings linger in the background. The transformation into unflinching defiance is as much in Gaynor’s lone voice (most disco songs of the day would have featured standard sweetly-chiming backup singers) as it is in the instrumental itself as her delivery goes from being airy and worn to controlled and stern. It’s a powerful marriage of form and content.

Everyone involved in the recording knew that I Will Survive was the superior track, but Polydor’s new English president, Freddy Hayan, had specifically ordered Substitute as the vehicle to revive her fortunes (and her relationship with the label), and released it as the A-side as planned. Substitute peaked at 107 in October 1978, but when the record label was unwilling to promote Survive, Gloria and her new husband took matters into her own hands, personally delivering the song to Richard Kaczor, a DJ at the famed Studio 54. Gaynor knew the song would be a hit with dancers, and asked them to share it around town with their friends. As she recalled, “we took with us the A&R man from the record company to show him that the people would like it. So Ritchie played it while we all were standing there. The audience immediately loved it. And you know New York audiences don’t immediately love anything.” 

Anyway, enough of NYC, let‘s go west for a moment. Who‘s for Cake?

People started requesting the song in other clubs and as 1978 mutated into 1979, radio stations were also playing I Will Survive. Polydor finally released the single with the sides flipped, and Survive gradually rose up the Billboard Hot 100, hitting pole position in the singles chart in early March 1979, displacing Rod Stewart’s disco spoof Do Ya Think I’m Sexy and keeping the Village People’s YMCA in its place, to be forevermore known as a No.2.

In Britain, Survive entered the listings at No.47 on the chart dated week ending 3 February 1979, though back then the singles charts were always announced on Radio 1 the preceding Tuesday, followed by a Top 40 rundown on BBC1’s Top of the Pops on the Thursday, so it technically charted 40 years ago today.

Sitting pretty in pole position was Blondie’s glittering Heart of Glass, with the Village People going down at four. In all honestly, ubiquitous they may be but you’d be hard pressed to find three more era-defining disco singles than that tasty triumvirate.

In fact, Survive and YMCA are two of only forty singles to have achieved worldwide sales in excess of 10 million copies.

But Gaynor’s song managed something that no other track could: it nabbed the first — and only — Grammy award for Best Disco Recording, in 1980, beating Earth Wind & Fire’s Boogie Wonderland, Michael Jackson’s Don’t Stop ‘Til You Get Enough, Rod Stewart’s Do Ya Think I’m Sexy?, and Donna Summer’s Dim All The Lights.

Gaynor’s win was a major push for the artist and for disco itself. It was the first time the Grammys would acknowledge dance music and by extension, club culture and the way dance clubs and DJs were becoming a force all their own in shaping tastes and popularising art that was distinct from the mainstream. However, it was the first and last time that the Grammys offered such a category.

Amid rustic overtones of racism and homophobia, Disco Sucks was about to tear up the music scene and the genre went underground. Disco opened the door for many of those marginalised in American society – black, Hispanic, queer – and when the backlash came it was fierce. Groups of straight white men made a show of burning their disco records, and disco was soon reviled as synthetic and unpure, just like those sissy men who danced to it

It would take almost two decades for the Academy to refashion and reintroduce Gaynor’s gong as Best Dance Recording, which was instituted in 1998. Two years earlier, the Supreme diva herself, Miss Diana Ross, released her contemporary dance version of I Will Survive as a single, gaining a respectable No.14 chart position in Britain.

Playing up the pink pound no end, the video even featured Ru Paul and a gaggle of drag queens recreating the famed West Hollywood LGBT Pride parade. It’s a hoot.

Author Alice Echols writes in Hot Stuff: Disco And The Remaking Of American Culture that “the consensus among historians and discographers is that the backlash against disco reflected anger and frustration with America’s changing sexual and racial rules.” After all, it was “the music of outsiders — racial minorities and gays.” As a feminist anthem, Gaynor’s I Will Survive was at the centre of this cultural shift.

The LGBT community heard a kindred spirit in the song. Proud, defiant, and determined, the song symbolised the ongoing struggle for equality, always with collective heads held high. And in the 1980s and 1990s, with the outbreak of AIDS/HIV, the song gained a new meaning for gay men, promoting solidarity and determination in the face of unimaginable loss. To this day, the song continues to inspire and motivate audiences, and is a battle cry to those who seek to overcome the challenges of contemporary life. 

On a personal note, in late 2000 I remember working at MOJO magazine in London, typing up an Adam Ant interview I’d just conducted. I’d been introducing Pat Gilbert,  the newly appointed deputy editor, to some choice Ant deep cuts (which fascinated him) when, suddenly and apropos of nothing (except, possibly, Robbie Williams‘ Gaynor-interpolating Supreme, which had just been released), suddenly piped up, “Steve why do the gays like I Will Survive?”

I wasn’t sure if he was in wind-up mode or not, but I had been warned by a colleague he was “a bit of dick… with a really juvenile attitude towards sexuality,” as well as a wife whom my BowieStyle book co-author Mark Paytress told me looked like a man (“you work that one out, Steve.”). I took large intake of breath and simply told him “Well, as you’re a music journalist quite a bit older than me I’m sure you’ve had a lot more time than me to listen to the lyrics.” Silence. Kids, eh?

Rewinding a little, one month before I Will Survive hit the peak of the chart, the New York Times ran a story by John Rockwell, The Disco Drum-Beating in Perspective, which looked to damp down the “rock is dead” movement (and its anti-disco counterpart) in popular culture. By approaching it with sensitivity, Rockwell touched on what is perhaps disco’s most important legacy:

“Disco is undeniably an ever‐more important part of today’s pop music. It represents a vibrant part of late‐1970’s life‐styles, both the homosexual/ black / Latin subculture and the broader white / suburban emulations thereof … There is an enormous amount of amusing, danceable, interesting and sociologically significant disco music, and disco styles are having a striking effect on the country at large. And for all its silly escapism, disco represents one of the periodic and welcome infusions of black culture into the white mainstream.”

As the great Aretha Franklin herself amply demonstrates in this 2015 television appearance, the lyrics of I Will Survive have given hope to many looking to move on from a troubled relationship, though they transcended just another pop song: “It’s something that is well beyond the idea of spurning a boyfriend; people want to sing that refrain,” music journalist Vince Aletti says.

And though it hasn’t necessarily gone away in the forty years since its release, the song hasn’t always enjoyed the same revival that its peers have. Most of us know I Will Survive now for being a queer anthem, a wedding dance floor filler, and a perennial staple of FM radio — but also perhaps a bit banal in that ubiquity.

Having said that, thanks in large part to acts like Lindstrom, Todd Terje, Daft Punk and Pet Shop Boys, disco as a genre has seen a strong and steady resurgence over the past 25 years. What was once thought of as a cheap, plastic, and superficial style of music finally has the respect it deserves. 

Some of them have even been known to incorporate Gaynor’s anthem into their songs.

These impeccable genre revivalists forced a critical shift and reappraisal of disco’s originators. Once forgotten-producers like Giorgio Moroder, Cerrone and Nile Rodgers were finally being appreciated alongside a re-evaluation of performers such as the Bee Gees, Donna Summer and Patrice Rushen, the latter in no small part thanks to George Michael and Will Smith both sampling Forget Me Nots on their respective chart-toppers within a year of each other.

In 2016, America’s Great Hall of the Library of Congress had I Will Survive added to the national recording registry at the hallowed halls of the Library of Congress in Washington DC, which recognises sound recordings for their “cultural, artistic and/or historical significance to American society and the nation’s aural legacy.”

That the institution threw this event — that it admitted I Will Survive into its record books at all — is proof positive of disco’s permanence outside the cubed glass of its dance floors. In fact, it’s the terminus of that influence; for a music that provided release and, to varying degrees, cultural primacy to the oppressed and marginalised, making a home just across the street from the grand Capitol of the United States is, literally, as accepted as is possible. Officially, at least.

Steve Pafford

Postscript: The French national football team named Gaynor the team “godmother” after they won the 1998 World Cup and claimed I Will Survive as their anthem. Zut alors!

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