Updated: Apr 20
A sassier and smarter diva re-emerges with an iconic album featuring a gay anthem (or two).
Seemingly in an instant, gone was the Brillo-pad weave and sparkling frocks of the recent memory Diana Ross. In their place, on the diana gatefold album cover, Ross’ hair is wet and slick, and she wears minimal casual clothing (faded Levis and a T-shirt that hints at bare breasts beneath), all artfully photographed in moody black and white.
Here is a new girl in town (well, woman, she was 36 at the time of recording) and this is typified on the album in the thumping drums and sassy horns of diana's lead track, I’m Coming Out.
This, with the luxury of hindsight, is one of the gayest anthems ever.
“There’s a new me coming out and I just want to live, I’m completely positive.”
This was not Diana declaring her Sapphic love, however, but rather a celebration of freedom from Ross' contract with Motown and her move to RCA.
Which is a much poorer story.
It has been suggested that the song was inspired when Rodgers saw a gaggle of drag queens dressed as Diana Ross in a Californian discothèque.
Which is a far better tale.
With only eight songs (as did most Chic albums by this time – arguably la Ross could be viewed as a guest vocalist on this, her own album), and with just over half an hour of original music, it would be easy to feel cheated as a listener. But not with Chic–inspired bass guitar riffs and pulsing drum rhythms.
The sexualised funk fest' featuring the classic opening scratches on Upside Down remains an energetic invitation to dance. That its rift has subsequently been sampled by such folks as P Diddy, Missy Elliot and MC Lyte testify to its strength as a pop-art piece.
And yes, it may be true that Miss Ross’ vocal here is not her strongest, but just listen to that classic disco beat! Hearing the lyrics today it’s clearly not the most feminist of songs, with the singer's forgiving a cheating lover just because he gives her some good loving.
But who cares?
In the next song, Tenderness, Ross sings about wanting her lover to “please be gentle”.
Oh, make up your mind, lady. Though to be less flippant, the song is a beautifully crafted piece of up-tempo funk with a joyous chorus.
Skip through a few tracks to the near perfection of the lyrically weird but musically lush My Old Piano and the mood is even lighter. This is the album track that shows the virtuoso production skills of Roger and Edwards at their most polished as they push the track higher and ever higher.
It is perfect disco.
While diana was a breakthrough for Ross’ solo career and remains one of her biggest selling albums, some of the songs on it seem unfinished and lazy when listened to today. Have Fun (Again) soon becomes a chore and the ballad Friend to Friend feels misplaced on this set, for example. Not that these musical transgressions matter that much.
So good she didn’t even need her surname on the cover.