Tuesday 24 April 2018

Music... Giorgio Moroder: and the beat goes on

Sound of the future: Donna Summer, who worked with Italian producer Giorgio Moroder to record Love to Love You Baby 40 years ago this weekend
Sound of the future: Donna Summer, who worked with Italian producer Giorgio Moroder to record Love to Love You Baby 40 years ago this weekend
John Meagher

John Meagher

LaDonna Gaines was an American R&B singer who looked set for a career in musicals. In 1967, she got a part in a touring version of the counter-cultural production, Hair. She wound up in Vienna, became fluent in German and married an Austrian actor named Helmut Sommer.

It was when she was working as a part-time model in Munich and trying to start a recording career that she met a pair of producers, Englishman Pete Bellotte and his Italian studio partner Giorgio Moroder. The trio worked on an album together and the result was the forgettable Lady of the Night, released in 1974. So shoddy was the sleeve design that her surname was erroneously printed as Summer, rather than Sommor. Maybe it was fate: Donna - as she preferred to be known - decided to keep the Anglicised version.

Her next album would change everything, and it was mainly thanks to Moroder's obsession with a comparatively new instrument, the synthesizer. Moroder, with Bellotte's English lyrics, had been responsible for the first UK number one to feature a prominent synth line - Chicory Tip's 'Son of My Father', which had topped the chart in 1972 - but the second album he made with Summer would demonstrate to the world just how ground-breaking the synthesizer could be.

Love to Love You Baby, with the 17-minute title track filling the whole of Side A, was released 40 years ago this weekend and remains a milestone release for both disco and electronic music. Daft Punk's wonderful homage, 'Giorgio by Moroder', finds the veteran producer delivering a monologue about his early years in music and he refers to the synthesizer as "the sound of the future". In August 1975, the album - and its titular single, in particular - really must have sounded like the future in a landscape dominated by such heavyweights of rock as Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin.

The original version of 'Love to Love You Baby' ran to a lean three minutes and legend has it that after it was heard by Casablanca Records boss Neil Bogart (no relation to Humphrey), it was he who convinced Moroder to use the disco mix technique then recently pioneered by Tom Moulton to swell the song to a much longer run-time.

Moroder and Summer would enjoy an extraordinarily fruitful 1970s and the apex was reached in the summer of 1977 with 'I Feel Love', a song that surely ranks among the most influential ever. In a celebrated anecdote, David Bowie recalls the first time he heard it: "One day in Berlin [during the making of the Heroes album] Eno came running in and said, 'I have heard the sound of the future' and 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."

The striking Moog bassline was painstakingly created by Moroder and engineer Rob Wedel and the driving synth atmospherics coupled with Summer's powerful, yet seductive, vocal delivery ensure that the song still sounds immense today. Its influence on dance - and techno especially - is so profound that it's quite difficult to imagine the way in which electronic music would have evolved without it.

It was also a song that ensured that Moroder would be the most in-demand producer on the planet for the next few years: think Mark Ronson, Max Martin and Pharrell Williams combined.

His labours were weird and often wonderful, and include Sparks' playful 'The Number One Song in Heaven' and the David Bowie curio, 'Cat People (Putting Out Fire)', the theme song from Paul Schrader's erotic horror feature Cat People, whose score was overseen by Moroder.

Moroder was a prolific film soundtrack composer at this time and won an Oscar for his work on Midnight Express. Synthesized soundtracks tend to date quite badly and this is no exception, but it does succeed in rooting Alan Parker's harrowing prison drama to a specific time and place.

He also bagged two further Academy Awards - both for best original song: first, the insanely catchy 'What a Feeling' from Flashdance; then, the epic ballad 'Take My Breath Away' from Top Gun. He has described the latter, released by the soft rock band Berlin, as the favourite of all his songs.

His best soundtrack work of all, on the mob thriller Scarface, was not rewarded with an Oscar but any compilation of Moroder's finest work is incomplete without the haunting 'Tony's Theme' which features a memorable synthetic choir.

If Moroder's year zero in terms of outstanding creativity was 1975, he was on the wane by 1985 and his work-rate had dropped off significantly. His quality control was all over the place too. He made a widely derided album with The Human League's Phil Oakley called Together in Electric Dreams (although the title track certainly has its pop merits and is about as quintessentially '80s sounding as you can get) and he produced the frankly awful debut album from the most hyped - and reviled - band of the decade, Sigue Sigue Sputnik. Granted, lead single 'Love Missile - F1-11' has a certain kooky charm, but Moroder probably doesn't like to reminded of the other tracks on Flaunt It. Incidentally, the album would be remarkably prescient about the business model adopted today by the likes of Spotify: amid howls of 'sell-out', the flamboyantly attired quartet sold advertising space between album tracks.

The aforementioned Daft Punk track, from 2013 comeback album Random Access Memories, got people talking about Moroder again and earlier this year, at 75, he released his first album in 30 years. Sadly, Déjà Vu which saw him collaborate with Kylie Minogue and Kelis among others was a huge disappointment. Its cause wasn't helped by Britney Spears' witless take on Suzanne Vega's 'Tom's Diner'.

Rewind the clock, though, and Moroder's synth-led genius is clear.

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