Giorgio Moroder electrified us

The unstoppable beat of Donna Summer’s ‘I Feel Love’ marks a turning point: when synthesised sound showed it could rattle the bones of a dancefloor. With this 1977 hit, electronic music displayed a power over humans that was strangely different to anything made from wood, brass and steel. The mind behind this landmark tune was Munich-based Italian composer Giorgio Moroder. Before this he’d been creating sugary German ‘Schlager’ pop, and afterwards he would work on a long line of major movie soundtracks. But as disco hit the mainstream, Moroder’s Moog experiments defined the sound for millions and set future dance music on its way. In this 2015 interview, he revealed a little-known fact – while all the other sounds were electronic, the synthesiser hadn’t yet developed a convincing enough thump to deliver a kick-drum, and so for all their robotic intensity, those kicks on ‘I Feel Love’ are actually from a real, breathing drummer.

Tell me about how you arrived in Munich.
Well, before Munich, I was working in Berlin until ’69 or ’70. I was lucky because I had an aunt in Berlin where I could stay. That’s where my European career started. I had my first German hit in 1967, about three months after I decided to become a composer, a song called ‘Ich Sprenge Alle Ketten’, sung by an Italian Lebanese guy, Ricky Shane. But Berlin at that time was really claustrophobic. There was the wall, so you couldn’t leave. So I decided to move to Munich. I got a deal with a record company. And that’s where I continued. It was much closer to Italy, so I could go home [to Italy] much more often.

How did you meet Donna Summer?
I moved to Munich and I thought, OK I have to find some musicians. At the time there were two or three musicals, like Hair, going on in Europe, so there were some great musicians in Berlin. There was Michael Thatcher, who was an English great keyboard player. There was Dave King, an American great bass player; Thor Baldursson from Iceland; a great drummer named Keith Forsey. And among other those ex-patriots, there was Donna Summer, who was playing with Hair, which had closed, so she got married. And she was basically living in Munich without major jobs because there were no jobs.

So Pete Bellotte, my co -producer, one day we needed a singer with no accent, no German accent, because we did some demos for an American group. And so she came to the studio and, you know, Donna, all happy and enthusiastic, and she sang beautifully. We noticed immediately that she had a great voice. So we told her, if we ever have a song or an idea, we’ll call you.

Two, three months later, we had our first song together, which did okay, called ‘The Hostage’. And then another one, which did not do too well. And I told Donna, if you have an idea about a sexy song, really sexy, come in the studio and we work.

So one day she came and said, ‘Love to love you, ooh, love to love you,’ which we thought could be great. At that time I had a relatively famous studio in Munich, the Musicland, where we had Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin, Elton John, Queen, Freddie Mercury. And that particular day, one of the groups was not playing. So I sneaked in. It was in the Arabella Hochhaus, a big complex. And the studio was down in the basement. So we did a demo with the idea of making it as much erotic as we can. I gave it to my publisher and the publisher brought it to Cannes for Midem. We thought there’s no way that anybody would possibly be interested. But she called me in the evening and she said, everybody loves it. You can sign her wherever you want now. And so Neil Bogart of Casablanca signed us and released the single.

The first version was just three minutes
Yes. It did okay, but it wasn’t a smash hit. Then one night Neil called me and said, you know, last night I had a party [by all accounts it was an orgy] and a girl kept saying, ‘Could you play it again? Could you play it again?’ And he asked if I could do a long version of it? So I did a 17-minute version. I composed some new parts, so it’s not just repetitive, but it’s one song. It was one of the first extended playing tracks…

And that song really made Donna and myself. First it started in the discotheques in America. For a DJ, what’s the best thing to do? You put the record on, 17 minutes, and you go out and have a cigarette. So that’s mainly the reason why this became a hit because everybody loved to play it. And it was a number one song everywhere. And thank God the BBC blocked it at the beginning. Later on they played it, they had to play it. But the BBC blocking it, that was a lot of promotion for the song.

What were you listening to that inspired the sound? It feels a lot like a Love Unlimited Orchestra production. Were you listening to people like Barry White at the time?
Yeah, I always liked Barry. I loved the Philadelphia sound? The kind of strings they use. It’s inspired by some of the songs, not so much of Barry White, but the Philadelphia sounds.

In the New Musical Express in 1978 you said that one of the things that inspired the long version was ‘In a Gadda De Vida’ by Iron Butterfly. Is that true or did you just make that up?
No. When Neil asked me to do it, I did not know about ‘Inna Gada Da Vida’.

I guess it’s important to put it in context. There was quite a lot happening in German dance music around that time.
Yes. A good friend of mine, Michael Kunze, had a big hit with the group Silver Convention? ‘Fly Robin Fly’, which was a German group at number one in America, which is extraordinary. All those dance songs coming out of Munich, they were all played by the same guys. The strings were all German, the Munich Philharmonic, the brass was Munich guys. Then there was Frank Farian who was in Frankfurt and he’d just get the Munich guys to come and play for him. Keith Forsey was happy to go there because they had a lot of girls there! He told me he always enjoyed going to Frankfurt and working with Farian. Then Harold Faltermeyer came a little later. He played with several groups. And we all used similar sounds, the keyboards, and especially the strings.

Tell me about setting up your record label Oasis? Did you do that specifically to market your own productions?
As a young producer, you always try to get your own label, which means you’re a made man. At the end it doesn’t mean anything. But it helped at the beginning. So the first three productions I did were on Oasis. Donna summer; I did an album called Einzelgänger; and there was a group produced by Pete Bellotte called Schloss. So those were the three things we offered to Neil Bogart. But the label just didn’t work out. We had a problem with the name because there was a very small label in America called The Oasis. So I gave it up. Actually, it continued, but not under my direction. It continued with Casablanca.

And did you build a personal relationship with Neil Bogart?
Donna moved to America. I was there for a few months or so. Then I went back. I think the second album was recorded in Munich with Donna. But I didn’t meet Neil that often. Pete Bellotte and I, we just did the recordings the way we wanted. He didn’t interfere at all. We would go there, ‘OK, Neil, these are the 12 songs.’ And he was always happy.

How did you move from that Philadelphia sound to using more electronic instrumentation?
Well, I discovered the Moog modular in ’71. I loved the Walter Carlos album Switched On Bach, where he – or now she – played all the classical instruments like violins, oboes, flutes, with the synthesiser. I thought I have to get to know this instrument, where could I find one? There was a German classical composer, Eberhard Schöner, who had one in Munich. I went to see him and he had a beautiful room, all quadrophonic, and he played me a composition of his. It was a bassline, it was beautiful, but it didn’t end. It was so long. It was at least a minute of the same thing.

Anyway, I rented the Moog and I rented Robby Wedel, who was Schöner’s assistant and engineer. Robby was the engineer on ‘I Feel Love’. He was the only person at that time who knew how to get any sound out of the Moog. It was a nightmare. Cables here, cables there. And so I rented him and I rented the synthesiser. I’d say give me a bass sound or a string and after a few minutes he was able to get me something. I needed him because even if I’d owned one i wouldn’t have been able to get any sound out of it.

The idea behind ‘I Feel Love’ was to deliberately create a song that sounded like the future. Is that right?

Yeah. In 1977 I came up with the idea of doing an album with Donna with the sound of the ’50s, ’60s, ’70s. With a sound which you could possibly call the future. The only way to do it is to use the machines. I wanted to create all the sounds of an orchestra using the synthesiser. I had the Moog, the modular, plus another polyphonic synthesiser. I had the bassline, then we produced a white noise [click track], we cut it and we did the hi -hat, the snare, some other percussive stuff. Everything except the kick, which with the synthesiser I was not able to get to kick enough to make people dance. It had a beautiful low end, but not dumm dumm, dumm. So we used Keith Forsey, the drummer, who did quite a job. He was there just with the bass drum for seven minutes.

I never realised it was actually a live drummer.
It was a live drummer mixed with the really big low end of the synthesiser.

And what about the rest of the song?
When I started the song, I started with three notes. I told the rented engineer [Robby Wedel], give me two Cs, a G and a B flat. So he got me those four notes. And previously I recorded a click track from a Japanese drum machine. So by synchronizing the click, which was on tape, the computer would play the exact same time as the time of the click. I think we recorded 20 minutes of the click on to tape on a 24-track. And I told him put the four notes on one key so I could play [a sequence with one key]. It worked like a loop. If I pressed one key, say C, and it would play dung-dung-dung-dung [the ‘I Feel Love’ bassline]. So if I then wanted to go up to E flat, I’d hit one key and dung-dung-dung-dung and the whole chord would go up.

So really how a sequencer works.
Yes. OK, now let’s compose the song. Let’s do 16 bars, 16 bars of the same chord. Do you want to know all the details?

I’m listening intently here.
I started with major chords. But the bassline could work with major and minor chords. I remembered Richard Strauss with the beautiful song, ‘Also Sprach, Zarathustra’, where he has a minor which becomes major and it sounds so well. So I had the same. Bum, yum, yum. I did 16 bars with that and then I guess four bars with E flat. And so I built up the concept, the chords of a song, not knowing the melody.

It was really fun to work but the problem was the Moog would go out of tune every few minutes. It was a disaster. I’d have to do 20 or 30 seconds then stop. Go back, tune it and drop it in. It was quite a job. The other tracks were pretty easy. The hi-hat was just white noise and was constant and didn’t need tuning for a note.

It’s a difficult song to sing live, isn’t it?
Yes. It turned out at the end when it was mixed it was a little too numerical. And by singing, Donna and I came up with the melody. But it was quite difficult to keep time because if you sing it, you have to count [the bars]. And there are some sections where I still think now there are two bars too many. One day I asked Donna, how were you ever able to sing and count the bars? And she said that her husband, who was playing piano at the time, would count for her in the headphones. Otherwise, for whoever sings that song live, it’s really difficult.

When we started to mix it, the engineer, Jürgen Koppers, added a delay. Now, suddenly it became [the delay gives the bassline an echo, doubling it]. Which gave it a totally different feel. So that was really the moment where the song took over. Which is what gave it that particular feel, which I don’t think anyone had tried before.

Yeah, I guess it gives it the swing.
The swing. And then I made another major mistake. I had the original track on the left hand side bass on the left hand side. And on the right hand side I had the up [strokes] like dum dum dum dum dum and if you hear it it’s great but the first time I heard it in a discotheque I was on the right hand side of the of the stereo and I was not able to dance because all I heard is what the up instead of the down and since I’m not a great dancer I was not able to dance. So now when I when I play it as a DJ I put it I make it much more mono. I put them much more together so at least at least I can dance a little bit.

And when you finished the production and delivered it, did you know that it was revolutionary?
Not really. I remember at the very beginning Neil Bogart was interested but not as much as I would have liked. Then the song really started to play well in England. And I mixed it again slightly different. The moment where I really thought it could be something great is when Brian Eno told David Bowie in Berlin, ‘David, I found a record and I think this is the sound of the future.’ And coming from Brian Eno, that was like, ta-dang, I had my stamp of approval. That was the moment I thought, maybe he’s right.

Why do you think so many of the electronic pioneers came from Europe, especially Germany?I don’t really know. I know that I liked Switched on Bach. That’s why I got in. But Kraftwerk, I don’t know. There was Kraftwerk, there was Jean-Michel Jarre, Klaus Schulz, Tangerine Dream, a lot of Germans. A lot of electronics were done in Dusseldorf, Cologne, Berlin etc. I don’t know why. Maybe it’s in the German’s blood to have something more mechanical.

Maybe that’s why they make good cars!

There was a feeling in the post -war period in Germany of rejecting the R&B traditions of America. A lot of the Krautrock Groups, they were trying to create a new course for music in Germany.
I personally don’t go that deep. Let’s take Kraftwerk. They found this instrument. They said, ‘Wow, this is a great instrument. Why don’t we do something?’ There was no singer. They’re all just speaking. I don’t know how great they were as instrumentalists because what they play is very easy. So I think they just started. And Jean-Michel Jarre, he’s a good keyboard player and he had all those great sounds. I think there was just the possibility of doing something with a new instrument and that’s what they did.

When you were making songs like I Feel Love, did it feel inevitable that that was the direction popular music would go in?
Well, at the very beginning, I didn’t think that ‘I Feel Love’ would have that impact. But then, months later, you hear some basslines inspired by it. And I must say, it is quite difficult to have a electronic dance song where you don’t have some kind of, what’s the word… that feel.

The DNA of ‘I Feel Love’ is in so much music.

After your work with Donna Summer, you started to move into composing soundtracks. How did that come about?
Alan Parker, the producer, the director of Midnight Express, he liked ‘I Feel Love’. He called me and asked if I was interested in doing a score, and I was absolutely happy because I never did any. And to be honest I did not have a clue how to do it, but I said yes. The main thing he wanted is a song which has the driving feel of ‘I Feel Love’. He said, do whatever you want. There is a scene at the beginning where the kid runs away, and so that’s when I composed ‘The Chase’ and it worked very well. The guy is running and the music propels it. I think it was one of the first all synthesised scores.

Here’s my copy, Giorgio. £3 .49 from Our Price! Still got the price sticker on it.
That’s good.

I remember going to see the movie at the Empire in Leicester Square, which had a really great sound system. And you really felt the power of the music. The combination of the music and the visuals was quite stunning for the time.
It was so unusual, especially for Hollywood. And it was, I guess, for the Academy too, because they gave me my first Oscar.

How long did you work on it?
The main theme, ‘The Chase’ that was a job of like two days. And the rest I guess about three, four weeks. Alan Parker came to Musicland in Munich and we did a whole mix in a day or so. He was really concerned about the main theme. He said, this is all great but here, I hear an oboe. It was a Sunday, so I couldn’t find an oboe player. But in one of the synthesisers, there it was: the oboe. It only sounded a little bit like an oboe, but if you tell somebody, this is an oboe, then they believe it.

Obviously getting an Oscar for your first soundtrack meant you were offered many more. Which are you most proud of?
There are three. One is Flashdance, where I did the music and the songs. And American Gigolo. But then the soundtrack which had the most impact was Scarface. The movie did not do too well at the beginning. But then the video came out. And the video was a huge success.

But you know, I did not really want to do Flashdance when Jerry Bruckheimer first asked me, because nobody really knew what does ‘flashdance’ mean. Is it something slightly rude? I wanted to see a tape first. My girlfriend was in the living room watching the movie. And I came out and I see her crying. She said, oh, what a great movie. It’s so romantic.

Giorgio and friends enjoy their disco lifestyle, LA 1979

You’ve recently become the world’s oldest DJ. How did that come about? I think you did actually DJ in the early ’70s didn’t you?
In the late ’60s I would have four, five, six songs on tape and I would take some 45 records and I would play them, but that wasn’t really DJing.

So tell me about your recent entry into the DJ market.
As so often in life it came as a little bit of coincidence. A good friend of mine, an Italian in Paris, who works for Louis Vuitton, he and Kim Jones, asked me if I could do a 12-, 15-minute DJ set for one of his shows. So I did that in Paris, and it was a nice hit, people applauded. But on the same day, they asked me if I wanted to do a DJ gig for Elton John’s AIDS benefit in Cannes. It was an hour DJing, and I wasn’t really prepared. I had a friend of mine who was helping me out, and it was a disaster. It was this beautiful L‘Hotel du Cap’, and they had dinner, and then I was trying to make them dance, and nobody would dance. It was very Hollywood, all drinking and talking about what’s your latest movie, and they couldn’t care less about me playing.

There were quite a lot of famous people there weren’t there to watch your disastrous debut performance.
A lot, but I guess they didn’t probably even notice me, so the damage in Hollywood was not that bad. But that evening I got another offer from the Red Bull Music Academy, to come to New York and teach for an hour Q&A. I said, I can’t charge you just to come there for an hour, couldn’t we do something else? So somebody came up with the idea of DJing. They organized it at Cielo, but after a week, they said, no, no, Cielo is too small. Let’s go to Brooklyn to Output. And it was a huge success. It was absolutely fantastic. And since then, I’m traveling the world. Amazing. Yeah. God. Thank you.

What do you think has been the most important piece of technology for you in your career?
Well, I would say two. One is when Roger Linn came from San Francisco to Los Angeles and said, Giorgio, I invented a drum machine. It’s called the Linn. And he showed me this beautiful looking machine. It was analogue, so you could do all the sounds. You could play it by hand. That was one. And I overused that sound for too many productions. Once you find a great snare, a great kick, you use it over and over.

It was very popular with Prince too. He used it all the way through the 80s.
Now, if I hear some stuff from ’85, ’86, for example, Take My Breath Away, it still has that sound, I think I should have used live drums.

And the second piece of technology?
Obviously the main instrument was the Moog, the synthesiser. That defined a lot, I started in ’71. I had a hit with a song called ‘Son of My Father’, where I was one of the first, apart from Emerson, Lake and Palmer, to use the Moog as a solo. And then Chicory Tip in England did a cover and it became number one. But my song came out in America and went to number top 40. So that was a little bit of a revenge.

Did you stay close with Donna?
We became very good friends. She is – or was – an incredibly talented singer and not only for R&B. By singing in churches in Boston she was able to improvise but also from singing in musicals she had great discipline too. In a musical you cannot improvise; everything is very strict. So when we told her, don’t do that here, do this, she was very co-operative.

She was very funny. She always had a joke ready. Then of course when she left Casablanca it started to go a little down. It was definitely the time when disco was dying and then unfortunately she went with Geffen and that didn’t work. Even if disco was still on I don’t think it would have worked that well. We were still friends, although for a long period I didn’t see her because I was spending time in Europe and she moved to New York then Nashville.

But in the last ten years I saw her quite often and in the last six I saw her even more because she rented the apartment in a high-rise in Los Angeles where I was staying. So I could just tap the pavement with the morse code – dum dum dum dum – and communicate with her. I was playing the piano one day, just improvising and ten minutes later she called me: ‘What is it, what did you play? Play it again!’ I said, ‘I’m sorry I was just fooling around.’

I’ve read that before the disco era, when you were making German ‘Schlager’ pop music, you were a very strategic composer, you would analyse the hits of the moment, and try to adapt successful ideas into new songs. Is that right?
You know what? I don’t think that’s that right, because if that was right, I would have produced better songs!

I did some good songs, but I did so many bad ones. An album came out a few years ago with a compilation of my very first song up to almost the last one. And it’s so bad. I was into bubblegum. I loved it. So that’s what I did.

I had one song which is exactly more than 40 years old, and it’s on that album. Two years ago, the company who owns the Audi, Volkswagen, they asked me if I could re -record a song called… Do-be-do-be-do… Do-be-do-be-do… And I said, no way. But then they said we want it for the big commercial of the Super Bowl. And that old song, which I completely forgot, made me a ton of money. I cannot even tell you how much.

I love your soundtracks. Which modern film composers do you admire?
Well, I love John Williams. John Williams is incredible. But the other guy is Hans Zimmer. He has these huge sounds. For example, for one of the movies he did not too long ago, he created a new drum sound. He had about ten, 15 people all with different sounds and a microphone in the middle. So he is really looking for new sounds. I worked with him on the song for the Academy Award about three years ago, and he’s incredible. Incredible. Very talented.

How long did you used to spend in the studio?
At the very beginning in Munich, I would spend a lot of time, like 12 hours a day, at least, maybe starting midday and then working until midnight, 1, 2, 3. Then later on a little less, but eight or nine hours. And I remember in 1987, 1986 when I did Top Gun, I worked all year. I would start around 11, 12 o ‘clock until 7, 8; then I went home for dinner. I had my guys finishing at night and I came back in the morning.

What is the best moment of the day for you?
For me to work it’s during the day. Maybe starting early afternoon. Once you get into 10, 11 o ‘clock, I think you lose a little bit. But sometimes you have to. The difference between songs for groups and movies is with songs, if you’re a week late, usually you don’t have a problem, but with movies you have to deliver on time. So it’s much tougher and that’s why with Top Gun, I worked so hard.

What advice do you have for musicians who want to pursue film scoring?
I think it’s a great time now for musicians. When I started, there was obviously much, much less competition, but you needed a certain amount to record a song. Even if you had friends who start with you, without money it was difficult to do a record. I didn’t have the money but I was lucky to have the first song, somebody produced it and I was able to get in. Now it’s almost a dream, for $2,000 you have a digital studio, complete with the best microphone, the best sounds, it’s all one package, you can take it with you, go on a vacation and still work.

What do you think of sample culture? There are songs that have sampled you that sold a lot of records.
I’m not really following it that much. I don’t really care. If somebody likes it, it’s okay with me. It’s not like ten years ago they would just sample, sample and not pay. I think they pay now because everybody’s checking now. I love one of the samples which Kanye West used in one of the songs, ‘The Mercy’. He did a very nice little trick. He used partially the chords from Scarface, but a slightly different sequence. He changed the order but you know immediately, this is the piece. I’m not like Keith Richard who says, why don’t everybody compose their own song.

It’s a bit rich given how much music the Rolling Stones have stolen and put their names on really. To my mind, sampling is a continuation of what we’ve always done in pop music, which is steal other people’s ideas.
The difference is if you steal a recording or if you steal a melody. If you steal a recording, that’s a little tougher, right, physically? There are so many articles which say this song has the sound of Giorgio here. Sometime I really listen to those songs, I think, how did that reviewer ever know it was a sample? They have much better ear than me. The writer just thinks, OK, there’s a little bit of Moroder here. But usually I don’t hear it.

There’s probably a little bit of Moroder everywhere. Thank you.

© Bill Brewster & Frank Broughton