Pete Bellotte got everything in synth

Is it true you bonded with Giorgio Moroder over facial hair?
It must have been ’74. I’ll always remember, I went to meet him and I had a huge, long moustache and I thought, because Germany was very conservative then, and I had very long hair, so I shaved off the moustache, just in case. Lo and behold he had the same moustache!

How did the meeting come about?
I’d moved from England to Munich and I met him through a mutual acquaintance: a photographer for Bravo magazine, Uli Weber. Bravo was the biggest German magazine for music, it sold over a million a week. And Uli told me that Giorgio was looking for someone to work with. I’d been a professional musician till then and wanted to move over to the other side. The very first day I started working for him he gave me his brief case and asked me to carry it and I said, I’ll do anything for you, but I’m not carrying your case. Maybe a stupid thing to do because I was desperate to get into the business. But he was okay. He took the case back and never asked me again.

I only worked for him for about a year or year and a half when Ariola Records in Munich offered me a job as an in-house producer, which was a great experience and while I was doing that I was still writing with Giorgio.

Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte up their moustache game

You wrote the lyrics to ‘Son of My Father’ which Giorgio sang in 1971, but which was a hit in the UK for Chicory Tip a year later.
I was actually at Ariola in my office when the phone rang and it was Elton John calling from London. He was one of my best friends and he said, ‘I’m in a record shop and I just bought this record and your name is on it!’ It was ‘Son Of My Father’. He said I’m so proud I’m telling everyone about it. Ironically, I was never proud of that song. After I’d finished working at Ariola, which was probably a year, Giorgio then asked me to go back with him as an equal partner.

How did so many international musicians wind up working in Munich?
There were quite a few backing singers, Americans, who were refugees of Hair the musical, which was touring everywhere. There were quite a few English musicians too. I think there were all there because, like Iceland and Holland, there wasn’t as much work. Munich was so busy and had so many studios so there was so much work going on for them. I guess it was the word on the wire. There were far more musicians in Munich than Berlin or Hamburg. When I originally went to Germany I was told to go to Hamburg because that’s the centre of the music industry, but when I got there, there wasn’t any work at all and they said, oh Munich’s the centre. So I went down to Munich and it was.

When was the first time you met Donna Summer?
I first met Donna in 1975 or ’74. She was a backing singer, singing with two Germans at the time. She sang backing vocals for me a few times. I’d written a song on my own, ‘Denver Dream’, and I paid her to come in and sing it as a demo. I sent it to a publisher friend of mine in France and within a couple of days he phoned me and said I’ve got a record company that wants to release it – but with the girl who’s singing it on the demo. Donna had been ripped off a few times but we knew each other quite well, she said I trust you, let’s do it. That’s when she changed her name from Donna Gaines to Donna Summer.

What was she like?
We weren’t like best friends, but we’d very often go out. We just got on really well, she was a lovely girl. In the whole time we worked together there was never the slightest bit of friction. And the reason we were so lucky is she wasn’t interested in the records at all. The productions didn’t interest her. She’d come in with the demos of the songs, lyrics all ready, keys not worked out yet, and she loved talking. So she’d come in the studio, usually at 4 o’clock in the afternoon and she would talk about the latest rumours and gossip. Then she’d look at her watch and say, ‘Oh I’ve gotta go,’ and she’d go in and sing it in one take – and be gone. The next time she heard any of these recordings was when it was physically a record.

The first time Donna came into writing was the Bad Girls album because she was with [future husband] Bruce Sudano by then and that was when Bogart had hired Rusk Sound Studios in Hollywood just to write in. It was so extravagant. We were writing in that studio, Giorgio and myself, and she was writing independently with her husband Bruce. And that’s where ‘Bad Girls’ and ‘Dim All The Lights’, they were her first writing efforts away from us.

Did you relocate to the States?
I would be there for months and months but I never lived there. ‘I Feel Love’ was produced in England. It was the Live & More album that took us over there in 1978. That was the first time we relocated. We only ever worked over there after that.

Donna Summer debuts ‘I Feel Glove’
Pete Bellotte, Roberta Kelly, Donna Summer, Giorgio Moroder

Tell me about ‘I Feel Love’.
I’ll tell you the whole story. After the Love To Love You album the next album we did was A Love Trilogy. I used to go into the English bookshop to buy books and I’d bought Mervyn Peake’s Gormenghast trilogy and the idea of a trilogy appealed to me, so I came up with the idea of one side with three songs and the fourth track would be the three songs going into the fourth. This was our first concept album. So the next one had to be a concept too. This was Four Seasons Of Love and that’s because I’d just read Lawrence Durrell’s Alexandria Quartet, and I thought it would be good to do one song for each season. By the next album I was reading Dance To The Music Of Time by Anthony Powell.

Which was the original title of the album, wasn’t it?
Yes. It became I Remember Yesterday. I came up with the idea of going from the past through various periods. So we started off with a dance band in ‘I Remember Yesterday’ and ‘Love’s Unkind’; then a take on The Shirelles ‘Back In Love Again’, a Supremes style funk thing ‘Black Lady’; an up-to-date disco track with ‘Make Me’. And then I said we’ve got to go into the future and have a futuristic song. That’s when we got Robby Wedel in.

He’s one of the characters I want to ask you about.
We’d used the Mini Moog quite a bit. Robby Wedel was the programmer for Eberhard Schöner, who was originally a classical violinist and later a very famous modernist classical composer.

He later worked with Sting, too, didn’t he?
He did, yeah. Brilliant man. He hired his Moog 3P out on a daily rate with Robby Wedel.

What did you get for your money?
There were three cabinets, each two and a half feet by two feet. And a fourth cabinet was the sequencer. The others were voltage control, oscillators etc. Everything to get the sounds in pitch as well. When we laid down the first track, Robby asked for something else to be put down with it but I don’t think we were paying much attention. So we got the first line down. So then Robby says, OK do you want to synch the next track? We didn’t know what that meant. So he says I’ve laid down a synch tone from this Moog so that anything we record on the next track is going to lock it into that. When we put in the next track it was absolutely spot on. It was a revelation for us. And the most astounding thing about Robby Wedel, who is the unsung hero of all of this is Robert Moog himself didn’t even know about this, had no idea that this synching was even possible. This all came from Robby Wedel. And it’s not known enough how important this man really was.

That’s basically inventing MIDI. Is it all synthesised?
The whole track is all Moog except there’s a bass drum from Keith Forsey, because we couldn’t get a big enough bass drum sound.

And how about recording the vocals?
All the track was finished and Donna was never interested in the lyrics because they were always done. But we had this deal that she was a co-writer on all the tracks, which everyone is nowadays but she was one of the first. It wasn’t a problem; we wanted harmony.

This was in Munich?
We were in Munich when we finished it. And Giorgio said, Donna wants to do the lyrics with you. I said fine. That night I went round to her house and it was 7.30. I knocked on the door and she opened it with a phone in her hand. She said, ‘I’m ever so sorry I’m just on the phone, go in the kitchen and make yourself a coffee.’ Half an hour went by and she came down and said, ‘I won’t be a sec.’ I had about four of these ‘I’ll just be a minute’. So she said, make a start.

Anyway, I finished off the lyric, because there obviously wasn’t a lot of lyric in there. Eventually at about 10.30 she came down and said, ‘Look I’m really, really sorry but I’ve been on the phone to my astrologer in New York. We were discussing my relationship.’ She was with a guy called Peter Nieuwdorfer and but she’d just met Bruce Sudano of the Brooklyn Dreams who she’d fallen for. She’s called the astrologer because she wanted to know Bruce’s star sign and they’d gone though all the charts and the woman had said, no you have to go with Bruce. She came down and said I’ve made my decision. Then she just came in, sang the song in one take.

Was it always meant to be in that style? It feels like an incantation more than a song.
Donna was very inventive with voices. We had to curtail it sometimes. She’d do all sorts of funny voices. But yes, this is the way she sang it straight off the bat and it sounded right. The honesty that has to be given to this song, is that it was part of an album, it was the last track on the album. It was just a track and neither Giorgio nor I thought it was a single.

It was released as a B-side originally wasn’t it?
Neil Bogart [of Casablanca Records] got hold of it, he said could you do three edits on it and he told us where they were. I’d be lying if I said I remember what they were but at the time they were really good and they made it flow much better. And out it came. It was a big hit in the UK but it wasn’t so big in the States. It established us in the clubs. But we definitely did not think at that moment, when it was released, that we’d done something special. It didn’t feel revolutionary. It didn’t seem anything. The only revolution was the synching.

Were there other electronic records you were inspired by? Like ‘Trans Europe Express’?
No not at all. It was just concocted in the studio and it happened very fast. The programmer Robby was so fast, he was brilliant.

The Moog was notoriously flaky wasn’t it? Had a tendency to go out of tune.
Yeah except this was more stable than the small one. He arrived there an hour early to warm it up. He was a programmer but a musical programmer so he had a pitch relationship so there was no way it was going to go out off tune with him. Even now, listening back on good speakers, the sound of that Moog is just unbelievable. Unsurpassable. We were lucky.

When did you have the sense that it was history making?
It took a few years to be quite honest. Records come and go but it stayed alive in the clubs. It got in films in the background. Then there was Marc Almond and Jimmy Somerville who covered it. Started to get a few covers. Then suddenly, every cover band was doing it.

How did ‘Macarthur Park’ come about?
We recorded her live album at the Universal Amphitheatre in 1978. Rod Stewart was supposed to be duetting with her but it didn’t happen. We did two nights there. She insisted on having her three sisters doing the backing vocals and when we came to mix they had to come off, that’s the only thing we doctored. When we finished it, Bogart wanted a hit single but this was all our old stuff with a few covers. We did a brainstorm down at Westlake Studios, loads of Casablanca people down there, Donna, myself, Giorgio, Greg Mathieson, we spent the whole day tossing and turning songs, trying to come up with something. Every time someone suggested something no one could agree on it.

At the end of the day I thought I’ll say it, so I suggested Macarthur Park, even though everyone always laughs at me when I say it’s one of my favourite songs. I knew it from Richard Harris’ album. He’s not the best singer in the world but I love his version. So I said it, it went silent and then Bogart asked to hear it. So we found a copy, sat and listened, and Donna said, ‘Yeah I’ve gotta do that’. So Greg Mathieson, the arranger, didn’t go to bed that night. We recorded it the next day with all the string arrangement, and within two days it was finished. It was the first time I’d ever seen Donna challenged with a song and she’s an amazing singer.

You always worked fast. The I Remember Yesterday album was done very quickly too, wasn’t it?
It was all done at Musicland in Munich. And everything happened so fast. We had an engineer Jürgen Koppers, who’s a brilliant engineer. He was so fast, the musicians were fast and we were too. That album evolved so fast, we never hung around.

A very efficient team.
I’ve never drunk or smoked in my life. I’ve never seen Giorgio drunk ever. He’d have a brandy maybe but that’s it. Koppers didn’t drink. We were a working team and we just got on with it. We’d start around 10 in the morning and we’d finish around 6 or 7 in the evening. Total efficiency. I would just wonder how people could take so long on an album! I guess we knew what we were doing to a degree. Obviously it helps having two producers to swap ideas with. And Giorgio and I never argued. We’ve always been friends. There was never any nastiness with musicians it was just everyone doing their job, enjoying it and having fun. It wasn’t the rock’n’roll drug world.

How well did you know Neil Bogart?
No one knew Neil Bogart. He was a fantastic music man. An incredibly flamboyant 100% music man. At one point we thought he was ripping us off and we had him audited, and he was totally honest, which surprised us. But he was a larger than life figure. A sort of Donald Trump of the music world.

But not as dim?
Oh no. But he was ruthless.

And extravagant.
This is typical Bogart. When ‘Love to Love You’ came out he wanted to launch it in New York. The reverse side of the cover is Donna in a negligee which always made us laugh because that’s not what she was about, and even she used to say that herself, she was a regular girl, not sexy. Bogart decided to have a replica for the party in icing on the top of the cake, of Donna in the negligee. But his favourite cake-maker was in San Francisco. Bogart was in LA, the party was in New York. He had the cake made in San Francisco, flown to LA in a first class seat of its own with a minder. Then someone from Casablanca flew it to NYC in another first class seat. It got to New York and on the runway an ambulance with flashing lights was waiting for the cake to take it to the venue. So that’s the kind of flamboyance of this man.

No expense spared.
We never ever had a budget the whole time we worked for him. We could do what we wanted. Fly on Concorde or whatever, you just did it. When the time came to be reimbursed for the flight tickets, you went to the office, there were no receipts, and you were just given the cash. It was extraordinary.

There were a lot of drugs, weren’t there.
It was a pretty coke-fuelled office. But he had ears, he really did. We had a couple of number ones in Holland before all of this, but without Bogart I don’t know if we’d ever have made it with Donna. He was totally instrumental in the whole thing.

It was his idea to make the three-minute original into a 17-minute epic
When ‘Love to Love You’ first came out it was in the UK with Dick Leahy and it didn’t do a thing, then Bogart picked it up at MIDEM and you know the story of the orgy? It’s a true story. [Bogart had been playing the song repeatedly at an orgy, and grew frustrated someone had to keep leaving the action every three minutes to put the needle back on the record.]

Drum magician Keith Forsey, aided by Mr. Bellotte.

Do you remember making that Norma Jordan album?
No. I’ve written 530 songs. I listened to it after you emailed and I remembered the song but not the session.

Norma Jordan’s Stay Change Your Mind

You were great friends with Elton John. How did you first meet him?
I met him in Hamburg at the Party Club, just around the corner from the Star Club. There were two resident bands there and every month there’d be a change. So for one month you’d be the band there. We’d played there once before. His band Bluesology came along. Elton had just left school and he was still in his school clothes. He was playing the organ at the back, he wasn’t singing, just accompanying a little. We became friends immediately. At the end of the first week, he got paid so we went up Karlstadt to buy clothes. It was the first time he’d got out of his school gear. We didn’t buy flamboyant clothes but they weren’t school uniform, so he was over the moon. We had a female singer at the time and he fell head over heels with her, he was besotted. That was before he found out what he wanted. So for many years we were close friends and I saw a lot of him.

What was it like working with him on his disco album, Victim of Love?
I didn’t work with him really. He just came and sang. It wasn’t my idea. I was at [Elton’s manager] John Reid’s house and he said we want to make a disco album; you write the songs and Elton will come in and sing them. I’d been in New York and there was this graffiti everywhere ‘Disco Sucks’ and I knew it was the end of disco at that point. I had the honour of using some great musicians, Elton came and sang it all but they didn’t do anything with the album. No publicity or anything. It was the wrong moment and I was the wrong guy. He shouldn’t have been disco-ing it, and I shouldn’t have been recording it.

 © Bill Brewster & Frank Broughton