To the Queen, With Love

Donna Summer Revisited, Day 1

by Christian John Wikane

21 October 2013


Part 2: Inside the Munich Machine

Building on the success of “Love to Love You Baby”, Summer was whisked back to Moroder’s Musicland Studios to record A Love Trilogy (1976). While side two of Love to Love You Baby contained a variety of pop/rock numbers, A Love Trilogy provided a two-sided disco experience. All 18 minutes of “Try Me, I Know We Can Make It” filled side one while Summer’s exquisite rendition of Barry Manilow’s “Could It Be Magic” led a trio of songs on side two. The album officially introduced Munich Machine, the in-house studio band that played on Moroder and Bellotte’s Musicland productions. “Giorgio looked for catchy melodies,” says Baldursson. “That was his forte. He basically wanted things to be danceable. That was his main goal: get people on the floor.” Keith Forsey’s pounding four-on-the-floor and Baldursson’s string arrangements powered “Try Me, I Know We Can Make It” onto the disco chart where it unseated Diana Ross’ “Love Hangover” from the number one spot.

Four Seasons of Love (1976) followed A Love Trilogy in quick succession. It was the first of several concept albums that Summer recorded. “Pete Bellotte came up with Four Seasons of Love,” says Forsey. “He’s quite an intellectual chap. He was kind of an ideas guy: ‘how can we do this to make it slightly different?’” Summer was a beguiling presence on songs like “Spring Affair” and “Summer Fever”. Baldursson recalls, “She was just so good. Her musicality was very high. Her pitch was perfect. Her timing and everything ... she just had it. She knew exactly what she was doing.” With his arrangements and keyboard flourishes, Baldursson also figured prominently on the album. “Thor is probably the blackest white keyboard player you’re ever going to find,” says bassist Les Hurdle, who joined Munich Machine on Four Seasons of Love. “He has an amazing feel. I learned of course the reason he had this feel for American music was because there was an American air force base in Iceland (Baldursson’s home country). The radio station would broadcast a lot of R&B. As a musician, Thor picked up a lot of the grooves.” Forsey concurs, “Les is right. Thor was as funky as hell. He was fantastic! An absolutely wonderful person to work with.”

Engineer Juergen Koppers crystallized all the sonic ingredients in a way that translated to discotheques and transistor radios alike. “Juergen was very inventive,” says Hurdle. “He was always trying things that other engineers would not do because it was not safe. I think he was one of the first people to turn things to number eleven! One day at Musicland, the little LEDs that told the engineer whether the signal was in bounds or not ceased to work. Giorgio said, ‘We better cancel’ and Juergen said, ‘No we’ll just go ahead and record anyway.’ We recorded. When the LEDs got fixed and the tracks were played back, all the LEDs were in solid red everywhere. Giorgio said, ‘This is terrible.’ Juergen’s comment, which was always his comment, was ‘Do you hear distortion? No? Then it’s fine.’”

By December 1976, the combination of Koppers’ technical prowess, Munich Machine’s infectious grooves, Moroder and Bellotte’s musical vision, and Summer’s rich, animated vocals had generated gold certifications for Love to Love You Baby, A Love Trilogy, and Four Seasons of Love, a gold single for “Love to Love You Baby”, and number one disco hits from all three albums. The singer guested on top music programs like American Bandstand, Soul Train, The Midnight Special, and Don Kirshner’s Rock Concert. Casablanca’s first breakout star was rocketing towards a whole new stratosphere.

“It’s so good ... it’s so good ... it’s so good”

During the pre-Studio 54 era of New York, the nerve center of New York’s punk scene intersected with the burgeoning club scene in lower Manhattan. Cross-pollination was inevitable and downtown groups like Blondie incorporated elements of danceable R&B into their music. Group co-founders Debbie Harry and Chris Stein were often hip to trends well before the public caught on. At some point in 1977, Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love” landed on the group’s radar. Debbie Harry recalls, “Chris and I loved Donna and Giorgio’s ‘I Feel Love’. At the time it was quite ground breaking and commercial and sexy.” Blondie subsequently added “I Feel Love” to their sets and distilled the track’s electronic essence on “Heart of Glass” (1978).

“I Feel Love” might have foretold the future of music but it was introduced on an album that largely quoted the past. I Remember Yesterday (1977) expanded the breadth of Donna Summer’s work with Moroder and Bellotte. Side one featured three tracks that referenced bygone musical eras. “‘I Remember Yesterday’ had a kind of a ‘20s big-band sound,” says Thor Baldursson. “I took that style and decided to use that. It was almost like a Dixieland style in disco ... disco Dixieland!” Touches of ‘60s Motown and Phil Spector’s wall-of-sound fashioned “Back in Love Again” and “Love’s Unkind”, which hit the U.K. Top 5. Side two toured funk (“Black Lady”), ballads (“Can’t We Just Sit Down”), and variations of the disco style Summer popularized on earlier albums (“Take Me”).

However, nothing on I Remember Yesterday could have prepared listeners for the album’s last track. “I Feel Love” seemed beamed from another planet. “The technical feel of it was pretty outrageous and exciting,” says Keith Forsey. “It was quite avant garde.” Thor Baldursson witnessed the construction of the track. “That was Moroder all the way,” he says. “It was his child. We didn’t know what Giorgio was doing, really. He got a synthesizer guy (Robbie Wedel) that had a moog modular at the time. He helped them sequence the whole thing. It was Giorgio and Juergen who worked this together, more or less. It took a long time because it was so tedious to go through all the synthesizers.”

The effort paid off. Like a mannequin coming to life, Summer intoned the lyrics over a hypnotic beat. “It put you in a trance,” says Tom Moulton. “Even though it’s the beat that attracted, you still had Donna Summer’s name on it. She made it work.” The song also had fans among Moroder’s fellow producers. “At the time, I was really impressed by Giorgio Moroder’s production,” says Cerrone. “I liked Donna’s style and sensuality, which is really of her own. One can immediately recognize it.” Vince Aletti adds, “‘I Feel Love’ was really a new thing for Donna. It was also a way for people to appreciate what exactly it was that Giorgio did because it was not long after ‘I Feel Love’ that he did From Here to Eternity (1977), which was a great electronic record.” Certainly, “I Feel Love” surveyed uncharted territory on the FM dial but some club audiences had already glimpsed this brave new electronic world. Aletti continues, “I don’t think ‘I Feel Love’ would have been received at the club level quite so readily had it not been for Kraftwerk’s ‘Trans-Europe Express’ (1977). Kraftwerk kind of opened the way but to a more limited audience. Donna and Giorgio really pushed that to a larger audience, with a much more pop kind of sound. Of course ‘I Feel Love’ was imitated to death—and not very well—but it did really allow disco to take on a new form and grow in a really exciting way.”

Pop critics embraced the entire scope of Summer’s fourth Casablanca release. Rolling Stone observed, “I Remember Yesterday is clearly meant to be the album to move Summer as both singer and songwriter beyond disco classification. It succeeds with ease” (11 August 1977). The album earned Summer another gold award and became her highest charting album in the U.K. where it peaked in the Top 5. Originally issued as the B-side to “Can’t We Just Sit Down (And Talk It Over)”, the gold-selling “I Feel Love” gave the singer her second Top 10 pop hit in the U.S. and crowned the pop charts in the UK. Technological innovation had never sounded so sexy.


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