One of the best things that books about pop music can do is send readers to their favorite streaming service or, better yet, a local record store to seek out artists and albums they somehow missed the first time around. Even the most encyclopedic, obsessive music nerds can still discover new-to-us artists and albums.
Veteran music writer Dave Thompson’s new book about the wide range of musicians and genres that influenced and were influenced by Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love” sent me in search of early tracks from new wavers Ultravox and pre-“Don’t You Want Me” Human League, not to mention less-trod Eurodisco hitmakers Dee D. Jackson and Marc Cerrone. As I worked my way through Backbeat Books’ I Feel Love, I managed to create a playlist that’s been soundtracking my treadmill time ever since.
Thompson maintains that singer Donna Summer and her producer Giorgio Moroder “reinvented” pop music, but Thompson also acknowledges that they drew on numerous extant fads, technologies, and musical influences to create the disco hit “I Feel Love”.
The first half of the book covers a lot of ground, skimming across the early careers of Summer and Moroder, the rise of the affordable synthesizer and the 12” single, the ascendancy of avant-garde composers, krautrock, first-wave punk, disco, prog, and the fad of erotic dance tracks to capture the complex, weird, artistic fervor that was bubbling in 1977. One of Thompson’s central claims is that “I Feel Love” emerged from an intensely creative and intensely diffuse cultural moment, so by necessity he must lay out a good deal of context.
Some of that context is already familiar to most fans of pop music. Indeed, much ink has already been devoted to Bowie, Eno, and their Berlin records, to the point that I’m not sure we needed another telling of that particular tale. On the other hand, Thompson’s narrative of the role that early electronics played in the creation of cold war sci-fi soundtracks is illuminating and appropriately trippy.
Again, these early chapters feel a bit superficial because Thompson’s on the hook to inventory so many different movements. But ultimately the approach is productive. As Thompson articulates in his introduction, “The point is to tell the story of this one single song from every direction.”
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s warning about the “dangers of a single story” comes to mind. Adichie suggests that our views of people and places remain anemic and incomplete when we only tell one narrative about them. To his credit, Thompson offers multiple narratives about “I Feel Love”, at once a disco anthem, a seminal example of collaboration, an avant-garde anti-hit, and a proto new wave track.
One of the remarkable narratives is the twin trajectories of Summer-Moroder and Kraftwerk, both making use of synthesizer technology, both working in Germany, and both creating ambitious and profoundly influential music. I was reminded of stories of the Beatles and the Beach Boys simultaneously experimenting with studio sonics, orchestration, and the LP as a conceptual art form, and pushing each other to be great.
Summer-Moroder’s “Love to Love You Baby” and Kraftwerk’s “Autobahn” both became global hits in 1975 and caught the attention of dance fans, rockers, and synth geeks. This foretold the near-simultaneous releases of the even bigger and even more influential “I Feel Love” and “Trans-Europe Express” two years later.
I was somewhat let down by Thompson’s later chapters, which make the case that “I Feel Love” had reverberations across the worlds of punk and new wave, dance and pop, and experimental music. Unfortunately, I’m not sure that case needs to be made. Of course the song was influential. And because his argument is self-evident, Thompson essentially repeats that broad claim instead of developing it.
He charts the early days of the synth-pop and new romantic movement in the UK and points out how adoring that community was of Summer-Moroder. He moves to New York and the CBGB crowd and essentially makes that same argument. Rinse and repeat.
Yet, the influence that Summer and Moroder had on hip-hop and ’90s rave culture is barely glossed. Thompson mentions that numerous rap tracks sampled “I Feel Love” and then essentially drops the subject. Thompson points out that artists like the Chemical Brothers and Daft Punk had much affinity for Summer-Moroder’s collaborations but says little about how rave and EDM became more dominant and mainstream than ever in the late ’90s. Those seem like oversights, not to mention missed opportunities to explore more critically how the influence of “I Feel Love” took on new and different iterations in subsequent decades.
But despite these flaws, even the book’s weaker second half is at times revelatory. Thompson looks deeply at how synth-pop and new wave opened up new possibilities for genre and synth experimentation and new opportunities to take the liberatory ethos of disco into the public sphere. British acts like Soft Cell, Frankie Goes to Hollywood, and Bronski Beat understood the sex-positivity and the sense of liberation that throbbed beneath both disco beats and synth lines, and repackaged the sonics of Summer-Moroder a half-generation later, reaching wider audiences, increasing LGBTQ visibility and, well, feeling the love.
Early in the book, Thompson gets it right: “Yes, disco sucked. It sucked everybody in.” With that, I’ll get back to listening to that killer playlist.