THERE’S A NEW SENSATION
[…] Brian Eno, “Popcorn,” Doctor Who, Chicory Tip, a bunch of mysterious German groups, and a man who made records in his bedroom. They may not be the scholar’s choices for the principal figures in the history of electronic music. But to kids growing up on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean in the mid-1970s, they were certainly the most pronounced.
Now, all somebody needed do was find a way to synthesize their influence as deftly as the musicians themselves created those sounds.
Ike and Tina Turner came close. Released in 1973, “Nutbush City Limits” was a storming dance rocker, a compulsive beat beneath Tina’s trademark shriek, across which Ike draped one of the wildest synth solos of all. It sounded fabulous, the ultimate consummation of the instrument’s long-running love affair with weird and wacky noises.
But that was all it was. “Nutbush City Limits,” like so many other records that roped a Moog into the music, would have existed just as effectively without one. It was an integral part of the record, but not of the song. That, to borrow from the title of Tangerine Dream’s next scheduled album Rubycon, was the Rubicon that rock still needed to cross.
In simple pop chart terms, the Moog had retreated to its original background role, providing color and emphasis to any number of hits, but seldom stepping out into a spotlight of its own. When Keith Emerson struck out for a solo career, his first single was a honky-tonk piano piece.
Neither did Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte appear overly interested in traveling again the same Moog-driven road as had guided “Son of My Father” to glory.
Yes, they remained intent on forging a singular Musicland sound, a musical signature that could not be anybody but them (at least until the world flooded to emulate it, as is always the case for pioneering producers). But they were not especially dedicated to electronics per se, regarding them, and utilizing them, as simply one more weapon in the arsenal.
Moroder maintained his own stream of Giorgio singles in the wake of the hit. “London Traffic” was a sing-along driven by percussion and what sounded a bit like a flute; “Take It, Shake It, Break My Heart” was the misbegotten love child of “Here Comes the Sun” and a roomful of brass instruments; “The Future Is Past” (another number that Chicory Tip covered) was a surprisingly plodding rocker; and “Lonely Lovers Symphony” would have been a synth driven reworking of Beethoven’s “Für Elise,” were it not for the truckload of drums, strings, horns, and figurative kitchen sinks that Moroder dropped into earshot about ten seconds in.
It is a spectacular production, vast and overwhelming, demanding your attention and kicking the rug away from beneath you if you don’t at least turn to the stereo and mouth your surprise. And yes, there is a synth solo in the middle.
But again, the electronics are not the heart of the record; are not its be-all and end-all. Few people would disagree that “Son of My Father” would have been a mere shadow of its eventual self had the riff been knocked out on a guitar or a sax. But they would also agree that “Lonely Lovers Symphony” would not have suffered one iota if there had not been an ounce of electronic technology brought to bear on it.
Moroder was already a brilliant record producer. Everybody who heard his music agreed that. But that specific Musicland sound that he sought remained out of reach. Probably not by much, it is true—consistency, after all, is at least part of the battle, and vision is another. But that final step was elusive all the same.
And then Donna Summer walked into the room.
A friend introduced them, telling her about a local producer who had put out the call for “new voices.” There was no guarantee that hers would be among those he required, but she went along anyway, and when Moroder learned that she’d appeared in Hair, he asked her to run through a few of the numbers from that. She complied, and Moroder asked for more—show tunes, mostly—and then told her she’d passed the audition.
They got on well together, matching their humor, their drive, their outlook on life. Moroder looked at Summer and yes, he heard a phenomenal voice. But he also saw the ability to stretch it, to take chances, to throw herself into new arenas just to find out what they felt like.
They were qualities that he recognized in himself, of course, but Summer had more—a determination to actually launch her own career as a singer, as opposed to simply being one more face on a crowded theater stage. She was a natural performer; she needed to perform.
Soon, Summer was spending every day at the Arabella, and deep within Moroder’s personal vaults, one hopes there is still a shelf or three of tapes, each one preserving another couple of hours of their early work together, Summer demoing the new material that Moroder and Bellotte were pouring onto paper; the ideas that they would follow through to fruition, and then either keep or discard according to their success.
Summer’s 2003 autobiography sizes up the competition that Moroder had already identified, the preponderance of “blandly generic Tin Pan Alley” pop. The belief that “everyone on the charts sounded more or less the same.”
Because that was something else that Moroder was aiming for in his quest for the Musicsound signature. Not just to make great records that didn’t sound like anyone else’s. They also had to be successful. Very successful. He didn’t want critical acclaim—or rather, he did. But he didn’t want critical acclaim alone. He wanted major hit records. And he wanted them on his own terms.
Not that every waking moment in the studio was spent in the quest for that particular grail. Musicland was a working studio, and Moroder was a jobbing Producer-songwriter. The bread and butter needed to be cared for as much as whatever delicious topping he spread over it.
A who’s who of German pop streamed through the premises, names like Schlager singer Miriam; Anthony (actually Anton Monn, later to become a producer in his own right); Mon Thys, an alias that allowed a young singer named Gerd Müller to not be mistaken for the world-famous German soccer player; bands like the soft orchestral Pete’s Band, Rock Devil, and Sugar.
Moroder and Bellotte maintained their own seemingly endless stream of hit-hunting releases, both under the Giorgio name and a host of aliases. Spinach … Einzelgänger (we’ll get back to that one later) … Inter-mission. And the pair were constantly submitting new compositions to any band they hoped might want to record them. The first session Summer ever recorded for Moroder was for some songs that he was pitching to Three Dog Night.
For Summer’s own career, Moroder already knew that he wanted to pitch her in a different direction to the majority of soulful female singers … a different one, too, to the pair of lackluster 45s she’d already recorded elsewhere, “If You Go Walkin’ Alone” in 1969 and “Sally Go Round the Roses” a couple of years later. Anybody could sing songs like that. He wanted to challenge her with material that nobody else could pull off.
He succeeded, too, with their very first single together.
He had already recorded “The Hostage” once before, with another of the session singers he sometimes employed. Ultimately unreleased, the song told the story of a woman who has just discovered that her man has been kidnapped. It’s a harrowing piece of work, opening with the ringing phone that lets her know what’s happened; interrupted midway through by the kidnapped man’s pleas for her to do what she is told; and buoyed by one of the most unlikely choruses of the age—“he was a hostage … his life was in their hands. His life depending on their demands… .”
The woman obeys. She follows the kidnappers’ instructions; she pays the ransom. But she also involves the police, and, in the chaos of the shoot-out that concludes the drama, there is no happy ending. One of the kidnappers escapes; but “[My husband’s] funeral’s tomorrow.” Those are her final words.
All round, it would have been an odd topic for a potential hit single at any time. In early 1973, however, it was positively suicidal. Across Germany, the Red Army Faction had already proved that even the jailing of its leaders, Andreas Baader and Ulrike Meinhof, would not staunch its campaign of high-profile attacks on establishment figureheads; Munich itself had just undergone the trauma of the real-life hostage situation that shattered the 1972 Olympic Games. “The Hostage” was simply too topical to be released.
Moroder shelved the track, and might even have forgotten about it, had he not heard Donna Summer sing. In early 1974, he resurrected the song, to be rerecorded with Summer on magnificently melodramatic vocals.
It was still too soon—German radio slapped an immediate ban on it; might have done so even after hearing its title, let alone listening to the song. But elsewhere in Europe, and in Holland in particular, broadcasters were not so sensitive. Summer herself had returned to Boston for a vacation with her daughter, when she received the excited message from Munich. “You’ve got a hit. They want you on television.”
The initial plan was for her to stay for just a few days, and then return to the United States. She ended up remaining on the continent for the next three weeks, such was the demand for more Dutch television slots. One appearance, a comedy sketch based around “The Hostage,” even won a Best of Year award.
“The Hostage” went on to reach number 2 in Holland, and it marked the onset of a remarkable succession of Summer singles … remarkable because, again, not one of them adhered to anything remotely approaching standard hit material.
“Lady of the Night” felt like an updated sixties girl group song celebrating a streetwalker. The Dutch sent it to number 4. Less successful in chart terms, but equally powerful, “Denver Dream” was a lament for an orphan girl who runs away and leaves her little sister to face the future alone. “Virgin Mary” was the slow-burning tragedy of a homeless former beauty [queen].
It was as if Shadow Morton and the Shangri-Las had been uprooted from midsixties New York, and dropped into the heart of the next decade’s love for daytime soap opera drama; the last great glimmering of Brill Building girl group tragedy, with Summer’s vocal and Moroder’s production melding into one grand, grandiose, whole.
Even the B-sides were phenomenal.
The singles did not come easily, however. Summer recalled take after take after take until Moroder was satisfied; could hear them, as she remarked in her autobiography, “the way [he] heard them in his head.”
It was, she continued, the ultimate education in studio craft, honing every nuance to perfection. It also encouraged her to show Moroder a song idea that she’d been batting around, although she admitted that it really wasn’t much more than a title, “I’d Love to Love You, Baby,” harnessed to the sensuality of “Je t’aime … moi non plus.”
Moroder flipped. “He paused for a second and then said, excitedly, ‘Donna, I like this!’” Watching him as he digested the idea and then flooded it with notions of his own, stalking the studio and conducting the unfolding symphony in his head, Summer later described him as resembling “a mad scientist from some B horror movie.”
She left him to his thoughts and went home. The following morning, there was a knock on the door of her telephone-less apartment, Moroder’s girlfriend Helga, telling her that Giorgio needed to see her immediately.
Summer arrived at the studio to find Moroder already waiting to start recording. All night long, he’d been working on a backing track, a tapping cymbal, a funky guitar, a pounding beat, a slowburn bass, rising strings. It was simple, it was gentle, and it was five minutes’ worth of compulsive, irresistible seduction. Pete Bellotte had constructed a handful of lyrics around Summer’s original title. All Moroder wanted to know now was how she wanted to sing it.
Standing sipping a cup of herbal tea, Summer admitted she didn’t know. She’d not even thought about the song since she left the studio the previous day; that she would suddenly be asked to perform it was the furthest thing on her mind.
Through the morning the two worked, trying different ideas, different moods. Suddenly, an image of Marilyn Monroe popped into Summer’s head, “singing the song in that light and fluffy, but highly sensual voice of hers.” She knew that was how she wanted to perform.
One take is all it took. By noon, the record—or, at least, a workable demo—was complete. Now to find somebody to release it.
Holland was no problem. Groovy Records had already released Summer’s first album, titled for “Lady of the Night,” and were now looking for fresh material. Atlantic picked up the record in Germany, a follow-up of sorts to Fancy’s moan and groan–laden cover of “Wild Thing.” In the United Kingdom, the tape was leased to GTO, the newly launched label spin-off from the production company of the same name.
America was the egg that Moroder wanted to crack, however. And the American discotheque was the world he wanted to rule. “Love to Love You,” he sensed, might well accomplish both.
Excerpted from I Feel Love: Donna Summer, Giorgio Moroder, and How They Reinvented Music, by Dave Thompson. Copyright © 2021 Backbeat Books. Distributed by Backbeat Books. Excerpted by permission of Backbeat Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
DAVE THOMPSON is the author of over 150 books, including co-written memoirs with New York Doll Sylvain Sylvain, Motown legends Brian and Eddie Holland (forthcoming), Hawkwind’s Nik Turner, the Yardbirds’ Jim McCarty, Fairport Convention’s Judy Dyble, and more. He is a columnist for Goldmine magazine, and his work has also appeared in Rolling Stone, Spin, Alternative Press, Mojo, Record Collector, and many other major publications. He has contributed to music documentaries produced by VH-1, A&E, the BBC, and others. Born in the UK, Thompson is now a resident of Delaware.