Giorgio Moroder And Others Talk Donna Summer & Giorgio’s 10 Big Music Moments: Interview
The most talked-about producer on the planet right now isn’t one of the many crafting new material for Britney Spears, Beyonce and Justin Timberlake. It’s Giorgio Moroder, the 73-year-old Italian musician whose synth-heavy work influenced more artists than you can fill on a sheet of paper and soundtracked at least two generations.
Giorgio’s longtime collaborator and close friend Donna Summer passed away one year ago today, at the age of 63. The disco queen kept her battle with lung cancer private, but it’s Summer’s enduring legacy of revered songs like “I Feel Love,” “Last Dance,” “MacArthur Park” and “Bad Girls” that lives on. To commemorate the first year since the passing of Summer and celebrate the extensive work of Moroder, we reached out to the producer, who turned out to be as thoughtful as he is candid.
“The thing I miss most about Donna is the vitality with which she surrounded herself,” Moroder reflects. “She was always ready for a joke, even in the last months, never indicating that she was suffering. She even tried to convince me to lose weight with the special diet [she was on].”
Rest assured, Giorgio is a man whose calendar in 2013 is getting busier by the week. Still, he offered many insights regarding the classic tracks he produced throughout the ’70s and ’80s — not to mention a certain song recently recorded for Daft Punk‘s upcoming LP Random Access Memories. Head below as Debbie Harry and Blondie‘s Chris Stein, Terri Nunn of Berlin and Moroder reminisce about the music of Donna Summer and some of Giorgio’s biggest milestones.
1. “I Feel Love” by Donna Summer (1977) You can trace the origins of any number of dance genres (Italo disco, Hi-NRG, techno, electro) back to this one lusty, pulsating track, released as the second single off Donna Summer’s 1977 I Remember Yesterday album. Though she would go on to become a disco icon by the end of the decade, up to this point, Summer had only attained moderate success, with one sole Top 40 hit to her credit (1975’s “Love To Love You Baby”).
The other-worldly “I Feel Love” kicked the budding singer’s career into high gear. And by opting for a fully electronic bed of sound rather than using live strings, Giorgio Moroder set the wheels in motion for a universal overhaul for the sound of the dancefloor.
“Nobody, including me, was thinking it could become such a hit and revolutionize the use of synthesizer in the electronic dance world,” Moroder admits.
Blondie’s Chris Stein adds, “[Giorgio] told me he had the idea for ‘I Feel Love’ in the ‘60s, but he just couldn’t pull it off with anybody because it was too weirdly ahead of its time.”
2. “Last Dance” by Donna Summer (1978) Donna Summer’s “Last Dance” has somehow always managed to make bittersweet situations seem a bit more euphoric, whether it be the bust-up of a romantic relationship or closing time during a great night out at the local dive. The Academy Award-winning track, co-produced by Moroder and Bob Esty, is notable for starting out as a ballad before launching into a giddy disco delight. It originally appeared in the film Thank God It’s Friday.
Ironically, the cheeseball disco movie starred a teenage Terri Nunn, who would later go on to become the frontwoman of Berlin — a band that recorded the Giorgio Moroder-produced songs “No More Words” and “Take My Breath Away.”
Nunn explains, “I had a little part in [Thank God It’s Friday], and Giorgio had just done Donna’s album. He came on set one of the days we were working. I was beside myself. [Donna] was amazing to me. I wasn’t even close to a music career at that point… So I was looking at this whole world like, oh my god — what I would do to work with someone like him and have a voice like her and have a career like that. And he kind of looked at me like, whatever! I was just a 16-year-old idiot who pranced around in a little ‘70s skirt looking like a disco kid.”
3. “Chase” by Giorgio Moroder (1978) In 1978, “Last Dance” wasn’t the only Academy Award-winning piece of music Giorgio Moroder had a hand in; his soundtrack for the Turkish prison drama Midnight Express would go on to win the Oscar for Best Original Score. One particular highlight is “Chase,” an electronic instrumental that crossed over to both dancefloors and radio. (To this day, “Chase” stands out as the sole Top 40 hit credited to Moroder’s own name.)
Hollywood clearly had Giorgio fever, as more and more soundtrack work came flooding in for the the Italian producer throughout the 1980s: Foxes, American Gigolo, Cat People, Flashdance, Scarface, The NeverEnding Story and Top Gun were some of the bigger films Moroder wrote compositions for. As the decade ended, musical styles changed and Giorgio’s mind turned elsewhere.
“I wanted to do some other things in life,” he says. “So I went into computer art, built a 16-cylinder car called Cizeta Moroder and worked on a lot of other projects.”
4. “Call Me” by Blondie (1980) In Paul Schrader‘s 1980 box office hit American Gigolo, Richard Gere dropped his pants, bared all and seduced moviegoers as Los Angeles male escort Julian Kaye. Just your average Saturday afternoon popcorn fare to bring the kids to, right?
To match the picture’s gritty subject matter, Moroder, who composed the music for the film, turned to exploding post-punk band Blondie for theme song “Call Me.” Except it wasn’t originally called “Call Me.”
The members of Blondie pose with Giorgio Moroder, Richard Gere and American Gigolo director Paul Schrader. Photo by Dennis McGuire, courtesy of Chris Stein.
Blondie co-founder Chris Stein remembers, “Somewhere I have Giorgio’s demo on a cassette of the song. It was called ‘Man Machine,’ and the lyrics were really very literal. ‘He’s a man who talks to girls,’ you know – it was kind of like that. And then Debbie [Harry], when she started seeing rough cuts of the movie, she saw all that stuff about the colors and the fashions and all that stuff, and put it in there.”
Debbie Harry also recalls Moroder’s demo. “The track was very clear and nearly like what we recorded,” she says. “Except ours was more rough sounding.”
Despite his association with disco music in the ’70s, Chris Stein says that Blondie had no reservations about working with Moroder. “We loved Giorgio,” he notes. “We were all huge fans of Donna [Summer’s] music.”
“Call Me” was just one of a handful of songs by Blondie that shot to the top of the Billboard Hot 100 between 1979 and 1980 — though it was the only one that wasn’t produced by the band’s collaborator Mike Chapman.
“Giorgio was the exact opposite of Chapman,” Stein says. “He just liked to do everything quickly and not be bothered, and then fix it up later. Chapman was a taskmaster and had a lot of repetition and refining parts until they were super, super precise, so that the stuff sort of mixed itself. Giorgio was like a fix-it-in-the-mix guy.”
Stein then adds, cheekily, “[Giorgio] probably replaced some of our parts here and there, too.”
5. “Cat People (Putting Out Fire)” by David Bowie (1982) By the time Moroder was composing music for the 1982 remake of horror classic Cat People, America had determined that disco sucks. And, as evidenced by Blondie’s “Call Me,” the producer’s sound became more experimental, and slightly more rock-oriented — something that attracted David Bowie, an artist who was going through his own reinvention in the early 1980s.
“The recording of ‘Putting Out Fire’ was done in Montreux, Switzerland, not far from where Bowie lives,” says Moroder of the pair’s Cat People collaboration. “We had breakfast at the Palace Hotel, went directly to the famous Casino studio and, two hours later, the song was done.”
Bowie and Moroder’s song proved its own durability — or at least Quentin Tarantino‘s penchant for left-of-center soundtrack choices — when it once again found its way onto the silver screen in 2009, via a key scene in the Academy Award-winning Inglorious Basterds.
“I was pleasantly surprised when I heard the song in Tarantino’s movie,” Moroder says. “It worked very well with the scene.”
6. The Scarface Soundtrack (1983) Okay, I know Giorgio Moroder recently came out and dissed this blood-drenched Brian De Palma epic, which stars Al Pacino as Tony Montana. (“I don’t particularly like Scarface,” he told Dazed & Confused. “The intro part; that’s beautiful. The rest is really bad.”) I’m not sure if he’s referring to the film itself or his own soundtrack, for which he brought in his friend Debbie Harry and other singers like Amy Holland, E.G. Daily and Beth Anderson (who later sang with Limahl on Moroder’s theme to The NeverEnding Story). But let’s just establish here and now that the Scarface album is not only worth a revisit, it’s also quite an addictive, cohesive piece of work.
“Georgio is a master!” says Harry. “His tracks are smart and singing over them is exciting.”
Harry’s cocaine-referencing Scarface track “Rush Rush” became her first solo single once Blondie was initially put on hold in the early ’80s. Like with American Gigolo, she penned her lyrics to fit the overall druggy feel of Scarface. Still, Harry says, “As far as the films’ themes and the lyrics I wrote, they were pretty much up to me.”
Debbie Harry — “Rush Rush”
But don’t take my word for the solidness of Moroder’s Scarface music. The hip hop community has also turned to mining the soundtrack for ideas over the years. One need only look to Kanye West‘s all-star GOOD Music joint “Mercy,” which contains elements of “Tony’s Theme,” or Lil Wayne‘s I Am Not A Human Being single “On Fire,” which is built around a sample of Amy Holland‘s “She’s On Fire.”
When asked about these rappers referencing his Scarface work, Moroder diplomatically tells me, “It is always nice to hear that a singer is using some samples of my songs. It tells me that they like the tracks enough that they would want to use them on their recordings.”
Amy Holland — “She’s On Fire”
7. “Flashdance… What A Feeling” by Irene Cara (1983) Was director Adrian Lyne‘s Flashdance truly a movie-musical, or simply a collection of music videos strewn together to loosely create a narrative about 19-year-old Pittsburgh steel mill worker/exotic dancer Alex Owens and her quest for credibility in the ballet world?
Audience-goers weren’t bothered with such particulars in 1983. They were happy to just kick back in the theater and be dazzled by the new MTV-style visuals playing out on the screen. Giorgio Moroder produced the hit soundtrack, which was buoyed by Irene Cara’s synth-heavy summer smash, “Flashdance… What A Feeling.”
“The choice of using Irene Cara came to me and [movie producer] Jerry Bruckheimer very easy,” Moroder says. “Irene has such a great voice and she did such a good vocal on the song ‘Fame’. Plus, the lyrics she and Keith Forsey wrote contributed very much to the success of the song.”
True enough, Moroder, Cara and Forsey snagged the Academy Award for Best Original Song for “Flashdance… What A Feeling,” a pop classic that spent six weeks at #1 on the Billboard Hot 100.
8. “The NeverEnding Story” by Limahl & Beth Anderson (1984) Sure, nearly 30 years later, the schlocky special effects and dubbing of English dialogue over German actors makes Wolfgang Petereson‘s fantasy flick The NeverEnding Story come off as absolutely laughable. But as kids, we were none the wiser. And who doesn’t have a soft spot for Limahl’s dreamy theme song?
Moroder paired up the English singer with Beth Anderson (see: “Dance Dance Dance,” from the Scarface soundtrack) and composed the track itself so that it was never-ending, hence the fade-in as it begins and fade-out out the end.
“I was looking for a young, great singer for ‘The NeverEnding Story’ and I liked what Limahl did with the group Kajagoogoo,” Moroder recalls. “Beth was and is one of those incredible singers in Los Angeles, and I absolutely wanted her for this song. It was one of those great and fast sessions because both singers were so professional.”
9. “Take My Breath Away” by Berlin (1986) Giorgio Moroder’s career as a soundtrack producer seemed to be building to one undeniable zeitgeist moment in the 1980s: Top Gun. The Tony Scott-directed action movie cemented Tom Cruise as a household name, made Berlin and Kenny Loggins MTV staples in 1986 and earned Moroder yet another Oscar for his collection, for “Take My Breath Away.”
Berlin had already worked with Moroder on their 1984 single “No More Words.” Singer Terri Nunn explains how the band also landed Top Gun‘s love theme, “Take My Breath Away”:
“Pretty much anybody who was anybody in music was calling Giorgio. He was very expensive, and rightly so. We got him for one song, and he picked ‘No More Words.’ It was so fortuitous, because it just so happened that while he was in the studio with us producing that song, Top Gun came along.”
Berlin — “No More Words”
However, landing “Take My Breath Away” wasn’t an easy task for Nunn and the rest of Berlin. “I got lucky enough to get an invitation to try out for [the song],” she says. “[Giorgio] didn’t offer it to me. The project was so big and he was so big, they were trying out singers. There were quite a few before me that tried out for it, well-known singers. And why they didn’t get it, I have no idea, because they were all really good.”
The tipping point in Berlin’s favor proved to be when Nunn took home Moroder’s demo and deviated from what she calls the original, “stiff” vocal melody on the track.
“I kind of just pulled the notes out and held them over the chords longer, just because that’s how, to me, it felt more fluid, more sensual, more romantic,” Nunn recalls. “It worked for me better. I just threw that on his demo and he gave it to them. I thought it was good — it was how I wanted to sing it. And luckily, they liked it.”
The ultimate testament to the risk Nunn took with Moroder’s demo? “My favorite song on Top Gun is ‘Take My Breath Away’,” says Giorgio. “It has a good melody and a great performance by Berlin and Terri Nunn.”
Berlin — “Take My Breath Way”
10. “Giorgio By Moroder” by Daft Punk (2013) “My name is Giovanni Giorgio, but everybody calls me Giorgio.” By now, those words, spoken by the 73-year-old music pioneer on “Giorgio By Moroder,” have become etched into the minds of Daft Punk fans and longtime followers of Moroder’s brand of electro-pop, despite the fact that DP’s Random Access Memories won’t technically be released until May 21.
By entering a studio with Thomas and Guy-Manuel and speaking into a microphone for several minutes about his work, Giorgio’s life has come full circle, and the producer who initially found mainstream success by helping shape Donna Summer’s sound almost 40 years ago is now experiencing a full-on renaissance.
“When I heard ‘Giorgio By Moroder’ first, I was absolutely, positively surprised, because I did not know what to expect,” Moroder says of Daft Punk’s epic track. “I love the recording.”
As for what’s next for Giorgio, this week we’ve already heard “Racer,” a new track he produced for Google Chrome’s same-titled game. “I have a ton of projects,” he adds. “DJing, composing and producing music. Maybe [I’ll] do my own album.”
Finally, Moroder ponders, “Maybe I’m working too much?”