With 200 gold and platinum discs to his name, techno-pop pioneer Giorgio Moroder can afford to sit back and take stock of his amazingly successful career. RICHARD BUSKIN talks to him about it, from early days working with disco diva Donna Summer, to the present.
"I don't really have time for my old records," says Giorgio Moroder. "It's not that I don't like them, but if I listen for too long I get nervous."
That's right -- this influential composer and producer, whose name is synonymous with mid-'70s disco music and early '80s techno-pop, is not above a spot of reappraisal and self-criticism when it comes to reviewing his past achievements. Not even 200 gold and platinum discs, three Oscars and three Golden Globe Awards can muffle his finely-tuned sense of hearing.
During a career that has spanned nearly three decades, the roster of artists Giorgio Moroder has worked with is impressive, to say the least: David Bowie, Van Halen, Janet Jackson, Elton John, RuPaul, Cher, Pat Benatar, Chaka Khan, Roger Daltrey, Jon Anderson, Graham Nash... The list goes on and on, and it's also worth noting that about 95% of Moroder's workload has comprised his own compositions.
Perhaps his most famous collaboration was with Donna Summer, the original Disco Queen whose recordings projected modern dance music into the pop mainstream two decades ago. 'Love To Love You, Baby' was the breakthrough hit, and after that there was no turning back for either Summer or Moroder.
"At that time I was in Munich with my assistant Pete Bellotte," Moroder recalls. "Basically, Donna Summer was one of the girls in a backing band that we used on a record, and we liked her voice and the way she looked."
A native of northern Italy, Giorgio Moroder had started out during the '60s playing guitar and then bass in a covers outfit which toured nightclubs around Europe. By the end of that decade and into the start of the next he was dividing his time between Italy and Germany, and it was shortly after he'd started enjoying his first modest hits as a composer that Donna Summer entered his life.
It's easy to forget that the best-selling vocalist Janet Jackson was once just the younger sister of her more famous brother Michael, just about to record her 1984 debut album, with Giorgio Moroder taking on half the production duties. Though she clearly had potential, the project wasn't all plain sailing for Moroder: "Obviously, at that time she wasn't such a good singer as she is now. She was about 16, and my big mistake was that I was so busy working on movies and so on that I didn't really give all of my attention to the project. I regretted that later. I mean, there was some pressure from A&M to record everything fast, but we could also possibly have chosen some better songs and been more careful with regard to how we recorded the voice. After that album she took vocal lessons and she was singing every day, but, with hindsight, when I worked with her she probably wasn't ready. In fact, I have to say that I don't think the second album was much better than the first, so maybe that vindicates me a little bit! Overall, however, the whole production wasn't that great, and so basically it was my fault. I didn't do a good job."
"We really just thought of 'Love To Love You, Baby' as a bit of fun," he says. "At one point I'd suggested doing a sexy song, almost like the Serge Gainsbourg hit 'Je T'aime', and one afternoon Donna came to the office and said she'd come up with the title 'Love To Love You, Baby'. That sounded good to me. Back then I had a studio in the basement of my Munich apartment building, called Music Land -- which later became famous when acts such as The Rolling Stones, Led Zeppelin and Elton John used it -- and it happened to be empty that afternoon, so I went straight down there and composed the song. Then, a day or two later, Donna came in and we did a very rough demo.
"The way I demo'd back then wasn't much different to the way I work now. In 1974 the first cheap little drum machines came out, so I would use one of those, and I also had a real drum loop with several different tempos. I would put up a tape from a 24-track and I would have a mic for the vocal, as well as some sort of keyboard -- a Fender Rhodes, maybe. Having established the tempo of the song, I would just record the rhythm, along with a guide vocal, and then go from there."
A few days after recording the demo for 'Love To Love You, Baby' Moroder was able to play it to people attending the MIDEM show in the south of France. "The reaction was absolutely incredible," he recalls, "so we went back to Germany, re-recorded the song and presented it to Neil Bogart of Casablanca Records. He took it, and then a few weeks later he phoned me at 3 o'clock in the morning with the idea of extending the number to cover the whole side of an album! So that's what we did, over the course of about two weeks."
"That was very costly; it was the first album recorded live to a 2-track digital machine." Some sequencing was used, but much of the music was played live: "We had four or five piano players playing live, the drummer live, the melodies were recorded, and I sang live to the tracks. It was a bit of a mess. The cost was something like $15,000 per day -- enormous. I'm not Billy Idol or Led Zeppelin; I got nervous because of the new technology. Certain things weren't happening the way I wanted them to." Moroder is enthusiastic about current technology, however: "It's absolutely astonishing. With the computers and the cheap mixing desks now you can have a complete digital recording studio for $30,000 and do absolutely fantastic records. With $30,000 to $40,000 you can do anything. In my house I still have the old SSL and two 24-track Sonys, which I like, but they're 10 years old and were $120,000 back then. That's the great thing now with the technology; it allows whoever has the talent and inspiration to go out there and, for a little money, do things that were literally impossible 10 years ago." Debbie Poyser
As well as being in on the early days of synthesis, Moroder was also one of the first producers to give digital recording technology a chance, on the rare 1979 album E=MC2, as he revealed last year in an interview with Troy Matthews on the Streetsound hi-nrg website (www.streetsound.com/post30 /hinrg/moroder/intmoro/html).
"That was very costly; it was the first album recorded live to a 2-track digital machine." Some sequencing was used, but much of the music was played live: "We had four or five piano players playing live, the drummer live, the melodies were recorded, and I sang live to the tracks. It was a bit of a mess. The cost was something like $15,000 per day -- enormous. I'm not Billy Idol or Led Zeppelin; I got nervous because of the new technology. Certain things weren't happening the way I wanted them to."
Moroder is enthusiastic about current technology, however: "It's absolutely astonishing. With the computers and the cheap mixing desks now you can have a complete digital recording studio for $30,000 and do absolutely fantastic records. With $30,000 to $40,000 you can do anything. In my house I still have the old SSL and two 24-track Sonys, which I like, but they're 10 years old and were $120,000 back then. That's the great thing now with the technology; it allows whoever has the talent and inspiration to go out there and, for a little money, do things that were literally impossible 10 years ago." Debbie Poyser
Courtesy of Summer's sexy lead vocal, complete with climactic groans and heavy breathing, the record caused a fair amount of controversy on its release, yet today Moroder not only claims not to have set out to cause any kind of a stir, but also to have been largely unaware of the reaction.
"I wasn't really in touch with what was going on in England and America," he says. "I got some feedback about how the record was selling through the music papers, but I was never one for going to the discotheques. I maybe visited [New York's] Studio 54 once or twice, but I didn't follow the scene and the trends too much. At the same time, Donna originally didn't want to do dance music at all. I mean, I knew her as a great singer with an incredible voice, so when we did the demo for 'Love To Love You, Baby' it was very different for her to be singing in that soft, breathy way. She hadn't sung that way for me before, and she wasn't too interested in disco. Ballads and musical numbers were more her style, but then that record took off and we had a bit of a problem.
"For the second album -- which was moderately successful -- we wanted to record disco tunes and we wanted to use her proper voice, but we didn't want to change the formula too much. She therefore stayed sexy but a little less so, while using a little more voice, and then for the third album she really sang like we knew she could."
On the strength of the success of 'Love To Love You, Baby', Summer returned to the States and was followed there by Moroder (who would eventually base himself full-time on the West Coast). Continuing to produce Summer's albums, Moroder also composed more hit singles in the same vein. 'I Feel Love' attracted the attention of film director Alan Parker, and this led to Moroder composing and producing the score for the highly acclaimed 1978 movie Midnight Express, which gained him his first Academy Award (for Best Original Score).
Other films whose soundtracks Moroder has worked on include Scarface, Superman III, American Gigolo and Beverly Hills Cop II. He has won two Best Original Song Academy Awards for Berlin's 'Take My Breath Away', from Top Gun', and Irene Cara's 'Flashdance -- What A Feeling', from Flashdance (each of which also garnered him Golden Globes). Moroder was also responsible for restoring and scoring Fritz Lang's 1926 silent classic, Metropolis. This included the hit songs 'Here She Comes', by Bonnie Tyler, and Freddie Mercury's 'Love Kills'.
Another prominent UK artist who collaborated with Moroder was Human League's Phil Oakey; the result was the 1984 single 'Electric Dreams' (featured in the movie of the same name) which was followed up with a full album.
SYNTHS: IN THE BEGINNING
Much of Moroder's reputation was forged by his synth-based sound. He first discovered Moog synthesis at the start of the '70s and utilised it to good effect on his own 'Son Of My Father' (which was covered in the UK by Chicory Tip).
US sample CD manufacturers Hollywood Edge produce a sample CD featuring Moroder's favourite synths. Giorgio Moroder Rare Synthesizer Collection contains 970 patches from vintage synths including the OSC OSCar, Korg Mono/Poly, Sequential Prophet 5, ARP 2600, Moog modular, Multimoog, TB303, Oberheim 4-voice, Roland Jupiter 8 and Juno 60, Moog Taurus, PPG 2.3, and the Buchla. It's available on CD-ROM in Akai, SampleCell, and Ensoniq formats. If you're interested, Time & Space, the UK distributors for Hollywood Edge, should be able to get hold of it for you, though it's not an item they carry in stock. Derek Johnson
"In 1970 an engineer I knew, called Robbie, introduced me to a classical composer in Munich who had this incredible new instrument," he recalls. "It was a humungous machine with cords everywhere, and he played me this composition which just consisted of a bass tone that kept changing every half minute. That was his composition! He was using this huge machine to create what was known as 'musique concrete'. There were no rhythms, no effects, and it wasn't too interesting, but then, when he wasn't around, Robbie took me aside and said, 'Look, with this synthesizer you can create more than just a low note.' He showed me a few things and I thought, 'Wow, this is great!'
"I was immediately fascinated by the possibilities and the different kinds of sounds it could produce. It was two or three weeks later that 'Son Of My Father' became the first of my records to feature a synthesizer, but, although I had several small hits in Europe with other records that used it, I eventually began to lose interest. You see, first of all it was quite a pain in the butt to use, because the Moog in question was the only one around and the classical composer who owned it wasn't too happy about people using it as a popular instrument. He guarded it jealously, so we kind of had to sneak in when he was away. That's how it was for a couple of years, before synthesizers became more widely available."
When they did become more widely available, and in the years since, Moroder made use of them, and his favourites can be heard on the Giorgio Moroder Rare Synthesizer Collection sample CD-ROM (see box for more details).
UP TO DATE
Having established a trademark techno sound in the pop arena and attained a level of diversification through his movie work, Moroder gradually began to branch out in terms of his chart-oriented productions. Blondie's 1980 international chart-topper 'Call Me', while still boasting the electronic dance rhythms that characterise much of Moroder's work, also placed more emphasis on the guitar. From this point onwards he continued to move more into the rock arena, while never really betraying his techno roots.
"During the late '70s and early '80s I always worked with great musicians," he recalls, "and I was also assisted by engineers, although I knew how to operate the Harrison desk that I had. Then, until the late '80s, I also had my own big studio in the [San Fernando] Valley [just north of Los Angeles]. It was called Oasis and that's where I recorded the soundtrack for Top Gun. When I sold it I kept the E-Series SSL desk and the 24-track digital machine, so I know my way around and, although I'm not a great engineer, I still do all of the mixes by myself."
Since the early '90s Moroder has been semi- retired from the music business, but, as you might expect, still can't keep himself completely away from music. Among his ongoing projects are the production and scoring of two stage musicals, one of which is Flashdance, which he now owns the rights to, and for which he is composing a set of brand-new songs.
"I'm very excited about these projects, but I don't want to say too much about them right now," he says. "You never know how things can turn out from one day to the next in this business, so it's best to just do what I am doing and then talk about it later!"
Audio files to accompany the article.
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