"Look, I tell you something very important. Too many of these writers in the music papers, they are misunderstanding everything. The disco sound, you must see, is not art or anything so serious. Disco is music for dancing, and I know that the people will always want to dance. Also, disco is becoming more and still more popular over the last year. The big American record companies are giving much money to it. This is very good. This makes me very happy, especially when I know that disco is soon to be the soul and R&B sound of today.
"And these ideas the writers are having about us using machines and becoming like machines - they must be making a joke. I know for sure that we are and maybe, as I think you say in English, we are having the last, longest laugh."
Seasonally set and matched in brown woollens and tweeds, Giorgio Moroder grins like a Halloween mask, folds hands across chest and self into high-backed wicker chair, then tilts head, trim moustache and shoulders askance, as if to better observe the effect of his words.
In fact, Moroder seems as much bemused as amused. As well he might. The producer of Donna Summer, Roberta Kelly, The Munich Machine and, most recently, Sparks, Moroder has unwittingly - or so it seems - precipitated a veritable flash-flood of madcap-modernisms and pseudo-sociological static.
Impossibly grandiose and improbably specious claims have been made on his behalf. He has, we're told, almost single-handedly dehumanised disco, formulated a sono-track for much more than just another auto-style age even introduced an entirely novel 'post-Euro-industrial' sensibility into modern dancing methods.
Moroder is, the radical chic surfers of the disco wave inform us, as crucial to the developing of the new 'disko' aesthetic as are, say, Kraftwerk, Bowie, Eno, Amanda Lear, The Baader Meinhof and Devo.
Remember 'I Feel Love' and recall Ms Summer's vocal sex-flexing and Moroder's accompanying electronic pulsebeat-heat. The song was, of course, suggesting that modern sex was machine sex, wasn't it?
Well, no. At least, not as far as Moroder is aware. In retrospect, he finds the song "sexy and funny at the same time", and is justifiably proud of it. He describes it as being intentionally "futuristic", but nothing more.
And as for the Made In Germany By Germans strait-suit that has been repeatedly pressed onto Moroder's output. It doesn't fit: Moroder is Italian.
I'm sitting in the hyperplush - even the carpets seem to purr - shared offices of Oasis Records and Musicland Studios in a hotel complex on the outskirts of Munich, Bavaria, West Germany. I observe the plastic palm treelet (Oasis' trade logo) by the desk and ponder the patent discrepancy between the fact and fiction that is and isn't Giorgio Moroder.
This affable and amiable man is not, I surmise, a conceptual metaphysician. He is a producer and, above all, a businessman. I glance at the reading matter stacked conspicuously by his doodlepad and note two titles: Elaine Jensen's 'Number One With A Bullet', a factional novel about the more dubious operating methods of An American Record Company (Tamla Motown snapped up the book's film rights but have not so far displayed any inclination to film it), and Clive Davis' 'Inside', the recollection of the current Head of Arista Records whom, you may recall, was given a rather premature golden handshake in the wake of numerous payola and drugola allegations.
Both books are regarded as essential instruction for the aspiring music industry magnate. Not that Moroder himself has overmuch to aspire to anymore. In the week of our interview Donna Summer's 'Live And More' album and 'MacArthur Park' single had topped their respective US charts.
Giorgio Moroder was born in the Dolomite hills of Northern Italy some 36 years ago, He started playing guitar when he was 16 or 17, then left both school and home at 19 to play in what he deems "a more or less dancing group". Subsequently, he toured Europe for more than five years, even - and here Moroder warms to memory like a cat before an open hearth - "playing at a gala in London's Savoy Hotel".
In 1967 Moroder curtailed touring to concentrate on writing or "composing" as he has it in his very acceptable English (he also speaks French and German). He had already had some experience of recording and had been making "little" demo tapes of his own.
"I was quite lucky," he relates. "I had my first hit as a composer about six months after I started writing all the time, with a German song in '68.
"Then all the good songs were coming from England and America and so for some time I didn't try to compete by writing in English. My music was typically continental - nothing like, say, The Beatles."
Continental as in Eurovision pop?
"Kind of. I was happy to have a hit, but my intention was always to compose with an English or American feeling. Then in '69 came the bubblegum wave and I made a recording in Berlin, my first as both composer and producer, a song called 'Lookie, Lookie'. It did well in France, Italy and Spain, even bubbled under in America.
"And again in '70 I met Pete Bellotte and we began to write together. One of our first collaborations was a smash hit in England for Chicory Tip, 'Son Of My Father'. This was my first major hit, and since then Pete and I have worked almost always in English."
Bellotte had been working in Germany with a rock band going out under the unlikely name of, I think, 'Linda Laine And The Sinners'. English and hailing from a village in the Home Counties, he eventually expatriated himself, settling and marrying in Munich towards the end of the '60s. He met Moroder through Ariola records, for whom the latter was undertaking occasional production work.
On the evidence of one brief encounter at Musicland, Bellotte, who resembles nothing so much as a Moody Blue after an extensive overhaul at a health farm - he's extremely thin - seems a tenaciously reticent individual. He refused to be either photographed by Jill Furmanovsky or to be interviewed by your hack.
The exact nature of his partnership with Moroder is difficult to fathom. He shares almost all writing and producing credits and also records for Oasis in his own right as half of Trax. His nervy, introvert manner contrasts completely with that of the self-assured, extrovert Moroder - which is probably why they work so well together: opposites in action and reaction.
Moroder himself is quick to disclaim all but a passing interest in rock music. The upheavals therein of the late '60s, he says "meant little to me: I guess I have much more of a commercial feeling and so was not greatly affected by them.
"But our big start, of course," he continues, "was Donna".
Donna Summer first encountered Moroder, variously described as anything from her benign benefactor to megalomaniac manipulator, in late '73. She had answered advertisements for one of three back-up, preferably black female, vocalists. At the time she was living in Munich in an advanced state of penury with a child to care for. Moroder was "quite impressed by her voice, although I didn't think about doing anything particular with her".
Six months later Moroder and Bellotte persuaded Ms. Summer to sing a song of theirs entitled 'The Hostage'. It hit the hi-spot in France and Holland, as did its rapid follow up (both songs can be located on the 1974 'Lady Of The Night' album). Moroder and Bellotte were, however, frustrated with their failure to "penetrate" the much more lucrative UK and US markets.
"So," Moroder chuckles, "one day I thought we should do something a little more sexy. Just for fun. There had been this big hit with Jane Birkin's 'Je T'Aime" years before and I wanted to do something like that again. We left it for a while until Donna came back to me with an idea for the lyrics. We did it just to see if it worked, and it did."
But not immediately. Moroder's "Something a little more sexy" transpired to be 'Love To Love You Baby', conceivably the first worldwide disco mega-smash. Moroder and crew had prepared a demo "with a very catchy bass-line, a very emphatic bass drum part and a funky guitar, sort of Philadelphia feel. We knew exactly what we wanted."
They duly superimposed Ms Summer's sweet-nothing sex-selling and released the creamy confection as a four-minute single. Nothing (much) happened. In some desperation Moroder decided to hook a bigger bream and stretch the song over a full 17-minute album side. Again, his sure commercial sense had prompted him to recall another blueprint from which he was determined to adapt and improve, in this instance Iron Butterfly's stupendously frightful 'In-A-Gada-Da-Vida' (he only heard it, he claims, because it charted and so won radio play).
And now the gamble and the gambit mated. The stretch transformed a slight sex serenade into an indefinitely suspended and indelibly supine sigh of musical mood engineering. And, most importantly, the radio programmes and discotheque DJs could simply sit back and switch off, letting the maxi-song muster up its own magic.
Which it did. The album 'Love To Love You Baby' album turned up trumps in the States, as did the re-activated single (whilst Moroder was later to record a version of 'Je T'Aime' with Summer for the 'Thank God It's Friday' soundtrack).
Moroder was made. Suddenly most of the Western world was making some sort of love to Donna Summer tonight. And every other night. "Then", the man admits, "it was disco all the way".
As for 'I Feel Love', its genesis was similarly accidental. Donna Summer's 'I Remember Yesterday' was intended as a collage of various musical stages and styles. Inveterate and by now incisive copyists, Moroder and Bellotte had successfully subsumed '30s Dixieland, Phil Spector, early Tamla Motown, Philadelphia, proto-disco and now-disco into the set, whereupon Moroder postulated a next-disco sound.
"I had already had experience with the original Moog synthesisers, so I contacted this guy who owned one of the large early models. It was all quite natural and normal for me. I simply instructed him about what programmings I needed. I didn't even think to notice that for the large audience this was perhaps a very new sound. We did the whole thing in a day."
Moroder goes on to divulge that he recorded an all-electronic album of his own some years ago, working on the project for several months before failing to find an outlet for it.
In this connection, I inquire of him his opinion of Kraftwerk, whom some assert have been a de facto influence on Moroder's electronic work - whereas the reverse is probably more the mark, since Kraftwerk's first direct-disco release, 'The Man Machine', postdates Moroder's own electronic-disco 'From Here To Eternity' by nearly a year.
Although the horizons here are hazed. Kraftwerk certainly required something of an extra edge to compound the disco-cult success of 'Showroom Dummies' - a success which, incidentally, seems to have caught them unawares - and they may well have found what they needed in Moroder's methods.
'The Man Machine' may carry the emphatic 'Produced In West Germany' rider but the album was actually mixed by, among others, Leonard Jackson, the latter on loan from ex-Motown writer and producer Norman Whitfield's Whitfield Records. Whatever, Kraftwerk's 'Spacelab' (from 'The Man Machine') runs Moroder's sound so close a second it's hard to resist implying plagiarism on the part of the Dusseldorf Dynamen.
But does any of this matter? Yes, merely because Kraftwerk have contentiously obfuscated their work with notions of 'artistic', 'political', 'historical' and 'sociological' intent and intrigue - and they have been rapturously repaid by writers who really should know better by now for doing so.
By comparison Moroder's declared first base - making pure electronic pop - seems also charmingly, defensively banal. And yet not only has it had a far greater impact (Kraftwerk's lack of major chart success since 'Autobahn' has been signal), but it has also been haplessly absorbed into the critical caucus of 'New Europeanism'.
All of which begs questions. Are we really the robo-men-machines of Kraftwerk's 'The Robots' (and, if so, then why aren't we purchasing their product?) or do we just want to dance?
'Kraftwerk", Moroder muses, "I like their sounds very much because they are very clean, but I don't particularly like the songs. They are sometimes a little too easy in their music..."
Easy as in facile?
"Maybe. Honestly, I prefer Tangerine Dream, that kind of thing. I used to know these guys very well, and loved their 'Phaedra' album very much. There were some similar groups in Munich - Popul Vuh, for example - some years ago.
"Personally I feel that Tangerine Dream became a little boring. You can only do so much and no more with all these sequencers. But Kraftwerk? Well, I think they thought that they must start selling more. I guess they are making a simple mistake. They still reckon that with an easy melody and a synthesiser they can have a hit.
"Whilst in fact the audience is becoming more and more sophisticated. We ourselves started with simple songs, but something like 'MacArthur Park' is different, very complicated to make. We are always trying very hard to improve the overall quality of our work, while Kraftwerk are still holding on to the older ways of recording. If I were to record another synthesiser album right now, I wouldn't do it at all like 'I Feel Love'. That sound is out of date and use."
But, there is a marked similarity between the disco-dub effects Moroder employed on his mostly instrumental soundtrack for Alan Parker's 'Midnight Express' and those Kraftwerk deployed on the 'Metal On Metal' segment of the title track of their own 'Trans-Europe Express'?
"I really don't know about that. I am not too familiar with this record of theirs, only really with 'The Man Machine'. I cannot say. I just met one of the guys from Kraftwerk in New York once, but it is very difficult to talk with them. They obviously speak German and I speak German, but they have very definite ideas..."
And what of Kraftwerk's implied conceptualisations (the Constructivist cover artwork to 'The Man Machine', etc)?
"This again is not something I can enjoy that much. I am not so complicated or intelligent a composer, nor am I very interested in becoming so. I am much more happy doing what I know I can do than what I am not sure I could do."
So you're not greatly taken with Kraftwerk's European emphasis?
"No, I must admit not. This matter of a European feeling is really quite complicated. I know that Pete and myself have combined a certain European feeling with Donna's more American experience, but this is only from Europe in the sense that we are both Continental-style writers, well trained in Continental pop music.
"To me, the only European leaning of the disco sound is that so much of the music is actually created here. There were, of course, discotheques in the States before they were here, but we have somehow taken a lead in making the music. Perhaps we just had the correct professional attitudes.
"Many producers began to make disco records after our success and that of Michael Kunze (Silver Convention). This is a great thing for the industry in Europe, for us to be able to make a way for others, but it could really be anywhere, you know, I don't think there are any special methods we have here that others could not have if they wanted. And this more artistic aspect, I have no involvement with it.
"Our studios here at Musicland are just typical. Nearly all the equipment there is standard, English or American. It isn't even a particularly sophisticated studio.
"And this thing", Moroder thumps his desk to his theme, "some writers have about German producers and players. As I have said, I am not German, Pete is not German. Boney M themselves are not German, although I accept that their producer Frank Farian is so.
"Donna is American, so is Roberta Kelly, so are Silver Convention. In actuality, if we had been based elsewhere other than Munich, we might have achieved our success even earlier - because there in London, for example, you have more facilities and are nearer the pulse of the industry."
Moroder started to work at Musicland in '74 on Ms. Summer's first album. The studio is situated beneath the hotel complex that contains the Oasis offices. It is, as Moroder points out, an unremarkable and decidedly cramped locale, boasting a mere 24-track facility. It has been used by artists as varied and various as The Rolling Stones, ELO and Deep Purple.
Moroder's rhythm tracks are almost exclusively recorded at Musicland, before being glossed in either Los Angeles or London. "The famous Munich Machine sound", as Moroder describes them, may be held responsible for these tracks and feature a consistent nucleus of players. Drummer Keith Forsey, bassist Les Hurdle and keyboardsman Alan Hawkshaw are English, guitarist Mats Bjoerklund is Swedish, another keyboardsman is Icelandic, and so on. The string sections are, however, mostly German (so if it's the orchestrations you dance to...)
But how, I wonder aloud, did Moroder and Bellotte define their disco direction?
"We take something from everything, then make it our own", Moroder confides with delightful candour, "although it is hard to analyse this exactly. There were obvious aspects that that we have used from the Philadelphia sound, although this was only successful in the States. We have internationalised it.
"I would myself have liked to be able to make records like the classic Motown records, but I guess that four or five years ago we weren't advanced enough. It's crazy trying to record soul-type music in Munich. There aren't - or I should say, weren't - the players available. We were very lucky to find Donna, the first really good black girl singer who was living here.
"Myself, I liked very much the sound of Motown in the early times, up to seven or eight years ago, but now they do not have such a recognisable feel. Mind you, the actual quality of their first recordings was not good. You know, they recorded in a little building and so on. But the music was good, so very good - and that is why they succeeded.
And quite why Moroder's work should be so disparagingly referred to in some circles as 'product' (as in production line, etc.) when Tamla themselves formularised their songwriting - Holland, Dozier, Holland et al - and sound with similar success and without risking culpability is beyond this pair of ears. Tamla even worked out of a similarly and supposedly 'industrial' environment in Detroit.
Admittedly, Moroder and Bellotte can (and would) claim they're armed with dramatically improved recording technology, but the principle is surely the same: define a sound and, as long as the going goes from good to better to best, decline to modify same overmuch.
All of which I put to Moroder, asking more specifically about the relevance of the credit listing on the 'Whiter Shade Of Pale' Munich Machine release (cf. 'shop floor, electronics foreman, mechanics foreman, shop steward, apprentice, time and motion study').
"This, you know, this is just another joke. We know people think this about what we do, so we play up to them. It is the same with the dancing robots on the covers of both Munich Machine records.
"All this talk of machines and industry make me laugh. Even if you use synthesisers and sequencers and drum machines, you have to set them up, to choose exactly what you are going to make them do. It is nonsense to say that we make all our music automatically.
"I know for myself how difficult or how easy it was to get a certain sound. Sometimes it's easy, sure, but as often as not it is at least ten times more difficult to get a good synthesiser sound than on an acoustic instrument. And of course we organise things - who does not? We have to be professional about this. There is nothing wrong with this, surely?"
But isn't there a real danger of running to repetition? Your recording schedules seem very tight and there's surely a limit to just how much you achieve within the rhythm strictures disco danceability imposes?
"Yes indeed", Moroder makes and breaks a church of his hands, "this is one of many things that worries me. Disco is so immediately definable and recognisable. The main problem for the next years will be to change it, although we shall also be under some pressure from the big record companies not to change it too much, since they are really only just beginning in America, to invest in disco. I am not sure how we will cope with this..."
But how would you like to cope with it?
"Obviously on certain albums you do what you know can sell them, but I think you should always try for difference. It is not easy. In pop or rock you can make a fast song or a slow one, but in disco there is really just the one rhythm.
"As it is we are having enormous problems with the drums and percussion, for example. Because you are staying with one tempo, you have to change how you record that tempo. The technical gadgets that we use are quite alright in principle, but not so much in practice.
"In the studio these days you generally change the sound of natural instruments - but then, if you are not careful, you get just another synthesised sound. I am looking for ways of changing natural sounds in other directions, away from pure electronic treatments.
"The synthesiser has limitless sounds to give you, but I am again really too much of a commercial composer to be able to make full use of its possibilities. I would want to, although I accept I will probably not have the time or ability to do so. As it happens, I am not a very good keyboards player anyway. In fact, I am a lousy keyboards player..."
(So even disco producers have human hopes and fears, limitations and liabilities. Please note.)
"No, I think I continue in this way until I feel I have used up all its variety..."
Which, it seems, Moroder is unlikely to do for some time. His last major Donna Summer project hinted tantalisingly as a barely tapped lode in Moroder and Bellotte's writing and record vocabulary.
The 'Once Upon A Time' album was remarkable by any standards, particularly those inherent in much current disco, as it set consistently high standards of composition and realisation throughout its four sides.
Moroder's awareness of the need for vigorous variety and sheer surprise is self-evident therein. Test and try the sudden switch from electronic to electric instrumentation on 'Queen For A Day', for instance, or the swell and splendour of the string and brass phrasings elsewhere. Mood and mode are mixed and merged seamlessly throughout, chameleon but never caricature. You want disco, funk, soul, R&B and more? Sign on this line, then tell me this is automaton music - and I won't believe you, even if you point to the bleak mekanik of side two's inner city scarescaping...
This interview appeared originally
in the New Musical Express, December 1978, with whom copyright
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