Producer Profiles: The Godfather of Eurodisco – Giorgio Moroder

This is a post by associate editor Blake Madden

Who is Giorgio Moroder? The name may seem vaguely familiar, but it doesn’t stick. He makes jeans, no wait, fragrances, right? (If you guessed luxury sports cars, you’d at least be half-right.)

Moroder is a producer and songwriter by trade, but a taste-maker by destiny. He defined disco for years, some say for better, some say worse. A casual scan of the last 30 years of pop music and film soundtracks will leave you with at least a couple of ‘oh, he did that?’ moments: Flashdance, Scarface, Top Gun, The Never Ending Story, Midnight Express.

Moroder is not in our conscious mind, but in our subconscious, beneath the surface and behind the glass. He walks a line as fine as the threads in the open-collared designer garb from his native Italy. It’s a line between his unabashed musical populism and the need for creative evolution. Moroder knows what the people want, and knows exactly how to give it to them, but he’s never wanted to do it the same way twice; where would the challenge be in that?

All business: Giorgio Moroder

“Giorgio”

In 1940, Hansjörg “Giorgio” Moroder was born into a family of artists in the Dolomite Hills of northern Italy. Two of his brothers became sculptors, and a third was to be a painter. Giorgio was the musically inclined one. He picked up guitar at age 16 and left home at 19 to tour Europe with various pop outfits, before settling in Berlin in 1966 to focus on songwriting and recording.

Perhaps these early days of touring, when a musician learns the harsh truths of the road,  geared Giorgio’s mind toward the buck of music as much as the bang. He first recorded songs in languages like Italian, Spanish, and German, to avoid competing with British and American hits, switching to English when the floodgates of bubblegum pop opened at the end of the decade. He scored a few European hits under the name “Giorgio” before hooking up with long-time collaborator and lyricist Pete Belotte in 1970. The newly formed production duo flourished, as he told NME in a 1978 interview:

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.

Moroder was now an established producer, but he wanted more. Giorgio wanted to make the whole world dance. He would get his way soon enough. “Our big start,” Moroder points out in the same interview “of course, was Donna“.

Summer of Love

The hippie musical “Hair” came to the end of its Berlin run in 1973 (perhaps it didn’t translate), leaving many of its performers unemployed in a foreign land. One of them was a young Donna Summer.

Donna Summer and Giorgio Moroder

Moroder and Belotte first recruited Summer as a backup singer, ultimately thrusting her into a featured role six months later with a song entitled “The Hostage”. These early collaborations shot to #1 in France and Holland, but traction in the American and British markets still eluded the trio, frustrating Moroder and Belotte. Moroder knew he had to up his game, as he explains in the same NME interview:

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.

Moroder speaks about everything in this way: as if it were all a simple accident, left mostly out of his hands, instead of a pre-meditated master stroke. The song in question is 1974’s “Love To Love You Baby”, Summer oozing orgasmic throaty vocals atop a chocolatey funk/disco orgy with shades of the Philadelphia Sound. The original 4-minute single for “Love To Love You Baby” failed to make an impact, leaving Moroder amused that mere mortals would try to resist his and Summers’ charms. Stealing a page out of Iron Butterfly’s playbook (and their 17- minute version of “In-A-Gada-Da-Vida”), he extended the “Love To Love You Baby” mix to a full album side. And all of a sudden, it was a hit. Its success would be attributed to its utility for both club DJs and dancing audiences, but let’s be honest : a lot of people were loving to love each other to Summer’s soundtrack.

The Moroder/ Belotte/ Summer trio owned the charts for years, striking gold again with the 1977 collaboration “I Feel Love”. The song pointed to the future of disco and pop music in general (that was it’s main purpose as the ‘future’ song on Summer’s concept album of music across different eras “I Remember Yesterday”), its arpeggiated sequences often overtaking Summer’s organic vocals in the mix. Summer was disco. Moroder was disco. And disco wasn’t going anywhere.

Moroder In Pictures

What does disco have to do with international drug smuggling and Turkish prisons? More or less nothing. But that didn’t stop director Alan Parker from tapping Moroder for the soundtrack to his 1978 film about hashish holidays gone wrong, Midnight Express. Moroder’s first opportunity at scoring came at a perfect time, when he was all of a sudden being lumped together in the public’s ears with the second-generation disco copycats he inspired.

Some questioned the initial pairing of Parker’s stark subject matter with Moroder’s largely upbeat and mobile music, but Moroder found it a perfect fit, as he explained in a 1979 interview for Feature Magazine:

In the case of the Midnight Express soundtrack, the motivation for using synthesizer was completely different. Unlike the emotional detachment usually associated with electronic music, we wanted a sound that would enhance the emotional impact of the situation… Our first concept was to give the film a recurring center -a natural heartbeat that could be subtle at times and then build up to an urgent pounding… It also added an immense contrast to the film to have the ancient setting of the story punctuated by electronics.”

Moroder pulled the Jedi mind trick on us again. Of course electro-disco is the perfect soundtrack to a hellish Turkish prison experience!

Midnight Express earned Moroder his first Academy Award and launched his scoring career. Since then, he has produced a slew of soundtrack hits that dance the line between schmaltz and the sublime. Irene Cara’s theme to Flashdance, and Berlin’s “Take My Breath Away” from Top Gun (he also wrote the score) netted him two more Oscars. He collaborated with the Human League’s Phil Oakey on the soundtrack to the film Electric Dreams, with Kajagoogoo’s Limahl on The Never Ending Story, produced Blondie on “Call Me” from American Gigolo, and a host of others for soundtracks like Cat People and Scarface.

Moroder’s most bizarre film score was perhaps his own 1984 restoration of Fritz Lang’s classic silent film Metropolis. He re-imagined the film with a contemporary pop soundtrack that featured the likes of Pat Benatar and Adam Ant, and even made small alterations to the film itself, hoping to clarify what he felt were continuity issues. The “Moroder Version” as it came to be known, was like so many of the other achievements in Moroder’s career: polarizing. Critics and audiences loved or hated the cut, praising Moroder’s daring creativity, or lambasting his calculated focus on marketable product over substance. It is the story of the man’s life.

Of Machines and Men

The cover of Giorgio Moroder’s 1980 album E=MC2 features the gregarious, mustachioed Italian, smiling and wearing a white sport jacket. In between the open lapels of the jacket, Moroder’s torso is replaced by a computer. The debate on whether 40-year old men should feature themselves in open white sport jackets on album covers is for another article, but the implication of the image is clear: this man’s soul has machine parts. The sentiment is at the center of the debate over Moroder’s life’s work; it’s a running joke to Moroder himself, aimed at the detractors who take it seriously.

E = MC2

For each person who has referred to Moroder as a genius or the “Godfather of Euro-disco,” another has called him a manipulator of talent, and a harbinger of a souless, mechanized musical future. They say his knack for catching the public’s ear is only so much bottom-line business sense. Add to that his heavy use of synthesizers and sequencing, and the most hysterical critics conjure an image of Moroder coming into the studio, pressing a few buttons, and then driving the streets of Berlin on a Vespa all day before coming back to pick up the finished product.

Moroder laughs off these assertions, even revels in them, as he did in the E=MC2 cover and in his decision to name his mid-70s crew of German-based session musicians the “Munich Machine.”  In 1978 he told NME:

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

All this talk of machines and industry make me laugh. Even if you use synthesizers 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.”

The term “language barrier” isn’t accurate when describing Moroder’s communication skills (he speaks four of them) but something about his accent does affect the way we hear his statements. It helps him instead of hinders him; the bluntness and brevity of his words demand that they be taken at face value. How would Moroder explain E=MC2, an album on which he wears his extensive use of synths and programming, the fodder for his critics, as a  badge of honor? From the E=MC2 press release:

E=MC2 is a revolutionary human/computer collaboration, a performance that involves 25 computerized synthesizers, 4 computerized keyboards, 3 micro-computers, plus electronic percussion, drums and vocals. Ultimately, digital technology and human creativity merge in live concert. And the music – on every selection – speaks for itself.”

In the same release, Moroder excitedly explains the process himself. (Sort of):

It’s the first recording of this kind. It’s music programmed as bursts of energy, coded numerically to micro-computers and recorded via the digital process. Then we edited by computer and the energy was once again reproduced as music – but with an immense reduction in noise and distortion. It’s very close to pure sound!

Of course… wait, what? If this description left you scratching your head, you’re not alone; E=MC2 failed to make a splash upon its release. The world was not yet ready for the machines to take over.

But Giorgio didn’t need detractors to keep him honest. His greatest challenges were issued from within, leading him to muse, even at the height of his success with Summer, disco, and the Midnight Express soundtrack, about the inevitable need for change:

“…This is one of many things that worries me. Disco is so immediately definable and recognizable. 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…”

Here’s a man who’s wondering how to clean up after his party, even as it’s still going. He continues the sentiment in a Feature Magazine interview from the same era:

I am most pleased with the success and wide acceptance of electronic music in the two mediums I’ve worked in, but I don’t want to be labeled in that way; I know we won’t be using synthesizers with Donna Summer again… in general it’s time to move on.”

‘En Route Moroder’ (On the Moroder Road)

Moroder never stopped moving onwards and upwards. In addition to his film and solo work in the 1980s, Moroder produced acts like Sparks and Bonnie Tyler, began making his own computer graphics-generated films and art, wrote the theme songs “Reach Out” and “Hand in Hand” for the 1984 and 1988 Olympics respectively, as well as the song “Un’estate italiana” for the 1990 World Cup in Italy, and- just for good measure- collaborated with Claudio Zampolli to create the Moroder-Cizeta sports car. Zampolli and Moroder wanted to create the ultimate luxury sports car, with a pricetag of $600,000 in mid-80s dollars. Its production was limited.

So what is the legacy of Giorgio Moroder? Certainly he improved his own bottom line by focusing on moving ours. Moroder sees himself as the ultimate pragmatist, answering a calling that is not from a higher power, but from an audience the world over. Giorgio is but a servant to the people, a ‘slave to the rhythm’ as Grace Jones said. He’s done alright for himself in the process, though:

 Every business is there to make money, and making a record is business. This tends to be forgotten by many. That is a fact of our lives and the way we live. Maybe it is right, maybe it is wrong. I am not a politician, I am a producer… Generally I don’t think there is too much art involved in what I do. I would not, however, be happy to do what I do unless I felt that the large audience wanted it.

Take a bow, Giorgio; the audience wants it. We Feel Love.

Blake Madden is a musician and author who lives and works in Seattle, WA.

This entry was posted in Featured Stories, July 2012, Producer Profiles. Bookmark the permalink. Both comments and trackbacks are currently closed.
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