It started with a bassline… Austin Wilde meets synth and disco superstar Giorgio Moroder to talk producing classics, striking luck and the best time to arrive at Studio 54.
When King Richard III was discovered skulking around in a Pay And Display car park, the world went history bonkers. This time around there was to be a fittingly regal burial, at which Benedict Cumberbatch was to read a poem because – sharing 1/1,048,576 of his DNA – he was a distant relative of the crookback king. As the solemn poem rang out around Leicester Cathedral, I wondered if the organisers had confused the word distant with the word tenuous. As any genealogist worth their salt will tell you: we’re all related to Richard III – it’s just a matter of degree.
GIORGIO MORODER, who DJs at a special An Evening With… night with Chibuku in November, is directly related to every exceptional house record ever made by the way of Donna Summer’s I Feel Love – a song so sensual it became both mother and father to a genre-in-the-mix. This is not a stretch of the imagination or of truth, it is a fact of disco life: Moroder is idolised by Daft Punk; his productions got a short-trousered Andrew Weatherall into music; the Drive soundtrack wouldn’t exist, and Todd Terje wouldn’t sound like Todd Terje without the influence of Moroder.
When I Feel Love was first released in 1977, Brian Eno heard it and ran to David Bowie holding the 12” in his hand and proclaiming “This is the future of music!” That reaction, however, was far from the universal response.
The label didn’t really like it.
The press cocked their noses at it.
The purists complained he’d removed the soul from (sing it) D i S c O.
And it was this reaction to the futuristic, silver sound of the Moog synthesiser that polarised the audience. Let us not forget, the synthesiser arrived in the very decade that thought brown was the go-to colour. It’s very hard to overstate the drabness these machines obliterated, one note at a time. They were the vanguard of musical technology, extremely rare and practically impossible to operate; to the ear, they could be both icy and foreign. Kraftwerk’s Trans-Europe Express was the instrument’s first exposure to popular culture, yet, for all the Teutonic fonk running through its rich melody lines, it was never designed to be an ode to human experience. I Feel Love was just that, unashamedly so. Donna Summer’s vocal sits atop the arpeggiated baseline like Agent Provocateur hosiery on Naomi Campbell’s pins. It is the sound of machines in the act of humanity, the record Mummy Robot puts on to get Daddy Robot in the mood to make Baby Robots. It changed the face of popular music forever. It only took two hours to make.
The vast majority of house records are like child stars: they age badly and often require a stint or two at the Betty Ford Clinic. At every single Promised Land there’s a queue of a million Guru Joshes waiting to walk dog doo-doo across the dancefloor. The question of timelessness sits at the heart of what makes some records age beautifully and others die an ugly death. The question of timelessness is essential in understanding what makes a classic. But – and here’s da but – the question of timelessness is very difficult to answer. Moroder’s take on the formula is as simple as it is humble: “The main ingredient is luck”. Which means, by proxy, the records never afforded classic status are simply ‘unlucky’ (well, it’s a lot nicer than calling them shit.) There are, for Moroder, examples of many situations where every single thing was in place for a monster hit: songwriter, melody, an artist at the top of their game and a salivating promo department itching to hit the Big Red Promotion Button – all things in place, except luck = no hit single, no evergreen song.
Luck’s best friend, it would seem, is timing. And there’s no doubt that Germany between 1970 and 1979 was an explosively creative place to be. Between Munich (Moroder, Amon Düül II), Düsseldorf (Kraftwerk, Neu!), Berlin (Tangerine Dream, David Bowie and Brian Eno) and Cologne (Can), a slew of records were produced that acted, less as inspirations, but more as a set of instructions for subsequent musical generations to follow. Across the board, from Iggy Pop to Sonic Youth, The Horrors, Radiohead to Kasabian, all have taken clues from this time. Indeed, Afrika Bambaabtaa’s re-appropriation of this electro sound sits very close to the roots of hip hop and that is a glorious legacy for the generation of post-war German musicians who created it. This burning desire to break with the old, to push forward, symbolises the spirit of Germany’s disaffected youth at this time. Politically speaking, there was a feeling that the old guard still held the keys to the castle and protests against this regime were met with increasing brutality. Dissident groups took to direct action in order to be heard and force social change through violent protest, none more publically so than the Baader-Meinhof Gruppe. Now I’m not saying that Giorgio Moroder and Kraftwerk et al. produced protest songs, but the songs they produced did protest: they protested their right to be forward thinking, to be composed of the future. And what fascinates me, writing from today’s world of instant interconnectivity, is that all the musicians mentioned were hunkered down in the studio, making music independently of one another; there was no conscious interplay between cities, no feeding off the other’s creativity. Moroder didn’t meet Kraftwerk’s Ralf Hütter until years later. Nor did he ever meet Robert Moog, the inventor of the synthesizer whose sound he made famous, although he had a vague notion he’d spoken to him on the phone “sometime in the 1970s” – but, as they say, if you remember the 1970s, you weren’t really there.
Whilst his music was conceived in a fractious Germany, Moroder’s productions found their natural home in a 1970s NYC discothèque, one that set the tone for the excesses of the 1980s: Studio 54. Studio (as it was known to the very “hand-picked” regulars) was a Molotov Milkshake of a nightclub where celebrity cavorted with itself, where sexual preference was of little consequence, where expensive narcotics were rife and promiscuity de rigueur.
To repay Bido Lito! for the privilege of interviewing Mr Moroder, I wanted a journalistic scoop. Given that he’s won three Oscars and four Grammys and designed a very high-end sports car and has a fantastic moustache, I thought the question of opulence might lead towards one. You can imagine the delight that crept through my thought process when my question about the most opulent situation he’d found himself in led directly to the velvet rope of Studio 54.
‘Tell me Giorgio,’ I thought to myself, ‘tell me all.’
“I’d heard stories about Studio 54, about what when on there and how impossible it was to get in. But I really wanted to hear Donna Summer’s Love To Love You, Baby in there – so that night I hired a blacked-out, stretch limo and drove through Manhattan towards 54th Street.”
Whilst I listened to him down the line from Miami, I thought ‘Good on you for getting that limo, Giorgio’, because I knew he would’ve got in, by rights should have got in – and, as a result of you getting that limo, Giorgio, I know I’m going to get a scoop. And I’m thinking: ‘Tell me treasure, Giorgio; tell me all.’
“There was a massive line outside the club, hundreds of fashionable beautiful people queuing to get in,” – and I’m thinking tell me about Jackie O dancing with Truman Capote while Yves Saint Laurent watched: tell me all, Giorgio – “so I got the driver to speak with the doorman and tell them that the guy who produced Love To Love You, Baby is inside the limo and wants to come in.” – deliver me the gold, Giorgio – “The driver nods in my direction, comes over and opens the limo door.”
THIS IS IT, he’s about to deliver me the treasure, a story of hedonistic significance, a story about a bevy of nymphets and starry-eyed young men dressed as golden pharaohs standing in coquettish poses while Jerry Hall, Liza Minnelli and Al Pacino watched Bianca Jagger’s white horse lose a cocaine-snorting race to Grace Jones – by a full fucking furlong. And then he says: “When I got in there, it was empty! It was only 11pm, I didn’t know it only got going at 2am.”
I laughed as my journalistic ambitions went up in dry ice, but Moroder wasn’t quite finished there: “Of course, the real opulence I experienced never happened in nightclubs.”
Giorgio Moroder, the tight-lipped undisputed King of Disco, plays Liverpool for the first time this month. Don’t get there too early, but don’t dare miss it.
Words: Austin Wilde / awwilde.co.uk
Lead artwork: Mike Isted / deerstalker.tv