Giorgio Moroder in 1979, the year his longtime collaborator, the singer Donna Summer, had a hit with "Hot Stuff."
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
Giorgio Moroder in 1979, the year his longtime collaborator, the singer Donna Summer, had a hit with "Hot Stuff."
Michael Ochs Archives/Getty Images
His name is synonymous with a sound defiled in the mainstream almost as much as it's been celebrated, and only once has he reached the U.S. Top 40 with a record released under that moniker. But few have exerted more influence over today's music than the Italian producer/songwriter who put Munich on the '70s musical map, Giorgio Moroder.
As a major collaborator of Donna Summer and other club-targeted acts, Moroder ranks among disco's key designers, the one most responsible for broadening its stylistic confines beyond danceable R&B into a distinct and international style: "I Feel Love," his 1977 hit with Summer, was the first hugely popular all-electronic club track. And just as disco faded in the mainstream '80s, his dance-rock fusions became even more ubiquitous via Hollywood blockbusters like Flashdance, Scarface and Top Gun.
Although Moroder has for decades enjoyed semi-retirement in Los Angeles, he's recently re-emerged as the father of electronic dance music currently permeating nearly every popular genre like disco did 40 years ago. Since telling his life story on Daft Punk's 2013 hit album Random Access Memories, he's found a second career as an EDM DJ; he remixed Coldplay's "Midnight" into a simmering spiritual meditation and has been releasing radio-targeted singles featuring pop stars like Kylie Minogue and Sia. The latter is now included on Moroder's first American album in 30 years, his unabashedly David Guetta-esque Déjà Vu.
Moroder's credits grace hundreds of records, many of them hits, and like most Svengalis whose price tag puts them out of reach for challenging acts, he's made some shameless dreck: Plagued by clunky rhythms and cornball guitar, much of his '80s soundtrack work is clichéd in the extreme: Check Giorgio's joyless soundtrack to his own 1984 reconstruction of Fritz Lang's 1927 sci-fi masterpiece Metropolis, or, if you dare, his arena-rock detritus for '87's Sylvester Stallone vehicle Over the Top. And his subsequent output has often been even worse: Moroder's official song for the 1990 World Cup, "To Be Number One," is just like Michael Bolton, but more so.
Yet some of his most enduring works are unjustly unknown to all but crate-diggers and underground disco dancers. For all these reasons, we present this chronological guide to Moroder highlights both popular and obscure. These songs and full albums still shine like mirror balls that have lost none of their luster.
Giorgio, "Son of My Father" (ABC/Dunhill single)
Although his name is synonymous with '70s disco, Moroder launched his career in the '60s as a lowbrow pop producer and solo act. His very first album is actually called That's Bubblegum – That's Giorgio, a 1969 set released outside America to capitalize on his goofy European hit "Looky Looky." Check this clip of Giorgio dancing stiffly to it while flaunting spiffy duds and an enviable mustache. Blatantly bluffing his way through the oft-misheard lyrics of "Bad Moon Rising," Moroder coasted on that covers-heavy album, then scored internationally with his similarly sugary 1971/'72 single "Son of My Father." Here his sound is honed to a psychedelic sheen: Phasing effects collide with prominent synths that buzz and hum with good vibrations. Although Giorgio's original was only a minor hit here, a less finessed but otherwise faithful version by Chicory Tip became the first U.K. chart-topper to prominently feature synthesizers.
Donna Summer, "Love to Love You Baby" (from Oasis album Love to Love You Baby)
The second side of Summer's debut U.S. album may be as throwaway as Giorgio's most forgettable early album tracks, but the 17-minute title track remains one of disco's earliest, most extravagant achievements. Originally recorded and released overseas as a conventional single, this Barry White-styled amorous jam became vastly expanded when Casablanca Records head Neil Bogart — himself a former bubblegum promo man — sent Moroder and his singer back into the studio so they could to fill an entire LP side with it like Iron Butterfly's 1968 psych-rock smash "In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida." A Boston-born actor who starred in Munich's production of Hair, Donna Summer then found herself moaning in orgasmic ecstasy throughout much of the retooled track as Moroder broke down and built up the arrangement while embellishing it with tender harmonies reminiscent of Continental film soundtracks. Both the album and single went pop; their combined success steered Casablanca Records into becoming Los Angeles's reigning disco indie.
Donna Summer, A Love Trilogy (Oasis album)
Although it didn't yield a single as big as "Love to Love," Summer's follow-up set her apart in the quality department: Unlike most early disco albums, which usually padded club-targeted cuts between ballads and filler, this one was both danceable and memorable all the way through, thanks to expansive soul landscapes by Moroder, "Love to Love" co-writer/producer Pete Bellotte, and Icelandic string arranger Thor Baldursson.
There are two trilogies here; the first side, "Try Me, I Know We Can Make It" – a side-long medley of three interrelated songs – and the second side's thematically linked trio of tunes that leads with one of disco's best-ever remakes, an uptempo rendition of "Could It Be Magic" that emphasizes the eroticism of Barry Manilow's greatest song while magnifying its hymn-like qualities. The entire album bridges the sexual/spiritual divide, and although Summer would later claim that as a Christian, she was uncomfortable with the heavy-breathing goddess role that Casablanca and Moroder foisted upon her, she seems utterly at home here – like God herself told Summer to set all the blacks and whites and gays and straights free by setting a sexually liberated example: Come together as one.
Munich Machine, "Get on the Funk Train" (from Casablanca album Munich Machine)
Although Moroder's image is that of an autonomous synth deity, he and Summer wouldn't have triumphed in disco's highly collaborative art without a first-rate band of studio cats behind them. Launched with spoken narration that introduces each musical element one instrument at a time like Sly & the Family Stone's "Dance to the Music," this side-long cut epitomizes the sub-genre Moroder helped invent, Eurodisco. Largely faster than its American counterpart and orchestrated around a thunderous four-to-the-bar bass drum throb, Eurodisco didn't disguise that most old-world musicians of that era couldn't swing as effortlessly as their American and largely black counterparts.
Instead, it turned that stiffness into strength by emphasizing the metronomic qualities of European disco session musicians much like their Krautrock countrymen did in Neu!, Can, and Kraftwerk. The strings get a little giddy at times, but their lightness offsets the heaviness of the groove.
Donna Summer, "I Feel Love" (from Casablanca album I Remember Yesterday)
Summer scored hit after hit in discos, but none since "Love to Love" went pop until this similarly sensual but far more synth-y single. Disco had been the last new form of music where acoustic instrumentation — strings, horns, woodwinds, piano, drums, and percussion — was more essential than amplified guitars and keys. Her second international smash didn't change the game overnight; disco would remain an acoustic/electric/synthetic hybrid for the next few years.
But "I Feel Love" earns its historical place as the record most responsible for making dance music futuristic largely because it exudes what synths are said to deny — emotion. Summer never claims in the lyrics to be making love to a robot, but her rapture implies this. Once again, there's a hymn-like quality, one that humanizes the cut and makes it something far deeper than merely sexy. She's embracing mankind's high-tech destiny as if it were the most wonderful and fulfilling dream, not the dystopian nightmare we fear today.
Giorgio, From Here to Eternity (Casablanca album)
Donna's disco is grounded by R&B; she's a chameleon, but almost always an exceptionally soulful one. Giorgio's disco is rooted in rock: His previous album, Knights in White Satin, reimagined what the Moody Blues might sound like at 4AM in a men's bathhouse. Here he embraces synths to the exclusion of all else, but the songwriting still suggests testosterone and guitars: The nonstop first side is as butch as "I Feel Love" is femme. Dark and full of desire, Giorgio's own groaning suite went down like a storm in the most progressive gay clubs of its era. Years later, it inspired Chicago house and Detroit techno.
But even today, its supple Moogs are still hard to approximate. Their undulations are unstable, in constant flux; buried nuances still bubble to the surface. The lightest and most fun section to dance to, "Utopia — Me Giorgio," feels like a warm bath in a sensual elixir. A heavenly choir sings "Ahhh" while earthly worries melt away. You can bet this stuff is druggy; listen closely, and you can still smell the poppers.
Once Upon a Time (Casablanca album, 1977)
"Last Dance" (from Thank God It's Friday soundtrack, Casablanca, 1978)
From the very start, Summer and her collaborators had been prolific. But during one extraordinary 10-month period, she released her first double album, '77's Once Upon a Time, three lengthy cuts on the soundtrack of the disco-themed '78 film in which she appeared, Thank God It's Friday and Live and More, a '78 double album featuring three in-concert sides and a continuous studio medley that featured her first U.S. chart-topper, "MacArthur Park," as well as another Top 10 smash, "Heaven Knows."
Once Upon a Time didn't produce any major U.S. hits, but it ruled discos with a canny urban update on a Cinderella theme likely coded for the singer's gay fans: Donna trips out on a "Fairy Tale High" in pursuit of her Prince Charming. In the wake of "I Feel Love," Moroder and Bellotte devote the second of four Time sides to electronic sounds, their particularly bittersweet "Now I Need You/Working the Midnight Shift/Queen for a Day" suite. At its very end, the synths switch off and the sound pointedly segues back into traditional disco, as if to flow with the rest of the album. Even back then, Moroder thought like a DJ.
Summer's next hits, the two that established her as a mainstream superstar, were her most symphonic. By "Last Dance," Summer lost the pillow talk that initially defined her: Now she's belting like a gospel-trained Barbra Streisand, and that intensity both suits and cuts through the orchestral chintz. Many laughed when Richard Harris acted his way through Jimmy Webb's florid "MacArthur Park" poetry. Few did that when Summer sang the same words; her elegiac delivery is no joke. Nowadays, when the mood is right, grown men have been known to cry while dancing to this song, for it reminds them of what life was like before AIDS, before an entire generation's cake got left out in the rain.
Casablanca's Bogart fancied himself an old-fashioned Hollywood mogul; his ego soon brought down the company. But Casablanca's entry into the movie business allowed Moroder to transition from disco to soundtracks; the producer scored an Oscar with his very first score in '79, the same year Paul Jabara, another Casablanca disco wonder, won for writing Summer's "Last Dance." Director Alan Parker instructed Moroder to pick up where "I Feel Love" left off, and that's what this atmospheric U.S. Top 40 entry does, minus the vocal. Not actually a soundtrack cut but sounding like one, "Evolution" does the same but with a human drummer, some guitars and a tambourine; imagine Pink Floyd teasing a groove for 15 suspense-packed minutes. For decades this has been an underground club anthem: Play it today next to new tracks by acolytes like Lindstrøm and Todd Terje, and the kids might even prefer this. "Valley of the Dolls" pumps up the tempo and drama even further with percussion, strings, and horns. Moroder would have much bigger soundtrack hits, but little of his '80s output would be as audacious or age as well as these three anodyne instrumentals. Their keyboardist, Harold Faltermeyer, would eventually step out on his own smash soundtrack for Beverly Hills Cop and its hit "Axel F" theme.
Sparks, No. 1 in Heaven (Virgin/Elektra album)
Here's where Moroder and a pair of brilliantly peculiar Los Angeles brothers essentially invent the '80s. Ron and Russell Mael started Sparks in their hometown, but soon moved to England, regrouped with U.K. musicians, and became Europe's most unlikely rock stars. Yet their lack of U.S. success unnerved them; they moved back home, snagged future "Piña Colada" man Rupert Holmes and some soon-to-be Totos, but their Americanized results bombed even worse. So they dropped guitars entirely, cranked up the synths, and took on Moroder's longtime English drummer Keith Forsey, who here hammers his skins like disco's own Keith Moon.
Warmth comes from Mael wit; the opening song, "Tryouts for the Human Race," is sung from the perspective of sperm searching for an egg. The relentlessness of the keyboard hooks points the way to synthpop; both "The Number One Song in Heaven" and "Beat the Clock" were U.K. mainstream hits; the latter became a U.S. club staple once DJs found other high-intensity tracks with which to mix it.
Donna Summer, Bad Girls (Casablanca album)
On her most successful album, Summer completes her transformation from male fantasy to female empowerment: Feminists applauded how fiercely she asserted herself on "Hot Stuff," her disco-goes-rock answer to rock-goes-disco moves of Rod Stewart and the Stones; they also dug how she stood up for sex workers on the title track. Unlike most disco producers, Moroder and Bellotte often shared writing credits with their star; she solely wrote the album's third hit, "Dim All the Lights."
This is the most American of her '70s albums both aesthetically and in practice; unlike everything through Once Upon a Time, this one was recorded in Los Angeles with ex-Steely Dan/Doobie Brothers guitarist Jeff "Skunk" Baxter and local session folk supplementing Moroder's international crew. The album's cleaner, sparser sound helped bring about a disco shift toward leaner and meaner arrangements that didn't require as much orchestration as before; this enabled producers to keep making dance records when the majors withdrew their disco dollars. Once again, there's another synth-dominated side, but here it's the final one, as if Moroder & co. were pointing the way to where music would be headed.
Blondie, "Call Me" (from American Gigolo soundtrack, Polydor)
These worldly New Yorkers were a perfect match for Moroder, who helps them drive their guitars so forcefully on "Call Me" that they veer closer to hard rock than to the New Wave disco they pioneered with "Heart of Glass." Even "Rapture," their subsequent rap smash, is much more disco than this, the biggest single of 1980. Contrast it with his concurrent work with Donna Summer, who directed Moroder to move further away from dance music later that year on her rock 'n' soul Geffen debut The Wanderer. In both cases, Moroder gets gutsy, committed performances from his singers, but "Call Me" triumphs largely because Blondie rampages through it like the proper band they are; only Forsey hits hard enough on The Wanderer's largely substandard material. Later in the decade, the drummer further proved his rock cred by producing Billy Idol and the Psychedelic Furs, and, like Moroder, scored many of his biggest hits via soundtracks: Forsey co-wrote Simple Minds' "Don't You (Forget About Me)," Glenn Frey's "The Heat Is On" and Irene Cara's "Flashdance ... What a Feeling," another Moroder-produced Oscar-winner.
Phillip Oakey, "Together in Electric Dreams" (Virgin 12-inch single)
When Summer and most major U.S. labels abandoned disco, dance clubs became even more reliant on Moroder's transatlantic output; gay disco DJs made cult favorites out of his work with Suzi Lane, the Three Degrees, Janis Ian, Madleen Kane, Melissa Manchester, and others while radio went crazy for Kenny Loggins ("Danger Zone") and Berlin ("Take My Breath Away"), who together helped turn the Moroder-dominant Top Gun soundtrack into one of 1986's most characteristic mega-hits. Gay DJs also played the best tracks leaked from rightfully aborted '81 Summer/Moroder sessions belatedly released in '96 as I'm a Rainbow. But they truly got behind these New Wave/Eurodisco anthems, and played them in the wee hours of the morning for years to come. Ex-Kajagoogoo's Limahl and the Human League's Phillip Oakey croon lovingly about cherished bonds they long to retain. "Make believe I'm everywhere," Limahl suggests. "We'll always be together however far it seems," Oakey insists. For dancers losing loved ones to AIDS and fearing their own mortality, these disarmingly sincere songs offered solace.
Sigue Sigue Sputnik, "Love Missile F1-11" (EMI single)
The rock element of Moroder's '80s output often goes no further than dutiful approximations of Eddie Van Halen's "Beat It" solo; that's not the case here. Chock full of film samples, techno-rockabilly no doubt cribbed from Suicide, and hyperactive guitar riffs that careen across the ruckus like shrapnel from a dirty bomb, this unlikely UK smash proved Moroder could still be radical when removed from his Hollywood comfort zone. Led by Tony James, Billy Idol's former writing partner in his early punk band Generation X, Sigue Sigue Sputnik arrived like Frankie Goes to Hollywood's second coming. It sputtered out even quicker, leaving behind this sonic act of terrorism remembered in the U.S. through its inclusion in Ferris Bueller's Day Off. Even today, its calculated ultraviolence still shocks.
Giorgio Moroder and Donna Summer, "Carry On" (Virgin single)
Themes of survival and reassurance would grow even more overt on this exceptionally heartfelt reunion single, which received limited European release in '92 and eventually won a Grammy following its remixed '97 U.S. issue. Summer belts like nobody's business, Giorgio updates his sound via the Italo-house of Black Box and the lyric stretches out a hand to the fans she abandoned during her born-again phase. "Just don't look back again/Look for the strength that's in you," she wails. Donna-holics who've pardoned a multitude of sins may beg to differ, but neither the producer nor his protégé did much carrying on without the other: After her '94 single "Melody of Love (Wanna Be Loved)," Summer would never again approach the transcendence of her Moroder output; his Déjà Vu lacks Summer's soul. But this final collaborative effort affirms the pair's uncommon symbiosis. Apart they sometimes floundered, but together Moroder and Summer almost always triumphed; they crossed gender, color, national and cultural boundaries as disco's ultimate emissaries of universal love.