This interview by Vince Aletti originally appeared in Numéro 39 (France), December 2002 - an issue devoted entirely to celebrating the 1970s disco phenomenon.
Electric Dreams by Vince Aletti
unleashed disco on an unsuspecting world and revolutionised electronic
music forever. Why everybody loves to love the Euro-maestro Giorgio Moroder.
Numéro: You were making music for some years before your success with Donna Summer. What was your earlier music like?
Giorgio Moroder: I started out in Berlin, and later moved back to Italy - I'm originally from a valley called Val Gardena in the Dolomites - and to Munich, since that was the closest city to my home in Italy. Being an Italian and working in Europe, I almost always did music with English lyrics. But my first big hit in Germany was a remake of the Sir Douglas Quintet's American hit, Mendocino, translated into German. And in 1972, I made a record in English called Son of My Father that was my first hit in States. I was singing over a heavily accented rhythm - not yet a disco rhythm, but a danceable song. When I was living in Berlin and then in Munich, there were already a lot of discotheques, before there were that many in the U.S. And I did a lot of shows in discotheques. I wasn't really able to sing a ballads, so I always did upbeat songs. But I wasn't that aware of what was going on in America at the time. I knew the early disco songs like [the Hues Corporation's] Rock The Boat, but not much else. I think I even did a cover of that song, probably with someone in Germany.
When did you become aware of disco or its early influences, and what artists made an impression on you? Barry White? Kraftwerk? MFSB? Silver Convention?
The strictly European dance sound was Silver Convention; they came out about six months before Donna. Her Love to Love You Baby was not really a joke, but we really didn't think of it as something big. It was a similar story with Silver Convention's Save Me, which started out as a backing track. Michael Kunze and Silvester Levay did four or five songs for an album. They had some tracks left over and just added words. In both cases, it wasn't at all planned.
When you made Love to Love You Baby with Donna Summer, was it a radical departure from your earlier work or an evolution?
In a way, it was a little of both. As happens so often, the song was not meant to be the way it came out. One day, I told Donna that if she ever had some lyrics for a sexy song, she should give them to me. A month later, she came back with the words to "Love To Love". I used to own a studio in Munich called Musicland, and I recorded a rough demo in a key that I sang it in, but when she sang it, it was in the wrong key and we had to rework it for her voice. The deal between her and me was that she would record the demo and I would find a singer to do it. She made the 3:50 version, and I took it to MIDEM [the annual music-biz trade show in Cannes], and everybody loved it. Before I went, I remember saying to Donna, "We may have a hit." She and I had already had two hits together, one called The Hostage, which did very well in Holland and Belgium and some other European countries. It was all set to become a major hit in Germany, too, but terrorists took a politician hostage just as it was released there, and no one would play it on the radio.
Did the international success of Love to Love You Baby take you by surprise?
Yes and no. I went to MIDEM nearly every year, and I'd had good reactions from time to time, but with Love to Love the reaction was so strong that we knew we had something. And when my publisher gave it to [Casablanca Records head] Neil Bogart, he took it immediately. Obviously, I was somewhat surprised - he'd never taken any of the other records we'd offered him - but not that surprised. I was surprised at the reaction in MIDEM, but after that, not too much.
Would you say there were American influences on Love to Love You Baby?
Not really. The only little influence were European songs like Serge Gainsbourg's Je T'Aime. Later, I made a club version of Je T'Aime with Donna.
What were your first impressions of Neil Bogart and his Casablanca staff? In retrospect, the company has become notorious for its excesses.
They did an absolutely great job. I liked the whole arrangement with them, but before I moved here, I would come to L.A. rent a house for a month or so, and then go back. We did the records mostly in Europe - Donna's, Roberta Kelly's, and my productions with the Munich Machine. In Munich at that time there were no drugs, so I was totally, totally naïve. When I came to Casablanca to visit Neil, I noticed some strange things going on, but I didn't really know what. People told me later that Casablanca was quite a scene. There were stories about a secretary going around the office with a tray of coke for the staff to share. I think Neil was good at hiding it all. I don't think he wanted me to know about that stuff.
It sounds like you didn't exactly get caught up in the disco lifestyle.
I'm probably one of the few disco producers who never really went to the discotheques. There was one time in Munich when there was a new disco, and for a while I used to go there to pick up girls and give the DJ a tape of a new song to see what the reactions were. I would go maybe once or twice a week, but even that didn't last long. In Europe, the disco scene was really nothing new to me. It was like great dance music, and there were not that many drugs, as least from what I remember. It was not the crazy stuff, like what happened in the States. When I first went to Studio 54, it was like an event every night, and I thought: 'Wow, this is a discotheque!' In Munich, we didn't have anything like that.
So you were single throughout the disco years?
I only got married 12 years ago, when I was 50, and I have a son who is 13. I was quite clever, not to get married back then. Now I'm happy.
Although disco was always a kind of free-spirited, good-time music, at a certain point it was attacked as purely decadent and hedonistic. What were your feelings about the disco backlash?
When the backlash came, I was still in Europe. It wasn't only against the music, but against the lifestyle - those crazy guys running around half naked and all the drugs. Donna had moved from Casablanca to Geffen [Records]. She was absolutely religious, he was absolutely gay, and they hated each other. At that time, I was already doing my movies. If I remember, my main problem wasn't that disco was fading away, but that Donna was fading away. First, she was becoming too religious, and there were problems with Neil Bogart, problems with Geffen. That was what concerned me, because we kind of lost an artist, Maybe we should have tried to move her away from dance earlier. For example, with the song Hot Stuff, we tried to get a little more into rock. And now I think we should have tried to do that more consequently and with more songs. Everybody knew that disco could not and would not last forever.
Did the death of disco at the beginning of the '80s force you to change direction or had you already moved on?
I changed direction in 1978 with the soundtrack for Midnight Express, and then in 1980 with Call Me with Blondie, so those were already major changes for me. Call Me certainly has elements of dance but was a progression into something newer. Obviously, I would have loved that dance would go on forever, but I wasn't too concerned about it.
Was disco good for you?
Obviously good, because I made a lot of money. When I did I Feel Love, it became a huge hit, especially in Europe, and Alan Parker wanted this kind of sound for his movie Midnight Express, and I got my first Oscar for that. Basically, I Feel Love got me into the movie music business. I don't know one pop guy like me who was able to get into the soundtrack business before that. That was incredible, because now I had two careers: one as a pop music producer and one as a movie composer. And I was able to combine them both with American Gigolo, when I wrote the score and the songs.
Looking back, what were your best and worst experiences with disco?
Certainly, one of the worst was when Donna became religious. She wouldn't sing about this, she wouldn't sing about that. Having her biggest hit with a sexy song, she was suddenly saying that she wouldn't sing that type of song any more, and then she insisted on having a song about Jesus on her album. The best experience was when Love To Love became number one. That opened a whole new world to me.