Don’t Stop the Dance
Seventy-three-year-old, Italian-born hit factory Giorgio Moroder is a giant amongst gentlemen. Some 44 years after his first release and after a relatively dormant period in the last 20, Moroder has finally stepped back into the limelight thanks to a collaboration with a certain robotic French duo, and it’s not a moment too soon for a reappreciation.
The legendary producer, songwriter and musician’s illustrious career exploded during a particularly productive period from the mid 70s to the mid 80s, in which he basically laid the blueprint for disco and subsequently house and techno, launched the first and most fabulous diva of disco in Donna Summer, released several smash solo albums, composed soundtracks for Midnight Express, American Gigolo, Flashdance, Scarface, The NeverEnding Story and Top Gun among others, provided theme songs for two Olympics, as well as one for worship – “I even recorded a religious song, and in some churches in Italy they still sing it today.”
The Moroder sound varied wildly depending on his calling, starting out with percussive, rock leaning experiments, moving into his trademark robust, high energy robo-disco, to his epic, evocative film themes. His is an influence that cannot be overstated, and it’s fitting that the most influential dance act of the last two decades should be the ones to coax the old master out of the woodwork.
Born in South Tyrol in Northern Italy, Moroder grew up with English rather than Italian pop, via the mostly American and English transmissions of Radio Luxembourg. It was after moving to Munich in 1971 that a career in music started to take shape for him, and his especially rhythmic style of danceable pop music, later widely known as disco, evolved into an undeniable, joyous infection. Rather than being an attempt to ape the nascent sounds of New York at the time his approach developed through a job gigging in nightclubs all over the country.
“At the time when I did my first, let’s say disco song, Love To Love You Baby, there was no disco (at least not that I knew). I knew and I loved the song Rock The Boat, but I used to do a lot of recordings with a lot of rhythm before the word ‘disco’ came along. In fact way before Donna, way before let’s say ’75 I was making some money by performing with a tape with the backing tracks in discotheques. There was an association, the German Disco Association or something like that, that was kind of an agency and they would provide me with some gigs, so I was making several hundred dollars per night and I would sing and perform in discotheques. And I survived relatively well for a few years.”
It was following the release of Donna Summer’s aforementioned classic in 1975 that, after moving between Munich and Berlin throughout the 70s, and not without some prolonged internal debate, Moroder relented and followed his “main star" Summer to the US in 1977, where he has more or less stayed ever since.
For a guy that has had such an overarching presence in nightclubs and nightlife since he started out, especially during the infamously decadent disco era, he’s somewhat ironically not quite the party starter. “Well, actually, I’m absolutely a non-night person. The first dance I had was in Italy in my little town when I was a teenager, but then I used to be in nightclubs quite often as a musician, I worked for about 10 years all over Europe. So when I settled in Berlin and later in Munich I rarely went out because I was always busy working. When you work 10-12 hours a day until 11 o’clock you start to feel tired and you go home. I wasn’t a big disco goer.”
Nightclubs had a more functional purpose for Moroder in the early days rather than a purely frivolous one. “In Berlin I rarely went out, it was the beginning, I had very little money, I was just happy to survive with what I had. But in Munich I went out a little more, for pleasure sometimes but more, like, for practical reasons. I went sometimes to check out new songs, I had a friend in Munich who was a DJ, so he could play the song and I could see the reaction of the audience, see if the others liked it or not and do something according to that. If I saw that suddenly people would go on the dancefloor then I knew ‘well this is a production I should work on’, and if it happened that people left the dancefloor then most of the time I just threw the song away. I would just dump the song and create something new. On the other hand if the reaction was good I would try to refine it. So that was my main disco activity actually.”
Once settled in Los Angeles he found himself with even less time to consider socialising – between 1975 and 1985 Moroder released five solo albums, 10 film scores and three collaboration albums, produced albums for the likes of Summer, Roberta Kelly, Sparks, Nina Hagen and singles for Blondie and David Bowie, among others. Also in this period came the futurist disco opera masterpiece I Feel Love for Summer. His work rate was astonishing and considering the amount of material he was coming up with, of an exceptionally high quality, even if in hindsight he feels as if he had too much to handle. “I used to be very fast with recording. With Donna Summer we would do a whole album in three weeks – composing, recording, mixing, everything. At that time I made some mistakes by promising ‘OK I’ll do your album, I’ll do this’. I promised too many things, an album is 12 songs and mostly I’d compose them and record them myself, so sometimes it was getting really busy. I remember in ’86 I barely had a weekend in the whole year. So in that case if you have too much to do it’s difficult to spend too much time on one track and I must say I wasn’t that great at delegating.”
Being such a key figure in the heady days of disco, you might imagine he’d have enjoyed some of the most lavish, debaucherous, decadent nights out in the history of hedonism. Again, not so. “No, but I can tell you what was my most disappointing evening. So I moved to New York and obviously the first week I was there I thought there is only one thing I have to do – go to that famous Studio 54. So in order to do it in what I thought was the right way, I hired a limousine and I went down and saw a huge queue waiting outside. It was about 11 o’clock so I asked my driver if he could talk to the doorman and say that Giorgio Moroder wants to come in but he doesn’t want to wait, so immediately they let me in and there was maybe 20 people in there. I was waiting for the white horse, I waited for maybe half an hour and, very disappointed, I went home.”
Morodor took his foot off the gas just slightly as the 90s came around, though he still found the time to be involved in the creation of a model of Lamborghini. With hip-hop and sampling, his influence carried over to a new generation of music producers and fans through others sampling his work, most notably DJ Shadow who built his track Organ Donor from Moroder’s own Tears. Until just recently he’d been enjoying a more low-key, relaxed existence, as you might expect of someone that went so hard for so long. “(These days) I have a lot of stuff I do, I do computer art, I love to manipulate images and I’ve had several art shows relating to that. I love to do my crossword puzzles. There was a time in the last ten years where I played a lot of golf which I don’t do so much now because I injured my arm. So, in the last few years I was not really retired but as far as the music business goes I was retired, I was living the good life. And now I’m kind of back, after the success with Daft Punk everybody’s asking me for songs and so on, so I’m back to work.”
Which brings us to present, and Moroder’s critical collaboration with Thomas Bangalter and Guy-Man de Homem-Christo of Daft Punk. A meeting of the minds that represented a comeback of sorts for both parties, the making of Giorgio By Moroder was a process that, like everything with the French duo, was enigmatic, methodical, and with an air of untouchable Gallic mystery that’s par for the course. “It was a social kind of lunch here in Los Angeles with the guys and Thomas said ‘you know what we have an idea we may want to work together with you, let’s see’. So I didn’t hear anything for maybe a year and then last summer I was living in Paris and Thomas called me and said ‘could you come into the studio, we have an idea’. So I went to the studio and they said ‘we just want you to talk about your life’. So we recorded maybe two to three hours, just talking about my youth, my life basically in three hours. But I still didn’t know what they wanted to do with it, they kept it absolutely secret and until about three months ago I didn’t know how and what they would do and finally they played it to me and I was quite surprised how well they’d done with my voice.”
With the ensuing success and attention Moroder finds himself in demand in clubs all over the world once again, but rather than singing with a backing track and sleeping in his car, he’s taken up DJing. “Now the discos are very different. The other day I went to see Tiesto in Vegas and it’s absolutely incredible, the way they dance, the way they listen. In fact I became a DJ too, so now I not only have to go to discos but I LOVE to go now. So the circle comes around…”
One thing that hasn’t changed though since his re-emergence from semi-retirement is his old workaholic habits, with vacations well and truly off the agenda for the near future for fear of falling behind. “In Los Angeles it is almost like being on vacation, every Sunday we go to Santa Monica on the beach, plus right now I have to work, and I’m a little bit anxious to work. I know that if I would go to Mexico for a vacation I know after a few days I would become nervous. And then suddenly. I would have an idea. That’s my big problem, if I have an idea and I don’t have a studio right then to record it, a vacation would only make me nervous.” Retirement can wait just a little longer then.