At 75, disco pioneer Giorgio Moroder reemerges to once again produce some of the biggest icons of our time
By Chris Azzopardi
It’s been 35 years since Giorgio Moroder and Cher hooked up for a late-night session to produce “Bad Love,” the diva’s disco rave-up from the soundtrack of the 1980 coming-of-age drama, Foxes.
“We were supposed to start at 2 o’clock in the studio, and who comes in at 2 o’clock punctual? Cher,” Moroder recalls, tickled. “I said, ‘Shit, because with an artist like her — the big stars, you think, if it’s 2 o’clock, they come in at 5 o’clock, if you’re lucky. So she was there at 2 o’clock, and I said, ‘Cher, something is wrong — I was told you’re always late.’ And she said, ‘Yes, I’m always late… except the first time.’”
Decades have passed and music has changed and Cher has not. One other thing remains the same: Moroder still lights up at the mere thought of the ageless icon, how “I loved her” and “she was so funny.” Undoubtedly, Cher, to this day, can still smack you with a punchline. A star, an icon, the diva of all divas — her success is abiding.
Now, returning to the scene at age 75 with his first album in 30 years, Moroder can say the same for his own monumental success.
The Italy-born musical mastermind who unwittingly blazed a fruitful trail of radio hits is the father of such celebrated dance-floor relics as Donna Summer’s “Love to Love You Baby” and Blondie’s ubiquitous No. 1 hit “Call Me.” A cavernous catalog of ’70s-era paragons and Moroder’s unprecedented artistic vision became the catalyst for modern-age dance music. Between 1974 and 1984, Moroder’s creative force was a hot commodity, and everyone who was everyone — Barbra Streisand, Elton John, Janet Jackson, Chaka Khan, Freddie Mercury, David Bowie — clamored for his heyday genius.
During Moroder’s most musically prolific era, the producer, composer and DJ could be found endlessly shacked up in a studio. There, he’d mix until the wee hours, never to succumb to his own burgeoning brand of sonic escapism that coaxed just about everyone but himself — the man behind those very beats — to the clubs.
“If I go back, I remember one year, ’85, when I did the [music for the] Top Gun movie,” he says. “The whole year I was doing several projects, of which most didn’t work out, but I think I had one weekend by myself. I would work like crazy.”
And even that’s an understatement. While producing for an army of iconic artists during the first wave of disco-dance, Moroder was also becoming a booming cinema presence.
He won his first Oscar for his music in 1978’s Midnight Express, and then two more for “Flashdance… What a Feeling” and Berlin’s “Take My Breath Away,” from Top Gun. In 1983, he intensified Scarface with his music (he produced the soundtrack), and also contributed to the 1984 children’s fantasy classic The NeverEnding Story, for which he produced the theme song.
At 75, his own story, it seems, is neverending. Thanks to a much-deserved salute to Moroder on their latest opus, the track “Giorgio by Moroder” from 2013’s Grammy-winning Random Access Memories, Daft Punk prompted a welcome resurgence. “My name is Giovanni Giorgio, but everybody calls me Giorgio,” he adorably notes during the spoken-word, EDM-charged caper. The song is Moroder’s memoir. And as he looks back on his teenage years, he says “[my] dream was so big that I didn’t see any chance.”
But other dreamers did. Some — for instance, RCA Records, who commissioned his latest offering, Déjà Vu — even gave him the chance.
Love to love him, baby
Could anyone have predicted that Giorgio Moroder would change the future of music? Probably. But in 1969, the only evidence of his ingenuity was “Looky Looky,” a frothy Beach Boys-esque concoction that, while slight, still sounded remarkably ahead of its time.
Fast forward nearly 10 years to 1977, when, with the help of a blossoming singer named Donna Summer, his career boomed beyond his own wildest dreams.
The two made music magic together, storming the charts with the steamy disco number “Love to Love You Baby” in 1975 and, two years later, “I Feel Love,” a slice of synth heaven released in 1977. By incorporating the newly developed Moog synthesizer, which generated a bed of pulsating, writhing throbs, the latter was instrumental in revolutionizing the techno movement. But still, Moroder insists, “I Feel Love” would not have been the same without Summer’s ethereal coos.
Summer, he says, “humanized the machine,” a characteristic that was “one of the reasons it did so well.”
Concerning their first hit together, “Love to Love You Baby,” Moroder recalls reluctantly finding the song a label home. “When I presented that song to some record companies — actually, I didn’t. Somebody did it for me, because I was embarrassed. I thought nobody would ever release this.”
To his surprise, the song surged the charts, eventually becoming recognized as one of the greatest disco-era songs of our time. Moroder credits the song’s success with a 17-minute extended cut of the five-minute single, an idea brought to him by Casablanca Records president Neil Bogart, who was inspired to maximize the track’s running time after hearing it looped at a party in its original form like it was drug. So, Moroder tagged on 12 minutes, which he now calls “the key to its success.”
Not all of Moroder’s projects managed the same level of commercial clout, however.
Janet Jackson’s second studio album, Dream Street, which Moroder produced when the entertainer was just 17 years old, didn’t fare as hoped. In fact, it didn’t really fare at all. Peaking at No. 147 on the Billboard 200 upon its release in October 1984, the pop icon’s coming-of-age sophomore release was, in retrospect, a stepping stone, a small push to a big breakthrough: 1986’s Control.
“Janet was such a darling, but at the time, she was so young,” Moroder says. “She was working on her voice, and I know that the father [Joseph Jackson] was involved with the production not directly but indirectly. It was difficult.”
That same year, Moroder produced Freddie Mercury’s first song as a solo artist, “Love Kills.” Their collaboration, however, wasn’t a Janet-like situation — it was just the opposite. Freddie Mercury was so seasoned, he left Moroder feeling “intimidated.”
“Freddie was relatively difficult,” Moroder reveals. “He was such a great singer, composer, lyricist, performer, diva, dancer, icon that I thought, ‘Am I going to tell Freddie that that high note he sang was not perfect?’ So between that and the little problems we had before we even started, it was a tough production.”
Tech advancements have certainly alleviated any potential social anxieties, but not, of course, without their own set of challenges. The process nowadays, Moroder says, is impersonal, two people — the artist, the producer — conceiving a song in a virtual world. Sia, Britney Spears and Kylie Minogue all appear on Déjà Vu, but during the recording, they and Moroder weren’t even in the same time zone.
“Compared to Donna Summer — she was busy but nothing like singers are busy now,” he says. “Sia, for example, is all over the world. One day she’s in Australia; the next day she’s in London. They don’t even have time to go into the studio with me as a producer. That’s the new way. The only problem is the communication — and that’s a big problem.”
With a cluster of white-robed men ogling a bearded Moroder, and a steamy haze obscuring the scene, the subliminal marketing of Moroder’s Knights in White Satin cover wasn’t exactly subliminal. By suggesting Moroder was gay by way of a not-so-subtle bathhouse setting — and changing “Nights” to “Knights” — Casablanca Records’ Neil Bogart could expand the producer’s already growing gay following. Moroder, though, was oblivious to the fact that he was being baited.
“For months, I didn’t even notice,” he recalls, snickering. “I realized that [Bogart] was giving this to the gay community, which is great. But what a sneaky guy! I was just surprised at how cleverly he changed the title. And I was happy. It was absolutely OK with me. Although, I must tell you: I’m not gay, but I love gay people. It’s absolutely in my… feelings, actually.”
In his “feelings”? In his thick, lovable Italian accent, Moroder clarifies, making you wish he were your smartphone’s knowledge navigator — your Siri.
“I love gay people; although I’m not, I love them.”
The feeling was mutual, as Bogart soon discovered.
“‘Love to Love You’ with Donna Summer was a big hit in the discotheques,” he says. “And since I never really went to discotheques, I did not really know exactly what was happening. But everyone was saying that the gay community made that song a hit. Now, I hear other people, especially with the song ‘I Feel Love,’ [saying] that it became a little bit of an anthem for the gay community. But, at the time, I didn’t really realize it.”
In fact, he wasn’t conscious of a gay following until just a decade ago, during his 60s. As Moroder savored his semi-retirement, he discovered — along with, obviously, Bogart’s calculated assistance — that he’d wooed a rather significant queer following over the years. On occasion, while casually perusing gay press, Moroder says he’d see him come up in reference to the EDM sound he had pioneered years before. His influence on today’s dance music-makers du jour — Avicii, Dr. Luke, Calvin Harris, David Guetta — is as inescapable as it is indelible.
“I noticed more and more the [gay] audience describing that production, which was similar or inspired by me,” Moroder says. “That made me think that maybe I have some [gay] following, at least with regard to the music.”
He does. He must. And Déjà Vu, with a smoldering line-up of gay-loved ladies, is just the beginning of a new beginning. In between DJ sets and solving one small booklet of crossword puzzles a week — which, he says, has kept his mind sharp (“I’m solving the same puzzles as I did 30 years ago”) — the music pioneer continues to dedicate ample time to his still-coveted artistry. Coming soon: a collaboration with Lady Gaga, who has recruited Moroder for her next album.
How is Moroder feeling about his sudden reemergence? Overwhelmed. Humbled. But, mostly, thrilled.
“I remember I was on a press tour in the limelight — this was about 40 years ago, late ’70s, beginning of ’80s — and now I’m almost back as big and as known as then, and it’s quite something,” he says, uttering a blissful sigh. “Sometimes I think, ‘Shouldn’t I be playing with little dogs and having my hobbies?’ I’ve worked for two and a half years on this album and I’m happy. I’m absolutely not complaining. I mean, it’s a lot of work, but I guess it’s what keeps me happy.”