Giorgio Moroder closed the Vivid festival at the Sydney Opera House last night with a Q&A and a DJ set; this followed an “electro-orchestral tribute” to his music by Britain’s 40-piece Heritage Orchestra.
Moroder, disco synthesiser pioneer and Oscar-winning film composer of some of the biggest film songs and soundtracks of the 1980s, has made a remarkable comeback recently, largely due to his appearance on French duo Daft Punk’s 2013 multi Grammy award winning album Random Access Memories (2013).
A recovery, a tribute, a clever marketing ploy, the track Giorgio by Moroder (2013) created advance buzz for the album and helped drive its success. It gave credibility in two directions: to Daft Punk by association with a legend and for knowing their music history, and to Moroder, who had been lost to a generation raised on musicians, critics and historians who used “disco” as shorthand for passé, superficial rubbish.
An Italian who had some success in the late 1960s writing bubblegum pop, Moroder’s big international breakthrough came in 1975 as the result of his collaboration with writing partner Pete Bellotte and the African-American singer Donna Summer on Love to Love You (Baby).
Over 17 minutes on the first ever extended release single, Summer’s breathy vocals and moans conveyed a woman experiencing waves of sexual ecstasy. Banned by the BBC in the UK, the song went to number one in the US.
In a decade in which music had been dominated by “cock rock”, Love to Love You (Baby) focused on female pleasure. The song’s form shifted away from rock’s phallic peak in the guitar solo, towards disco’s whole-body sensuality and its multiple possibilities. Unlike early disco, its rhythm was driven not by the drums, bass and keyboards of funk and the Philadelphia sound, but by a synthesiser.
Moroder’s next collaboration with Summer is widely considered to have revolutionised electronic dance music. I Feel Love’s signature repeating bass line had a precision and timing that could only have been made with machines.
Indeed, in trying to create a futuristic sound, Moroder used the Moog synthesiser to make all the music for the song. In 1977, I Feel Love became an international hit. Brian Eno apparently played the song to David Bowie and told him it was “the sound of the future”. Music writer Jon Savage described it as the only disco song punks were allowed to like.
The song influenced a generation of British artists, from Cabaret Voltaire to New Order, to write synth-driven dance music, and inspired the sounds of the British New Wave. In the United States it influenced gay disco, house and techno, was sampled by hip hop artists in the 1980s, and its synthesised rhythm section echoes in contemporary R&B.
Moroder’s special brand of “Eurodisco” as it was called, helped push disco to its zenith: by the late 1970s musicians from Barbra Streisand to the Rolling Stones were recording disco-inflected songs.
Sex with machines?
But it was also a sound that generated controversy. Some critics interpreted the combination of the music with Donna Summer’s vocals as equating sex with machines. Moroder’s music, they argued, was artificial, a symptom and proponent of the wider trend of dehumanisation in an age of technology.
Searching for further damning evidence, Moroder’s critics pointed to his “Munich Machine” – the name he gave to himself and his regular team of collaborators – and its albums, one of which had dancing robots on its cover. They accused Moroder of using factory production methods, advocating machines over humans, and destroying the humanity and art in music.
Those charges were part of a broad backlash against disco. In 1979, white American male rock fans revolted against what they perceived as disco’s artifice, blackness, femaleness and gayness. In a symbolic gesture, they exploded thousands of disco records in a Chicago baseball field.
The riot set off a national “disco sucks” movement so successful that, by the end of the year, major record companies no longer wanted disco acts. Many artists, including Donna Summer, lost their record deals and Moroder’s disco boom was over.
But his futuristic sound found a new place in movies. English director Alan Parker commissioned it for his 1978 film Midnight Express, and the music Moroder created revolutionised a genre that had been dominated by classical compositions.
The Midnight Express soundtrack won Moroder his first Oscar, and he went on to work with Blondie on Call Me for American Gigolo (1980), David Bowie for Cat People (1982), and with the Human League’s Phil Oakey on the title track for Electric Dreams (1984).
Moroder’s iconic film themes, including Scarface (1983), continue to influence moody, electronic film scores from composers Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross’s work on The Social Network (2010), to Hans Zimmer’s composition work on the Dark Knight series.
In the 1990s, grunge and hip hop became huge, synth-pop lost its popular appeal, and a displaced Moroder went into semi-retirement.
Now, in the second decade of the new millennium, when beat-based music dominates the charts around the world and electronic dance music is experiencing such a renaissance that it has its own acronym (EDM), Daft Punk’s Giorgio by Moroder has brought him back. And Moroder is in demand again.
Moroder has just confirmed he’ll be working on American singer Lana Del Rey’s next album, he’s remixed Coldplay, and there are rumours he’ll be working with other big name artists including Lady Gaga.
At the age of 74, Moroder has returned to the future he helped to create.