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(Credits: Far Out / Picryl / Ivan Aleksic)

Music

How Donna Summer created new wave with the ultimate disco anthem

@TomTaylorFO

Disco was punk and new wave was the post-punk of disco. The latter end of the 1970s was about breaking down the stilted dull drudgery of what had befallen the dream of the ‘60s and the glossy tones of disco shot through that like an electrical assegai into a brave new world—a world where machine and man went hand-in-hand towards the dancefloor. Punk may well have broken down the bourgeoise approach to arts that you had to be a virtuoso to partake, but disco did much the same in its own futurist way and its synthesised legacy is a testimony of that.

However, it is a universal truth rarely acknowledged, that to trailblaze into the unknown, you’ve got to have an illuminating tune. Before we delve into the science of how ‘I Feel Love’ forecasted the future, it will forever be prescient to worship its masterful surface. It’s a track that sounds like summer in the seasonal sense as much as it sounds like the namesake behind it. It is, in short, a song that could turn a Little Tikes into a sporty convertible and run a sanguine breeze through the locks of Moby. 

A lot of that feeling comes from the motive behind it. The song might have had a futurist intent, but the euphoric melody was given impetus by the eudemonia of falling head over heels. Donna Summer had recently met Bruce Sudano and was smitten with the songwriter. So, she decided to consult her personal astrologer, as you do, to see whether he was the right man for her. The astrologer said that the stars had literally aligned, and those who might scoff at that assertion would do well to note that Sudano and Summer eventually married and remained so until death did they part. You’d also do well to note that their matrimony bliss had nothing to do with astrological forces. 

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That excitable love affair might have fuelled the feel of the song, but it was the wizardry that heralded new genres. The song closed a record which was innovative in its own way. As producer Pete Bellotte said of his intent for I Remember Yesterday: “My next idea was to record an album that chronicled popular music until the present and into the future. So, we started with a ‘50s song, ‘I Remember Yesterday’, and continued with a bit of rock, a Tamla Motown number, and so on, and then brought it up to date with disco. Before the final, futuristic song was ‘I Feel Love’.”

It was the future that Bellotte, Giorgio Moroder and Donna Summers were aiming for, and it was the future that they delivered. With the technological age in mind, they decided to try and record a track made entirely on a Moog synthesiser. However, beyond this singular approach, they actually changed sonic synthesis in the process.   

For the track, the trio were joined in the studio by Robby Wedel. Therein, this genius of sound demonstrated how you could sequence separate elements of the synthesiser all at once with a drumbeat reference track that echoes throughout an entire generation of music. As Bellotte recalls: “[Wedel] said, ‘It’s something I’ve figured out that even Bob Moog didn’t know his machine was capable of, and now I’ve told him how it’s done.” 

This meant sounds could be layered using the same machine and a song could be constructed in a sitting. Thus, for ‘I Feel Love’ everything bar the kick drum and vocal was electronically synthesised. And as for the vocal, Summer’s explosion of sanguine swagger was laid down in one single take. Donna was one of those phenomenal one-take artists – she could just come in, sing the song and go. She was always spot on,” Bellotte said. 

The scintillating track not only captured the sound of the future but it celebrated it. As David Bowie recalls: “[Brian Eno] came running in [to the studio] and said, ‘I’ve heard the sound of the future’. He puts on ‘I Feel Love’ by Donna Summer. He said, ‘This is it, look no further. This single is going to change the sounds of club music for the next fifteen years’. Which was more or less right.”

It wasn’t the sort of futurism that had academics stroking their chins or musicologists consulting their Moog manuals—it had kids flocking onto dancefloors and wondering how do we create something like that. It was innovative in the extreme, but beyond the layering that allowed, it was ultimately grounded in the same songwriting tenets that always gets folks off their feet. As Andy Partridge of XTC – one of the new wave bands who followed in its wake – would opine: “Let’s be honest about this. This is pop, what we’re playing […] It’s blatantly just pop music. We were a new pop group. That’s all.”

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