On April 26 1977, Studio 54 opened in New York. Bianca Jagger arrived at the club for her birthday party draped in a diaphanous red dress and riding a white horse – led by a naked man. The photo spread around the world overnight, providing disco with one of its most iconic images – and the club became a byword for glamour and excess. Five months later, the movie that delivered disco to a straight audience premiered in Hollywood: Saturday Night Fever, starring John Travolta as a Brooklyn boy who lived for dancing (and shocking suits). The fact it had little to do with disco’s gritty roots mattered not. Disco was now for everyone.
Sandwiched between those two events came ‘I Feel Love’, produced by Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte and perfectly delivered by Donna Summer. Released 40 years ago, yet still somehow managing to sound like the future even today, it’s dance music’s Year Zero; the song that started our journey through electronic disco, house, techno and beyond – and, in Patrick Cowley’s daring, psychedelic version, inspired the greatest remix of all time.
It had been a good few months for the gang at Musicland Studios. Deep in the bowels of the Arabella High-Rise Building in Munich’s Bogenhausen district, this pan-European collective of players had been a responsible for a string of hits that had turned disco on its head. Led by co-producers Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte, this team had made a major breakthrough with the Donna Summer’s breathy hit ‘Love To Love You Baby’, which crossed over into the pop charts – but not before being banned by Radio 1 for being too sexy.
Donna Summer was one of a clique of itinerant musicians and performers who’d washed up in Munich at a time when the recording industry there was at its most vibrant. Originally a cast member of the hippie musical Hair in Germany, she swiftly established herself as an in-demand session singer. She was a popular part of the studio set-up. “We became good friends,” says Moroder, “She was an incredibly talented singer, who could improvise but was also very disciplined. As a person she was very funny.” According to Bellotte, one of the reasons she was easy to work with was her lack of interest in the recording process. “The whole time that we worked together there was never the slightest bit of friction. We were so lucky, because she wasn’t interested in the productions at all. So she’d come in the studio, usually at four o’clock in the afternoon, and would chat for hours. Then she’d look at her watch and say, ‘Oh I’ve gotta go!’ and she’d go into the studio and mostly sing it in one take – and be gone.”
The sessions for ‘I Remember Yesterday’, Donna’s fifth album, moved swiftly. “Everything happened so fast,” says Bellotte. “Our engineer Jürgen was fast, and the musicians were too. Albums evolved quickly, we never hung around. We were a working team and we just got on with it.” In stark contrast to their American and British label Casablanca Records, which appeared to be entirely fuelled by blizzards of cocaine, there was little excess going on in the Musicland Studios. Two of the team, Bellotte and engineer Jürgen Koppers, were tee-total, while Giorgio drank modest amounts. There were no drugs.