PrimerPrimer is The A.V. Club’s ongoing series of beginner’s guides to pop culture’s most notable subjects: filmmakers, music styles, literary genres, and whatever else interests us—and hopefully you.  

Giorgio Moroder 101

Throughout the 1970s and ’80s, there were few artists as in-demand as Giorgio Moroder, an Italian record producer who would go on to write a plethora of hits and win a handful of Oscars for his work in film, along with a couple of Grammys to boot. Moroder made his name in electronic dance music, producing and co-writing massive hits for the likes of Donna Summer, Blondie, Berlin, and Kenny Loggins. He was an EDM star before such a label really existed. In 2015, EDM is a capitalist juggernaut, the soundtrack of millennials with disposable income, allowing DJs like Skrillex, Deadmau5, David Guetta, and Avicii to sell out huge arenas, small European clubs, and play sprawling festivals dates. It wasn’t that long ago that festivals were completely turned off by DJs, EDM, and club culture, a symptom not only of early ’90s scare tactics in regard to raves and drug use, but also because of the ever-lingering rockist notion that electronic music isn’t “real” music because it doesn’t involve playing an instrument.

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Such a view of EDM still persists to this day, but not nearly with the same fervor. It’s understood that DJing and producing electronic music boasts its own set of skills and proficiencies, and much of that change in attitude has to do with the trailblazers that worked to legitimize electronic music. Moroder, while never really a DJ, is one of those names. His influence across decades of pop-music history is monumental and extends well into the 2000s, as proven by his Grammy-winning collaboration with Daft Punk on Random Access Memories and the release of his latest studio album at the age of 75.

The easiest entry into Moroder’s vast body of work is his earliest collaborations, those songs he wrote and produced that helped define disco while planting the roots of house music. By far his most definitive statement, Donna Summers’ “Love To Love You Baby” was a massive hit in 1975. Not only did the song help cement disco as a commercial force in America, but it also had a lasting impact on the direction of electronic music. Moroder’s original cut of the song, which clocks in at 17 minutes, is a precursor to the extended jams of house music that would become popular in the ’80s and ’90s. From the four-on-the-floor beat to all the synthesized elements of the arrangement, “Love To Love You Baby” is a classic of the disco era and an important part of the history of electronic dance music.

Of course, Moroder had a number of massive collaborations. He continued his focus on disco by producing a hits, including Donna Summer’s take on “MacArthur Park” in 1978, a record that was certified Gold in the United States. Disco was fleeting though, considered dead before the end of the ’70s. Still, the synthesized, mechanical sound lived on throughout the late ’70s and much of the ’80s, both in more underground electronic music genres and in mainstream pop music. Moroder’s contributions as producer on Sparks’ 1979 album No. 1 In Heaven helped bring that band back to relative notoriety and spawned the infectious hit “The Number One Song In Heaven.” Then of course there was “Call Me” by Blondie, which Moroder produced. Moroder and Blondie mixed disco elements with more rock-leaning guitar leads. It was far removed from Moroder’s more synthesized compositions, but suggested that Moroder was more than just a disco producer. He had an ear for melody, harmony, and structure, something that would make him a sought-after composer in the world of film.

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Intermediate Studies

Moroder’s film work is some of his most hypnotic and dynamic of his career. His most celebrated score was for the 1978 film Midnight Express, for which he won an Oscar in 1979. Much like his disco productions, the score was filled with lengthy synthesizer jams and arpeggio melodies. “Chase” is dreamy but energized, “Love’s Theme” melancholic and laden with piano and strings. “Theme From Midnight Express” might be the best of the bunch, a dark and seductive instrumental that clearly influenced the work of Cliff Martinez on Nicolas Winding Refn’s Drive and boasts a striking similarity to the 2010 track “Nightcall” by Kavinsky and Lovefoxxx, which was featured during Drive’s opening credits.

Much of Moroder’s film work has that distinctive ’80s sound, the kind that most people who didn’t experience the ’80s can still immediately place within the era. “Palm Springs Drive” from the American Gigolo soundtrack is all screaming guitars and jumpy synths and boasts a melody that echoes the title track, an extended eight-minute version of Blondie’s “Call Me.” Elsewhere, Moroder went moodier and colder with the score for the erotic thriller Cat People. There’s the drawn-out, sparse intro to the David Bowie featuring theme “Cat People (Putting Out Fire)” that leads into a harsher, more aggressive version of the synth-rock that Moroder produced with Blondie, as well as more melancholic cuts like “Leopard Tree Dream” and “The Myth.” Perhaps nothing is darker than “Tony’s Theme” from Scarface though, where Moroder crafts an ominous melody that perfectly encapsulates the corrupt nature of the American Dream that’s at the heart of the film.

As great as Moroder’s scores are, his most recognized film work comes in the form of two singles that had significant chart success. First, he co-wrote and produced “Flashdance… What A Feeling,” a single from Cara that went platinum and won the Oscar for Best Original Song as well as a handful of Grammys. Then there’s Berlin’s “Take My Breath Away,” the iconic love song from 1986’s Top Gun. The takeaway from the success of these songs is not just that Moroder had an ear for what would make a hit, but that his fingerprints are all over culturally influential songs from various decades. The best producers and composers not only push the boundaries of genre, they also adapt to the work they’re sonically representing. Moroder, be it his work in film or even those early singles, proved that his best work came from channeling the art of other people or working in collaboration.

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Advanced Studies

Perhaps that’s why Moroder’s solo work is often overlooked; his contributions to disco and house, and his Oscar winning scores, are so ingrained in pop culture that his solo work is easily ignored. To skip Moroder’s solo albums (or the great, self-titled Munich Machines record) would be a mistake though, as they not only chronicle Moroder’s creative ambitions, but also chronicle the shifting landscape of popular music.

His debut record, 1969’s That’s Bubblegum–That’s Giorgio is all sugary pop hits. Perhaps at the time it was an ode to the free love ethos of the ’60s, but viewed in retrospect it sounds more like a lament, the last gasp of flower power. Moroder didn’t really hit his creative peak until the mid-’70s, but his early discography still boasts some stellar tracks. There’s the hypnotic “Tears” from 1972’s Son Of My Father, which DJ Shadow later sampled on “Organ Donor” from his crate-digging classic Endtroducing….., and the wonderfully bombastic “Lonely Lover’s Symphony” from 1973’s Giorgio Music.

The seeds of Moroder’s electronic music tendencies are there in those early recordings, but didn’t really sprout until the late ’70s when he released two staggering albums, 1977’s From Here To Eternity and 1979’s E=MC2. The former is Moroder’s most revered album, and rightly so. “Only electronic keyboards were used on this recording” boasts the back album cover, a statement that clearly legitimizes electronic production as “real” music well before the rise of DJ culture. “Utopia (Me Giorgio)” is one of the most intricate and compelling pieces Moroder ever produced, an Italo-disco classic with a beautiful arpeggio that constantly shifts throughout the song. Couple that with the stunning vocoder production on “From Here To Eternity” and frenetic atmosphere of “Lost Angeles” and it’s understandable why this is considered Moroder’s seminal work. Still, E=MC2 is equally adventurous, if more orchestral and less jarring. The title track includes some of Moroder’s finest vocoder work while songs like “I Wanna Rock You” and “Baby Blue” see Moroder delivering some of his most polished disco efforts, removed from the rawness of those Donna Summer tracks but still very indebted to them.

In the decades since those records Moroder’s influence has only grown and his music is seeing resurgence in recent years. “Get Lucky” may have been the radio single, but “Giorgio By Moroder,” which featured the artist himself, was the best song on Daft Punk’s Grammy winning Random Access Memories. Then, during the lead-up to his latest album, Moroder dropped two stellar singles, “Déjà Vu” featuring Sia and “Right Here, Right Now” with Kylie Minogue. The sound that Moroder helped pioneer is more popular than ever, and at 75, it doesn’t look like he has any plans to make listeners stop tapping our feet and nodding our heads.

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The Essentials

1. Donna Summer, “Love To Love You Baby” (album version) (1975)

The 17-minute album version is the definitive disco cut.

2. Blondie, “Call Me” (1980)

This track signaled Moroder’s shift from disco into more electronic-tinged rock.

3. Midnight Express OST (1978)

Moody, earworm-filled, dynamic. Moroder’s soundtrack work at its finest.

4. From Here To Eternity (1977)

Rightly heralded as an electronic music classic.

5. E=MC2 (1979)

A wonderful companion piece to the magnum opus that is From Here To Eternity.

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