Synth Pioneer Giorgio Moroder on the Big Moog, Studio 54, and Basslines with Deborah Harry

Before EDM and synth disco came to be, Giorgio Moroder wanted to create an album that defined the “sound of the future.” He designated the synthesizer as the instrument that could produce it, thus giving birth to the electronic music genre in the process. Moroder’s music marked the 70s and 80s through hits like the Donna Summer disco anthem “I Feel Love,” and the power ballad by Berlin from Top Gun “Take My Breath Away.” His musical genius spans to producing soundtracks of films like The Neverending Story and Midnight Express, which earned him a 1979 Academy Award for Best Original Score. Moroder also produced Blondie’s chart-topper “Call Me.” The band’s lead singer Deborah Harry penned the lyrics just as Blondie released their platinum-selling album Eat to the Beat, virtually crowning her as queen of the New Wave movement. Moroder’s impact on the music industry would go on to influence everybody from Jay Z to Daft Punk to Outkast. Five decades after his start, Moroder is still going strong with a new album released this year, called Déjà Vu, which has collaborations with Britney Spears, Sia, and Kylie Minogue. Moroder reunites with Harry to look back at the evolution of the synthisizer, their collaborations, and llello.

Giorgio Moroder—I started with synthesizers in 1969 and 1970. I had my first hit in 1971 with a song called “Son of My Father,” where I used a big Moog modular [synthesizer], and that was my beginning. Then I used it a lot in the 70s. In 1977 I did “I Feel Love.” That was still the Big Moog, and that kind of launched the use of synthesizers for dance songs. You did a great job in “Heart of Glass,” what a great song.

Deborah Harry—Oh, thank you.

Giorgio—Yeah, I once asked you about a section where a quarter of a beat is missing, and you said that wasn’t a mistake—that it was on purpose. Whenever I hear the song it reminds me of it. That was an absolutely great song, perfect song.

Deborah—That song had something in common with “I Feel Love,” because I think a long, long time ago you told me that the song had actually been written five years before it was recorded and released, and we had the same story with “Heart of Glass.” It was a song we had kicking around for about five years before we recorded it, and using the little drum machine at the beginning was what pulled it all together. We could never get it exactly right playing it live; we were always dissatisfied. But when we were in the studio the guys just walked over to 48th Street or 47th Street and picked up one of these drum machines, a sequencer, and it all fell into place as if by some predestination of some sort. I think you really were a leader in that world of synthesized dance music and technology. I think a lot of people were really resistant to that change in approach to music and really suspicious of the technological approach. But it seemed like it was really coming out of Europe more than here.

Giorgio—Yeah, do you know it’s interesting how long it took for synthesizers to get accepted, almost ten years. One of the first recordings which I love was from Emerson, Lake & Palmer, which came out in 1970, that song “Lucky Man.” Then I did several songs, not necessarily as successful, and until you came out in 1978 with “Heart of Glass.”

So it took quite a long time for the synthesizer to be accepted, it’s quite interesting. Now, of course, it’s all synthesizers. Then the drum machine came, then the Linn [drum] machine which I overdid on every second song; they sounded like the same song—which I hate now! We have great machines now and they all work quite well.

Deborah—I just remember how it was so difficult all the time to sync them all up.


Deborah—And now it’s so easy! I think our influences were mixed between the rock and the club music. Although when you did “I Feel Love” I think that had a uniqueness, and I don’t think there had been anything up until that point quite like it. I know that you wrote it a long time before it came out, but how did you come to that?

“It would almost be impossible to do an electronic dance song that wouldn’t be based or inspired by ‘I Feel Love.’” -Giorgio Moroder

Giorgio—I just decided to have one song off the album, which had several different eras. I wanted a song of the 50s, 60s, and 70s, and I started to imagine how a song could sound like the future, since I knew the synthesizer quite well. Unusually for me I started with a bass line. I got my engineer who knew how to make that huge Moog modular to connect and get the sound out. I told him I need two Cs and a G and a B-flat. So we got the click down and that determined the tempo so it was [Giorgio sings the bassline: dun, dun, dun, dun]. Then the instruments were all produced by the Moog, like the snares, hi-hats, some of the chords—which were difficult to do because I had to do each note of a chord separate on different tracks. Actually I didn’t have the melody when I produced the track. Then Donna came in and we wrote the melody, which she then would sing. I think the great thing with that song is it had that very metallic, very industrial sound for the track and her soft, nice, vocal; that combination of human and machine worked quite well.

Deborah—Yes, very beautiful. It’s interesting that you say that you used the synthesizer but that it was also a synthesis of different eras of music. It really had to do with the modern approach, this change in the idea of writing and recording that was soon to follow with the advent of the digital recording system. You were just on the cusp of all of this change.

Giorgio—Yes, especially in the dance music, the synthesizer became unavoidable; you still hear it now in some of the sequences, the arpeggios. It would almost be impossible to do an electronic dance song that wouldn’t be based or inspired by that song.

Deborah—It was very exciting to hear from you, since Chris [Stein co-founder and guitarist of Blondie] and I had been such admirers of all your work with Donna Summer. I actually had covered. in our little shows down at the club “I Feel Love.” We did a sort of quasi-rock version and I thought what you did with that sound was so groundbreaking.

Giorgio—It’s funny. I heard so many remakes of the song and there are so few really good ones. The sound of the synthesizer, the sound of the Donna really still sounds great now. Oh, and then for example in “I Feel Love,” the original bassline was one [Giorgio sings the bassline: dun dun dun dun], then when we started to mix we delayed it and gave it a totally new sound. Then the problem was, how much should we delay it? It’s 120 bpm and at the time you had to do delay by ear. We had a lot of discussion about whether it was too fast or slow. Then I made a big mistake in the mix: I put the original bassline on the left side and the delay on the right side, so it moves from left to right. I remember the first time I went to Studio 54 they played it and I was standing or dancing actually next to the right speaker and it was almost impossible to dance because it was the up-beat. If I was to mix it now I would be able to—no problem. [Laughs.]

Deborah—Well I think that the general public is not going to notice the difference.

Giorgio—As long as the drum kick is loud enough, even I can dance!

Deborah—Oh yes, no comparison. You hit it on the head.

Giorgio—Shall we talk about our beautiful song? I play “Call Me” as the last song of my gig, and it’s always the most successful. People are jumping and singing, absolutely loving it! I play everything before that song.

Deborah—Thank you, do you have a special mix of it?

Giorgio—No, I kept the original. First of all I don’t have any tracks. Do you have the tracks?

Deborah—I don’t personally, but the label probably has them.

Giorgio—I think somebody tried to find out, and I never heard the real remix of the song. But this one works so well, the drums are good and your voice is great so I would not touch it at all.

I did the music for the movie American Gigolo, and I had this melody with a verse and I thought a good chorus. Jerry Bruckheimer and I thought immediately about Blondie, about you, because Blondie was so hip—they still are. At that time you were the hip group in the world, so we immediately thought you would be the best singer. I’ll tell you the story—then I gave Debbie the very rough demo and she called me, she had a great lyric; “Call me” fit it so well, the voice and especially the movie and the melody.

Deborah—You sent us the music. You were singing on the demo, taking the approach from the man’s point of view, which was that he was the sex machine! So I thought this was wonderful and funny and cute and then I thought, “Oh, gee, I wonder what this guy is like, this sex machine Giorgio.” So then Paul Schrader, who wrote and directed the picture, invited us to see a rough cut of the movie. We went over to the Pierre Hotel, where he had a wonderful suite, and he played us the movie, the rough cut. It really was rough, and there were little numbers clicking off at the bottom. It was very atmospheric to be watching this movie at such an early stage. It’s shot so beautifully. The color palette with the clothing and the set design was very influenced by Giorgio Armani. I had the music in my head and we went right back home—we lived around the corner on 7th Ave and 58th Street and The Pierre was at 59th and 5th. So we were right around the corner. We strolled home at the edge of Central Park on this beautiful day, talking along. It was just percolating in my head. I was really affected by the first shot, that long shot of the beautiful sports car and the colors of the Pacific Coast Highway and the sky. It was just glorious, so I was thinking color, I just want to be saturated with your color, saturated with your love, saturated with you, just call me….because everything was done on the phone. It just evolved from that. It was very simple and I felt it was visceral, and it was about watching the movie and feeling this experience and wanting this person and talking about rolling in the sheets in beautiful designer colors—and all of the business about this being the birth of Armani and his color palette. I didn’t realize at the time, but I was deeply affected by the colors that were in the picture, and that’s sort of what set me off and that’s how it rolled out. I wanted to put a tribute in to you and your European heritage—all of the languages you spoke—so the middle bridge section is about the languages of love. Some was in Italian and some in French. So that’s how it all came together!

Giorgio—This is a very special explanation for this song and absolutely true. I must say the song and the lyrics fit so well in the movie. You know, Debbie, I play “Call Me” as my last song when I DJ, and I have a video of the Mercedes and Richard Gere coming down the coastline. It works so well.

When I got the lyrics from you I thought they fit so well. The recording was incredible. The only thing I had was with the drummer.

Deborah—Clem Burke.

Giorgio—Yeah, remember he was putting in a fill every four bars? So I said, “Okay, let’s make a deal: You can have one fill every eight bars—but not more!” I think he was a little sad, but it worked!

Deborah—Yes, that’s the way he plays even until this day, so you have to either embrace it or walk away from it. I think that you making that decision about every eight was the right thing. I think we know now that having a steady flow through a song is very important whether you create it on the drums or other instruments—synthesizer or a bassline or something. Something that’s very steady has to be there. I think that it was a relatively new concept at the time; since we were all just starting with the synthesizer, a lot of the older kinds of music didn’t create a groove. Groove was, I think, a modern concept—to have one steady pulse the whole way through.

Giorgio—Right, and I think at the beginning with that fill—one of the most incredible openings of a song—the second I play it, people know it’s the song. It’s amazing what a drum fill adds to the beginning of the song.

Deborah—I agree completely. That’s one of my favorite things, you know, to create some kind of signature entry to a song. You’re right—that drum fill really is the signature of the song. I hear that myself many times. I’ll hear just a few beats or a few bars of the beginning of a song, and right away you know what it is. That is a totally important thing in the music that we work with.

Giorgio—So we had quite a nice hit; I remember it was the number one song of the year, right? 1980? I think it was number one for six consecutive weeks, which at that time was absolutely incredible.

Deborah—Yes, it was very exciting for us, that’s for sure. To combine what Blondie was known for with what Giorgio Moroder was known for was a milestone. To put those two sounds and two philosophies together was a little bit unusual at the time.

Giorgio—[The next collaboration was “Rush, Rush.”] I play it sometimes—we played it together in Mexico, do you remember?

Deborah—Yes, yes.

Giorgio—People loved it, the whole soundtrack of Scarface is interesting. I think that song is one of the highlights, if not the highlight, of the whole album.

Deborah—When you think about how they shoot movies and how complicated that club scene was—and I don’t really know the details—but I can imagine that it took a couple of days to shoot that scene. I’ve often heard that people call it a “cult movie,” but to me it’s not a cult movie. It’s a major release and perhaps it didn’t get [as much publicity], but everyone was so passionate about that picture. It was such an important statement at the time. Of course Al Pacino,  so fabulous, and Michelle Pfeiffer—the cast was outstanding. You sent me the music again, and then I don’t know if I actually got to see the picture, but I know I asked to see it. I may have got some synopsis of the story and that it was so much about cocaine.  And [the lyrics used the Spanish slang] llello, the hip term for blow. That’s how it came about.

Giorgio—At the beginning when the movie came out it didn’t do too well. People were complaining: too many curse words, too many things. But then it came out on video, and it was one of the biggest videos of the time; it sold incredibly. It is a cult movie especially in America,  but elsewhere—here in Italy too. In the black community in America it’s still gigantic. I was talking to Jay Z about it two years ago. He wanted to redo part of the songs in the movie and Universal wanted to too, but it didn’t work out. I told him I loved the movie but I said, “It’s a little long; I would cut a few seconds here, a few seconds there.” And he said, “Before I let you cut anything I would have to kill you!” That’s how much Jay Z loves the movie. People have seen it hundreds of times, they know all the dialogue. I saw the movie about three times in a matter of a month! Although it’s such a long movie, it’s still entertaining; it doesn’t get boring. It shows quite a lot.

Deborah—Yes, I think that they were afraid of the picture because the language was so graphic, and it was also that they were afraid of how the Latino community was portrayed. There was a lot of doubt about the picture. You’re right they didn’t give it a sufficient big opening. It was overlooked, basically. They didn’t promote it the way they normally would for an Al Pacino picture. It’s a testament to how important and wonderful the picture is that it is a classic. I’m very, very proud to have even a small section of that song. I recently did a solo show at the Café Carlyle in New York, and that was one of the songs that people are always asking for.

Giorgio—Oh wow. Yeah, the word llello became famous!

Deborah—It did exist before—it was something that was maybe more of a New York term or a Miami term.

Giorgio—I think it was the first time it was in a song, the word?

Deborah—Oh yeah, it was never in a song and I don’t think it’s ever been in a song again!

Giorgio—Yeah, that’s interesting.

Deborah—How was your show the other night?

Giorgio—Not good! I had technical problems. I have video with all my songs, and I don’t know if it was my computer or the video guys, but it continuously cut out and blocked my computer. It was a bit of a mess, but all in all it was okay.

Deborah—Those things always get in the way, don’t they?

Giorgio—Yeah, yeah I have to find out if it’s my mistake. I leave again for Southern Italy in Gallipoli. It’s a beautiful city but they have problems with the discothèques—there was a young man who just yesterday died from an overdose in a club not too far away from where I’ll be.

Deborah—Oh, wow.

Giorgio—There’s a lot of tension there; kids are dying in the discos. This is the third one in a few days.

Deborah—What is it that they’re taking?

Giorgio—Oh between ecstasy and I don’t know the other stuff, ketamine? Then, alcohol and not enough water. It’s becoming a big problem in Italy.

Deborah—Yeah, yeah.

So what are you up to now? You’ve got a gig there in the club and are concerned about the video thing. You know, so many times we’ve had this experience that the equipment is incompatible.

Giorgio—But usually I do really well with technology. This is the first time ever.

Deborah—It happens to me more often.

Giorgio—Oh, really? Well my thing is relatively easy, I use Ableton Live which is a very safe machine with the video connected; I don’t have to sync it up. But there was a bug somewhere, so hopefully we can fix it. In the meantime I do more work than I thought! Basically this week I’m in Southern Italy, then I’m in Finland, then Turkey, then Chile, then back in London.

Deborah—I think that’s so great. That must be so much fun.

Giorgio—Yeah, the only problem is the jet lag. Italy is fine—it’s only an hour and a half flight to Istanbul—but to Istanbul, to New York, and to Chile….

Deborah—Oh, that’s hard.

Giorgio—Yes, that’s the hard thing, but you know when you’re young it’s easy to do!

Deborah—Well, Giorgio, you must be young at heart!

Giorgio—And you know I still love dance music.

Thanks to Jennifer Stein, Carla Senft, Maripol.