Donna Summer (1948 – 2012)

Possibly the most common photograph of Donna Summer used to promote her 1977 recording of I feel love. This photograph, without this text, but with track listings, participating musicians and other recording details, originally occupied the reverse of the I Remember Yesterday album sleeve. It has repeatedly been used in other contexts.

This post is being published just prior to the 10th anniversary of the death of Donna Summer, born LaDonna Gaines on 1948-12-31 in Boston, Massachusetts, and who died 2012-05-17 in Naples, Florida. It focuses on one track, I feel love (1977), but attempts to put this track into context. It was written by Summer, Giorgio Moroder (1940 – ) and Pete Bellotte (1943 – ). These two men produced much of Summer’s work throughout the 1970s at their recording studio, Musicland, in Munich, Germany.

At that time, disco, formerly discothèque, music was in vogue. Discothèques emerged in World War II Paris, as the playing of phonograph records at dance halls substituted for live musicians, increasingly unavailable due to the war. By the 1970s, this music had become formulaic, relying on a four-on-the-floor beat = a uniform 4/4 time, where a bass drum is struck on every beat, and a syncopated = off the main beat, baseline. In contrast with other popular genres, there was less emphasis on a lead guitar, and more emphasis on electronic keyboards, horns and strings. Musicland was particularly noted for its early use of synthesizers.

Starting in the 1950s, popular recorded music often involved a band of, typically, four musicians of which one was a lead singer, potentially the same person as the lead guitarist, and a single audio/ sound/ recording engineer working at a mixing console with the result fed into a multi-track tape recorder.

One significant step beyond this emerged in 1964, when Phil Spector (1939 – 2021) developed a wall of sound, which involved the use of multiple instruments to provide a richer sound, on the recordings. This was then edited down into a monophonic track. Yes, many musicians of the 1960s, were opposed to stereophonic recordings, claiming that it transferred too much audio control to the listener! In live performances, a wall of Marshall stacks, cabinets containing tube amplifiers and 4 x 300 mm speakers, became its own wall of rich sounds. Admittedly, these stacks in many cases violated norms/ laws/ regulations about noise, and may have contributed to the later hearing loss of people attending.

In the 1970s, disco intensified this layered approach, making separate recordings of the elements that would make up the final track. There were more musicians, and more recording staff involved in the process. It was often seen as a reaction to rock music which, in the 1960s, had risen to a dominating position.

I feel love, is the final track of Summer’s fifth album, I Remember Yesterday (1977), that provides 35m19s of music. That is, in most areas where the album was released. Some sources state that there were exceptions. The first track, the same as the album title, was intended to represent dance music from the 1940s. The second, Love’s Unkind, was inspired by the 1950s. The third, Back in Love, Again, mirrored the sound of the 1960s. The fourth track was a repeat of the first. On the reverse side, there were two disco songs, representing the 1970s, then a ballad. The album ends with a futuristic, I Feel Love.

Many people have argued that for Moroder and Bellotte, a song and a sound from tomorrow meant synthesizers and rhythm machines. Yet, that might be a simplification. There were many other workers on the track included: Robbie Wedel, with a background in electronics and composer Eberhard Schoener (1938 – ), both operated a Moog synth. At the time these were physically large, and fitted with large numbers of patch cables, that connected oscillators, voltage control units, triggers and an arpeggiator = sound generator.

A common approach to writing a song, is to perform it first on a keyboard with the composer also singing the lyrics, possibly just inside her/ his head. From that a more elaborate studio arrangement could be developed: in rock music using the band itself; in disco using studio musicians.

I Feel Love followed a different approach. Moroder and Bellotte worked initially on the song’s bassline. Wedel and engineer Jürgen Koppers (1941 – 2006) lay down a reference pulse put on track 16, of a 16-track tape recorder, that was used to synchronize the tracks as they were developed. This produced an exact timing reference. Only after this was done was the melody developed, resulting in the song sung by Donna Summer. She developed lyrics, and a melody that would complement the existing work on the track. I Feel Love is generally regarded as a difficult song to sing. This approach to developing music was later adopted by others working in the disco, EDM = electronic dance music, and techno genres.

One further notable characteristic of the song is the effective use of signal delays. The original bassline signal proceeds through the left speaker channel on time, but is almost imperceptibly delayed going through the right speaker. This required stereophonic sound, and listeners reacted positively to this.

Another innovation by Wedel was to make sound clips on the Moog, that create sounds resembling/ imitating a hi-hat or a snare drum. Unfortunately, not all the percussion effects could be produced by the Moog. It was difficult to produce the sound of a kick drum. Thus, a human, Keith Forsey (1948 – ), known for his precise timekeeping, was used to produce much of the percussion sounds. It was anything but a drum solo. Rather, each drum in the kit was recorded separately to produce a totally clean sound, preventing the bleeding of sounds that could potentially corrupt other sounds. Forsey has commented that this is an unnatural, counter-intuitive, frustrating way of playing: “Your body has to dance if you want the people to dance.”

I will end by stating that the original version of I Feel Love is not my favourite. I am more attracted to assorted other remixes. Patrick Cowley (1950 – 1982) has produced several remixes. Here is one that is 15 minutes long. Cowley is also notable for his Hi-NRG dance music compositions. These days, I am more attracted to the version of Belgian Moreno J(urgen), this one. In both cases the voice of Donna Summer still dominates.

For further insights into I Feel Love, people may want to begin with this article in Wikipedia.

Note: Upcoming weblog posts: on Saturday, 2022-05-21 there will be a post about World Goth Day #14, appearing one day before the event. Then, on Sunday, 2022-05-22 there will be a post about Otl Aicher (1922 – 2012), on the centenary of his birth. Both at 12:00 CEST (Central European Summer Time) = 10:00 UTC (Coordinated Universal Time, successor to Greenwich Mean Time).