Listen to this track by Boston-born disco queen and original dance-pop music diva Donna Summer. It’s “I Feel Love”, the breakthrough 1977 electro-dance hit as produced by Italian producer and musician Giorgio Moroder . It would appear on her fifth album, I Remember Yesterday and as a 12 inch extended single (an innovation of her label, Casablanca), which is what you’re hearing now. It would appear in multiple re-mixes over the years.
Legend has it that Brian Eno and David Bowie discovered the song while in the middle of making the Berlin Trilogy, convincing even them of what dance music would sound like in the ensuing decades. They were right on the money, of course. Along with being thoroughly innovative, this song was also a huge pop hit that immediately appealed to the masses. It scored top ten status all over the world and effectively solidified Donna Summer’s star status at just the right time, which was the height of the disco period.
Amazingly too, it paved the way for modern club music in general by freeing it from the world of American R&B, and introducing decidedly European influences instead. Its influence would have a lasting impact well beyond disco, particularly where music technology was concerned, but for many other reasons, too.
The initial idea for this song was to introduce a “futuristic” track to the album, which was a loose concept record about changing times and shifting musical trends. The result the song produced is something that is like the aural equivalent of Fritz Lang’s Metropolis. It certainly had immense influence not only on club music, but on furthering the electronic music movements that were happening in Europe in the early to mid-1970s.
Traditionally by this point, disco was built upon guitars, bass, drums, piano, brass, strings, and (usually, but not always) a singer who is way up front in the mix. Disco music is sumptuously presented, and very meticulously wrought to include all of the major musical food groups as taken from the orchestra. Think of your favourite disco tune and chances are it follows this template. Also, disco tunes tend to pile on the high drama in linear lyrical narratives almost like short stories that present the singer acting in the drama at the center of them. From “Young Hearts Run Free” to “I Love The Nightlife”, to “I Will Survive”, there are many other examples of this approach, with those being the most striking.
None of this applies to “I Feel Love”.
Let’s leave the synthesizers aside for a minute and talk about Donna Summer’s vocal performance alone. First of all, her voice isn’t really telling a story centred on human drama. On this song, it’s as if we aren’t meant to acknowledge that it’s a human voice at all. Second, Summer’s voice isn’t the dominant texture in this song like it would be in most disco songs. Her voice is one of many textures that hold our attention, in some ways subsumed by what’s going on around it rather than being supported by it. This serves the material immensely well, since “I Feel Love” concerns itself with overwhelming experience. Against Moroder’s hypnotic multiple intertwining and percussive synth lines and four-on-the-floor beats, Summer’s voice sounds like that of a machine once incapable of feeling anything and now reaching a state of erotic self-awareness. How’s that for a story?
“I Feel Love” was at least a decade ahead of its time, giving audiences a preview of house music and Hi-NRG beats that they would dance to in the 1980s, and to trance music they would hear in the clubs in the nineties. Even new wave and synthpop owes something of a debt to this track. Think of Visage’s “Fade To Grey” or Trans X’s “Living On Video”. Amazingly, “I Feel Love” is still a dance floor filler today, completely transcending its times even if it is still considered one of the greatest songs of the disco era at the same time. For all of the differences it presented musically speaking, it remains to be a disco record, spiritually speaking.
Donna Summer would enjoy great success beyond this song, and prove that she was just as adept at performing traditional disco and dance floor-oriented pop, full of warmth, physicality, and human drama. “Bad Girls”, “Hot Stuff”, “Last Dance”, “On The Radio”, “She Works Hard For The Money”, and her version of “MacArthur Park” are all great examples of that.
Donna Summer died in 2012, leaving behind a diverse body of work. You can learn more about her by reading this 1978 interview on Rolling Stone that documents her career during the disco era, a time for which she is most associated.
To learn more about how the track “I Feel Love” was created, have a look at this story from noisey.vice.com.