Why Alt-Rock Fans Should Thank Donna Summer

To the punks, post-punks and New Wavers of the late 70s, Donna Summer was reviled.  As the Beyonce of her, she epitomized disco, the music that was destroying the world.  Unless you were there at the time, it’s hard to convey the intensity of the hatred anyone on the rock side of things had for disco.

And Donna Summer songs were everywhere:  “Bad Girls,” “MacArthur Park,” “No More Tears” (a duet with Barbra Streisand!) and dozens more cluttered radio, record stores and clubs.

But there’s one song to which alt-rock fans owe a debt of gratitude:  her 1977 hit, “I Feel Love.”

In an era where dance songs were huge overblown over-produced orchestral affairs, “I Feel Love” had an exhilarating futuristic feel thanks to Italian producer Giorgio Moroder’s propulsive synthesizer sequences.  No orchestras, no “real” instruments.  Just machines.

But unlike the electronic music being made by Kraftwerk, this song had soul.  While Kraftwerk’s music was deliberately dehumanized and robotic, “I Feel Love” signaled a new marriage of machine and emotion.

This was radical.  David Bowie first heard “I Feel Love” while working in Berlin on Heroes with Brian Eno and had a profound effect on his attitude towards music.  Here’s a quote from the liner notes of the Sound + Vision collection:

One day in Berlin … Eno came running in and said, ‘I have heard the sound of the future.’ … he puts on ‘I Feel Love’, by Donna Summer … He said, ‘This is it, look no further. This single is going to change the sound of club music for the next fifteen years.’ Which was more or less right

In England, a kid and wannabe DJ named Daniel Miller came to believe that synthesizers were the future.  He bought his own gear and recorded a single in his bedroom.  It became so successful that he used the proceeds to found a record label called Mute, the future home to synth-heavy bands like Depeche Mode, Erasure, Fad Gadget and dozens more.

Even mullet-headed rockers had to admit that the sound of “I Feel Love” was pretty freakin’ cool.  Given where Pink Floyd seemed headed at the time, any Moroder-produced material sounded good.  (I remember his Midnight Express soundtrack being marketed as “Floyd-like”)  And as car audio systems began to get better, the synthetic sounds of “I Feel Love” sounded awesome coming out of the Firebird or the custom Chevy van.  (Hey, it was the 70s…)

The lessons taught by the production of “I Feel Love” informed those who would later created industrial music, cold wave and every flavour of techno you want to mention.  

So, yes, Donna Summer’s disco music was an irritant to all enemies of good music back then.  But as we remember her upon her death, even the most ardent of disco haters need to acknowledge that “I Feel Love” made a lot of their music possible.

 

 

 

 

Alan Cross

is an internationally known broadcaster, interviewer, writer, consultant, blogger and speaker. In his 40+ years in the music business, Alan has interviewed the biggest names in rock, from David Bowie and U2 to Pearl Jam and the Foo Fighters. He’s also known as a musicologist and documentarian through programs like The Ongoing History of New Music.

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