Donna Summer
Donna Summer performing c1977 © Redferns

It is one of the most influential records ever made, a pulsing, hypnotic track whose beats, generated in a Munich studio by Giorgio Moroder, seem to sync with rhythms that lie deep in the human brain, while Donna Summer sings of “love” with cool detachment, drifting in and out of focus like a stranger on the dance floor.

When it was released in 1977, Brian Eno and David Bowie were working together in Berlin. Eno told Bowie to stop what he was doing and listen. “This is it, look no further,” Eno said. “This single is going to change the sound of club music for the next 15 years.” This was an understatement: “I Feel Love” laid the foundations for today’s EDM (electronic dance music). And it happened, in part, by accident.

Moroder was born in South Tyrol, Italy, in 1940 and made his way through Germany in the 1960s and 1970s as a producer and songwriter. He made lightweight stuff: his 1969 single “Doo-Bee-Doo-Bee-Doo” was used in The Benny Hill Show, while “Son of My Father”, written with frequent collaborator Pete Bellotte, was a hit in the UK for Chicory Tip in 1972 — one of the first hit records to feature the still-new sound of the Moog synthesiser.

In the mid-1970s Moroder found himself working with Donna Summer, an American singer who was based in Germany following a spell in the Munich production of the stage musical Hair. They co-wrote the 1975 hit “Love to Love You Baby” (banned, inevitably, by the BBC, thanks to Summer’s erotic moans). In 1977 Moroder, Bellotte and Summer were in Munich working on Summer’s album I Remember Yesterday, a journey through music of the ages. The music of the “future” was to be “I Feel Love”.

The only “live” instrument used in the studio was a bass drum. Everything else was created with synthesisers. But the magic moment came when an engineer inadvertently added a delay to the beat, which was at the same tempo, thus doubling the speed of the pulse. The track was transformed. Summer herself was a “one-take” singer who quickly nailed the vocal part. Overnight, disco had become dance music. Like the hip-hop tracks soon to emerge from New York inspired by Kraftwerk’s synthesised sound, “I Feel Love” was a fusion of European and American styles, a merger of hardware and heart.

Donna Summer's 'I Feel Love'

Moroder went on to work with Blondie and Bowie, as well as writing film soundtracks (Midnight Express, Scarface). In 2013 his German-accented narration featured on the Daft Punk tribute track, “Giorgio by Moroder” (“I didn’t realise how much the impact would be,” he said of “I Feel Love”).

“I Feel Love” came out just when the idea of the remix was spreading, from Jamaica to the Bronx and beyond. Summer’s song was ripe for this treatment, with umpteen remixes being released over the years. In 1978 Patrick Cowley created a remix that has become almost as famous as the original, with one version lasting 15 minutes. A handful of brave bands and singers have also taken it on. There’s a decent live version by Blondie from 1979 in circulation; the outré German countertenor Klaus Nomi gave it his all in 1986; the English band Curve created a thumpingly good version in 1992; The Plantains’ dreamy, droning Velvet Underground-ish treatment was used in the soundtrack to the 2014 film Men, Women & Children.

These are all very well and good, but they pale in comparison with the pulse-quickening brilliance of the 1977 original. It still sounds like the music of the future.

For more in the series, and podcasts with clips of the songs,

Photograph: Redferns

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