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Forty years on, DJ and author Bill Brewster recalls how Giorgio Moroder hurtled I Remember Yesterday into the future

Donna Summer – I Remember Yesterday
Original release date: 13 May, 1977

While it’s not exactly the moon landings or Kennedy’s assassination, I can still remember where I was the first time I heard Donna Summer’s song I Feel Love. It was in a record store in Earl’s Court called Beggars Banquet. Amid the clatter and clamour of a store that specialised in punk and denim-clad rock, it was as strange and otherworldly as Autobahn or Popcorn, two other electronic hits from earlier in the decade, but also sleek like a sports car and as futuristic as a jet-pack. Today, nearly exactly 40 years later, I Feel Love somehow still sounds like some sort of future, though with Brexit, Trump and Assad it’s one that may be somewhat more dystopian than my teenage self might have imagined.

What makes I Feel Love more arresting still is the fact that it was conceived by its producer Giorgio Moroder as a conceptual piece of music that foretold the future. I Feel Love was taken from Donna’s fifth album, I Remember Yesterday, which was a concept album about time Both Giorgio and disco itself were no strangers to a lofty hypothesis; and disco always had a weakness for a concept album. But then, so did the rest of the 70s.

In the UK we had Rick Wakeman’s The Six Wives Of Henry VIII, while the US countered with Jeff Wayne’s War Of The Worlds. In France, disco auteur Alec R. Costandinos produced a series of lavish tributes to the classics that took in the Hunchback Of Notre Dame and Romeo & Juliet, while colleague Cerrone seemed happy to focus on photoshoots involving refrigerators. The king of them all, though, was Giorgio.

Moroder originally made his name in Germany as a bubblegum producer with titles as amazing as Looky, Looky or Yummy Yummy Yummy or the frankly untranslatable Muny Muny Muny. His first crossover hit in the English-speaking market was Chicory Tip’s cover version of Son Of My Father – which had been a hit for Giorgio in Germany – it was also notable for being one of the first to feature a Minimoog. Donna Summer had originally found herself in Munich as part of a touring production of the seminal musical Hair, settling there and marrying Austrian actor Helmuth Sommer in 1973. Her breakthrough with Moroder was 1975’s Love To Love You Baby, where she brought a particular soulful, breathy sex appeal to the songs, which, as a church girl, made her occasionally uncomfortable.

Both Moroder’s solo albums and his work with Donna Summer had overarching themes, though some concepts were harder to discern than others. I Remember Yesterday was a reflection on the passage of time. The title track was what I like to call flapper disco, a style of music created by Stony Browder, the leader of Dr Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band, whose self-titled album had been an unexpected leftfield hit the year before. Where Browder had managed to make it work, somehow fusing 40s jazz into a disco context that wasn’t contrived, I Remember Yesterday struggled to break free of its conceptual straitjacket. Love’s Unkind is a homage to Phil Spector with a lyrical delivery that is a straight lift from Eddie Cochrane’s Somethin’ Else (it still made no. 3 in the charts, though). Back In Love Again is pure Motown. And so on.

There’s only one reason I Remember Yesterday is memorable and that’s because of I Feel Love, which stands tall among the kitsch and sync. “I thought what could be a sound that you could possibly call the future and the only way to realise that was to use machines,” Moroder told me last year. “I had a Moog and I think I had a polyphonic synthesiser, so I thought I could make all the sounds of a group or orchestra by using them. I used the machines on everything except the kick but I was not able to get enough kick to make people dance.” The only slice of humanity on I Feel Love is the foot of British drummer Keith Forsey who laboured on the kick-pedal for seven minutes while Giorgio’s machines let rip.

When Brian Eno heard the song, he immediately recognised it as a significant moment in popular music. At the time he was working with Bowie in Berlin. “This is it, look no further,” Eno told him. “This single is going to change the sound of club music for the next 15 years.” An understatement, if ever there was one.

The success of I Feel Love firmly propelled Giorgio into a future he had invented. Moroder largely abandoned the live instrumentation he had previously favoured for the machines that had impelled him to make I Feel Love. Suddenly, the future sounded dramatically different.