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King of the disco Giorgio Moroder talks 'Queen of the South' and his greatest onscreen collaborations

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  • Giorgio Moroder
    Giorgio Moroder
    Italian record producer and composer
  • Donna Summer
    Donna Summer
    American singer and songwriter (1948-2012)
  • Raney Shockne
    American composer

American composer and producer Raney Shockne first worked with Italian production pioneer Giorgio Moroder on a cover of Suzanne Vega’s “Tom’s Diner” (featuring Britney Spears on vocals) for 2015’s Déjà Vu, Moroder’s first album in 23 years. When Shockne got the call from Moroder’s manager offering him that job, he was literally in the middle of listening to the master’s famous American Gigolo soundtrack, so it was obviously a fateful pairing. And when the writers for the USA Network crime drama-thriller series Queen of the South told Shockne that they were working to Moroder’s music — “They were actually in the room together, writing to American Gigolo and Cat People and Midnight Express,” Shockne says — fate had clearly intervened again.

“The writers thought on a lark that maybe they could get Giorgio,” Shockne tells Yahoo Entertainment. “As it happens, I was already in talks with [TV producer] David Friendly to start doing the music. We all had a lunch together — it was kind of a surprise that Giorgio came to the lunch — the two guys freaked out. They lost their minds. They couldn’t believe what was happening. And they basically gave us the job right there on the spot.”

It’s understandable that Moroder elicited such an ecstatic reaction. The 78-year-old legend’s work with some of the dance music’s biggest stars — from Spears to Sparks, from Donna Summer to Daft Punk — and on some of the quintessential soundtracks of the ‘70s and ‘80s, has made him one of the most influential composers and producers of all time. While discussing his latest project with Shockne, Moroder also dished with Yahoo Entertainment about some of his memorable onscreen collaborations. Read on to find which female ‘80s star was originally supposed to sing Moroder’s Top Gun love theme “Take My Breath Away” before Berlin’s Terri Nunn got the gig, why Moroder was intimidated in the studio by Freddie Mercury, how many attempts it took David Bowie to record “Cat People,” and more.

“Take My Breath Away,” with Berlin (Top Gun, 1986)

Martha Davis of the Motels was the first to take a stab at this love theme, arguably Moroder’s most popular movie song. “She did a good job,” says Moroder, who got to hear her rendition again recently when Davis released the demo online. But Moroder says Jerry Bruckheimer, who co-produced this film, didn’t like it. So he tried for Aimee Mann, who at the time was still riding high with ‘Til Tuesday.

“Supposedly [Aimee] was interested,” Moroder remembers, “but then I gave her the songs and I didn’t hear anything back.” It was ultimately Terri Nunn, the petite powerhouse singer from the band Berlin, who got to record the tune, which earned Moroder an Academy Award for Best Song. “She has a pop voice, but she’s really good at high notes too, and she sang it with a believable attitude.”

“On the Radio,” with Donna Summer (Foxes, 1980)

Long before Moroder was winning Oscars, his work with disco’s ultimate diva began in the mid-’70s, when Summer signed to his Oasis record label and he produced her groundbreaking, 17-minute electro classic “Love to Love You Baby,” followed by other disco smashes like “I Feel Love,” “Last Dance,” “MacArthur Park,” “Hot Stuff,” and “Bad Girls.” But “On the Radio,” from Adrian Lyne’s bad-girl cult flick starring Jodie Foster and the Runaways’ Cherie Curie, almost never made it to the radio at all.

“The most interesting thing is that I had a relatively good demo, which I sang to, and she forgave me about that,” Moroder recalls with a chuckle. “I presented it to her, and she didn’t like it for her [forthcoming] album. So I put it away, and then I was supposed to write the music for Foxes.

“You know how you’re looking through your closet and you see if there’s anything left? Well, I see this demo, and I listen to it, and I say, ‘Wow, this is good. I have to compose it for the movie and for Donna.’ I played it to her and suddenly she loved it! The same demo which I played probably six months earlier! She loved it. … She said, ‘Wow, this is a great song. It’s almost like I hear it already as a hit.’ But she forgot that she’d heard it already.”

“Call Me,” with Blondie (American Gigolo, 1980)

Another one of Moroder’s most recognizable soundtrack hits — from the sexy crime thriller that established heartthrob Richard Gere as a leading man — “Call Me” was New York new-wavers Blondie’s biggest chart single ever, and the highest-charting song of 1980.

“[Frontwoman Debbie Harry] came up with the title, and she wrote the lyrics, which fitted the movie so well,” says Moroder. “It’s quite a difficult song, actually — especially the high note — but she was ready.” Clem Burke took longer to get it right. “He was a great drummer but too vital,” Moroder says. “We would start the song, [and] every two, three seconds he would do a fill. The whole song was one big drum fill! I said, ‘We have to slow down. Let’s make a deal: You can have a fill every eight bars.’ He was miserable, but finally he did it.”

“Cat People (Putting Out Fire),” with David Bowie (Cat People, 1982)

Moroder says when he started to write the music for the Paul Schrader sensual horror movie starring a shape-shifting Nastassja Kinski, he thought, ‘Who could sing a song where the voice would fit the image, the animal?’ We didn’t come up with anybody which could represent that androgynous kind of thing, that mysterious leopard thing.” Until of course rock ‘n’ roll’s ultimate shape-shifter, David Bowie, came into the picture.

Recalling the astonishly easy recording process in Switzerland, Moroder says, “He had the lyrics ready, and we had dinner the night before. He was all excited. He said, ‘OK, then let’s record tomorrow!’ I said, ‘What time should we do it?’ Because with artists, like certain crazy and known personalities, they all start late — maybe 5 or 6 in the evening. He said, ‘Let’s have breakfast and then we go.’ We went to the studio around 11 a.m., and we did it in two takes. … He was absolutely great. I was used to working with Donna [Summer], who’s absolutely perfect, and they were both, musically and voice-wise, so great and so professional.”

Bowie turned out to be a perfectionist indeed, and he wasn’t as pleased initially with the recording as Moroder was. “He was not as happy with the first mix, because, interestingly, sometimes people get used to a demo,” Moroder says. “I played the stuff with a lot of little mistakes, and I guess he wanted it to sound more like the demo. So, I had to take out some instruments, which I think he thought were a little too — I don’t know the right word — too thick. And so, I remixed it, took that stuff out, and then he liked it.” Bowie later included the track on his hit 1983 album Let’s Dance; it also appeared on the Atomic Blonde soundtrack in 2017.

“Flashdance,” with Irene Cara (Flashdance, 1983)

Moroder had a feeling — a bad one — about this film. “The word about Flashdance was not great; nobody knew what kind of a movie it [was],” he says of the movie, which reunited him with director Adrian Lyne. “So when [producer] Jerry Bruckheimer asked me [to contribute a theme song], I said, ‘Yeah, but I would like to see the movie.’ So I got the video, and I [told] my girlfriend, ‘OK, you look at the movie, then tell me what you think. If you don’t like it, I don’t think I want to do it.’”

After her viewing, Moroder says, his girlfriend sobbing, exclaiming, “‘What a great movie! So romantic!’ So I said, ‘I definitely want to do it.’” Moroder ended up winning his second Oscar for the track (his first was for Best Original Score, for Midnight Express; his third was for “Take My Breath Away”).

“The NeverEnding Story,” with Limahl (The NeverEnding Story, 1984)

A year before the release of the theme for this epic fantasy film, Limahl had been fired as the lead singer of Kajagoogoo, only a few months after the band had scored a massive one-hit wonder with “Too Shy.” But that single led the singer (real name: Chris Hamill) to Moroder.

“I loved the Kajagoogoo song ‘Too Shy,’ and I loved the video a lot too,” Moroder says. “I was talking to the director [Wolfgang Petersen], and I thought the image of Limahl was the right one for the movie and for that song. I thought the voice would fit quite well. When picking a singer for a song of a movie, I always think, ‘How does the image of that singer feel with the movie?’ It was the same thing with Blondie and American Gigolo.”

After they met at the Tokyo Music Festival, Moroder invited Limahl to try his voice on the track, and the singer flew to Munich and recorded his vocal. It ended up being the only major worldwide solo hit for Limahl, but it has stood the test of time. “It’s still a song I play as a DJ and people still love it, especially the girls,” Moroder says. “The ladies, let’s say 40 years old or so, they all heard the song when they were children. It stays in their head. They love it.”

“Together in Electric Dreams,” with Phil Oakey (Electric Dreams, 1984)

“If I speak with British journalists, they loved Donna Summer, but this is the song which I’m mostly known for in England,” Moroder says. The theme from legendary video director Steve Barron’s sci-fi romantic comedy — and the first of many collaborations with Human League frontman Oakey — went to No. 3 on the U.K. chart.

“I love the Human League. I especially love not only [Oakey’s] voice but the voices of the two girls [Susan Ann Sulley and Joanne Catherall] singing with him. It was a great combination,” Moroder says. In 1985, the singer and producer released the joint album Philip Oakey & Giorgio Moroder. While the album “did OK, not great” in both sales and on the charts (“It should’ve done better, because the movie and the song were huge in England”), many British new-wave acts still cite Moroder’s ‘70s synth work as a key influence. “It’s great, actually. [Bronski Beat’s] Jimmy Somerville was telling me that he became a singer because of Donna [Summer], because of ‘I Feel Love.’”

“Love Kills,” with Freddie Mercury (Metropolis, 1984)

Moroder’s ambitious attempt to create a new pop soundtrack (featuring Pat Benatar, Bonnie Tyler, Adam Ant, Loverboy, and Billy Squier) for a re-release of Fritz Lang’s 1927 silent film didn’t go over so well. (Moroder also remembers wanting Lou Reed to do a song, “Then something happened, I forgot, and he was quite upset with me for a long time.”) Moroder’s Metropolis even received a Golden Raspberry Award nomination for Worst Musical Score. “The music is OK. I’m not saying this is the best soundtrack,” he admits.

But the soundtrack is notable for including the (admittedly also Razzie-nominated) first solo song by Queen superstar Freddie Mercury, which reached No. 10 on the U.K. chart. Moroder has mixed feelings about that experience as well.

“With Freddie, I didn’t have too much work to do — the vocal is perfect,” Moroder says. But he confesses that recording with Mercury “was a little difficult. … I don’t know, maybe I was a little intimidated. I’m not saying [Mercury was] better than David Bowie, but he played piano, he composed, he sang, he had the show, the image. I mean, he was definitely a big icon. So I don’t know if I was a little nervous. It went OK. It could have gone better, the way we interacted, the two of us.

“Sometimes I felt he was a little bit English. You know, like I’m not saying [the Brits] invented music, but they just did a lot of great music, starting from the Beatles on. So I think they have some right to say, ‘Yeah, we know music.’ And that was certainly Freddie.”

“Love Missile F1-11,” with Sigue Sigue Sputnik (Ferris Bueller’s Day Off, 1986)

From its sensational start, the garish glam-punk band founded by former Generation X bassist Tony James was dismissed as a novelty act that prioritized style over substance and crass commercialism over craft. (Their debut album even included paid ads between tracks.) But Moroder was intrigued by the prospect of working with them.

‘Their manager called me and said, ‘Look, there’s this group. We don’t have a record yet, we don’t have anything. But we have the look. Are you interested in talking to them?’ I said, ‘Yeah, why not? Why don’t you send them to Munich?’” he recounts with a laugh. “So one afternoon they came from London, all dressed up. They came into the restaurant where we had the meeting, and it was hilarious. People were looking. You know, they came fully, fully, fully dressed up. I liked them, although the singer [Martin Degville] didn’t have really a great voice.”

Under Moroder’s guidance, Sputnik ended up creating a ballroom-blitzkrieg industrial earworm, which was surprisingly groundbreaking for the era and has stood the test of time (Bowie even covered it in 2003). “We used pieces of soundtracks to intersperse, putting in famous saying of movies … like from Blade Runner: ‘This is a test to provoke your emotional feelings.’ I didn’t hear anybody doing that before,” Moroder says. An extended version appeared in the John Hughes comedy Ferris Bueller, but the group’s success was short-lived overall.

“What happened is a little bit the English life of some music act, when they become famous before [releasing an album] by [the U.K. music press] hyping them. And then the album comes out, and I guess that killed them. The press, they really launched them, and then I don’t know, maybe the album was not good,” Moroder says with a shrug. “But it was fun.”

“Danger Zone,” with Kenny Loggins (Top Gun, 1986)

Some fans might be surprised to learn that Moroder was also behind the Top Gun soundtrack’s other, more guitar-oriented hit. But he explains, “With movies, you have to think out of the box. When you see those airplanes leaving the air carrier and the fights, you cannot have a disco song! That was actually my second rock song; the other one was ‘Call Me’ with Blondie. If a director asks me to write a rock song, I’m good. I do that, too. At the end, it’s all music.”

Queen of the South score, with Raney Shockne (2018)

“Having the king of disco scoring Queen of the South with me has been an amazing process,” says Shockne, who adds that he and Moroder have created for the series a “really dark and dramatic and epic” genre they call “electro-noir.” (Moroder describes it as “very ominous and very mysterious, and kind of you get a little chilly if you listen to some of the music.”) The recently released soundtrack, which will soon be issued on vinyl, includes radical reworking of a couple of ‘80s hits: Blondie’s stalker song “One Way or Another,” and a Spanish-language version of Tears for Fears’ “Everybody Wants to Rule the World.”

“I think that was one of the more challenging things,” Shockne says of the latter tune. “They said to take this track and to make it as iconic as you can, bringing all those electro-noir elements. That one seems to be getting a lot of great hype.”

While Moroder has won three Oscars, four Golden Globes, and four Grammy Awards — his most recent Grammy came in 2014, for his work on Daft Punk’s Album of the Year winner, Random Access Memories — he hasn’t won an Emmy. With Queen of the South, he now has a chance. “I did kind of promise Giorgio,” Shockne says. “He’s got some missing space on his trophy rack, which is just adorned with Oscars, Grammys, and everything else, but he’s missing an Emmy. Can we please try to win that?”

“Yes,” Moroder answers. “That would top my list.”

Additional reporting by Lori Majewski.

Giorgio Moroder and Raney Shockne (Photo: USA Network)
Giorgio Moroder and Raney Shockne (Photo: USA Network)

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