By Dean Kuipers
We know not the hour when disco rapture will arrive. High noon on a train deep in the sun-dazzled deserts of Winslow, Arizona, seemed pretty unlikely. But who am I to question the Great DeeJay who digs through the crates of our lives?
"Giorgio and Bruce are ready," said a breathless young woman popping her head into the train car. "Want to come sing?"
It wasn't exactly like singing with Donna Summer – but close! In the adjacent car, legendary music producer and bon vivant Giorgio Moroder, at the helm for so many great Donna Summer hits, was working with Bruce Sudano, husband of the late dance diva and co-writer of many of her hits. They were tasked with writing a song in two days to perform as part of artist Doug Aitken's "Station to Station" project, which involved scores of artists from Olafur Eliasson to Patti Smith to Alice Waters jumping on and off a train all the way across the country, putting on "happenings."
Moroder needed a chorus; I didn't need to be asked twice. That new film about backup singers, 20 Feet From Stardom, was made for me, was about me; despite the megalomaniacal solo voice that is inescapable as a writer, my vocal ambition was always to sing backup. For the maestro!
This wasn't just two guys writing a song on a train; these were pop masters at play. Their 30-plus-year collaboration was there in the room. Sudano had just put the finishing touches on Love to Love You Donna, a new album of Donna Summer remixes which comes out Oct. 22 and for which Moroder revisits (with Chris Cox) one of his biggest hits with Summer, 1975's "Love to Love You Baby." Moroder also composed a brand-new song, "La Dolce Vita," using an unreleased Summer vocal.
Summer's 2012 passing was still palpable.
"Oh, if you listen to the new one, 'La Dolce Vita,' you have to listen to the lyrics," said Moroder in his Italian accent, looking at Sudano. "That's quite emotional, huh? That's a tough one."
On the track, Summer sings about her "sweet life" as Moroder intones into a vocoder, "She was my dolce vita / And I miss her so."
"The whole thing is emotional," said Sudano. "It took me months just to be able to listen to those songs. I still don't look at much video, because that's hard. But I'm very committed to maintaining the legacy."
And what a legacy: the Summers-Moroder collaboration, in which Sudano figured large, was one of the most productive in music history; beginning with the 1974 album Lady of the Night and including credits on over 40 albums (compilations, etc.), plus the hits you know – 1977's "I Feel Love," which is often cited as putting electronica on the dance map, "Heaven Knows," (co-written by Sudano, which is how they met), "On the Radio," "Bad Girls," "Last Dance," and on and on. Summer has sold a reported 130 million records, mostly with Moroder producing.
Highlights of the new remix album include a version of "Last Dance" by Masters at Work, who wisely focus on Summer's plea to "dance with me" – the mad desire at the heart of any disco song.
On the train, Moroder had us roaring at stories about how Led Zeppelin drummer John Bonham chased a skinny chef with a knife around Moroder's legendary Musicland Studio in Munich while recording "Presence," and his Oscar-winning work on the movies Midnight Express, Flashdance, and Top Gun. He has worked with David Bowie, Blondie, Emmylou Harris, Berlin, the Human League, and scores of others; even penning a hit 1990 Italian World Cup theme, "To Be Number One" – proving he is a great European – and a song for the Beijing Olympics.
What hasn't he done? He was recently immortalized on the Daft Punk song "Giorgio by Moroder," on which he is recorded telling some of his life story. He didn't even know what the song was going to sound like: They wouldn't tell him. The Dafts were so paranoid about leaks they toted the masters with them everywhere like a handcuffed briefcase.
"We were discussing what the song could be, although they never really told me," he said. "Everything was so secret! I even tried to bribe the engineer who did their recording in Paris, 'So, finally, what did you do?' He didn't tell me one thing!"
These are guys whose careers just evolve. Sudano is back in the clubs now playing his new album, With Angels on a Carousel, a guitar-driven blues-rock album written while he cared for Summer during her illness.
And Moroder has evolved into a superstar DJ, booked to play the HARD Day of the Dead in L.A. on Nov. 3. "I just came back from Japan, I did 10,000 people. Big success!" he says. "I did a little vocoder, 'Konichiwa.' Wow! All young people, 20s and 30s. I go into 'Hot Stuff.' I choose from about 30 different songs. They know all of them!"
Well, of course they know all of them. Dance is the ascendant musical style and ethos right now, and even those born 20 years after disco's peak discover Donna Summer as one of dance music's progenitors.
On the train in the barren desert, it's a legacy that is very much alive. I am alive and I am part of it! The beat of their new song was throbbing as Moroder, headphones propped up on his snowy hair, pulled together a chorus of Aitken's producers and techs who happened to be on the train. I was the only journalist and he teased me, "No, we don't want you," but then positioned me in front of the mic.
The song was called "Willoughby" after an episode of "The Twilight Zone" which involves a man on a train, and it's an aggressive dance track, a techno-laced thumper whose over-the-top chorus has a touch of the soccer chant.
"We are very commercial," Moroder said, smiling. Sudano rolled his eyes.
To be clear, this was not one of the songs on the new Donna Summer remix album; that was already done. But I didn't care what it was. It could have been a song about hair-care products. Or labeling GMO food. That would have made it really European. Sudano was right next to me in a cool-looking hat and we were singing the hell out of it.
Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, riding on the train.
Oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, oh, never be the same.
Moroder was smiling. I could feel exactly why he's always been successful in the studio: He exudes joy when he makes music. He was laughing. Listen to his remixed history on the new album. It's all there.