Feeling the Love: Celebrating Forty Years of Donna Summer’s Hypnotic Dance Anthem

Posted July 8, 2017 by J Matthew Cobb in Features

Forty years ago, I Feel Love gave birth to an encyclopedia of possibilities for EDM

“Oooh, it’s so good, it’s so good, it’s so good, it’s so good, it’s sooo good.”

“I Feel Love” — a song completely designed and programmed by computer and Moog synths. To suggest this adventure of technical experimentation would’ve rocket to the top of the pop charts at the time seemed unspeakable. Even unconscionable. But that it did, becoming Donna Summer’s second Top 40 hit and the first of its kind to radically rewrite the handbook of what makes a pop hit.

It did possess one smart and interesting ingredient relevant to the era. Released at the height of disco, “I Feel Love” infused a kinetic melody inside a galactic orb full of dancey glitter and trippy strobes. It may have sounded otherworldly, but the rudiments of classic disco were still there. It just was exercised by machines. While surrounded by dreamy repetitive lyrics and Summer’s serenading pipes — slightly enhanced with an echo effect, those machines carried the pulse to the next wave of dance music. Listen to anything by Daft Punk, Skrillex, Disclosure, David Guetta, Avicii, Calvin Harris or DJ Snake and you can hear the DNA of this prized invention. 

The machines that powered this bold anthem of early EDM are all vintage, gigantic dinosaurs when compared with the tools of our ever-expanding tech universe. But “I Feel Love,” a complete assignment done by Italian producer Giorgio Moroder and partner Pete Bellotte, still sounds like a product of the future, even though it made its first appearance forty years ago this week. 

Giorgio Moroder seated with Donna Summer, circa 1977

Giorgio Moroder seated with Donna Summer, circa 1977

When”I Feel Love” was originally released as the B-side to single “Can’t We Just Sit Down,” electronic music of this caliber was mostly seemed as too underground to merit the attention of pop purists. It was an art form strictly confined to geekdom. To their credit, German electronic band Kraftwerk was pioneering the manual of this new frontier of programmable music, but Moroder took a crazy chance of putting this on an established international figure in pop music, for which he had radical success with from the very beginning on the sex-laden “Love to Love You, Baby.” Discos hip to early hi-NRG ate it up, particularly ones with a strong appetite for ethereal glamour and drug dens. It was quickly rearranged with “I Feel Love” placed on the A-side for the next pressing. Then in the summer of 1977, radio took the bait and walked the single up several charts; it peaked at number nine on the Hot 100 in the fall; in the UK, it flew to number one months earlier in July and stayed there for four consecutive weeks. Other countries also saw it reach the number one spot, including Australia, France, Belgium and Italy. 

Packaged on the tail end of 1977’s I Remember Yesterday, Summer’s fifth studio album, “I Feel Love” felt foreign to everything that preceded it. That’s because, hence its title, the disc aimed at celebrating slices of nostalgia in an exercise that flexed disco’s greatest sensibilities. The title cut dropped Dr. Buzzard’s Original Savannah Band jazz-disco into its grooves; “Love’s Unkind” played with a “Raspberry Beret” prototype while inserted in Phil Spector’s golden pop; “Back in Love Again” mirrored the Supremes. The second side followed similar trajectories with “Black Lady” forcing out Steely Dan rock-funk and “Take Me” playing to Summer’s dedicated disco base. Only “I Feel Love” opened up the gateway to something insanely futuristic. Not only did it sound light years ahead of the competition, it remained the most futuristic of Summer’s arsenal up to that point and even for a few years after its release. Certainly she tried to follow it up on the double-LP Bad Girls with “I Feel Love”-lite using “Sunset People,” and Moroder definitely reduplicated the formula on his vocoder-driven LPs (From Here to Eternity, E=MC2), but none stuck like “I Feel Love.” 

In 1978, Patrick Cowley, a rising figure in the San Francisco gay clubs and mixing culture (see Sylvester’s “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real),” “Stars”), had worked his fingers on the Summer anthem by expanding it to a gargantuan sixteen minutes. By stretching the grooves via looping, the hypnotic trance of Summer’s cooing and Moroder’s synth layouts offered endless endorphin for club goers. Because it wasn’t a bootleg mix done without the approval of the label, copies were presented underground in the form of acetates. It wasn’t until June 1980, at the apex of hi-NRG, that the gem was revisited by the DJ subscription company Disconet, rechristened as “I Feel Love/I Feel Megalove.” Eventually Casablanca got behind the mix and gave it a light commercial 12″ release; this time accompanied with an edited eight-minute take. Rumored to have been met with disapproval by Moroder, it became a late-night treasure for DJs and helped reawaken the late ’70’s artifact for a new generation of clubites while positioning Summer as an ordained gay icon.

Patrick Cowley's revered "I Feel Love" mega-mix re-released on Casablanca, 1982

Patrick Cowley’s revered “I Feel Love” mega-mix re-released on Casablanca, 1982

“‘I Feel Love’ quickly became a queer anthem,” writes author Brian M. Reed in the book Nobody’s Business: Twenty-First Century Avant-Garde Poetics. “Its gender nonspecific lyrics and its driving, propulsive, wholly synthesized celebration of erotic passion and pleasure gave audible expression to the utopian dreams of the gay liberation movement.”

In the UK, the song once again soared up the charts, rising to number 21 in late 1982, almost six years after it was originally released. Succumbing to AIDS on November 12 1982 at the early age of 32, this posthumous re-release and the homoerotic “Menergy” became some of the last (and most memorable) studio presentations of Cowley’s musical career. 

As increasing evidence of hi-NRG made impact in the mainstream and new wave offerings such as the Human League’s “Don’t You Want Me” dominated the roll call of hits in the early Eighties, a string of songs inspired by “I Feel Love” began to filter to the top. This sound, notably labeled synth pop, was spearheaded by a string of synth-heavy gems including a-ha’s brilliant standout “Take on Me,” Dead or Alive’s hypnotic “You Spin Me (Round Like a Record),” and most notably, Michael Sembello’s “Maniac” (1983, #1 pop; appearing on the Moroder-guided Footloose soundtrack). Groups like ABC, Tears for Fears and Soft Cell furthered the lifespan of this commercial-bred synth pop. Harold Faltermeyer, Moroder’s former music arranger, supplied “Axel F,” the unforgettable instrumental synth tune for the motion picture soundtrack of Beverly Hills Cop, to the masses and peaking at number three pop. Jan Hammer may have produced the genre’s glorious salvo with the instrumental electro-pop jam “Miami Vice Theme,” soaring all the way to number one pop in 1985. Emulating the energy off of “I Feel Love,” Moroder had a few more synth-powered successes with Berlin’s “No More Words” (1984) and “Take My Breath Away” (1986) before settling into semi-retirement. 

Eventually synth pop tapered off, making way for house and techno to dominate the dance spectrum, but the influence of “I Feel Love” went on to touch a new generation of pop musicians and record producers. By the end of the first decade in the new millennium, a slew of female stars showcased a monopoly over the charts using a confetti of synth-pop anthems. Acts like Lady Gaga, Katy Perry, Britney Spears, Rihanna, Robyn and even Madonna had highhandedly built a chunk of their catalog off of synth pop (sometimes coined electropop). Summer was able to see this new rise of synthpop inspired by her 1977 magnum opus before succumbing to cancer in May 2012. Let the record show: their batch of hits are good, often memorable, designed like taffy cut for a strobe lit dance floor. Still, “I Feel Love” feels more superior. It offers a trippy acid experience that’s second to none. Even after forty years, when stacked up against the modernist electro entrees, Summer’s come hither magic acts like the regal grown-up in the room. 

About the Author

J Matthew Cobb

Managing editor of HiFi Magazine


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