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Jun 08

DONNA SUMMER – “I Feel Love”

FT + Popular169 comments • 8,394 views

#409, 23rd July 1977

One of the remarkable things about “I Feel Love” is that it still sounds futuristic now. Not because the effects and techniques it uses remain way ahead of what pop’s capable of, but because it helped fix the idea of what “the future” would sound like: its specific mix of voice and electronics evoking gleaming hedonism, endless clockwork pleasure. “I Feel Love”, like robots and spaceships on sci-fi magazine covers, represents a fixed future we can’t ever quite get past.

But at the same time “I Feel Love” is a thing very much of 1977 – its sounds and beats somehow antique, with the way its internal rhythms often seem to shift out of phase giving the track its mechanical feel. It’s the pop equivalent of Voyager (which launched within weeks of “I Feel Love”‘s release) – the furthest out we’ve ever gone, but powered by primitive late-70s kit.

Back on Earth “I Feel Love” has been refitted and retooled countless times – if not a remix then another track borrowing its pulsing bassline chassis. That’s testament to its success as a pop song as well as a machine age wonder: for all that Moroder’s innovative arrangement suits the tune’s spacey bliss and transforms Summer’s coo into something entranced, “I Feel Love” is still catchy enough to have worked as a much more trad disco or glam-pop record.

The arrangement is what shifts it from good to legendary, though, from the first interlock of bassline and synthesised pulsebeat. It’s Ptolemaic pop, the play of cycles and epicycles: Moroder setting up minutely intersecting circling rhythms and watching as they interact in a music of the spheres that hasn’t stopped turning yet.

9

Comments

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  1. 1
    Martin Skidmore on 29 Jun 2008 #

    I might have given this a 10, I think. The beats are as irrestible as any dance music ever, and I love the way Donna’s vocals seem to fade in and out over it, an ethereal feel enhanced by the soft syllables. It’s one of those rare records that I feel, probably wrongly, could be ten times longer without losing its grip on me.

  2. 2
    Tom on 29 Jun 2008 #

    Yeah, this is certainly one of the higher 9s.

    Apologies (yet again!) for the slowness of updates. I’m hoping to get back into the swing of things this week.

  3. 3
    DJ Punctum on 29 Jun 2008 #

    For a time in 1977 it was fashionable, and even desirable, to speak of and revel in the “dehumanisation” of pop. One disco hit from that year, “Welcome To Our World Of Merry Music” by Mass Production, summed up the mood by name and title alone. But there was also Bowie, writhing on the edge of total extinction on side one of Low, and then absenting himself, other than as a ghost, throughout side two; the neutered, encased howls of Iggy on “Nightclubbing,” also produced by Bowie; the first wave of instrumental synth hits such as Space’s “Magic Fly” and Jean-Michel Jarre’s “Oxygene Part IV,” both of which seemed free from the touch of any human being (which did not in itself make them bad records; quite the reverse). And of crucial course there was Kraftwerk and there was Trans-Europe Express, but I will leave it to Lena to comment further in this regard.

    And then there was Giorgio Moroder, and his preferred singer Donna Summer. And there was the then-new cult of the extended 12-inch single, to prolong dancers’ drug-induced ecstasy on dancefloors; “Love To Love You Baby,” a semi-banned top five hit in early ’76, sold mainly on the glorious 16 minutes and 47 seconds of its full-length 12-inch incarnation. Summer and Moroder’s subsequent work provides a curious parallel to that of Scott Walker; the expatriate, slightly lost American reworking American musical memes in densely European ways (the echt-Spector of “Love’s Unkind” has the clarity and slight coldness of a European studio). Even Moroder’s minimalism was dense; listening to their masterpiece, 1977’s double album fairytale Once Upon A Time…Happily Ever After, there are always at least three different basses on the go. That record denies the lie of “inhumanity”; listening to the still-astounding eleven-minute segue of “Now I Need You”/”Working The Midnight Shift,” you have to remind yourself that Underworld didn’t record this yesterday, and that its emotional essence is about a shattered and abandoned human being long since condemned to existence rather than life.

    “I Feel Love” comes at the end of the album I Remember Yesterday, an electro-xerox of the history of 20th century pop, and its sudden surge into the future is as shocking as that of “A Day In The Life” or “Good Vibrations” at the end of their respective albums. The song, even on seven-inch, lasted for five minutes and 55 seconds – the same length as “Bohemian Rhapsody” – and I bought it in Listen Records on the same Saturday afternoon that “Pretty Vacant” came into the shop (in the following Tuesday’s chart, the latter entered at #45 on two hours’ sales alone; the next week it vaulted up to #7). I loved them both, of course, but despite the already reliable tornado that was “Pretty Vacant” (the headlines in the papers at the time were “This Time The Pistols Keep It Clean” – didn’t they listen to the way Lydon pronounced “va-cunt” over and over?), after one listen to “I Feel Love” I knew this was the real future.

    The record itself stands at the crossroads of just about everything. The lyrics are pared back and minimal to a degree not witnessed since “Tutti Frutti” – fascination over meaning again – but then the meaning was so unambiguous and precise. Summer sings “Ooohhh, it’s so good, it’s so good…” and “Ooooohhhh, heaven knows, heaven knows…” with curlicues straight out of Patti Page, or maybe Laura Nyro. The impression is of signifiers of love derived from second-hand knowledge of The History Of Pop, cut up, minimised and encased within an unending and palpable pulse.

    Then we reach the gliding sustenatos of the chorus, which now betrays psychedelia, but instead of guitars-as-sitars there is this unplaceable electronic harmony, not quite mechanical and not quite lubricious. And then, after the second verse and chorus, Moroder has the unprecedented audacity to fade Summer’s voice out altogether, leaving just the metronomic beat and the basic eight-note rotogravure pulse. This was something no one could recall having happened on a pop record before, and…

    …it just continues. Synthesisers and additional rhythms in different keys and at different angles and tempi fly in and out of the track like transient constellations. It is hypnotic and enticing and entirely alien, and demands a rare degree of micro-listening; to catch all the different little imprints and tones before they vanish, knowing that each changes the basic DNA of the track imperceptibly but irreversibly. In truth the recording was far less complicated; the bass pulse was a four-note riff played in the left channel which immediately echoes half a beat later in the right. But its implications changed the way pop music sounded forever.

    And there is something of the triumphant as the framework, the mesh, lets Summer back in: “Ooooohhhh, I got you, I got you…I go-ooooo-t youuuuuu…” Some think she is trapped in the Moroder machine, but it is much more apparent that this is Summer singing from the inside of herself; the pulses are the arteries, carrying the blood to the hippest of hips, a speed and rush which no drug or machine could provide; she is singing of life, in life, of herself and gladly and ecstatically in herself. It is self-pleasure, and I can understand the remarks of Ken Burns (a different one) in his sleevenote to Rhino’s The Disco Years: Volume 5 compilation where he wonders whether Summer was so securely trapped within that Munich machine that she would have extreme difficulty feeling anything, even if I completely disagree with them.

    “From here to eternity, that’s where she takes me,” sang Moroder on his own, equally avant-garde hit single a few months later; and “I Feel Love” takes us into a gorgeously golden future as unapologetically as “God Save The Queen” – the sequencers, the style being the content, the irrefutable and marvellous pulse plugged into our thankfully still beating hearts and minds; it could go on forever (and Patrick Cowley’s subsequent fifteen-minute remix seemed intent on testing out that theory) and thereby ensures that pop, and life, and love, and not in that order, can go on forever. And ever. “I Feel Love” is the beginning of this writer’s time. Ten to the power of forever.

  4. 4
    Billy Smart on 29 Jun 2008 #

    Follow that! I think that we all have to raise our game when we’re faced – about once a year – with something this transcendent and epochal.

    Well, here’s a question that might help us rethink this song from a different perspective: Does feeling love actually feel like ‘I Feel Love’?

    Two things are going on with the music here; There’s the internal mind, locked on one enticing thought ad infinitum, refracted and repeated again and again, each time very slightly different through the tone having slightly altered. And then there’s the tremendous sense of incessant forward motion, due to the motoric thing, which feels as much to me like driving or train travel as dancing.

    The combination of these two things; inner thought and feeling, combined with bodily movement make this an really intense experience to listen to, either on a dancefloor or on headphones, even on the tinniest of transistors.

    It manages to convey something of the first sense of dislocation (not dehumanisation), when you are aware that your body, thoughts and feelings are starting to be out of sych with each other. When you don’t fully know what you’re doing anymore, but are keeping things together by still really concentrating on what you are doing. Becoming drunk is probably the most obvious example of this, but some sorts of breakdowns also produce the same sensation, as indeed does surrendering a large part of your own control to the presence and actions of a loved other.

    So yes, the sensation of feeling love internally is physically quite a lot like this record.

    It’s astonishing, and it never stops being so.

  5. 5
    DJ Punctum on 29 Jun 2008 #

    And via that, I think a path can even be traced between “I Feel Love” and MBV!

  6. 6
    Neil on 29 Jun 2008 #

    Can’t follow either of those last two comments, but I’d like to say that I loved the idea of “Ptolemaic pop”!

  7. 7
    rosie on 29 Jun 2008 #

    I had a little bet with myself that this would one of Tom’s 10s but I lost. Certainly I can see it as Tom’s epiphany.

    For myself, yes, this is a high scorer, but yes, a 9 not a 10. I think I probably depart from Tom here in that, as electronica goes, and I’m not a fan I’m afraid, this is up there with my absolute favourites. The reason for this, I think, lies in its very primitiveness, perhaps. That throbbing, almost but never actually monotonous, beat is a perfect complement for the most primitive music of all, Donna Summer’s dreamy, sexy voice. The electronica is always there, but it’s always Donna to the fore. And I love the way the phasing comes in and out, and the the rhythm breaks up into a subtle syncopation – that’s what keeps it from tedium, I feel.

  8. 8
    lonepilgrim on 29 Jun 2008 #

    i’m sure someone could or must already have traced the path back to the krautrock acts – the blissed out tones and motorik rhythms that I had got to know via tangerine dream and kraftwerk were tailored into a more potent, irresistable form with this – and yes it could go on forever – and yes it deserves a 10

  9. 9
    Tom on 29 Jun 2008 #

    Good work DJ P!

    I do find it quite interesting that while the comments box was straining at the leash to get to punk, this record – surely of comparable significance to future ‘plot developments’ – has crept up on us a bit. Or maybe that’s just my impression?

  10. 10
    rosie on 29 Jun 2008 #

    Not only that, Tom, but for those with eyes to see this and not the Sex Pistols is the way ahead.

  11. 11
    Lena on 29 Jun 2008 #

    It was only last night that the complacent world of ‘rock’ got another reminder that there are other kinds of music that are popular, that can move the crowd…

    And I can well imagine some people, in 1977, being annoyed with this, this woman’s voice floating above and inside the constantly changing and pulsating beats, her voice repeating the same words, until the words themselves (almost, not quite) are expanded to include the music, the words are music…for those whose definition of ‘rock’ was accepting the guitar/bass/drums/singer mode only (meaning the Pistols were fine, by the way, if rude), this song getting to #1 must have been an affront – especially when the singer simply disappeared, and the music hypnotically took over…

    …and elsewhere in Germany, what can I say?…

    The beat skips and bounces, skips and bounces. Six notes repeat over and over, going up, up, up, up, up, UP. Then the melody, stately, perhaps a bit cold, but there and unmistakable. Doppler notes come….and go….a man sings about Paris, Vienna, Dusseldorf. The song pushes along in an orderly fashion, with odd pauses and breaks, but always with a sense of purpose and nobility. There is that beep-beep-be-be-beep which is oddly funky as well, though I don’t know who, outside of a few, heard it as such in ’77…

    …but I am sure Moroder did, and that he and Kraftwerk were thinking along the same lines (Kraftwerk have an album called Man-Machine, but “I Feel Love” is a cheerier version of what could be called Woman-Machine). The biggest difference between the two artists is that while Kraftwerk were underground – you had to know about them to know about them – Donna Summer was #1. Donna felt love until that feeling was simplified and amplified to a beating heart sped up; Kraftwerk took the Trans-Europe Express and turned what was merely mechanical and gave it soul. It’s impossible to overstate the importance of either of these as they are just as radical as ever…

    …and I only mentioned Jay-Z in the beginning as I am sure that he caught up with them (and much else) in his own time, and understands them in a way that, say, Noel Gallagher doesn’t.

    (I should also add “I Feel Love” gets an 11, and that its pulsing beat will return, slowed down some, will return quite soon.)

  12. 12
    will on 29 Jun 2008 #

    I was frightened of this record when it came out in 1977. A conservative child, it seemed to me to be a harbinger of some future hell where all music would be made by machines and robots, dehumanised, in fact. In comparison, the Pistols seemed deeply reassuring. They played guitars and Pretty Vacant had a nice melody, didn’t it? I Feel Love seemed to suggest that by 1990, let alone 2000, the electric guitar would be as redundant as the lute.

  13. 13
    Ken on 29 Jun 2008 #

    Sigh.

    I don’t get it. I really don’t. There has never been a moment where this song has not struck me as monotonous and boring. (And you know what, while I’m marking myself as a fierce iconoclast/rockist tool, the charms of Abba (save “Dancing Queen” and “Waterloo”) are completely lost on me.) The best I can get is a kind of forced admiration. I wish I could explain it better, but I’m never going to be able to make any kind of personal connection with this.

  14. 14
    vinylscot on 29 Jun 2008 #

    Lena mentioned Kraftwerk here, and I remember my mate saying to me – “Have you heard the new Donna Summer song? – it sounds like Kraftwerk!” – a bit of an overstatement, but I think that conveyed how “different” it was to our ears at the time.

    On this song’s second week on the charts, The Rah Band appeared with “The Crunch”, and before IFY was out of the top 10 we had “Magic Fly” and “Oxygene” showing us that electro (of a kind) was a force to be reckoned with. For once I find myself agreeing with Marcello’s musings above – this truly was the start of something and was every bit as important as the advent of p**k which happened alongside it.

    Patrick Cowley’s later remix is obviously one of the greatest remixes ever, and other tracks shamelessly ripping this off – the Ping-Pong Bitches “Beat You Up”, and De Lacy’s “Hideaway” spring to mind, only stengthen this record’s claim to be one of the all-time classics.

    This also established Moroder as something other than a wacky one-hit wonder with his production on “Son Of My Father”, and while he did some great work (e.g. Sparks, Sigue Sigue Sputnik) and some successful work (e.g. Electric Dreams) he never really hit these heights again, despite some decent stuff recorded under his own name – “From Here to Eternity” LP and bits of “Midnight Express”.

    Donna Summer herself had hinted at greatness before, both with “Love To Love You Baby” and the “Try Me, I Know We Can Make It” cycle on the first side of the “Love Trilogy” album, both produced by Moroder (with Pete Bellotte), but this one track cemented both of their reputations.

    From memory, I think Donna Summer was adversely affected by a move from GTO to Casablanca which flooded the market with Donna singles, and coupled with the next album being a (largely unimpressive) double (I agree with Marcello re “Now I need you” but this was the very template for the “one good album stretched out into a double” syndrome which seemed all around us at the time – everyone had to make at least one of every four of their albums a double, whether they had the material to support it or not.), this rather stalled her UK career. A bit more attention on quality control around this time might have secured a far more lucrative career for her, although she certainly had a few fine moments still to come.

    (Brief #2 watch – this saved us from the delights of Boney M’s “Ma Baker” at the top of the chart.)

    With the benefit of hindsight, probably the most important #1 of the seventies, and certainly one of the best – a cast iron 10.

  15. 15
    Dan R on 30 Jun 2008 #

    In hindsight, this is the great musical shift of 1977, not punk. Punk was conservative in its radicalism, in the way it was, in part, about restoring rock to its radical roots, even as it reconnected popular music with the early-twentieth-century modernist cabaret and its desire to épater les bourgeois and so on. But it restored and reminded and recreated; for punk there was no future politically and, in a sense, artistically; it was the second wave that tried to shape the future in artistic terms.

    What always strikes me about this single is its single minded determination to be what it is. It strips the lush strings of disco away, and somehow makes those earlier records seem to lightweight, too concerned to be liked. The jackhammering electronic rhythm, with its squealing washes of jubilant pain, seems entirely defiant about the new sound it’s making. And of course, with the same oxymoron than would fire up UK Garage twenty years later, the vocal is all feeling, intense feeling, even if amorally articulated and centred on one emotion of desire. And that all creates a sense of year zero – a false sense, as has already been noted – but the uncompromising becoming-to-itself of electronic dance music in this single is unmistakeable.

    The coincidence that also powers the epochal character of this record is that Elvis died when it was at number 1. The king is dead, long live the queen.

  16. 16
    Waldo on 30 Jun 2008 #

    The main thing to be said about this was not so much how good it was but how different and unusual. Moroder to thread, of course.

    “I Feel Love” has Ravel-style properties and Donna’s siren shrieks add to the fun of the ride. This one was memorable simply for not being the same as all the other disco stuff on offer back then, and for this reason the fact that it appears unduly lengthy actually works in its favour, it seems to me.

    Donna, of course, had already been the victim of one of those knee-jerk BBC bans, Auntie deciding that “Love To Love You Baby” was too steamy for broadcast. Preposterous! Sure it was about Donna getting rooted but so what? Jane Birken clearly simulated climax at the end of “Je T’aime…” but in LTLYB, Donna was proffering no more orgasmic groans than she did later on “Down Deep Inside” (suggestive title or what?), a beautiful song which the Beeb simply didn’t have the guts to ban, since it was a soundtrck to a crap movie and the Corporation would have just looked like the nannying tossers they were and continue to be.

  17. 17
    Billy Smart on 30 Jun 2008 #

    Re: 15. God, it’s never struck me before – If Elvis had clung on for another couple of years, he’d have gone disco at some stage!

  18. 18
    Dan R on 30 Jun 2008 #

    His first posthumous hit, ‘Way Down’, has major disco elements…

  19. 19
    Tom on 30 Jun 2008 #

    …which we won’t be discussing today ;)

  20. 20
    Dan R on 30 Jun 2008 #

    Whoops, apologies…

  21. 21
    Martin Skidmore on 30 Jun 2008 #

    (re comment #2: Much as I love Popular, one advantage for me of the low frequency of late is that my comics posts get higher in the ‘most read’ charts – one was even at #1 for a short while! Popular entries get several times the readership – and quite right too.)

  22. 22
    Tom on 30 Jun 2008 #

    Martin in the non-Popular bit of FT your comics posts are HEAVYWEIGHT BRUISERS!

  23. 23
    Martin Skidmore on 30 Jun 2008 #

    Did you mean to write unPopular?

  24. 24
    LondonLee on 30 Jun 2008 #

    Like Lena said, I’d give this 11. It’s another of those unassailable pop mountains like “Dancing Queen” which render you speechless (well, me anyway) though again, my actual favourite Donna Summer record might be “Could It Be Magic” instead.

    I’ve always thought Hot Chocolate’s “Put Your Love In Me” was this record’s fucked-up twin. It came out the same year and I’d be interested to know how much “I Feel Love” influenced HC.

  25. 25
    Billy Smart on 30 Jun 2008 #

    Thinking about it, ‘Put Your Love In Me’ also sounds a bit like dub to me, as well, in the echoing and spaced-out (in both senses) percussive knocks. It’s certainly a song that encourages myriad impressions and interpretations on the part of the listener.

  26. 26
    SteveM on 30 Jun 2008 #

    Hard to think what stops this being a 10 really – what stopped you Tom?

  27. 27
    Tom on 30 Jun 2008 #

    My not loving it as much as “Hot Love”, “Dancing Queen” or “Eleanor Rigby” I guess!

    If I factored “importance” in it would totally be a 10. But I try not to, except inasmuch as it uplifts or drags down a specific record for me.

  28. 28
    rosie on 30 Jun 2008 #

    The really odd thing desperately uncool old me finds, given the way IFL is filed and labelled, is that I can’t imagine dancing to it. Not the kind of dancing I like anyway. I can imagine having sex to it (not difficult) and being stoned, or both, bot not

    Comparisons with Ravel have been made. Ravel’s most famous repetitive piece is of course a dance, a bolero. This feels to me much closer to the minimalism of Steve Reich or Terry Riley; were Fiona or Verity to play it to bring Late Junction to a close one night I wouldn’t be in the least surprised. So something that had been around for a good while for a minority audience, which had been poking and prodding its way into the more esoteric reaches of rock for ten years and more, now surfaces in the mainstream.

  29. 29
    Tom on 30 Jun 2008 #

    I actually played this at the last Poptimism, and the crowd (those who were left at the end anyway) went wild!

    I did shift it up to +4 or so though.

  30. 30
    DJ Punctum on 30 Jun 2008 #

    It is a DISGRACE that “Bolero” title track of 1984 TOP TEN EP The Music Of Torvill & Dean has NEVER been played at Club Poptimism HANG YOUR HEAD IN SHAME EWING for LOONY LEFT disrespect of NATIONAL HEROES

    (actually “Bolero” will have to be the last song played at forthcoming Club Poptimism On Ice event…)

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