Producer and songwriter Pete Bellotte on working with Giorgio Moroder and Donna Summer

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MBW’s World’s Greatest Songwriters series celebrates the composers behind the globe’s biggest hits. This time out we talk to Pete Bellotte, the British composer who helped shape the sound of modern dance music. World’s Greatest Songwriters is supported by AMRA – the global digital music collection society which strives to maximize value for songwriters and publishers in the digital age.


Leonard Cohen was renowned for many things, but his role in the creation of disco and influence on the sound of dance music has all too often been understated.

Nonetheless, if it wasn’t for the godfather of gloom, it’s entirely possible that the future of electronic music would have sounded very different, or maybe not happened at all.

Certainly, if Pete Bellotte – the co-writer and co-producer of such influential Donna Summer songs as Love To Love You Baby and I Feel Love – had not gone to see Cohen at Munich’s Circus Krone, he would not have run into a photographer he knew and told him: “If you hear of anyone who’s looking for someone to do anything in the business, I’ll do anything to get it”.

And if Bellotte hadn’t done that, the photographer would not have let him know that Giorgio Moroder was looking for an assistant. And Bellotte and Moroder – after an interview for which Bellotte shaved his voluminous moustache, only to find Moroder sporting the exact same face fuzz – would not have gone on to completely reshape the sound of modern pop music.

Bellotte’s story is peppered with such tales of coincidence and happenstance, as if his role in such momentous musical events was merely down to a stroke of luck at being in exactly the right place at precisely the right time.

But lightning rarely strikes twice, never mind as often as the thunderbolt of innovation has hit home whenever the self-deprecating Bellotte is in the studio.

His journey began many years earlier when the arrival of Elvis Presley triggered an obsession with music. Bellotte saved up money from his paper round to buy a guitar, playing in various amateur bands before joining Linda Laine And The Sinners.

The Sinners made a few records without overly troubling the charts, but would regularly travel to Germany for month-long residencies. Amidst the “gangsters and prostitution” of Hamburg, Bellotte made friends with Elton John (then Reg Dwight and playing with Bluesology) and took him clothes shopping in funky local emporium Karstadt (“I told David Furnish that I was the first man to dress Elton,” he chuckles). Sir Elton still greets him with a cry of “Bellotte, you bastard!” whenever they meet.

Eventually, Bellotte realised the Sinners weren’t destined for greatness and returned home, before coming back to Germany in search of more permanent work.

“I realized the best job in the business is being the producer,” Bellotte chuckles today. “If you’re in a band and it doesn’t work out, the record company isn’t too bothered, because they’ve got another band. But if you’re the producer and it doesn’t work out, you can produce someone else. I’d seen what was done to be a producer in those days, and it looked relatively easy…”

Having gone to work with Moroder – then best known as a purveyor of slightly cheesy pop music – the pair enjoyed a huge hit in 1972 with Son Of My Father, a U.K. No.1 for Chicory Tip. (“Elton rang and said, ‘Bellotte, you bastard – I’ve just been to the record shop to buy Son Of My Father and your name’s on there – did you write it?’”).

Bellotte left Moroder briefly to become an in-house producer at Ariola Records, but soon returned, this time as an equal partner. And it was when he was shopping a song called Denver Dream – the demo of which featured Donna Sommer, née Donna Gaines, an American backing singer then based in Germany – that things really took off.

The song was picked up by a French label, who wanted to put it out as it was. Donna agreed, as long as her surname was changed to Summer and the Bellotte-Moroder-Summer axis was up and running.

More records followed until Love To Love You Baby in 1975 and I Feel Love in 1977 established the disco template and rewrote the studio rulebook, inventing the click track and the 12” remix – not to mention outraging public decency with Summer’s erotic performances – along the way. 1979’s Hot Stuff proved even bigger, hitting No.1 on the US Hot 100, winning a Grammy and becoming one of the biggest American hits of all time.

Record company politics derailed the trio and, while Bellotte also worked with Elton John, Janet Jackson and Tina Turner, he largely walked away from the industry for a quiet life in the West Sussex countryside.

“I’m very grateful that some of my work is so appreciated, and I really enjoy talking about it now.”

The ultimate background boy, who never did interviews or even displayed his awards, clearly enjoys his days playing tennis, going for walks and reading (he’s a leading collector of the writings of Gormenghast author Mervyn Peake).

He has no plans to sell his catalog (“Merck’s been on to me a few times!” he laughs. “But it’s personal, it’s mine”), and he is now making tentative steps back into the industry. His songs are regularly covered, synched and interpolated and he recently took part in The Other Songs Live, an Ivors Week event that celebrates the craft of songwriting, receiving a standing ovation for his tales of studio innovation.

Meanwhile, I Feel Love was inducted into the Grammy Hall Of Fame and the songwriter says The Other Songs co-founder Alistair Webber “is reviving me in quite a way” as he works on new songs.

First though, he has to shrug off his natural shyness to sit down and talk MBW through the importance of songwriting, Moog synths and, er, orgies at Neil Bogart’s house.

“I’m very grateful that some of my work is so appreciated, and I really enjoy talking about it now,” he says. “It’s that far removed that it doesn’t necessarily feel like I’m part of it. I feel like I’m telling someone else’s story at times…”

Hallelujah, as Leonard Cohen might say…


WHEN YOU MET GIORGIO MORODER, DID YOU THINK, ‘WE’RE GOING TO CHANGE THE FACE OF POP MUSIC’?

Oh gosh, no, not at all. Giorgio was very successful when I met him, but he was doing bubblegum music. We were a great combination – Giorgio loves every bit of publicity, and I just stayed out of the way. I’m happiest in a studio, producing and writing, that was enough for me.


DID YOU REALIZE HOW INFLUENTIAL LOVE TO LOVE YOU BABY WAS GOING TO BE WHEN YOU MADE IT?

Not really, but a couple of things happened that were quite important in music.

When we recorded it the first time, we used a different drummer and the song really slowed down in the middle.

So, we decided to record it again and I thought, ‘How can we make sure that doesn’t happen this time?’ In the restaurants I used to go to, they had these trios which used small music boxes with awful sounds like cha-cha-cha. I thought if we got one of those and laid it down on tape for five minutes, that could be our guide for tempo. That was the first time a manual syncing – a click track, essentially – ever took place.

Meanwhile, the band were jamming and the drummer Keith Forsey had been listening to The Crusaders’ song Sugar Cane. In the middle of that song, the drummer briefly played ‘four on the floor’ [a 4/4 rhythm with the bass drum hit on every beat] and no one had ever played that before. It seems impossible now, but ‘four on the floor’ didn’t exist.

Keith was also doing the hi-hat from Rock The Boat [by The Hues Corporation] and we appropriated those two things and that gave it this early disco sound, which was quite different.


IT WASN’T A HIT AT FIRST THOUGH, WAS IT?

No, that happened when we took the record to MIDEM and Neil Bogart [founder of Casablanca Records] saw its potential.

He called us from the States one night saying, ‘We’re definitely going to release this record. I’m having a party at my house and it’s turning into an orgy – and they want to hear Love To Love You Baby playing all the time. I’ve got someone on the record player just lifting the arm up each time and putting it on again and again. And that’s given me the idea to copy In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida by Iron Butterfly and do a whole side of one song. I need you guys to do that as fast as possible…’

As we had a six-minute song with a click track, all we had to do was copy the click track for 16, 17 minutes and we could drop in anything we wanted, at any part of the song, and it was all in time. That was revolutionary. All because of Iron Butterfly and sex at Neil Bogart’s house!


AND THEN I FEEL LOVE CAME ALONG AND WAS EVEN MORE INNOVATIVE…

Yeah. I was reading A Dance To The Music Of Time by Anthony Powell, and I thought, ‘How about we make an album like that; start off with a fifties song, go through the different periods and then go into the future with a futuristic song?’

I Feel Love was the ‘future’ track. We’d done a lot with the Minimoog at the time, but we decided to bring in the big 3P Moog. This particular one had been used by The Beatles on Abbey Road, but Lennon said it was too complicated, so they’d returned it and [composer] Eberhard Schoener bought it. It came with an operator called Robby Wedel, a very quiet chap in a tweed suit, not from the rock world at all.

At first, the bassline was at half the tempo to the one you know. We put that down and, as soon as it was finished, Robby said, ‘OK, what do you want to sync to next?’ We said, ‘What do you mean, sync?’ ‘Well, while you were recording, I sent a pulse signal to the tape so whatever you play is going to be absolutely locked in’. It’s hard to explain now what that would feel like, because no one had ever heard something with perfect timing. It sounded different – not the music, but something else you couldn’t explain.

Donna sang it in head voice, falsetto – we hadn’t expected that, but that made it magical straight away.

We were nearly there, but this was the last song on the album and I thought, ‘We’re not really going out on a high here, we need to speed it up’. The engineer, Jürgen Koppers, and I had been doing a lot of delay work on other stuff. We thought we’d double up the bass and suddenly the whole song was there.


DID IT BLOW EVERYONE ELSE’S MINDS?

Well, Neil Bogart had got us to do a song called Can’t We Just Sit Down (And Talk It Over). None of us were that keen, but Bogart was doing so well for us that we recorded it, and he put I Feel Love on the B-side.

I guess this is a true story, although there are so many stories, but apparently a DJ at Studio 54 was sent the acetate. He wasn’t going to play it straight off, because he didn’t want to risk it. So, he went out, put his headphones on and listened to it and the moment he heard it, he put it straight on [in the club] and that’s what kicked it off.

But we really didn’t know what we were doing at the time, it was just part of the album. We were very pleased with it, but I don’t think we were sitting there thinking it was unlike anything else. It was really just the luck of having such a great programmer in Robby and a brilliant engineer in Jürgen.


WHAT DOES MAKING A RECORD LIKE THAT DO FOR YOUR CAREER?

We had a few calls, but we weren’t that keen at that time. We were still based in Europe then and it wasn’t until [Donna Summer’s 1979 album] Bad Girls that we moved over to the States. And that was actually our biggest success ever: in terms of performance money, Hot Stuff earns well over twice [what we get from] I Feel Love.


WHY DID IT WORK SO WELL BETWEEN THE THREE OF YOU?

Because we were all different. Donna was so lovely, we never, ever had a cross word. The three of us came up without an argument or disagreements. She was incredibly religious, Giorgio was agnostic and I’m an atheist. Donna was always trying to convert us; I took the mickey out of her, but she took it in good faith.


SO WHY DID YOU STOP WORKING TOGETHER?

David Geffen. Neil Bogart got into trouble with money. He was a brilliant record man with a wonderful ear for success but he spent money like there was no tomorrow.

So Geffen came in. I remember saying at the time, ‘Why does he want Donna, he hates disco?’

We did The Wanderer with Geffen, but he just didn’t like the follow-up [I’m A Rainbow] at all. It took years for it to come out and then Quincy [Jones, producer of Summer’s 1982 self-titled album] came along and that was that.

But you shouldn’t fear being in those situations. I felt it was the end of an era anyway. I don’t think we could have carried on being successful with her. We were of that time, and everything was absolutely wonderful. There aren’t many careers that go on forever as producers and writers for the same artist.


AND IT WAS THE ‘DISCO SUCKS’ ERA…

Yeah. I remember walking around New York when Elton got me to do his album [1979’s Victim Of Love] and every time I saw graffiti saying that, I was like, ‘Oh God’.

I was in London at [Elton’s then-manager] John Reid’s house, they were having a party and John came up to me and said, ‘Elton asked if you can do an album? He doesn’t want to do any of the writing, he wants you to write the songs and he wants it to be a disco album.’ I said, ‘Are you sure?’ I couldn’t say no, but it wasn’t the right thing to do. Victim Of Love the song has been good in the end, it’s been in a few films and it’s on his Greatest Hits. But it wasn’t a good move for him. It’s probably his least successful album!


DO SONGWRITERS GET PAID ENOUGH NOW THINGS HAVE MOVED TO STREAMING?

We’ve got [this situation] because of the record industry itself. This isn’t happening in Hollywood. Hollywood is so protective of its films – it’s going through difficulties, but it didn’t get caught out like the music industry did. When streaming came in, no one even thought about protecting us. And now you can’t do anything radical to change it. I feel sorry for a lot of these young songwriters.


IF YOU COULD CHANGE ONE THING ABOUT TODAY’S MUSIC INDUSTRY, RIGHT HERE AND NOW, WHAT WOULD IT BE AND WHY?

I would have one big musicians’ guild and I’d have all the big companies contribute.

If we got the industry to agree to give 1% of their money, which wouldn’t be much to them, into a musicians’ guild that would be run by musicians and give access to lawyers, give interest-free loans to buy instruments – there could be so much done worldwide for musicians.

Some of these companies are making so much money and the people that are making the money for them are suffering.


HOW DO YOU FEEL ABOUT THE THREAT FROM ARTIFICIAL INTELLIGENCE?

I can see someone coming along and saying ‘OK, I’d like to have Sting sing this’ – and he won’t be able to do anything about it. And the writing is going to become so good, we may all be redundant within five years. It’s that close.

The record industry and the government have got to get together and think how they’re going to protect people. But it probably won’t happen, because what do they care?


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