It’s 1977. Brian Eno and David Bowie are busy making Heroes in Berlin. One day Eno dashes into the studio excitedly brandishing a newly released 7” and rhapsodizes to Bowie, “This single is going to change the sound of club music for the next 15 years.” He was right about Donna Summer’s “I Feel Love,” but his statement requires two amendments: Delete “club” and change “15 years” to “forever.”
Bridging disco sensuality and the synthesizer revolution, Summer and producers/co-writers Giorgio Moroder and Pete Bellotte not only crafted an international smash, they helped lay a path for synth pop, New Romantics, Italo disco, Hi-NRG, electro, house, techno, and more, influencing generations of pop, rock, and dance artists along the way.
Moroder and Bellotte had already spent years making Summer an intercontinental disco diva. But they had no way of knowing the closing track on her 1977 album I Remember Yesterday would propel the singer’s career into the stratosphere and alter music history. “We did it just as an album track,” Moroder told Record Mirror’s Robin Katz later that year. “Donna finished in 10 minutes. Neither of us thought it would be as big as it’s been.”
I Remember Yesterday is a concept album, with each track representing a different era. Moroder and Bellotte belatedly hit on the idea of closing with a tune symbolizing the musical future. They had no idea how on-the-nose they were.
Synthesizers were still enough of a novelty to be a natural choice for a futuristic production. Moroder was no stranger to synths, having used them in his solo work, but for this, he brought in German engineer Robbie Wedel, a modular Moog expert. Working opposite to Moroder’s customary method, they created the groove first – that undulating Dr. Who at Studio 54 synth-bass line and the all-important electronic beat. Drum machines didn’t yet have the sophistication for the latter, so they crafted each drum sound on the synth and recorded them individually. But they couldn’t get a satisfactory kick sound, so future Billy Idol producer Keith Forsey was drafted on bass drum, the track’s only non-electronic instrument.
Summer wrote a simple, suitably erotic lyric to the throbbing electronic backing Moroder and company created. Casablanca Records head Neil Bogart sagely insisted on releasing the finished product as a single, making the already successful Summer a superstar. Besides putting millions of butts in motion around the globe, the radical new sound inspired tons of forward-thinking artists.
Blondie was listening closely, and when “Heart of Glass” appeared the following year, their variation on Summer’s electro-disco template sent the band’s profile sky-high. Sparks’ Ron Mael told Trouser Press’s Ira Robbins, “We heard ‘I Feel Love’ by Donna Summer and thought it was an incredible mixture of electronics with a voice that had real warmth to it…. So we approached Giorgio Moroder.” The result was Sparks’ seminal 1979 album No. 1 in Heaven.
As synth pop and the New Romantic scene rose in early ‘80s England, the song’s sphere of influence broadened exponentially. Simple Minds’ 1980 single “I Travel” was nothing if not “I Feel Love” for the post-punk generation. And in 1981, when Human League singer Phil Oakey told Record Mirror’s Mark Cooper, “we want to be like ABBA or Donna Summer,” there was no doubt which Summer single he had in mind.
The song’s impact on dance music went hand in hand with its LGBTQ+ appeal. Moroder told Pitchfork, “Millions of gay people love Donna, and some say ‘I was liberated by that song’…. Jimmy [Somerville of Bronski Beat] told me he became a singer because of ‘I Feel Love.’”
“Out” trio Bronski Beat’s 1985 hit cover of “I Feel Love” was emblematic of the track’s significance to both the gay community and the development of the ‘80s Hi-NRG dance sound. Decades later, the effect was unabated. Sam Smith covered “I Feel Love” in 2019 and stated on Twitter, “As a queer person, ‘I Feel Love’ has followed me to every dance floor in every queer space from the minute I started clubbing. This song, to me, is an anthem of our community.”
The influence runs in a straight line from Hi-NRG to house and techno. After Detroit dance legends like Juan Atkins, Derrick May, and Carl Craig started spinning it in their DJ sets, they never stopped. In 2003 Fatboy Slim told Greg Wilson’s electrofunkroots, “’I Feel Love’ was the first disco record I allowed myself to like, and obviously, that was a sort of pivotal thing because it was almost the first prototype house record.”
The story remains the same today. In 2022, “I Feel Love” sat at the top of Rolling Stone’s list of the best-ever dance songs, and Beyonce closed her new album, Renaissance, with the homage “Summer Renaissance.” Decades later, the six minutes of electronic ecstasy that changed the world are as big a turn-on as ever.