From Donna Summer to Axel F, the seminal synth hero hits rewind on his most memorable musical moments
Taken from the December issue of Dazed & Confused:
“At the age of six I announced to my family, ‘I’d love to play the piano and get some lessons.’ It was a pain when I found out that I was destined to practise a lot. I was always on the verge of giving up because I had a very strict teacher and hated practising, but I knew that I wanted to be a musician.
When I was 17, I dropped out of school and my dad helped me join the Munich music college. The rest of my family said that this was the end of the family because they were all doctors and professors who just did music as a hobby. But my dad knew that there was a talent that he had to support. He was a war child and didn’t have the opportunity to study music so I think that was part of his enthusiasm towards my career as a musician.
“There was this new way of doing music and I really wanted to get into it”
Around that time we had this pop uprising with the Beatles and the Rolling Stones. There was this new way of doing music and I really wanted to get into it. I started a little group called Melodic Sounds and we eventually made it on to TV playing swing tunes and Beatles covers.
As soon as synthesisers came on the market I found out that classical music and synthesised music blended perfectly. I still think that those two worlds are a perfect match. In 1974 I bought my first synth, an Arp Odyssey, which I owned for exactly four weeks before it got stolen from the studio. It cost 2,000 Deutsche Marks and it really hurt because I didn’t have much money. I never got it back.
Munich was a very small town when it came to music. It only had a couple of studios – in one you had the crazy guy, me, Harold Faltermeyer, doing arrangements and conducting from the recording console, and five miles away there was Giorgio Moroder at Musicland. He’d heard of this new kid in town and one evening called to ask if I wanted to work with him. Of course I said yes. The first thing that we did together was Midnight Express, and we paired a real orchestra with these very hard synths. He was an innovative technician but not a great one, and when he did his records everything was in the red and distorted. I counterbalanced that. We were a really good match. Most of all I liked his creativity and his freethinking approach to what he wanted to achieve. I don’t like to take weeks and weeks in a studio and not achieve anything and neither does Giorgio.
My big break came when I was chosen to write arrangements for one of the hottest artists in the world – Donna Summer. I remember sitting in the airplane to Los Angeles thinking, ‘Why have they called me to LA?’ It was such a big step. It was my Alice in Wonderland moment. Giorgio wanted to have his guys with him as he was afraid that people from the LA scene would take over. For my part, I was nervous coming into a scene full of huge stars like the Doobie Brothers, Toto and the Eagles, but a couple of days later I became one of them and lost all my fear. The first song I wrote for Donna was ‘Hot Stuff’. It was her biggest hit, and all of a sudden it became a necessity to write more of my own songs. I produced one of her later albums and we kept in touch. The last time I saw her was at Giorgio’s 70th birthday – we said, ‘Let’s get together and write some new songs.’ I never saw her again.
Having to explain myself to lots of people in the studio took too much time, so I decided to do it all by myself. Making Thief of Hearts was a jump into cold water. For two weeks I was just having fun in the studio then all of a sudden I got a call from Jerry Bruckheimer saying, ‘When will I get the music? I need it tomorrow.’ I realised that I was on the frontline. Bruckheimer and Simpson didn’t want 100 per cent, they wanted 200 per cent. They played this game until the last minute.
I’m best when I’m under pressure, I’m worst when I have time. When I made ‘Axel F’ my back was against the wall. It was a collage of different things because they needed the song the next morning and I couldn’t make something from scratch, so I took all the tracks I had made for the entire movie and cut them together. I worked all night till 8am and delivered the song to MCA.
“The success of ‘Axel F’ took me by total surprise. I bought some sports cars and touched the dark underbelly of Hollywood, but I never drowned”
Instrumental songs were very unpopular at the time. The last instrumental to hit the top 40 had been Herbie Hancock’s ‘Rockit’, but I insisted, Bruckheimer insisted and the director insisted, and so it became the song of Beverly Hills Cop. Then the clubs picked up on it and suddenly all of America was playing ‘Axel F’. That spread across the world. I am still very proud of being able to create such a popular piece of music without any lyrics or star.
Its success took me by total surprise. I bought some sports cars and I guess I touched the dark underbelly of Hollywood slightly, but I never drowned.
Years later the Crazy Frog people played me their demo and I wasn’t sure about it, but my kids came in and said, ‘Oh, this is cool,’ so I said, ‘It shouldn’t hurt, go ahead.’ I didn’t hear anything about the song for about a year and then I got a call from the BBC saying we had outsold Coldplay four times over and reached number one from nothing. That made me laugh.
One of the strangest scores I did was The Running Man. When I made the Top Gun theme, for example, I composed it before they’d even shot the movie and Bruckheimer and Tom Cruise liked it. Tom was actually in the studio when I delivered it. But with Running Man there was no director, there was no producer, there was nobody. They had wrapped the film and fired the composer so I was left by myself. When I delivered the score, somebody just said, ‘Thank you,’ and that was it. After those films I got so typecast into cop and flying movies that it was tough trying to get a drama or a love story. That was a pity, because I could have done them.
“One day you’re out of fashion and then you become fashionable again”
The most exciting album I made was Behaviour with the Pet Shop Boys. We took the Hitchcock approach to everything – kill your babies. So we would make something, then destroy it and take new colours from that process. Critics still call it one of their best albums. It was a very intense, very good collaboration. I look back with joy to the time when we did that record.
There was a fallout against the synth sound and I moved back to Germany to concentrate on other projects. One day you’re out of fashion and then you become fashionable again. People always take elements of the past and merge it with the future. This will always happen. We have two eyes and two ears and you have to put something into them that you like, right?”