Northchapel-based Pete Bellotte and his literary ambitions
PUBLISHED: 16:11 10 November 2016
As production legend Pete Bellotte releases his first short story collection he tells Duncan Hall about his literary ambitions
Working alongside Italian producer Giorgio Moroder and singer Donna Summer in Munich’s Musicland Studios, Northchapel-based songwriter and producer Pete Bellotte helped change the sound of popular music forever.
The trio were behind Love To Love You Baby – which became one of the first 12in remixes in 1975. And two years later they created disco classic I Feel Love – a song whose pulsing electronic beat led Brian Eno to tell David Bowie it would “change the sound of club music for the next 15 years”.
But the song which means most to Pete is Donna’s biggest selling single Hot Stuff, which he wrote on an old beat-up piano while taking a break during a month-long studio writing session. “Suddenly the whole chorus came into my head,” he recalls. The song has been transported to new generations through the movies The Full Monty and The Martian.
The song was the high point of a remarkable nine-album run Pete and Giorgio enjoyed with Donna Summer between 1974 and 1981. Once that partnership broke up Pete also worked with Elton John, Janet Jackson, Cliff Richard, Tina Turner and The Three Degrees as a producer and writer.
As an Elvis-loving 14-year-old he used money from his newspaper round to buy a guitar on hire purchase, having faked a friend’s father’s signature to get it.
“I hid the guitar behind a cupboard in my bedroom,” remembers Pete, now 72. “I thought I was being very clever until my father asked why I was hiding it, and not just getting the guitar out to play it.”
Pete turned professional at 17 when he joined Linda Laine and The Sinners, who released three albums on the Columbia label.
“We went to Germany playing for a month at the clubs in Hamburg,” he remembers. While there he made a long-lasting friendship with a young pianist. “I went into this club and saw this band called Bluesology with this young guy called Reg playing the organ. He still had his school blazer and grey trousers on. We became friends straight away. When he got his first week’s wages I took him to one of the big stores, Karstadt, and bought him some funky clothes. He had never had anything like them before.”
Reg became the famously flamboyant singer-songwriter Elton John and the pair stayed in touch over the years. Pete produced Elton’s 1979 disco-flavoured album Victim of Love.
While in Germany Pete decided his future lay on the other side of the studio glass. “It is tough being in a band, playing the same songs night after night,” he says. “When I see Mick Jagger singing Satisfaction it’s fantastic – he does it as if he’s just written it the night before. I realised as a producer if the band or singer didn’t work out, there was always another one on the way.”
Soon Pete met his long-time working partner Giorgio and within a very short time the writing partnership was enjoying its first UK number one hit. In February 1972 Chicory Tip topped the charts with Son Of My Father which was originally written for Giorgio’s own album.
Pete sees 1972 as the true beginning of his career. It was through Giorgio he met the then Donna Sommer who sang demos for the pair. She became a recording artist in her own right in 1974 when her demo of Pete’s song Denver Dream reached a French record producer. A label misprint on the single led to her changing her name to Summer.
The trio had two hits in The Netherlands – but it was the 1975 single Love To Love You Baby which took them to another league. And following a party held by Casablanca Records boss Neil Bogart it became one of the first extended remixes.
“He called us from the party while we were in the studio in Munich,” remembers Pete. “He was playing our single, but the party was turning into an orgy – and the problem was someone had to keep getting up every three minutes to put the song back on! He suggested extending the whole song to one side of an album.” The plan worked, and the extended format was a nightclub staple for the next decade.
Neil presided over the trio’s golden period – in a time where money was no object. For one 1976 album launch party the record company president flew a cake with an icing image of Donna in a negligee first class from San Francisco to Los Angeles and New York. “He did things in this big style,” says Pete. “Casablanca never heard the records until they were finished. Neil hired the best studio in LA for a month just for us to write the Bad Girls album.”
Probably the single which has had the longest-lasting effect on music is I Feel Love.
Its origins link into Pete’s love of novels. Inspired by reading Anthony Powell’s A Dance To The Music Of Time sequence Pete came up with the concept of Donna’s 1977 album I Remember Yesterday, which saw her perform songs in the styles of different time periods – from the 1950s through to the future which was represented by I Feel Love. “It was a throwaway track,” says Pete today. “It didn’t mean anything to us – it was Neil at Casablanca who said: ‘That’s the song’.”
The rise of the ‘disco sucks’ movement in the US, and a dislike of living in LA, led Pete to break up his working relationship with Giorgio – although the pair are still close friends – and to come back home to the UK. He bought his converted 15th century threshing barn in Northchapel in 1993. It is now home to a small studio, a collection of original paintings and first editions by his literary hero Mervyn Peake and is where he carries out most of his creative endeavours assisted and supported by his wife of 19 years, singer-songwriter Ellie.
“He has never had writer’s block,” says Ellie from the garden of their home, looking out over the towering Black Down. “It just pours out every day – whether it’s a story, a song or a poem. It’s amazing to live around.”
Pete’s first short story collection, The Unround Circle, was released by Nine Elms Books this year. The 22-story collection explores a variety of influences and subjects, from the music industry-inspired tale of dodgy agent Johnny Warmglow to 1743, a tale of rejection and redemption set in the 18th century which could be the opening of a novel.
Some stories date back over 10 years, and several have a Christmas theme because they started life as stories sent to friends alongside seasonal greetings.
“I start with the first line and I don’t know where it is going to go,” says Pete. “With 1743 I was out walking my dogs and came up with the line: ‘My brother was an only child’. I started thinking about what that might mean – a child discarded by his parents, the hare-lip which might have caused it, and putting it into the cruel time of the 18th century.”
Although he is a keen reader of novels – particularly Peake whose Gormenghast trilogy he found and read while making Donna’s second album – he is focusing on the short story. He has also released a new album The Noisy Voice of the Waterfall – a collection of spoken word pieces set to musical soundscapes, including Fame or Famine another knowing pot-shot at the music industry.
At the Piccadilly Waterstones launch of his collection Pete premiered new spoken word piece The City inspired by being in London. The launch was soundtracked by a mix of Pete’s biggest hits, set to a beefed-up version of the I Feel Love synthline with vocals by Ellie. It’s a piece of music the pair would like to explore further to perhaps return to the charts.
Pete is halfway through a second collection of stories, is writing and producing music with Sting’s producer Kipper and at the request of his publisher is revisiting a couple of novels he penned but never tried to have published.
And of course there is the inevitable question of an autobiography.
“I wanted to make the music and live my own life,” says Pete. “I never got involved in the world of drink and drugs – I’ve never tasted a cigarette or alcohol. Because of that I remember it all!
“I don’t think I would like to go back to that period – I’m 100 per cent satisfied with my life today. Ellie is my best friend, we’re together all the time.
“We have fantastic holidays – we’ve been around the world a few times. We go for a walk on Black Down every morning – it’s the highest point in West Sussex.
“On a clear day you can see the sea at Shoreham and the whole of the South Downs. West Sussex is the most beautiful place in the world. I would never dream of leaving.”
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