Disco’s original remix man, now 70, shows he hasn’t lost his golden touch with his latest collection of dance-floor gems, Philly ReGrooved 2.
Interviewed by Bruce Tantum, June 7, 2011
Philly ReGrooved 2’s liner notes state that you’ve done more than 5,000 remixes over the years. Could that really be correct? It seems almost impossible.
Believe it or not, it is possible. It’s my whole life, really. I tried to give it up for a while and retire, but I realized I was only a half a person. My energy level and excitement level go up so much when I’m involved in music. And I’m very happy that people still like me to do it.
I’m guessing that when you got involved in the remix business almost 40 years ago, you would never have guessed you’d still be at it in 2011.
I certainly didn’t. I remember thinking, Well, this is probably a fad, and someday people would be saying, “Oh yeah, I remember that thing from the ’70s.”
Is it true that “Do It (’Til You’re Satisfied)” by B.T. Express was your first commercially released remix?
Yes, but the very first mix I ever did in a studio was “It Really Hurts Me Girl” by the Carstairs, a Northern Soul kind of thing that was really popular in England in the early ’70s. I was always embarrassed about it; back then, I didn’t know my ass from a hole in the ground. Sorry, I don’t mean to be so vulgar, but I don’t know how else to put it—I didn’t know that much about being in a studio.
I kept asking people, “Can I do this? Can I do that?” And they would say, for instance, “No, you have to put the bass in the middle; you can’t put it on the left or right.” And I would just say, “All right.” But it didn’t get released until I had “Do It (’Til You’re Satisfied)” and a couple of other things come out; then they were like, “Well, we better put out that version that Tom Moulton did for us.” I didn’t even know they finally released it until it got so popular in England.
Even though you say you didn’t know what you were doing on the Carstairs song, you must have enjoyed the work.
I was fascinated by what was possible to do, and I still am. I always tell people, “Don’t shut off your thirst for knowledge,” because that’s what keeps you moving. Every time I’m working on something, there’s always a time where I’ll be like, “Oh, I didn’t know you can do that! I can do this now!” It’s amazing what I’m still learning, all the time.
So after all these years, you’re still working on your remixing chops?
Oh my God, that’s more true now than it was years ago. And I love it.
The songs on Philly ReGrooved 2 are three and a half decades old, as are many of your classic remixes. Why is the appeal of this kind of music so enduring?
The reason they hold up is simple: They’re good songs and they’re performed well. When I do remixes, I try to only do songs where I feel I can enhance the song and the performance. And I always want to work on songs that draw me into them; then it’s not really work at all.
Have there been any songs you’ve regretted turning down?
You had to ask me that, didn’t you? I remember it like it was yesterday: “Tom, would you like to mix this record?” And I said, “No, I think ‘Dancing Queen’ sounds fine the way it is.” Every day, I ask myself why I did that. But really, I turned it down for all the right reasons. I thought it sounded great the way it was. Of course, I always thought there would be a long version of that song released, and there never was. That did aggravate me some.
Maybe you still could do it.
Well, I really don’t think ABBA is interested anymore. I’ve had people trying to get me that song for years, because they know I turned it down and I regret it, but it’s never happened. That’s where I think money can really be a curse. When people are hungry, they try harder. Once they make all this money, they lose their drive. But for me, it’s always been the music that’s driven me; the money is secondary, if that. It’s getting involved in a song and finding out what you can do with it that I like.
That love of music must have made it exciting for you when the Philly Re-Grooved project was proposed to you. All these songs are so good.
Yes, I was very excited when the first edition was mentioned to me. But I was like, “Do you think it will sell? Do you think people still care about this music?” And Ian Dewhirst, who owns the label, said, “You know, you do have a following. The Northern Soul people like you; the dance people like you. So we should do fine.” And I just said, “Okay, then let’s try it!” I did tell them there were a couple of songs that I have to do, or else I’m just not interested.
Was there always a plan to do a second edition?
Not really. After the first one, Ian told me, “Tom, how it usually works is that a CD will come out, it’s hot for a month and then it dies. But yours just keeps selling!” I was like, “Well, that’s good, right?” And he said, “Yeah. And that means we have to do a second volume!” When we were talking about what songs we should use for this one, he immediately said [First Choice’s classic] “Smarty Pants,” I’m thinking, Oh God, I hate that song. But let me explain why I hate it. I always thought it sounded like a little kids’ song, like “Na na na na naah, naah.”
When I told Rochelle Fleming, who’s First Choice’s lead singer, that I was gonna remix that one, she said, “Tom, you know I don’t even sing that song anymore. I’m too old to be singing it!” I went, “You’re kind of old to sing it? What about me? I’m 70, and I’m mixing it!” I took the bongos out of it, except for at the turnaround. Those bongos used to drive me crazy. It sounds much more like a Philadelphia song now, I think, a real Philly groove, which I didn’t really realize that it had.
You can still surprise yourself with a remix?
Yeah, definitely. After I took the bongos out of “Smarty Pants,” I realized what a good song it was and how in the pocket it was, and I never felt that way about the song before. But you can never take out the part of the song that makes people love it in the first place. That’s always been a complaint of mine. If it’s a three-minute record, I want to hear someone do a nine-minute version of that song, not some cutesy-wootsy overdubs or whatever. I want the same song, but longer. As the saying goes, you can’t get too much of a good thing!
It sounds like you’ve heard a few remixes you don’t like very much.
Oh, wow—I don’t know if you want me to get into this, but when HMV was still open, I bought the CD single of that “I Get Knocked Down” song. I took it home, listened to it, and it was a remix. And they took the “I get knocked down” part out of the song! I took it back to the store and was yelling, “What is this shit? This is shit! Where is the song? How can you sell this? The goddamned song is gone!” I was that infuriated. I mean, you remix a song because you like the song, right?
You’re lucky they didn’t call security on you.
They did! And then it happened again, with this Blondie remix album. I just love “Heart of Glass,” and it was just nine minutes of this [He hums the opening riff over and over.]. The part I like, the hook, was gone. I was furious! I just don’t understand.
They call it minimalism.
Yeah, I know, but the very reason a song is a hit in the first place is what you should be working with. That’s what you want to incorporate. You should try to expand the audience, rather than kill it. I don’t understand the logic behind it, if logic even comes into it. Obviously, I’m kind of passionate about this.
I can tell!
It’s all about having respect for the producer and the idea behind song, and I have tons of respect for both. As a remixer, there are certain lines I won’t cross. About six years ago, I was on a panel that [former Billboard dance-music editor] Michael Paoletta was moderating. I love Michael, but I knew he was going to ask me something that would get me going. He knows I’ll give an honest answer. So he asks, “Tom, who is more important—the DJ or the artist?” And I said, “Well, in reality, it’s the DJ, but it should be the artist. When the DJ thinks they’re something more than the artist that they’re playing, then that DJ needs a vacation.”
And you feel the same is true of the remixer and the artist, I assume?
I’ll put it this way: When I saw my how big my name was on the cover of the Philly ReGrooved CD, the fist thing I said was “My name is too big.”
Philly ReGrooved 2 (Harmless) is out now.