A Bullshitter's Guide To Italo-Disco
Imagine, if you can, if somebody made a B-movie of the entire disco genre.
Picture via Discogs.
You are the original erotic spaceman. You're so beautiful, and your hair is almost as big as your heart. You are rolling about on a beach in a lime green swim suit. You are snorting cocaine off your white and black bathroom tiles. There is a marble bust of an indiscriminate Greek philosopher on your mantlepiece, next to the champagne flutes and Bonsai tree. You dream of technicolour hors d'oeuvres. You are fucking a robot. You are so Italo.
Imagine, if you can, if somebody made a B-movie of the entire disco genre. Music so obviously emotional, it becomes inescapably affecting. This is Italo and its heartstring-pulling magic. It's not disco, in fact in most cases it's technically a lot worse, but there is untold charm in the chintz.
The most important thing to understand about Italo is that it doesn't really exist in any readily definable form, and it certainly didn't at the time the music was being made. In fact, the music we now recognise as Italo wasn't given that name until the mid-1980s by the German label ZYX. It's a movement with no real starting point, or ending point. In fact, the majority of people who were listening to Italo Disco in Italy simply considered it 1980s pop. The knock on effect of Italo's slippery and contested nature, is that it's pretty hard to write a concrete guide on it without missing stuff, skipping stuff, and generally pissing people off. But I'm going to do it anyway, because that's the sort of nihilistic fucker I am.
So the story, the story that has of course been constructed completely falsely by the annals of musical history, begins with the death of disco in the US. The genre had dominated the 1970s but in its wake inspired a force of untold loathing, largely in middle America. This came to head with the decline of disco sales, and the infamous Disco Demolition — an ill fated attempt to blow up crates of disco records after a Chicago White Sox baseball game. Yet the the shimmer of the mirror ball still had followers in Europe who wanted more from the nations that were turning their backs on it. The decline in original productions, and the cost of imports on records that were becoming rarer and rarer, led to the birth of a new recording industry chiefly in Italy. Producers began to make disco records of their own, got it wrong, but instead created something wildly new.
From here Italo splits off into two discernible, but equally valuable categories. It should be recognised that there were tracks made by OG disco musicians; composers and producers with amazing equipment and years of experience, who blended new synthetic, space age sonics into the glittery glamour. Yet there were also tracks made with the same intentions, by producers who didn't have the equipment or the experience. If anything, it is the latter that give Italo its enduring lovability. Choruses of romantic clichés sung through bad English accents, over ARP synths and pinging walkabout bass-lines. It is the sound of imagined worlds: an imagined America, an imagined sports car tearing down an imagined open highway, before lowering imagined sunglasses and jetting off into an imagined cosmos.
It might be trashier than Bruce Willis' debut album, but this technicolour world of Euro-clubbing and shimmering, sincere self-expression absolutely informed most of what we call dance music today.
Italo isn't a particularly artist-led genre. It's more of a constant stream of obscure one-off bangers that emerged during a deluge of hastily pulled together productions from chancers and electric dreamers. That being said, there are a few stand out names.
Okay, so Giorgio isn't necessarily an Italo disco artist in the truest sense, but he is a crucial jumping off point for the genre. His influence is actually less to do with him being Italian, and more to do with all that electronic music pioneering he did. Moroder represents the moment the slick chintz of disco began to segue into more synthetic spaces. It's an observation of musical development more obvious than Noel Gallagher telling you Oasis were influenced by the Beatles, but Donna Summer's "I Feel Love" really is the production that set up the new template. Also watch the video to "Together In Electric Dreams" and tell me it's not Italo as fuck mate.
Klein & MBO
Klein and MBO were composed of an Italian (Mario Boncaldo), and an American (Tony Carrasco) — which is the geographical marriage of Italo itself. They had possibly the most palpable influence on carrying Italo forward into the realms of dance music, as many of their tracks became hits in the underground scenes of New York and Chicago.
Kano were another of the original groups that broke Italo into the world, and were also one of the first to enjoy hits internationally, with many of their singles landing well in the US. They also released albums, which in the fast moving, cheaply produced world of Italo was something of a rarity. Anyone with keen Kano ears will also hear their slammer "Now Baby Now" sampled on Felix Da Housecat's "Glitz Rock".
These three represent an important part of Italo: the pop star. However the female vocalists weren't stars in the same way as the divas of the original disco era. Names like Valerie Dore were often in fact projects, put together by producers who used the star's identity as a meta-vehicle for the track. Put simply, Italo was doing PC Music before Danny L Harle was even born. It probably hasn't escaped your notice that Italo-disco wasn't the most positive space when it came to representing women.
From an international perspective ZYX was probably the most significant label. Not only did the German label coin the term Italo, but they were responsible for the hugely important Best of Italo-disco compilations. As is often the case, it takes an outsider to realise an insular phenomenon, and it is fair to say the most important contribution of ZYX was exactly this. They recognised Italo as a microcosm, packaged it, and sold it to the world.
One day, I will make a feature length film about Goody Music. Headed up by the megalomanic, unreliable, but ruthlessly ambitious Jacques Petrus, Goody Music was one of the few native Italian labels to truly hold its own among the big international players. Macho's record "I'm a Man" is a particularly notable example, being the first disco record made entirely by Italian musicians to become a worldwide hit, smashing the charts everywhere from America, to Japan, to Brazil. However, Petrus' shaky reputation and inability to recognise his own failings, led to business decisions that took him further into the murky underworld of borrowing more money than he could ever hope to pay back. He was assassinated in 1986 age 47, at his villa in Guadalupe.
Power, another Italian label, gets a mention for the release of some serious Italo heaters. The label only existed between 1986 and 1987 but in that time managed to churn out more kitsch sizzlers than Duran Duran did in their entire career.
Klein & MBO - "Dirty Talk"
Basically the "classic" Italo track. Released in 1982, so just long enough after disco for drum machines to be popping off, but not too deep into the 80s for everything to have gotten all techno, techno, techno.
Baby's Gang - "Happy Song"
Yes, you're correct, "Everybody, let's go to the gig, we can dance there, dance and eat an ice-cream, everybody dancing all night long, try to do it, sing a happy song" are the best lyrics on any dance track ever released.
Paciscopi - "Love's Harmony"
Not necessarily registered as an Italo classic, but this one is a personal favourite. That chugging bassline that is practically predicting how much time everyone was going to spend in sweaty basements with flashing lights over the next thirty years. Then that little popcorn-esque hook trickling over the top. Magical.
Casco - "Cybernetic Love"
Casco (Salvatore Cusato) was one of the great Italo producers, and this is his zenith. "Cybernetic Love", released in 1983, is definitely one to file under the cosmic end of Italo, but one listen and you can practically hear Detroit techno and acid house being born.
Caron - "Out of the Night"
Okay, another personal cut here. This is Italo at its over-emotional, hyper-sincere peak. The opening! It basically sounds like driving around Milan in a soft top, smoking cigarette after cigarette, all the while waiting for your ex to call you on that big black in-car cell-phone you've got.
Clio - "Faces"
The best example of Italo as a form of unbeatable pop music. How this wasn't number one in every territory for twelve years I just don't know.
Riky Maltese - "Warrior"
The biggest chorus in Italo, and the best record Power ever put out.
Dr Martini - "You are the One"
That kick drum. It's practically punching holes in your intricate renaissance inspired ceiling. It's shaking the Dali-esque mirror off your wall. It is tugging the zebra-skin rug from under your feet.
Mr Flagio - "Take a Chance"
An obvious choice, but I wouldn't be doing my job if I didn't include it. Full on smoldering ecstasy here. A reminder of just how sexy dance music can be. If you find gospel tinged vocal hooks, hi-hats, and robots with handlebar moustaches sexy. Which I do.
Firefly - "Love is Gonna Be on Your Side"
A nice inclusion for charting the link to a more classic disco sound. Released in 1981 this marks the period where Italo was more directly characterised by knocking off Studio 54, and it's magnificent.
Valerie Dore - "Get Closer"
Music to avenge your boyfriend's murder to.
COMPILATIONS AND MIXES
As already mentioned, these compilations offer the best potted history of what we call Italo.
Capitalising on the recently revived interest in Italo, Strut did a pretty amazing job of compiling recognised Italo stalwarts like Kano, as well as unreleased rarities. Best cut? Probably this.
Spun together by I-F, this mix kills it. Not 100% Italo but enough is woven in there for it to act as both a viable introduction to new ears, and a dynamic take on the classics for those more familiar.
All of dance music, basically. The most direct migration of the sound was into the Paradise Garage of New York, where Italo cuts provided an electronic juxtaposition amongst Levan's more soulful mixes. Yet the drum tracks found their way into Chicago house, the synthesizers and space-age themes into Detroit techno. Then in the UK, New Order, The Pet Shop Boys, and eventually acid house (consciously or not) were all built on the same greasy, hairy chested foundations. Listen to "Cybernetic Love" by Casco again and now consider everything Daft Punk have ever done. Fuck it, as far as I'm concerned, even Kanye West has made an Italo record.
As for the genre itself, well things got deeper. With developments in Chicago, inspiration started to go the other way and Italo-house was born. The focus shifted towards piano laden productions and euphoric choruses. Basically Black Box's "Ride On Time". I mean, it's a fucking screamer, don't get me wrong. But the days of robots drinking champagne were over.
Italo is as popular today as it has ever been, with dedicated nights emerging in East London, and DJs like Bicep spinning exclusively Italo disco and house sets as they did at Glastonbury. This is all well and good, but we shouldn't for a second start to think that Italo is a kitsch movement, a curious corner of culture for us to ironically groove to after a few drinks. Yes, it is has about as much class as a polyester Hawaiian shirt, but it changed everything.