Everything You Ever Wanted to Know About Italo Disco (But Were Afraid To Ask)

Mike Simonetti interviews Venetian producer Bottin about the genre's greatest hits (and misses), and the recent kitsch revival.

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Aug 15 2013, 6:00pm

Image via Swide

As the head honcho of three international labels—Troubleman Unlimited, Perseo, and most significantly, Italians Do It Better—Mike Simonetti has been a music industry puppet master for over a decade. On the other side of the table sits the Venice, Italy-based DJ/producer Bottin, who crafts retrofuturist sounds inspired by late-night Italian TV. In other words, meet two of the world's leading authorities on Italo disco—that lovably chintzy disco offshoot mass-produced in Italy and abroad during the '70s and '80s by record labels like ZYX. (It helps that the two crate diggers are more Italian than Mario and Luigi eating spaghetti on a Vespa.) We got the guys together to discuss the highs, lows, and recent revival of this kitschy, mass-produced sound. Obviously, much track swapping and shit-talking ensued. It was awesome. Read their full debate below.

Mike Simonetti: I would say that 90% of Italo is just not good. Agree?
Bottin: Over here, all Italo sucks. It was cheap, mass-produced music. Quantity over quality and all that. Before the Italo years, Italian disco was produced by top-end musicians and composers.

But can't that be said for any kind of pop music? By the mid-'80s, Italo was already pop music.

Well no, not really. There has always been high-quality pop since The Beatles. Italo was mainly Italian producers pretending to be English or American by singing in "English" and using English-sounding monikers.

There is some really good Italo though. Like this track:

Klein & MBO… we all love that track. But we listen to it with our campy postmodern ears. You can't say it's a high quality production. Come on!

I listen for hooks and emotional impact over production values. I hear that track and I hear the basis of house.

We all do that. We are DJs. But DJs from back in the day—I mean Italian DJs—they wouldn't touch Italo records. This one time, I was riding the bus to the airport and the driver saw my record bag. He told me was DJing throughout the '80s and invited me to his place to make trades. When he saw I was interested in Italo stuff he was like, "Are you crazy? That's the shit section of my collection." He said neither he or his DJ friends would play Italian production. They sounded awful and cheap in comparison to UK stuff. And actually they do. It's just that the aesthetics have changed. Back then a bad vocal was just a bad vocal.

That's the charm though. Much Italo is almost like minimal synth in the way it was very DIY, lo-fi and sloppy. I mean, anyone can press a pre-set ARP button and make a bassline, true?

True, bad vocals give us back a sense of authenticity. The same goes for cheap sound productions where there's too much reverb or no reverb at all.

You dwell on sound quality too much dude! What about the emotion?

I mean, everything that Celso Valli did was good, even the Italo stuff. The other top producer is Mauro Malavasi. He did Cube, Hypnotic Tango, and Two Heads Are Better Than One. He also was behind most of the Goody Records stuff with that shady Petrus guy that got killed in Guadalupe by the mob or something. I mean those guys were former prog rock musicians who came from the conservatory and knew how to arrange for an orchestra.

So everyone is all about "house music." Why do you think the house producers in Chicago went for all this Italo shit?

I don't know if Chicago guys lifted from Italo. But Italian dance music has always had success abroad since "Quando Quando Quando." Basically I can think of three or four styles of Italo: good Italo that was produced by people who were already doing top-end disco, like Valli and Malavasi. Second, good Italo that was inspired by Kraftwerk—robot-themed or space-themed Italo like C.H.A.R.L.I.E. and Robotnick. Third, Italo pop like Den Arrow—stuff that was made for the charts and heavily based on the image of the singer. And of course, all copycat Italo. Like copying some big international hit and changing a few notes, like this:

Yeah, that Duke Lake shit is awful. Let's go to "Il Veliero" by Lucio Battisti. Would you consider this the ultimate example of a good Italo song? You said Italo artists Americanized everything and made it with drum machines, but Il Veliero is sung in Italian with a live drummer and loose sounds...

I think "Il Veliero" is a great song, with an awesome, simple arrangement idea and a haunting melody. No wonder the Italo version is one of the best Italo records ever. Any version of it would be good. I like all the cover versions of that song: Lama's, Chaplin Band's, the Lindstrom one, the recent Phreek Plus One...

It's so good. People love that bassline. It's very bouncy—perfect for white people to bop around to on the dancefloor.

Rumor has it that Battisti went to LA on holiday and then came back and made this wicked record.

Let me ask you about the funky stuff like Atmosphera. I really like that stuff.

Well basically it was just reflecting the international trend around '83 or '84. All this "electric boogie" stuff came out like BB&Q band, My Malavasi, Firefly, Change...

Can you explain to people the Canadian connection? Why did so many Italo records come out on Canadian labels and get recorded in Canada?

I think there was a big Italian community there. They had labels and made their own music.

But it had more of a Euro touch to it though. More Hi-NRG maybe?

It was done by white people with Mediterrean roots, but it was not derived from soul and R&B. So to you it sounds Euro. To me it sounds Canadian.

Dude, did you know that in the USA most Italo records are "rare"?

Italo records are rare in Italy too. When the network put all indie stations out of business, most record archives got burned down. And since good DJs wouldn't play much of this shit music and nobody was collecting it, there are actually very few copies remaning.

How do you feel when people call anything with an ARP synthesizer "Italo"?

Not everything that can be labeled Italo was produced in Italy. There was was some good stuff coming from Germany and Belgium and Sweden. But yes, anything that has an ARP playing non-random notes is now deemed as Italo. Whereas for me, a key ingredient to authentic Italo is also in the image. Have you seen P. Lion's "Happy Children" video?

Was there an Italian version of the Brill Building?

There were a few key production studios like Green House in Padova where some cool Italo records were made, like DF & Pam's "On The Beat," Dust Man's "King of Ghetto," The Flics's "Take It Easy." It's funny how "King of Ghetto" is quite similar to Carrara's "Disco King." It was produced in the same year, although with totally different credits.

Seems like the same sequencer parts to me! Not sure which came out first, but Dust Man is like a cover of M.F.S.B. isn't it?

Maybe its an homage.

No, no. It's a straight cover. But isn't this D.F. & Pam one great? It has the "Italo chord."

It's great. Surely a Cybernetic Broadcasting System classic, yes.

Cybernetic Broadcasting System is what many people used as the blueprint for Italo, pre-Discogs and YouTube.

Well it was really important. Although I think it was more collector-driven than DJ-driven. Perhaps both though.

True. Also the Mixed Up In The Hague compilations were important to all the NYC DJs who were trying to discover Italo in the early 2000s. Dan Selzer was heavy into that comp.

So it's impossible to define where Italo starts and ends. Just like disco or any other genre. The name "Italo" was invented in the mid-'80s by German label ZYX when they released these From the Italo Boot compilations. But until a few years ago nobody in Italy used the word Italo. They called it "'80s revival." Imagination, Tears for Fears, Simple Minds, Sabrina Salerno—it was and still is what we call '80s music in italy. The other big one was Lombardoni's Disco Magic, whose artwork I mocked in my Cristalli Liquidi 12" release.

Good way to end this... with a plug!