Tracking the history of Italo disco and its undervalued legacy
“I think it would be stupid for us to try and tell people who are dancing in a discotheque about the problems of the world. That is the very thing they have come away to avoid.” – Giorgio Moroder
Over the last thirty years, Italo disco has gone from being a tasteless novelty item and guilty pleasure to a snobbish cult presided over by the techno elite. Here, we turn the lights on at the disco in an effort to find out exactly what Italo is and why it still matters. While the tension between nonsense lyrical translations and fierce synth-led melodies is an acquired taste, the thrill of Italo is that it does not take itself too seriously. It celebrates the synthetic in a way that, from a 21st Century perspective, seems joyously ahead of its time. It is little wonder Italo now finds itself at the cutting edge of the Berlin club scene and EDM mainstream.
It is not difficult to work out why Italo disco failed to make an impact in English speaking territories — awkward translations and the absence of quality music videos was obviously problematic in a market dominated by American MTV. Likewise, the proliferation of synth-pop in the early 1980s meant that by the time Italo got a real foothold in the scene, it already sounded a bit dated to British and US audiences familiar with Duran Duran, Eurythmics and Depeche Mode. Live Aid was also a big game-changer, from 1985 onwards, the move towards band sounds, live instrumentation and stadium rock influenced the adult-orientated flavour of pop radio.
Italo’s success in Northern European countries like Holland, Denmark, Sweden and Finland, however, left a legacy that has spawned numerous revivals. The narrative attached to the genre has moved away from the ironic consumption of Club Med-style Euro-pop, to a more serious appreciation of its innovative production, and its undoubted role in the development of house music and techno. In this direction, Italo is seen as the missing link between Kraftwerk and Giorgio Moroder in the 1970s and Frankie Knuckles and Bobby Orlando in the 1980s.
An oversimplification? Perhaps. And what this story avoids is an appreciation of Italo in the terms of its own definition. Unfortunately, the Italo canon is incredibly difficult to understand, it’s a myriad of producers, vocalist and artists, with a convoluted and contradictory back catalogue of hits, misses and cover versions. So here goes, with an inevitably flawed attempt to explain the inexplicable; the authentic joy of Italo disco. In the UK, the history of Italo is usually mediated by a number of big-name eighties acts, specifically Pet Shop Boys, Erasure, and Depeche Mode. They frame the legacy of Italo in a way that tends to position it as inferior to these higher budget appropriations of the Bobby O electro-pop, which New Order made famous with ‘Blue Monday’ in 1983. Only a handful of Italo tracks made the top 40 in the UK during this period including Ryan Paris’s ‘Dolce Vita’, Baltimora’s ‘Tarzan Boy’, Spagna’s ‘Call Me’ and Sabrina’s ‘Boys’. These tended to be fetishised as exotic novelty items, tacky souvenirs from Mediterranean beach discotheques (the Spanish Costas as opposed to Italy’s Adriatic), very much in the mode of George Baker’s ‘Paloma Blanca’. The situation was confused further by the number of international imitators of the Italo sound. Fake from Sweden, Real Life of Australia, Falco, Modern Talking and Alphaville who all hail from Germany, France’s F.R David and Desireless, and Bad Boys Blue from the UK could all be mistaken for ‘genuine’ Italo.
By 1986 Stock Aitken Waterman, pop producers of the highest commercial success, were also beginning to corner the market by repurposing the Hi-NRG Euro-pop sound for a pre-teen audience. Records produced for Dead or Alive, Rick Astley, Kylie Minogue and Jason Donovan all incorporated elements of Italo, blending it with classic pop and Motown stylisations, to create a formula that dominated the UK charts between 1987 and 1990. In the club scene, the emergence of acid house also made the beats and melodic emphasis of Italo seem dated when compared to the sounds generated by the latest Roland TB 303. The inevitable evolution into Italo house, superseded Italo disco, with Black Box’s genre-defining ‘Ride On Time’ reaching the top 10 everywhere in Europe except Italy. Like every pop subculture, from punk to grime, the term Italo obviously simplified the nuanced aesthetics of a wide genre. Originally known as ‘spaghetti disco’, the term ‘Italo’ was first used by the German label ZYX to market compilations of Italian records that were popular in the clubs of Northern Europe. It is perhaps this ‘representation’ of Italo disco’s ‘Italianness’ that marks it out. Merseybeat, New York punk, Chicago house, Detroit techno — when genres are identified geographically, typically it is with markers connected to specific urban locations. Not since the ‘British Invasion’ of the US charts in 1964 had a genre been so nationally generic.
What is clear, however, is that Italo was not a genre that mainstream Italian audiences identified with. Responding to an Instagram story showcasing Italo on an alternative rock profile, one follower was moved to write the following: “I was a teenager in Italy in the eighties: we listened to English and American music: post-punk, dark, rock music… ITALO??? Never heard of it… it must be another commonplace like ‘pizza e madolino’…I was in England for four months in 1986 and no one ever pointed at me laughing and shouting ITALO.”
It is this contradiction that makes Italo so elliptical. It is less a recognisable culture, and more of a cypher — an aesthetic rationale for decoding and a marketing device for pop as an export product.
Like the ‘pizza e mandolino’, Italo may have had limited connection to authentic Italian culture, but it was a neat way of serving up slices of the Adriatic club scene on menus aimed at tourists. Few people who consumed what they thought of as Italo would ever listen to it in context, to travel to the beach resort of Rimini or see the Creatures perform at Altromondo nightclub. So what Italo meant was already much more abstract and ambiguous, shrouded in space-age illusion and package holiday fantasy. There is, of course, a romance associated with Italy that is framed by the legacy of the Renaissance. In the ’60s and ’70s destinations like Florence, Rome and Venice were cultural hot spots for Northern Europe’s expanding middle class. Synonymous with art and high culture, Italy was at the forefront of the collective conscience when it came to popular images of ‘abroad’. Italian cuisine had also become more routine in Northern Europe, both in the home and also the rising popularity of the trattoria and pizzeria, giving people a taste of Italy without ever having been there. The aesthetics of the Italian club scene, however, were far removed from these cultural cliches, the visual code of the infamous L’Altromondo nightclub owed more to science fiction than Da Vinci or Bernini. Mythologies perpetuated by 1970s advertising probably had more influence on the branding of Italo disco internationally. Campaigns for drinks like Martini and Campari made contemporary Italian culture a byword for aspiration and gracious suburban living.
Gangster films also played a part in cementing this glamour, particularly when Italian culture was looked at through the lens of Hollywood, in movies like Mean Streets (1973) and The Godfather (1972). This mystique was perpetuated further with the rise of fashion houses Armani and Versace, whose clothes were appropriated by the Paninaro youth cult, and its obsession with Italian designer labels. The male form, however, is a singular feature of Italo disco that is often overlooked. The genre produced a number of extremely flamboyant performers in the mode of US disco stars like Sylvester and Divine, these included Fancy, Miko Mission and Albert One. Far more commonplace, however, was the iconography of the brooding Latino archetype of acts like Fred Ventura, Brian Ice, Eddy Huntington etc. Like the Paninaro, these performers looked like they had just stepped off a Milan catwalk. Some, in the case of fashion model Den Harrow, actually had.
Harrow’s subsequent dispute with US singer Tom Hooker (who was alleged to have sung on a number of Harrow’s hits) highlighted the modus operandi of Italo producers. Harrow (born Stefano Zandri) was recruited for his good looks by producers Roberto Turatti and Miki Chieregato to front promotional duties for their records — videos, record sleeves, television lip-syncs and the like. The sobriquet Den Harrow (a pun on the Italian for money) was created, along with a complicated back story that he was, in fact, American. In the world of Italo, however, the identity of the singer is not the most important thing. According to Pietro Anton’s documentary, Italo Disco Legacy producers hedged their bets, optimising their chances of scoring a hit by releasing multiple records under different aliases while using the same restricted panel of vocalist. It was a marketing strategy that meant the visual component of an artist only became a necessity once the record was in the charts.
As producer and vocalist, Federico Di Bonaventura (aka Fred Ventura) states: “This rumour that most Italo artists weren’t actually singing became a sort of legend people didn’t want to believe. But as insiders, we were fully aware of that and we accepted it’. Ventura also went by the names Flexx and Pleasure and Pain, but these were more arms-length projects: ‘Even if the tracks became successful, I had nothing to do with them anymore. It all ended with the cheque”.
Of course, from a 21st Century perspective, this kind of rationale for pop is routine, with DJ producers like David Guetta, Martin Solveig, Swedish House Mafia and more dominating mainstream tastes. No one problematises their disconnect from vocals or instrumentation. However, as the Milli Vanilli Grammy scandal illustrated, audiences in the late 1980s were not yet ready to accept the exposition of pop’s back story. The duo, who were put together by Boney M producer Frank Farian, had to give their award back after it was revealed that they did not sing on the record. What this way of working did facilitate, however, was a panache of extremely stylised pop stars, whose glamorous good looks have resonated down the decades.
While many contemporary Italo DJ’s speak critically of the vocal intonations on their favourite tracks (preferring to play the instrumentals), what this overlooks is the fascinating subject positions of the protagonists. Back in 2005, at a conference at La Sapienza University in Rome, for the International Association for the Study of Popular Music, New York academic Kai Fikentsche delivered a fascinating paper in which he explored the gender-ambiguous dialogue at the beginning of Ken Lazlow’s ‘Hey Hey Guy’. The exchange could not be more homoerotic and yet, ‘the sign of gayness’, which has run throughout the history of mainstream British pop since the 1950s, is not generally acknowledged in Italo.
The camp aesthetic that defines so much of the genre is not discussed, especially by the audiophile DJs espousing the genres proto-techno credentials. Hiding in plain-sight perhaps, the solemnity with which Italo aficionados consider the technology and songwriting proves the adage coined by the novelist Christoper Isherwood that you “can’t camp about something you’re not serious about”. However, it also elides one of the most interesting aspects of Italo from a contemporary perspective, which is that of the male vocal. In the carnivalesque world of Italo, boys sing lyrics and melodies that in English language genres would be delivered very differently. At the one extreme, within the synth-pop genre, we have the dead-pan delivery of Neil Tennant, Bernard Sumner and David Gahan. At the other, the transvesticised effeminacy of Jimmy Somerville or Andy Bell. Italo vocals strike a very different note — that of ‘machismo’.
It is the contrast between the soaring synth lines and the aggressive masculine pride intoned by the vocal style that makes Italo stand out. The limited melodic range and slow pace of harmonic change conspire to create a prowling sense of menace. This is often then augmented with female vocal riffs and interjections in instrumental sections when the pace of change speeds up and the structure becomes more unpredictable. Thus Italo often conforms to a binary in which the power of the masculine vocal is undiluted, with the feminine relegated to background decoration.
The masculine qualities of Italo can partly be attributed to the influence of new wave on its earlier incarnations. Also, the way in which keyboard lines are used to conceal limitations in the musical range of the singers creates a stark juxtaposition. The end result is no less transgressive than punk. The difference between Raf’s original version of the Laura Branigan hit ‘Self Control’ is a case in point. Anglo-American audiences were possibly not ready for a song like this sung from a male perspective — its impassive lyric at odds with the ‘macho’ delivery. But what of Italo’s legacy? American scholar Laurence Grossberg once wrote that “the only authenticity is to know and even admit that you’re not being authentic, to fake it without faking the fact you’re faking it”. He may as well have been writing the brief for Italo disco. Italo combines the DIY aesthetic of punk, with Andy Warhol’s mass production Factory processes. The end result continues to beguile because, like The Creature’s spaceship DJ Booth at L’Altromondo, Italo remains ahead of its time.
In the intervening years, few artists have successfully appropriated the Italo sound. Clearly, its influence can be felt on UK synth-pop acts. On top of that, the more melodic aspects of nineties Euro-dance with Haddaway, Culture Beat, Dr Alban to name just a few. In the 21st Century superstar electroclash DJs, Fischerspooner and The Hacker have kept the genre alive alongside French electro house producers like Laurent Wolf, Alan Braxe and Fred Falke. More recently Italove, who describe themselves as ‘the heirs of Italo’ have gained a cult following in South America, particularly with the video to the single ‘Follow Me to Mexico’ which was released in 2013. However, within the mainstream, perhaps the last time Italo had a moment of real crossover was with US alternative rock band Bloodhound Gang’s ‘The Bad Touch’ in 2000.
Those final merges of the genre may not be the most enticing for a new fan but considering its position as one of the final moments in such a vibrant history, the song must be respected all the same. The truth of Ital disco’s story means that it is likely destined to remain a faceless force in modern music. There’s no crime in that, in fact, it’s part of what has made the genre so expansive and encompassing. While the colours are bright, the sounds are beautifully buxom and the imagery is decadent and debauched, Italo disco has always quietly pumped its fist through the decades and, judging by the recent return to favour, it will likely do it for decades more because, above all else, Italo disco has always provided a safe haven. Or, as Giorgio Moroder once said: “Dance music doesn’t care where you live. It doesn’t care who your friends are. It doesn’t care how much money you make. It doesn’t care if you’re 74 or if you are 24 because… 74 is the new 24!”