I remember the first time I heard an Italo Disco song, it was on a cassette I used to listen to during a very wet summer in the late 80s. The robotic sound of the synthetic bass, 4/4 tempo, and overall melancholic melody attracted me emotionally to this kind of sound; in the simplest words, it was pleasing while also gloomy. I then forgot about Italo Disco for some years, until I bumped into this record in 2006. What a contemporary sound! At that moment I realised what triggered my curiosity in Italo Disco as a child: the mechanical repetition of sound, united and bound to a beautiful melody. Perhaps this is the secret of Italo Disco, the perfect union and balance between Nature and Nurture, between man (melody) and machine (synthesisers), between brain (words) and body (dance music)? I worked on the topic for years yet I still question the core nature of Italo Disco. Every time I approach it I get lost in its thousands of alcoves, many facts, and polymorphous nature.
Music has always been a sort of language for protesting and escaping reality. Blues was the sound in which the African American community displayed despair and social injustice in the second half of the 19th Century. Similarly, Jazz was a catalyst for political and social change throughout its history, with lyrics and tempos defying the burgeoning civil rights movements that defined the 1950s. 70s Rock and Roll was the cultural revolution that manifested anger towards the Vietnam War and its consequential economic crisis.
The extravagant nature of disco music, with its focus on the groove and the beats, has always been looked at as disingenuous, as it seemed to lack an ability to carry a political message. This is simply untrue, as, besides the glamorous clubs, the funky rhythm, colourful dresses and all that glitter, disco music did convey a powerful message of freedom and started a Copernican revolution. This particular music genre determined emancipation for many unestablished communities: the LGBTQ+ community, women, Latin, BIPOC, and Italian-Americans found in disco music a way to express themselves, thanks to a language that overturns and reveres the focus of the music, from the establishment to the counterculture, producing an ecstatic dance revolution.
If we dig into 80s Italian culture, we can see how disco music was the way Italian society escaped its reality. Specifically, Italian dance music was a language in which youth communicated their frustration after many violent years during the 70s. Squeezed between the extreme left-wing terrorist Brigate Rosse and several neo-fascist groups, the younger discontented generation was hungry for freedom. For an entire decade Italy’s citizens experienced overly politicised violence, also known as “Years of Lead” which started and finished with bombing attacks (Milan, 1969 and Bologna, 1980). During these troubled times, Italian music producers looked at American disco, new romantics, and German krautrock, in search of escapism. The combination of these three styles, united to a very peculiar Italian taste for the melody, helped create what is now referred to as Italo Disco.
During the 70s, with American disco becoming increasingly popular, thanks to DJs spinning tunes, and importers trading across the globe, Italians got to know disco music better and, consequently, started to produce their own versions. Some of the very first Italian disco productions came from Bologna, where outstanding music was written and produced by Celso Vallii (Azoto, Tantra), Mauro Malavasi (Change) and Jacques Fred Petrus (Peter Jacques Band), among others. Of course, Rome wasn’t standing quietly, and thanks to the craftsmanship of Claudio Simonetti & Giancarlo Meo bands such as Easy Going, Vivien Vee, Kasso, Capricorn were born. The established Italian music industry had big names play and release disco songs (Mina, Battisti, Vasco, Sorrenti, Bella, De Piscopo) mostly to follow stay on top of the trends. Milan, which played an important financial role during the period of Italo Disco sound, gave birth to the La Bionda brothers and one of their disco projects D.D. Sound. Finding the first Italian disco song is not easy, since the influences were many, but perhaps Chrisma and Raffaella Carrà were definitely amongst the first.
By the end of the 70s, Europe produced more disco than the US. The DNA was different, thanks to the genius of a few artists, among those the Italian Giorgio Moroder. The sound of European dance music was more robotic, with more synthesisers, machines, and fewer humans, as it was music made by cheap(er) instruments, easily available. The Roland TR-808 or the TR-303 (famously used in Problems D’Amour by Alexander Robotnick) are famous examples. Producers did not need a big band anymore, with bass, drums, brass, guitars and vocalists; by then, one person could produce an entire track in a small, independent studio.
In the early 80s, Disco Music produced in Italy exploded worldwide, becoming a genuine phenomenon. Many labels were born: Baby Records, DiscoMagic Discotto, Disco In, Out Records, Bootlegs, Sensation Records, Cruisin’ Records. All published endless productions and success.
In 1983, Bernard Mikulski, owner of the German label ZYX decided to name all the records he owned from Italy “Italo Disco” and published a compilation called Best of Italo Disco, and thus the name. Since then, what before was called dance music, was then referred to as Italo Disco. Countless musicians became famous all over the globe: Gazebo, Savage, Gary Low, Flirts, Mike Francis, Baltimora, Ryan Paris, Valerie Dore, MoonRay, Ken Laszlo, Miko Mission, Fred Ventura and many more that defined the sound of Italo Disco during the indulgent 80s. The yuppie and the “paninaro” movement in Italy had their language, their fashion clothes and now also their own music.
What were the key features of Italo Disco then? We know that the sound was more robotic, made with Japanese instruments. Roberto Turatti – the man behind Den Harrow, and producers of several artists (the late Albert One, Tom Hooker, Styloo) – told us that: “Italo-Disco was a music genre related to the machines that were sold in those years, that’s why I always say that we were blessed by keyboards and pre-sets. I and my business partner (Mike Chieregato) did produce music with those machines, and I remember using Korg Poly 800, Prophet, Roland, Linn Drum, E-Mu Drumulator.”
It was a blend of American Disco music, German Krautrock, English New Romantics and Italian Melodies. The lyrics often did not have much meaning, but it was not relevant, they still displayed a futuristic world with robotic loves and distant planets adventures. At the time of Italo Disco, the Cold War was still a spectre in the western world, and Italy was flirting with both sides of the world political configuration: aiming at US capitalism and Russian socialism. The consequence of these bipolar fascinations resulted in an aesthetic outcome resembling the Space Race between the two superpowers. Italo Disco songs often were telling stories of space travels, Distant Planets, visitors from other planets and intergalactic creatures. Like replicants from other dimensions, many pop acts were just a facade, as they were not singing, but pretending to be something else. Italo Disco is known for being a genre full of ghost singers and ghost producers; models were often asked to perform on TV, but the songs were sung by professional singers.
Italo Disco had a powerful imaginative power, given by its very core nature, a bottom-up movement, born by people all over Italy, and not by big music corporations. This DIY approach of Italo Disco is the reason why “it was more a provincial phenomenon than metropolitan. Milan was the marketing headquarter of the genre. In Milan, there were importers, exporters, record shops, offices, labels, and businesses.” Fred Ventura told me on the phone. Fred is one of the most important underground musical icons of Italy having played music since the 80s (State of Art, Italoconnection) both in Italy and all over the world. “Many of the producing teams” he claims “were spread across the Country. And each of them had their own take on Italo. Bologna was a bit more punk, Rome was more Funk, Milan more synth-pop. There were many other cities, like Turin, Genoa, Padova, Brescia, Bergamo, Naples involved in the production of disco tunes.”
On a personal level, what really drives me mad is the lesser-known section of Italo-Disco, where it is mixed with lo-fi sounds (Laura Angel), funk (Mr Flagio), electro (Bagarre), synth-pop (Cruisin’ Man) and punk-funk (Amin-Peck, N.O.I.A. Gaznevada). Some tunes exponentially highlight the mechanical repetition of the machines (Rose), some others push the gear into obscure territories (Kristal), others create beautifully emotional moods (Loui$), others disco sensations (M&G) or floor-fillers (Fred Ventura).
After many years of study, I came to the understanding that what makes all of these songs Italo-Disco is their essence. It was an attitude, a message of freedom and love, it was a long summer of love that lasted for years. Rimini, the city in Emilia Romagna, embodied this message and became the land where dreams could become reality. Every summer millions of people from all over Europe were chasing their dream in Rimini, scored by Italo-Disco music.
The genre eventually faded out at the end of the 80s when the ideas were over, the producers were tired and the Dance Music had changed its course, following house and techno, again from the States. Some parts of Italo Disco eventually evolved into high-NRG or Italo House, changing the sound and the concept behind the tracks. The DIY spirit that gave fuel to the early stage of the genre, was then diluted into the wallets of the big music majors, who milked the trend until dried out.
I guess the reason why so many people are so attached to Italo Disco is that it represents freedom to them. It was the time where there was happiness, dreams, youth, and love. All of these sentiments are well expressed by Italo Disco’s indisputably charming synthesisers and cheesy melodies. I also guess that this is what drags younger generations back into it; it’s seen as the score of innocent years they never lived, soundtracks of other people’s dreams.
P.S. It is virtually impossible to list the best Italo disco songs, therefore I prepared THIS youtube playlist (the best stuff is only on youtube), so you can dance to the best Italo Disco production and have the best time of your life!