An Idiot’s Guide To: Italo-Disco
Italo was the love child of the decline of classic US disco and the boom in development of cheap synthesisers, vocoders and drum machines.
I’m a big fan of disco, my friends can attest to that for sure, but I’ve never really given the same level of attention to disco’s flamboyant, cheesy, European cousin – Italo-disco. Barring the occasional Italo themed night out or the rogue tune in on one of my Spotify playlists, I’ve really never explored the genre properly. So I decided to use PHASER as an opportunity to talk about my hap-hazard delve into the unknown.
Blaring synths, repetitive drum beat, space-age FX and choruses of love in heavily accented English vocals is what I’ve come to discover is the essence of Italo-disco. In order to appreciate why this is the case it’s key to have an appreciation of its history. That in itself is a hard ask as there is very little consensus on when the genre came about. There is a clear understanding that by 1983 Italo-disco was a ‘thing’, but prior to that and indeed during the infancy of the genre it was often considered simply contemporary pop music. It wasn’t until the influential marketing by a German record company, ZYX, in 1982 that “Italo-disco” was a used term. Thus, to brazenly stick a start date on the birth of the genre would be wrong.
Italo was the love child of the decline of classic US disco and the boom in development of cheap synthesisers, vocoders and drum machines. White, middle America’s distaste of disco in the US in the late 1970s was unfortunate for disco-lovers across the Atlantic as it meant that the cost of getting records, which were becoming rarer and rarer, over to Europe was extremely expensive. Whilst the advent of purchasing and recording your own tracks became a real possibility for a huge number of people through the cheap, mass-produced equipment.
Bottin, a prominent Italian producer who lived through the era, told American DJ Mike Simonetti in an interview with Vice that Italo was all about “quantity over quality”. In retrospect it was “cheap, mass-produced music”. That’s not to say that the genre was bad, or even that it didn’t have well-produced tracks. It did! Bottin’s comments simply reflect the nature of the period. By 1983 Italo-disco was everywhere and certainly had wide ranging influences. Unusually, a huge contingency of Canadian Italo artists surfaced such as Lime and Trans X who produced similar tracks to their Italian counterparts - the assumption behind this was the considerable Italian immigrant population in Canada. Furthermore, the start of Chicago House and even the Detroit Techno music scene can trace some influence from Italo-disco, especially the heavier drum and synth tracks.
Italo-Disco is an area with very few prominent figures or artists. Instead most tracks were one-hit wonders. Figures such as famed producer Giorgio Morodor and duo Klein & MBO were constants in the ever-changing field but, ultimately, it’s easier to mention famous and influential tracks that summarise the genre, and ones that I’ve grown to love through writing this article.
1. Passengers – Midnight
Produced in 1981, this tune has often been assigned the title of the “first Italo-disco tune” by fiery keyboard warriors on internet music forums. Despite the inconsequential debates, this really is a great song and had influences that can be heard in the Italo tunes of ’82 and onwards.
2. Mr. Flagio - Take a Chance
This 1983 masterpiece is now the go-to song that I would recommend everyone gives a listen to truly get a feel for Italo-disco. The space age feel of the tune alongside robotic vocals and a supreme drum machine beat puts this in clear Italo-disco royalty for me.
3. Doctor’s Cat – Feel the Drive
A synthy song that had real influence over the pond with the development of Chicago House. The standard elements of Italo-disco can all be found here yet there’s a certain heaviness of the song that can easily be confused for House music.
4. My Mine – Hypnotic Tango
Don’t associate the cheesy melodic lyrics of this song with negativity when in reality this catchy song is prime Italo-disco.
5. Fun Fun – Baila Bolero
Fun Fun’s more well-known tune “Happy Station” sits among Italo-disco stardom and can be found in multiple top 20 lists however I prefer the campy, cheesiness of “Baila Bolero”. The song’s unashamed upbeat mood and nonsensical lyrics talk to me on a higher level.
Today, Italo-disco is as popular as ever. DJs are spinning sets of complete Italo sounds and many clubs now have dedicated Italo nights. My exploration of the genre has allowed me to develop a newer appreciation for the genre and the influences it’s had over electronic music - it really was not a kitsch movement.