Electro-Pop and Italo Disco! The world's first and oldest completely electronic dance music is, like all things retro and 80s, making a comeback! If you're thinking "It's about god damn time!", rejoice! If you're thinking "Hey, I remember this stuff. Wow, how kitsch!", prepare for a rollercoaster return to memory lane. If you're thinking "What the bloody hell is Italo Disco?!", sit back and enjoy the science.
Italo Disco has its origins in a number of places. Most direct antecedents would probably be the electro-pop of Kraftwerk, and the twitchy French pop scene spear-headed by JJ Perrey, Polyphonic Size, Telex, Silicon Teens and The Like, the precursors to Human League, Gary Numan and the ubiquetously 80s synthpop sound as we know it. But probably the most direct influence was Giorgio Moroder, an actual fellow countryman from South Tyrol/Italy, who probably gave the genre its namesake and a distinctive sound with his patented "galloping synth" arpeggiation technique (well, not a technique. More like a mistake, or the result of working with extremely limited analog equipment with no polyphony), so addictive it has become the backbone of virtually every trance and eurohouse song of the last 25 years. Moroder and Donna Summer - I Feel Love (1977) is a disco song proper, but realistically it marked a divergence from the horn-strings-and-electric- bass of typical disco music, and into something new: straight-ahead buzzing, spitting synths.
Not mechanical and cold like the German futurists, nor weird and avant-garde like the French experimentalists, this new electronic disco was incredibly accessible. Warm, bouncey, friendly, perfect for dancefloors, and most importantly: stupidly cheap and easy to make. Where in 1975 a disco outfit might be a 10-12 piece band, by 1980 it could conceivably be one guy, working all the parts himself with synths and drum machines. Championed as the dancefloor successor to Disco, Italo would come to dominate the club landscape for practically the entirety of the 80s. And the crazy part is all this was pretty much due to one record label: ZYX Records, considered to be the most successful dance music label in existence.
little of this music actually made it overseas, mostly due to the neanderthalic
disco backlash that raged across the United States. Some tracks crossed
over and became monster pop hits, like Baltimora - Tarzan Boy (1984),
Falco - Rock Me Amadeus (1985) and Murray Head - One Night in Bangkok
(1984)--originally written for the musical Chess--but by and large Italo
Baby's Gang - Disco Maniac
Ken Laszlo - Hey Hey Guy
Mike Mareen - Love Spy
That's actually one of the greater and more campy ironies about Italo: most of the music was sung in english, a habitual second language to all of its artists. The reasoning behind this is unknown, though it may have to do with english simply being the universal language of business and the pop music industry. In addition, english also contains more words than any other language, making it the easiest language to rhyme, and it's also easiest to make indecipherable sense since the syntax is so flexible (ie: no gender-specific pronouns, presence of homynyms, etc). This produces hilarious, thick-accented, unintentionally funny-sounding lyrics which add to its unique quality. Just listen to the chorus of the best Italo track of all time, Miko Mission - How Old Are You (1984):
What the hell does
this mean? Who knows? I think he's talking about hooking up with an
underage girl or something. But god damn, is it ever catchy. If I were
stuck on a desert island and could pick only one genre of music to listen
to for the rest of my life, it would definitely be Italo. It doesn't
get nearly as much attention or praise as its offspring Techno, House
and Trance do, but everyone in the know points a finger specifically
at Italo as the music that was there first. And it was these people
who originally made those machines sing for the masses.
is why the strongest trend in the dance music scene today is the Italo
revival. If you listen really closely, a lot of Italo music may sound
really familiar to you--that's because everyone has been sampling it relentlessly
the past few years, from disco house and french house producers to electro,
electroclash, and anyone diving headfirst into the retro 80s revival.
Electroclash especially, which has recently opted to shed its punk-infused,
NY fashion chic of glitz, glam and androgynous sexuality, replacing it
with the more upbeat, less pretentious, bouncy basslines of Italo. In
other words, less clash, and more electro. Less punk, and more house.
Radiorama - Fire (1987)
Silver Pozzoli - Around my
Ciber People - Doctor
The other is a more obscure yet infinitely more fascinating spacey synth stuff, all instrumental, which fits as the upbeat, cheesy, friendly robotic yin to the cold, cybernetic yang of American electro. In some cases, most wouldn't even consider this Italo, and often refer to it as simply "New Age Synth", as it has a motif more closely aligned with the synth-ambient scores of Vengelis and Jean Michel Jarre, only not as forlorn. The most prolific purveyer of this style was Laserdance, who released an ungodly amount of music during the 80s, all of it good. This stuff sounds like it belongs in Powerpoint presentations, mall elevators, and on royalty-free music packages. Choice tracks are:
anyone make anything like this ever again? My thoughts were answered a
year ago when I ran into--by accident--an amateur Swedish producer by
the name of Johan Lindgren, and he sent me Robots (2003). And that's not
all! Scandinavian sweetheart Vocoderion is also making waves in the resurrection
of 80s camp sci-fi spacey synth goodness.
Not to say that I'm complaining about this sort of thing. I'm just saying that's what's happening. Everyone is bringing Italo back to life. Everyone. From Adam Freeland to Swayzak, John B, Luke Slater, Ferry Corsten, Ms Kittin and even Praga Khan: they're all rehashing 20 year old ideas. Compare and contrast:
Not coincidentally, the Rubicon track is the latest one, as well as the one sounding the most like original Italo, giving a good indication of where house music is going in the future....which is to say, the past. But is this revival better than the original? I would say no. It's good, but like movies based on books, just can't compete with the breadth and scope of the original. So what are DJs to do? Hmmmm. I wonder how much original Italo records sell on Ebay these days.
all this newfound attention on Italo, where are the original Italo artists
today? Well, actually, most of them are still in music. Many of them evolved
with the times, morphing their sound as equipment improved and people's
tastes changed. A lot of them went on to become Eurodance hit-making factories
in the 90s (Radiorama is a well-publicised example). Others, like Max
Coveri and Los Blue Belles, went on to spearhead the speed-freaked Eurobeat
scene of all things. And still others are probably not blind to this revital,
and are licensing their tracks and their expertise in capturing the essence
of the original Italo movement in its entirety, like when LTNO - Boys
(2003) covered the eponymous Italo classic Sabrina - Boys (1987).
Laserdance - Battle Cry
Alan Braxe & Fred Faulke -
Sabrina - Boys (1987)