“Imagine, if you can, if somebody made a B-movie of the entire disco genre… It's not disco, in fact in most cases it's technically a lot worse, but there is untold charm in the chintz.”
This definition, by the journalist Anus Harrison, is a perfect introduction to the crazy world of Italian 80s pop. Yes, music from that era was pretty cheesy. Italians, though, took it to another level. Simplistic, child-like synth melodies, arpeggiated basslines and sentimental vocals were the order of the day. The tunes chugged along, revelling comically in their own superficiality. I mean, what other genre could boast such an unashamedly naff refrain as: “Everybody, let's go to the gig, we can dance there, dance and eat an ice-cream”?
It’s easy to disregard this stuff as straightforward trash. Yet there’s something undeniably joyous about it. Unsurprisingly the majority of artists were one hit wonders. In a sense that was the beauty of it all. It was supposed to be transient. There are only a few tracks that could be considered ‘classics’. Klein & MBO’s ‘Dirty Talk’ features on most complications. As does ‘Movin On’ by Novecento. If one was to search for a manifesto track, though - albeit at the smoochier end of the spectrum - Ryan Paris’s ‘Dolce Vita’ has it all. Handclaps, harmony vocals and strange sci-fi synths: this is ‘Italo’ in its purest form:
Overall, though, it’s hard to think of ‘Italo disco’ as a coherent scene. In Italy the name is mainly used to refer to the large number of independent labels that popped up across the peninsula in those years, like Discomagic in Milan and Materiali Sonori in Tuscany. Really it was an international invention. Artists began to make names for themselves as far away as the United States, while the most famous label of all, ZYX, was actually based in Germany. The only thing that held it all together was a vague sound and feel. Whether it was robots in space, neon signs draped over classical busts or tight suits and floppy fringes the key thing was to be deliberately, excessively kitsch in a way that, somewhere along the line, became associated with Italy.
Most Italo disco tracks are pretty saccharine. A few, though, go beyond the expected template. In extraordinary moments the music went beyond a mere gimmick to offer genuinely ground-breaking avant-garde pop. B.W.H.’s ‘Stop’, for example, is a euphoric ballad that stands up just fine alongside better known 80s artists like a-ha or The Human League. Doctor’s Cat ‘Feel the Drive’ anticipated much of the early techno that would emerge in North America. Without it, it’s hard to imagine much of the great video game music that rocked arcades and consoles in the following decade. There are even a few Italo disco masterpieces, like ‘Faces’ by Clio which remains one of the best and most underrated pop songs of the era as a whole:
Italo disco did have a more serious side. In a country that’s all too often intolerant of ‘difference’ of all kinds, this music came to represent a socially liberal world in which people of all races, sexual orientations and identities could feel safe, and free to express themselves. While the reality is not as glowing as some would have it – the scene was dominated by white men – Italo disco has offered a certain degree of freedom of expression for LGBTQI communities. As with the Pet Shop Boys in Britain, several of the artists became well-known gay icons.
Italo disco’s legacy is more far reaching than one might imagine. You can still find club nights dedicated to genre in major cities, from New York to London to Tokyo. Likewise, a lot of 90s pop, and particularly europop, is rooted in the scene. Artists like Daft Punk and Justice have cited Italo as among their main influences. Some musicians, like EMMANUELLE, have even tried to meld the Italo sound with more modern electronic sounds.
Whatever you think of tracks like these a new flourishing of interest is here. The candidness, immunity to any embarrassment, and strange carpe diem spirit remains as relevant as ever. If nothing else, 30 years on, this is still great party music that works just as well as a private guilty pleasure to brighten up those cold winter nights.