Il Suono Del Futuro: Italo-Disco

Italo-disco has enjoyed a substantial resurgence in recent years, as DJs and collectors rediscover the particular charms of one of electronic music’s most idiosyncratic genres. It’s not really a clearly defined genre as such; Italo-disco refers to a huge swathe of (largely) Italian dance music stretching from the late ‘70s to late ‘80s that takes in a number of different styles and flavours. Broadly speaking Italo refers to 4/4 dance music, made with synths and drum machines, based on disco, boogie and krautrock, also influenced by and indeed influencing synth-pop, new romantic and EBM. Italo-disco also had a big effect on mid-80s pop music generally as well as being one of the musical building blocks of techno and house. 

Christened by German record label ZYX in 1983 to tie their compilation albums together, Italo records initially blended live instrumentation with synths and drum boxes, but guitars, horns and pianos were soon mostly abandoned for the futurist sound palette provided by various Yamaha, Oberheim, Moog, Korg and Roland synths, sequencers and drum machines. Plenty of Italo had no shame about its pop sensibilities, no fear of using odd, whimsical or indeed garbled English lyrics, or of the most obvious of chord changes, but it also enthusiastically embraced the future, both by utilising the very latest studio technology and often in its lyrical themes too.  

Italo-disco’s rise was due to the death of disco in the US. The summer of 1979 had seen the thinly veiled racism and homophobia of DJ Steve Dahl’s Disco Demolition rally in Chicago, where baseball fans gathered to blow up disco records. The event solidified a cultural turning point in public perception of the genre and disco’s overexposure and market saturation led to disco radio stations either converting to rock or closing, record label dance departments being shuttered and of course the closure of many nightclubs. 

But there was still a large market for 4/4 dance music in Europe, and Italy in particular had a thriving club scene that needed new records. Inspired by US disco — the lush, complex arrangements of Philadelphia International Records and the relentless rhythms of Salsoul — but also by the studio innovations of Kraftwerk and the emerging sounds of electro and new wave, a generation of mostly Italian musicians, songwriters and producers embraced synths and picked up the disco baton. 

In terms of mood, Italo-disco could be melancholy and yearning, naive and sentimental, or gothic and mysterious. It could be rigid and robotic, loose and funky, introspective or celebratory: of all the electronic music genres, Italo-disco seemed to leave no mood unexpressed. It was sometimes created by talented musicians and producers but much Italo was a little ramshackle, cheap even. 

It’s a genre that often celebrated musical tropes or moods that are decidedly uncool or gauche and has often been thought of as lightweight, camp or ‘cheesy’, but Italo is far more influential than its fluffy fun image might suggest. Detroit’s early 80s party-goers called Italo disco ‘progressive,’ relishing its futurist sound, danceability and perceived upwardly mobile character. Italo’s robotic 4/4 beats and ultramodern style were extremely popular at the college parties where techno pioneers like Juan Atkins DJed, and echoes of plenty of Italo tropes can be heard in early Detroit techno records. Likewise, many Italo records were popular with pioneering DJs like David Mancuso, Ron Hardy, Larry Levan and Chicago’s Hot Mix Five while many early Chicago house tracks were influenced by the beats on Italo tracks like Klein & MBO’s "Dirty Talk" and My Mine’s "Hypnotic Tango."

Italo also shaped the pop world; UK hit production/writing team Stock, Aitkin and Waterman were clearly influenced by the synth-and-drum machine-heavy sound and acts like New Order and the Pet Shop Boys owed a debt to Italo too. 

Italo-disco was generally more single-focused than album driven, but there are still plenty of great Italo albums as well as some brilliant compilations. Purists will have their own favourites and as with any revivalist scene, there will always be disagreements about what is or isn’t Italo, but think of this selection as an introduction to this influential, fascinating and most charming musical backwater.

Ce n'est q'un Début cover

Long-time musician, vocalist and producer Alex Robotnick’s influential 1984 album Ce n’est q’un Début served up six tracks of new wave, post-disco, proto-house, Italo-disco and Kraftwerk-flavoured electro, and still sounds if not revolutionary, then certainly very fresh today. Trying out different tempos and rhythmic variations via his sequenced beats and synthesised sounds, this album is a sophisticated exploration of the potential of music making via electronics, a global summing up of much that was interesting in electronic music at the time: Italo-disco, New York electro and European synth-pop. The term ‘seminal’ is often overused, but in this case, it’s justified.

Outline cover

The 1979 debut solo album from Canadian multi-instrumentalist, songwriter and producer Gino Soccio consists of four epic Italo disco cuts and one beatless piano piece So Lonely, (distinctive in its use of ‘loon’ sounds, the twittering bird sound that UK rave outfit 808 State would make famous a decade later). Lead track The Dancer reached #1 on the US Billboard disco chart and is an eight-and-a-half minute driving, spacey take on the disco sound, with expertly put-together synth programming interwoven with a Philadelphia International-sounding female chorus, held down by a razor-edged synthetic clap. It’s epic, full of highs and lows, and somehow feels sci-fi-themed even though it’s not. Likewise, the fast-paced astro-disco of The Visitors, full of electronic arpeggios, a scattering of horns and a big, ever-present 4/4 kick drum similarly somehow recalls a world of spaceships and interplanetary travel. Dreamy synthetic post-disco. 

The Best of Italo-Disco cover

The compilation from German record label ZYX that first named Italo disco, this album collected together twelve quality Italo boogie and disco records, providing a sonic snapshot of the early 80s Italo sound. Former hard rock band Amin Peck supply three tracks, their new wave-ish Girl On Me, the entirely electronic disco jam Coda and their clunky marriage of slap bass and rigid synth programming Anxiety. The original and Italo remix of Flowchart’s Ask The Boss are a neat way to compare the differences between US-style boogie and the emergent Italo sound. It’s all top-quality early Italo, complete with all the slick rhythm tracks, enthusiastically programmed synth parts, deliberately emotive chord progressions and unexpected pop moments you could hope for.  

Get On Up And Do It Again cover

Suzy Q was actually three different singers who fronted this Canadian Italo-disco studio project at various times. The title track is a dance floor killer, mixing layers of congas, slippery guitar, a steady disco clap track and some nice little synth touches, and the rest of the album pretty much maintains the same vibe. It’s a stripped-back post-disco sound with no strings or orchestration, the drums, percussion and bass absolutely to the fore and no mid-tempo or slow tunes — just pure 4/4 dance floor material. Also features an disco album tradition that seems to have pretty much died out, an 11-and-a-half-minute disco medley that recreated the disco DJ mix style by changing songs while continuing a steady beat. Funky Italo-disco, still eminently playable.

My Desire cover

Italian three-piece Firefly put out their second album in 1981 and it’s another burnished set of smooth electro-funk and Italo-disco. Apparently, the switch among bass players from flat-wound strings to round-wound strings in the early 80s resulted in that distinctive tinny 80s bass sound, which is prominent on all these tracks, along with synthetic kick drums and big disco clap tracks. The songwriting in Italo disco was often of mixed quality, here though it’s pretty good, and the result is a polished, glossy album, a cosmopolitan, transatlantic hybrid of US soul and Italo-disco. 

New York Cake cover

New York Cake is Kano’s boogie and Italo post-disco follow-up to their debut album. It’s an exercise in reinterpreting the disco sound via the process of integrating synths, sequencers and live instruments into a cohesive whole, all precision tooled for dance floor use. One of the great attractions of Italo is how in this reinterpretation process, producers sometimes didn’t get it quite right but came up with something fresh in the process. That’s the case with this Kano album which really does have its own idiosyncratic disco identity, as though it was disco that was assembled blindfolded. 

Opener Can’t Hold Back - Your Loving with its smooth piano chords and live bass has something of a Chic feel to it but with a fat synth line sitting right in the middle of the mix all the way through it, while She’s A Star layers pinging synth arpeggios and synth-drums with funky bass and a slightly mournful vocal. The album also includes a speaker rattling street-funk track, the aptly named Party and the whole album is unselfconsciously joyful-sounding dance music.

A Song For You cover

The second album from Italian group Rainbow Team is a set of hi-gloss early Italo-disco, featuring Philadelphia MFSB-style orchestration and a band-played brand of disco that has a real live, organic feel. There are plenty of sweet-soul chord changes, lightweight soul vocals and little jazzy trumpet licks tucked in the mix and minimal electronic instrumentation compared to the synth-heavy, futuristic sound that Italo would become in just a few years. A Song For You is a slinky, soul-flavoured Italo-disco album from the early days of the genre, possessing a unique allure all of its own and worthy of a revisit. 

Disco Fizz cover

Italo disco from 1979, Azoto’s Disco Fizz gets straight down to business with the fast-paced, poppy Firefly, its rubbery synth bass and ticking 4/4 kickdrum anchoring a melody and chord progression that lingers on the very edge of twee. Next up, Anytime Or Place features wonderfully pulsating sequenced synths locked in with disco bass and guitars topped off with unabashed pop vocals. There’s no pretence here, this is unselfconsciously cheery, positive music, the peaks and troughs of its five lengthy tracks all engineered for the dance floor experience. San Salvador is the most well-known track here, a percussion-heavy, horn-laden euphoric euro-disco epic that pitches sophisticated orchestration against a lightweight female chorus, with a Latin feel that can still tear a dance floor up if played at the right moment. 

Gazebo cover

A high drama Italo-disco/synth-pop album from singer, songwriter and producer Paul Mazzolini (co-writer of big Italo crossover hit Dolce Vita), Gazebo is a plush, glamorous take on the genre. The synth arrangements that make up each song are sometimes complex, sometimes simple and direct, with plenty of chunky arpeggiated basslines and those glacial 80s synths, chimes and keys that so define albums of this period. The theatrical opening track Lunatic features an early appearance from the Italian piano break, a musical trope originating in the vamps of Philadelphia International Records’ house band MFSB in tunes like Harold Melvin’s Bad Luck that would go on to be an important element in house music. This is Italo-disco that has moved on from most of its disco influences apart from the basic rhythm, toning down the funk and danceability concentrating instead on the textures and timbres of electronic instrumentation.

De-Ja-Vu cover

Klein & MBO’s ’82 Italo-disco album is truly a prescient record, sonically predicting the sound of house and techno that would emerge in the 80s. It’s a transitional album, the sound of disco being reinterpreted via synths and sequencers, mixing guitars and vocals with the latest studio technology. You could take the aesthetic of this album, abstract it, turn down the whimsy and add some funk and you’ve pretty much got techno. It’s hypnotic, obsessively clear, clean and precise, like a more poppy Kraftwerk but with better drums and additional quaint female vocals. Including the seminal Italo track Dirty Talk, De-Ja-Vu is an important record in the history of electronic music and is still revered in dance music circles.

Face To Face cover

Face To Face was Soccio’s fourth and final album and in the same vein as his previous efforts consists of six elongated Italo-disco jams. Each track is built around a continuous 4/4 kick drum over which Soccio adds interlocking synth parts and live instrumental elements to gradually construct his future-disco grooves. This is dance floor music that uses extended electronic vamps to build atmosphere gradually and creates tension by dropping musical elements in and out of the arrangement. Some of the synthetic bass tones here are gloriously fat, there’s a sophistication to his use of piano and orchestration and by the time of his fourth album Soccio had become an expert at crafting his electronic extravaganzas. Overall it’s a classy, distinctive progressive-disco album. 

Disco Italia (Essential Italo Disco Classics 1977-1985) cover

There are plenty of superb obscure Italo disco finds on this 2008 collection from leading reissue label Strut, concentrating mostly on the earlier, more organic end of the genre, before the sound became almost totally electronic. Superbly curated by Steve ‘Chicken Lips’ Kotey with predictably excellent sleeve notes from DJ/author Bill Brewster, Disco Italia collects some of the funkiest Italo disco tracks, with many productions managing to sound both plush and ramshackle, sublime and silly at the same time. Witness Red Dragon’s "Let Me Be Your Radio" with its layers of funky, percolating percussion and frankly risible vocals or the sub-Rachmaninov piano trills in the middle of slinky, sleazy groove of Five Letters’ “Tha Kee Tha Tha”. Likewise “Tina - Are You Ready” by Valentine combines a tinny impression of Nile Rodgers’ guitar playing, Kraftwerk synths and a fat synth bass into a steamy disco concoction before adding what sounds like animal growls and some weird American-accented narration to the mix. These are tracks that have all the parts you would expect a serious dance floor track to contain that then throw you a wonderfully unexpected musical curve ball. A quality introduction to some obscure and idiosyncratic dance music you’ve probably not heard before. 

Tonight cover

Synth pop and Italo-disco from 1984, by which time most Italo producers had completely purged live instruments from their productions as is the case here, with the entire album constructed from icy 80s synths and drum machine rhythms. Despite the cool sound palette, Tonight still manages to be genuinely atmospheric, romantic in places even, with emotive moments like when the uplifting chorus in A Love Again beautifully rises up from its leaden, synth-heavy verse. It’s all about the mood here, generating yearning via big synth chords, crispy synthetic percussion and moody vocals. This album, where the disco elements had been reduced to mere musical echoes, perfectly nails a very particular 80s stately/epic/cold synth-pop aesthetic.

Vol. 2 cover

Six funky, electronic tracks make up the second album from Italo-disco/electro trio IMS. Their take on Italo was heavily informed by US electro and they utilised the distinctive clicks and snaps of the electro-mainstay, the Roland 808 drum machine, in much the same way as electro producers, just at a higher tempo. Their synthetic drum tracks are complimented by minimalist and futuristic synth programming that also recalls early electro records but they also added some very Italo choruses into the mix, as well as a slight sense of camp and some unexpected vocal hooks that together with the tempos move this album comfortably into Italo-disco territory, albeit a stripped-back, US-flavoured version. 

...Balla! cover

Although burdened by a pair of slightly odd retro rock and roll tracks that jar with the rest of the album, most of this 1981 set from Italian singer Pino D’Angio is excellently sleazy plastic disco. D’Angiò opts to rap rather than sing which straight away sets it apart from most other Italo disco and it’s mostly played on traditional instruments with just a smattering of Polymoog and ARP Solina synth work. Overall the mood is sultry disco but there’s a stark contrast between the slightly mawkish female vocals and D’Angiò’s low muttering raps which lends a faint air of unease to the proceedings, as though beneath the shiny, cheery surface something darker lurks. Features million seller Ma Quale Idea which rips the bassline from McFadden & Whitehead’s Aint No Stopping Us Now with aplomb.

Firefly cover

Lovely 1980 debut disco album from Italian three-piece Firefly, full of Nile Rodgers chicken-scratch guitars, creamy warm Rhodes keys, blue-eyed soul vocals and an opulent, velvety production that’s as smooth as the soft leather interior of a Lamborghini. For an Italo-disco album, there’s not much synth or sequencer work here, it’s mostly tightly-played organic disco/funk with some rich, sweeping ballads included too. The songs are stronger than many of the throwaway lyrics and melodies that often characterised Italo and together with the plush production and sharp rhythm section, Firefly possesses a charm and freshness. Suave, pristine polyester-disco. 

Kasso cover

Kasso’s debut album from 1981 is a superb slice of funky Italo-disco, almost worth the entrance fee just for the funky pitch-bent synth bassline on album opener “Walkman.” It’s cheery, synth-tinged disco all the way through, sometimes instrumental, sometimes vocal, the vamps complimented by congas and horns and filled with piano, guitar and synth solos. It’s an album filled with tunes like “Key West” which are classic Italo in that they sound like someone trying to make a disco record and not quite getting it right but making something else quite charming in the process.

Kano cover

The 1980 debut album from Italian producer/songwriter/musician trio Kano features a bold, brash and confident post-disco sound from the very start, the synthetic laser sounds and crisp beats of album opener “It’s A War” setting the scene for a 6-track space-bound extended vamp of an album. With only one track coming in at under 6 minutes and no ballads or mid-tempo songs this is a record created for discos and dancing. There are hints of Hammond organ, some guitar riffing and funky clavinet licks à la 70s disco and funk but there are also lots of synth sounds, sequenced riffs and vocoder-ed vocals, all underpinned by a relentless 4/4 pulse. Album closer “I’m Ready” is the track that’s particularly big on the Italo revival scene, a percolating piece of post-boogie synthetic disco complete with synth whooshes, vocoder and live bass. 

Kano is the sound of synthesiser technology meeting disco and in terms of instrumentation, its hybrid sound is the essence of early Italo. There’s plenty to like in this collection of carefully constructed, innocent-sounding space-party disco jams.

Frozen Red cover

Great Italo-disco / synth-pop album that despite the sometimes chirpy, cheery synth riffs and major chords has an extremely attractive air of yearning hanging over it. Aside from the vocals, the entire album is electronically generated with rigid, tightly sequenced percussion and synth parts carefully assembled into interlocking patterns. Frozen Red’s big track is the atmospheric secret dance floor classic “Walking In The Neon”, a patchwork of synthetic chimes, chord washes and rubbery buoyant electronic percussion, but there are plenty more gems here. The Kraftwerk-esque “Talk To Me” goes to euphoric places that Kraftwerk themselves never ventured to, “Le Planét Nous Régarde” carefully unfolds into enigmatic, stately Euro-pop while “Fly Away" is just a very pretty synth song. Ignore the garish cover, Frozen Red is pleasantly moody and melancholy.

Italo Boot Mix Vol. 1 cover

This 1983 compilation from Germany’s ZYX label was a big hit across Europe and featured sub-two-minute clips of twelve Italo disco tracks, sequenced together in a single megamix, much like an early version of the DJ mix CD. The transitions between each song aren’t quite like a modern DJ mix, they tend to be much briefer but they’re smooth and the flow is never broken. The tunes are all synth and sequenced electronic disco, with highlights including the robot bassline, vocoder-ed vocals and synth extravaganza that is Mr Flagio’s “Take A Chance” and Doctor Cat’s “Feel The Drive”, which performs a similar trick sans vocoder. Vol. 1 was the first of many Italo megamixes from ZYX and is still a super-fun, non-stop, high-energy party of an album. 

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