The Roots Of Italo Disco

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In order to explore the roots of Italo Disco, we have to go back to the end of the seventies when Disco music was at the height of its popularity. Italo Disco, or better said, Dance Music Made In Italy, following the exact meaning of words, drew inspiration from many existing sources. One of them was American Disco & Funk.

Perhaps, the most prominent Italian "funksters" were musicians assembled together by two men - a visionary and deeply troubled producer Fred Jacques Petrus ("Peter Jacques Band"), and a young musician from Bologna Mauro Malavasi.


Their collaborators were responsible for many productions for Little Macho Music (Goody Music, Speed Records, Renaissance) and the bands like Change, D.D. Sound, Easy Going, Flowchart, B. B. & Q Band (which stands for Brooklyn, Bronx and Queens Band). Petrus and Malavasi created a new, Italian sound that was a fusion of American Disco / Funk and synthesizer-driven Euro Disco. Italo Funk sounds very much like American Disco music. However, Italian tracks were easily identifiable by their catchy melodies. Emphasis on melody was a conscious choice made by Fred J. Petrus and Mauro Malavasi, and became the most significant trait of the Italian sound. In 1981 Mr. Petrus made an interesting point explaining his philosophy: "The X-factor in Italian music is having too much melody".


Italian disco records produced for Little Macho Music often featured very long extended versions on the A side of 12" single, and a Dub / instrumental version on the B side. It was quite common to find a song that was over seven minutes long and featured one or more endless percussive funky breaks. Tom Moulton (an American producer who was more famous for his brilliant remixes) invented the first 12" single. Fred Jacques Petrus, an Italian, made it Dee Jay-friendly. Italian "12" Mix" was a record that made it easier for Dee Jays to segue two records together.

The other major source of musical influences was an electronic Euro Disco sound created by another Italian living in Germany at the time, Giorgio Moroder. Giorgio and his collaborator Pete Belotte are commonly credited with starting the whole Euro Disco craze with the song "Love to love you baby" performed by Donna Summer. Giorgio's created his own unique signature dance sound - "a galloping bassline", commonly referred as "Four on the floor", created with help of a MOOG synthesizer that replaced a "live" drummer.

However, it was Giorgio's "From Here To Eternity" album released in 1977 on OASIS label, with its less funky, but more electronic sound that inspired many future Italo Disco musicians. The entire "A" side of the album was presented as a mix (it was a staple of fashion and innovation at that time) for nonstop dancing. "From Here To Eternity" was reinterpreted several more times: first in 1983 by Mauro Farina and Hananas (Zanza Label) and later, in 1988 by Marcello Catalano - Colby "From here To Eternity" (Techology), only to prove again its undying inspirational power.

Technological revolution most certainly aided the development of Italo Disco. Electronic drum machines and affordable synthesizers became "the thing" to use in record production: it was much cheaper to make dance records, and a producer needed fewer people to make a recording.

"Disco Sucks!"

discosucksThe late 1970s saw a radical move to end the disco era in the USA and the UK. It was viewed by many as an attempt by macho rock lovers to stamp out the gay liberation and black pride movements. Culminating in a symbolic burning of piles of disco records at Chicago's baseball stadium Comiskey Park. The so-called Disco Demolition Night staged in Chicago, Illinois, on July 12, 1979, involved thousands of baseball fans bringing along their unwanted disco records and burning them. The rally caused such a commotion that the game was cancelled when enraged crowd began to tear up the stadium. The anti-disco campaign was imitated overseas and was supported by radio stations in the UK and Australia.

From that point on, Disco music went back underground and started to change. Eventually, Disco reinvented itself with the introduction of synthesizers and electronic drum machines. Ironically, it was the underground dance music scene (not the large music corporations), led by creative Dee Jays and supported by club patrons, was once again ultimately responsible for development of new styles of dance music.

Hip hop was emerging in the East Coast, and Electro became a new thing in black music. The Italians were about to launch a new dance music that later became a precursor to what we know now as "House".

1983: Birth of "Spaghetti-Dance"

Europe never experienced "Disco sucks" phenomenon. In the meantime, Funk & Disco had large presence on the radio in Europe, featuring mostly top-chart commercial hits. European transition to the newer, electronic sound of Italo Disco was evolutionary, seamless and natural.

Another important reason for the expedient development of Italo Disco in Europe was purely economic. In the early 80s US dollar was traded too high against Italian lira. US records imports were expensive. Main music importers were forced to drastically reduce orders for imports and refocused their business on the local productions. Fulltime, Discomagic, IL Discotto and many other record labels were born from the main Disco music importers out of sheer economic necessity. Italian productions began to flood European music market and it was difficult to find any US imports in Italian record shops.

Most of the Italo-Disco records were produced by studio session men, mainly keyboardists, or Dee Jays-turned-musicians who had very little or no skill of playing musical instruments. Their sole assets were only their ears, uncanny feel for dance music's flavor of the moment and understanding of their audience. That was the time when many Italian Dee Jays started to experiment with synthesizers and electronic drum machines, playing keyboards slowly with just one finger and then elevating the speed with computers. Many young musicians were able to earn some money with low cost productions and fast consuming product."

The stripped down, minimalist version of Italo Funk resulted in "Spaghetti-Dance" music. That new sound was completely different from what the old Dee Jays were used to listen to: there was no strings, no brass, only synthesizers, keyboards and drums machines. Italo Disco was all about percussion. The classic Italo sound was created only by keyboards. The rhythm section was totally electronic. The voice was used only as an instrument to complete the melody. Most of the songs were very simplistic in structure, but they all had the Italian signature - those infectious melodies, with catchy hooks, and always in 4/4.

The "classic" synthesizer sound heard on Italian tracks was created by ROLAND JX-8P, Roland Juno 60 /106, Yamaha DX7, ARP Odyssey, Roland TR 808 drum machine, Simmons Drums (electronic, but played live), Minimoog, Oberheim, Linndrum, and sampler Emulator II. That sound was very unique and special in dance music history.

New music needed a new and preferably catchy name. "Spaghetti-Dance" sounded silly, therefore, it was hardly marketable. It was Bernhard Mikulski, the late founder of ZYX Records, Germany, who coined the ubiquitous term "Italo Disco" in 1984. The name caught on with the fans (many fans shortened to just Italo) and it was destined to describe perhaps the most misunderstood and under-appreciated genre of electronic dance music. The "Italo Disco" logos, decorated in the colors of Italian flag (as seen on the picture), were printed on sleeves of every promo sampler and mixed LP released and marketed by ZYX. In only four years (1984-1988) ZYX released 13 volumes of 2LP sets "The Best Of Italo Disco", and 10 volumes of "Italo Boot Mixes".

Many Italian musicians released records under various aliases. Perhaps that was a marketing strategy to get their records on the air, or it was a deliberate business decision by record label owners who reputedly refused to invest any money into promotion of any one particular "artist".‡ Instead, the investment was made into a "brand name" like Den Harrow (three different vocalists), or Joe Yellow (also three different vocalists) etc., making the "real artist" disposable. Record label owners believed it was much cheaper to promote music this way: if an artist commanded higher fees, a record label would give him/her a boot, and hire someone new to do the job. After all, there was no shortage of musical talent in Italy.

Regrettably, lyrics played a minor role in Italo Disco songs. Many Italian Dee Jays-turned-singers couldn't really speak English at all, therefore you can often hear voices being manipulated by computers or using a vocoder with overdubs.

"…A perfect example where the melody is amazing and the lyrics are awful is in the song "Love In Your Eyes" by Gazebo. Could be as pop perfect a song you'll ever hear, however, "You are just a damn sequencer/Digital Delay" would not go down in history amongst the most beautiful or meaningful lyrics ever written."

It was so easy to record an Italo track that almost all the Dee Jays working in Florence recorded their own track! (Ago, Riccardo Cioni, Grecos, Marzio Dance, Eddy Trauba, Miki Fornaciari & the others). All that they needed now was to find a record distributor.

Record Labels & Distributors

Many of the Italo tracks that appeared on previously posted top 100 list are strictly domestic affairs, keeping to their borders within Italy, and never seen the light of US or UK disco clubs. I believe also that many of the late 70s/early 80s singles were actually quite regional. Most of the tracks are from North of the Po Valley in the richer and more industrialized section of Italy and from what I gather in the last few years of the 80s, were very difficult to find and buy in the south, even in Rome from independent mainstays like Claudio Donato's 'Goody Music' Record store.

All of the major record labels tended to be Northern too. Time and Media in Brescia, Memory in Mantova (and now the location of Dave Rodgers' A Beat-C, SAIFAM in Verona, Expanded, first in Udine, then Bologna, to say nothing of Baby Records, Discomagic and all the distributors in Milan. The only ones I can think of in Rome are X-Energy, Discoclub/ACV and long dead Cat Music (the Micioni's label) and Flying in Naples..."

The Verdict: "Terribly Unhip"

Neil Tennant and Chris Lowe, the prominent UK duo Pet Shop Boys spoke about Italo Disco with Record Mirror magazine in December 1985: "...It used to be regarded as utterly tragic... that "boom clap boom clap boom clap - clap clap", that's what I particularly like about Euro-Disco And normally they have very good tunes as well. The other thing is that it's very sad. They have very sweet tunes, like Savage's "Don't Cry Tonight".

A lot of the records we like are Italian. The other thing about Euro Disco records is that they always sound like they're dead cheap. I think that's their appeal. They're a bit like punk records - they go in and get very excited by the most banal sounds. We're very attracted to banal sounds and rhythms.

They'll quite often be a sound that is the sound of the moment, and every record will have that sound. At the moment, there's that vocal that goes "oh woah oh". This summer, on every Italian record, there was at least one "oh woah oh". I think that's been the theme for 1985. RAF's "Self Control" started it, which of course was originally an Italian disco record, and Laura Branigan covered it. And of course, Baltimora used it. That was the ultimate "oh woah oh" record. It was very clever the way that was the foundation of "Tarzan Boy".

Before that, the syndrome was a popular sound. But they're constantly changing, these Euro records. And they normally have very good female vocalists, in the same way a lot of Hi-NRG and Bobby O records do. The male vocal aren't usually very good.

Often the lyrics are very banal, there's this great one called "Capsicum" that's a green pepper isn't it? And the chorus goes "Capsi capsicum oh woah oh". That is brilliant. The banality of them often makes them strangely moving, somehow. I don't think a lot of people will appreciate things like this.

The thing is, of course, that this music is terribly unhip in Europe. We go abroad and they think we're absolutely insane; they say, "You do not like Simple Minds?" They can't believe we like "capsi capsicum". I think part of the delight of it in my case is liking something obscure that's obscure for the sake of it. I think I genuinely like it, actually. I like it because it's obscure and also because it's fantastically unfashionable."

Italo Disco As A Foundation for House Music

While Midwestern corn-fed America burned its Disco records, the gay black underground as well as the rest of the planet Earth kept right on dancing. Dancers were starved for new dance sound and DJs, always looking for new ways to excite their floors, continued to try new things and only were happy to oblige. In response to growing demand for new sound, imports started to flow the other way of Atlantic, now from Europe to the US. Early Italian productions were bare-bones dance music that had a very "synthetic" sound with a raw Electro edge. It was so unique that it immediately appealed to constantly experimenting innovators, urban underground club Dee Jays.

Many Italian-produced tracks were slowly becoming underground classics in New York and Chicago, largely owing their success to the late Dee Jays {ln:Larry Levan (1954-1992) - Remembering a Legend.... 'Larry Levan} of "Paradise Garage" in New York, Ron Hardy of "MusicBox" in Chicago, and still actively producing {ln:Frankie Knuckles}, who was spinning at that time in "Warehouse" in Chicago.

Once prosperous"Vinyl Mania" located on 60 Carmine Street in Greenwich Village, New York, NY, run by husband-and-wife team Charlie & Debbie Grappone enjoyed tremendous sales of Imported records by catering almost exclusively to the patrons of "Paradise Garage". "Their store happened to be just around the corner from Paradise Garage and Grappone soon noticed the bedraggled hordes streaming towards the subway each Saturday morning. People started to ask for strange records that Grappone - who prided himself on his knowledge of music - had never heard of; the stuff "…that Larry (Levan) played last night".

The Grappones opened a dance music shop right next door to their rock store. They were the first retailer to capitalize on desirability of 12" singles, especially the new promo-only releases aimed at Club DJs. They recruited two Garage devotees, Judy Russell and Manny Lehman, and once the store began to orient its stock towards the Garage , sales went through the roof." †

On a personal note, most of the Italo Disco records that I found in US for my collection, had a "Vinylmania" price sticker on the sleeve.

ust about the same time something extraordinary was happening in Chicago. It was HOT MIX FIVE, a racially diverse group of Dee Jays (Farley "Jackmaster Funk", Mickey "Mixin" Oliver, Scott "Smokin" Silz, Ralphi Rosario and Kenny "Jammin" Jason) who introduced mixing records on Chicago's radio station WBMX 102.7. All members of the HOT MIX FIVE mixed like maniacs, constantly innovating and showing off their new mixing techniques, previously unknown to radio listeners. Farley appealed to the African-American audience, Ralphi to the Hispanic audience, Mickey and Kenny represented the streets of Chicago and Scott the suburbs.

Roughly thirty percent of tracks played by the legendary Hot Mix Five were of Italian origin. Hot Mix Five would re-cut a track, or use just an instrumental part with a chorus or a catchy hook to add punch and sparkle to those songs. It is ironic that in 1979 Disco was pronounced dead right here in Chicago. Only five years later, Chicago's own WBMX radio station was broadcasting Italo Disco records like Larabell "I Can't Stop", RIS "Love and Music", Fun Fun "Color My Love", Hugh Bullen "Alisand", Pineapples "Come on Closer" etc.

The Hot Mix Five members list of innovations includes the following:

1). The CASIO Keyboard (Yamaha, Juno 106)
2). 808 Drum Machine
3). 32,16,8,4,& 2 beat live loops
4). 1/2 Headphones
5). Monitor
6). felt slip pads
7). felt slip pads w/wax paper underneath (that's how they got down to 2 beat loops)
8). Digital Samplers
9). Computer Editing
10). Beats track records.... (Farley's stuff, Jam tracks etc.) and the list goes on.

The music selection by HOT MIX FIVE had profound influence on the tastes of the city, quickly changing the playlists of Club Dee Jays. At "Imports Etc.", then the city's leading specialist dance music store, there was a noticeboard describing the songs that had been played in each recent mix, to save staff from a barrage of Hot Mix Five questions.

The success of those mixed shows was unprecedented for any radio station in Chicago: everyone was tuned in! You could not swing a dead cat in Chicago without hitting someone with a ghetto blaster playing mixes from "Saturday Nigh Live Ain't No Jive".

WBMX claimed audience figures up to half a million - a sixth of the city's population. Allegedly, people would go as far as coming to Chicago from Detroit, rent a hotel room and hook up a VCR to a receiver and record Hot Mix Five radio shows. Many of those tapes were sent all the way across the country, and even as far as Europe. To this day, fans exchange WBMX taped mixes, and regard them as the most creative work done by Dee Jays, ever.

Getting Italo Disco songs on the US radio was truly an amazing achievement. Without a doubt it helped develop music awareness of general public and raised popularity of Italo Disco. Of course, it also helped record sales. The obvious simplicity of Italo Disco inspired many Dee Jays to make their own records, sampling familiar basslines and adding their own flavor to the mix. Essentially, many House music fans and artists consider it a foundation for development of House music.

The Last Days Of Italo Disco

While Italo Disco faired poorly in US charts, it enjoyed better success in Europe. However, its success did not last long enough to earn it a "mainstream" status. The writing was on the wall in the 1986 when House music emerged in Chicago as "the new best thing", and later it was exported to Europe and took over UK's club scene like a storm.

"...Some of the old school (at the time) Hustle dancers liked this music because of the similarity to Disco. Many songs were not bad at all, but as Freestyle, Hip-Hop and House music took off, and the fresh generations moved in, spinning Italo Disco was a sure way to clear the floor..."

"...Here in Miami (Florida) many Italian songs were club hits with the Latin crowds, (like Gazebo, Ryan Paris 'Dolce Vita', Tom Hooker's 'Looking for love', Marx & Spencer 'Stay' etc.) I must say this music was not well regarded by many locals, including many club patrons and club owners. The similar monotonous synthetic electronic sound (new at the time), coupled with uninspiring, subdued, soul less robot-like vocal performances could have bored you after 45 minutes or so. In my area most Italo Disco records experienced a quick club death never to be heard or spun again..."


As it happened to Disco music some years earlier, Italo-Disco is definitely experiencing a comeback: Italo concerts & parties are being organized; former Italo musicians are coming out from 'retirement'; record collectors relentlessly search the Internet and eBay for their coveted vinyl; record companies reissue compilations of long lost Italo tracks in response to a growing demand... Italo Disco survived to the new millennium and became a collector's choice. Even if one does not like it, one must admit it has its own place in dance music history.

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