I can’t think of a better way to describe Italo Disco than Ishkur in his infamous book, “Guide to Electronic Music.” Considering this mysterious figure’s hatred for seemingly half the genres he writes about, he has effusive praise for Italo, describing it as “what happens when creativity, inspiration and raw ambition vastly exceed technical limitations.”
Before getting into the specifics of how that description rings true, listen to this. Or this. This? Does any of this even seem real? Is it even possible to make music this … sincerely joyful yet also dumb and campy? It’s impossible to look away at the sheer absurdity. I suppose many people would label it (rightfully so?) as unbearably cheesy, the polar opposite of what anybody, anywhere would consider “cool.” Is this the depravity our generation is meant to rebel against? All questions to ponder.
Note that all the descriptions above are not meant to broadly apply to the entire genre of disco itself, despite a multi-generational anathema stemming from the 1979 Disco Demolition Night in Chicago. For heaven’s sake, listen to this. There were tremendously gifted musicians making disco all over the world, incorporating technical skills with experimentation with the latest synths and drum machines.
However, when America decided to collectively shun the entire genre in the ’80s, some creative Europeans bemoaned the lack of quality releases to play at clubs. Inspired by the Giorgio Moroders and Patrick Crowleys of the world, as well as by a flood of cheaper tech, they decided to carry its mantle themselves, production quality be damned. Their drums would sound incredibly tinny, they would abuse the ARP Odyssey synthesizer and they would sing in English like all their favorite artists from the genre’s birthplace (no matter how comfortable they were with the language). DJs at clubs in resort towns like Rimini in the northeast of Italy would spin the continuous deluge of new records to great acclaim to the dancers who appreciated the genre’s catchiness despite the lack of high musicianship or “sophistication.”
One record label in particular decided to collect and distribute this burgeoning genre across the European mainland. Called ZYX Records and based out of Germany, its founder Bernhard Mikuliski actually coined the term “italo.” In terms of spreading the infectiously catchy, yet amateurish sound of the multitudes of Italians making this type of music at the time, no label was more influential. A recurring theme I noticed while perusing the genre’s extensive catalogs and playlists is that for a lot of artists, it was quite difficult to find more than one or two truly listenable tracks. But it would be a disservice to label these tracks merely as “listenable” because they were still marvelous. It begs the question, who exactly were these people making Italo? Were they just amateurs who stumbled upon gold then eventually gave it all up to become doctors?
Despite the vitriol, many held against the genre even during its peak, its glorious triumphs have had a lasting impact on the world of dance music. The genre evolved into genres like Hi-NRG, which continued the production of catchy, futuristic music with no shortage of camp. The early sounds of house and techno in the late 1980s and early 1990s took inspiration from the genre’s sounds, and more importantly, the ethos of just going out there and purchasing synths and drum machines to make innovative tunes.
Surprisingly, the genre survives to this day, with enterprising DJs digging through its extensive back catalog as well as through labels like Johnny Jewel’s Italians Do It Better. No matter how critically panned it was during its heyday, there’s no denying that Italo helped change the culture surrounding dance music and pave the way for even more talented, influential musicians.