Italo disco, a misunderstood subgenre as well as a key influence on many of today’s dance artists, receives a loving compilation treatment from a revived Strut Records. You will be hard-pressed to find a compilation of what are basically cheesey old dance tunes with a higher pedigree: In addition to being released on the beloved and respected Strut, Disco Italia is curated by Steve Kotey — disco producer, member of the U.K. group Chicken Lips and owner of Bear Funk Records — with liner notes by noted DJ scholar Bill Brewster, author of Last Night a DJ Saved My Life.
As a style, Italo disco marks a crucial mutation in dance-music DNA and an important lesson in global cultural politics. Stylistically it lies quite potently between organic ’70s disco, ’80s electro and house music, and the reverberations from this cross-pollination are audible today in giants like Daft Punk, Metro Area, Lindstrom and LCD Soundsystem.
But the scene in Italy did not grow organically out of any part of the indigenous musical tradition, instead it was jumpstarted when two American DJs started spinning at Baia Degli Angeli, a glamorous nightclub opened by tycoon Giancarlo Tirotti overlooking the bleached sands of Rimini. Their horizons smashed open by a sudden foreign disco invasion, the Italians rushed to play catch-up. Among the audience at Angeli was Daniele Baldelli, the now-legendary DJ whose signature low-tech experimentalism in the early ’80s gave rise to the branch of Italo disco called “cosmic,” after the club where he got his start.
At first behind in the disco arms race, the Italians soon developed all manner of new sonic weapons with their trademark flair and flamboyance, hot-wiring sci-fi synthesizers and drum machines to the disco engine. As songs, the melodies are most often garish and overstuffed. But Italo disco is not a genre where artistic expression or good taste is in the driver’s seat. The tracks are intended for mass commercial consumption, to be effective on the dance floor, to sell well and little else besides — the very name “Italo disco” was coined by German record executive.
The beauty of all this lies in watching what sort of artistic energies and innovations can surface in spite and because of such inauspicious circumstances. The results are marked by a cheapness and sensual immediacy that longtime fan Neil Tennant of the Pet Shop Boys once compared to punk: Both are marked by insistent, corporeal energy packed into raw musical form.
Because of the genre’s diversity and overabundance of one-offs, curtains is key here. The cuts that wound up on “Disco Italia” are each as full of clichés (like the dead rip of Chic’s “Good Times” on “Love (Is Gonna Be On our Side) as they are of brilliant singular strokes: the maddeningly infectious vocals of “Burning Love,” the intense Liquid Liquid-type beats on “Let Me Be Your Radio,” the proto-Daft Punk squiggle groove of “Do Its Again.” Kotey himself turns in a number of edits, to astonishing results. If you ever are in doubt as to the creative power of the DJ, just check out the whiplash that Kotey’s editing razor creates when a laser synth crash-lands in the middle of “1979 It’s Dancing Time.”
Much like the funk tracks that became the backbone for hip-hop, these tunes come to life in the breakdown, where voices and melodies exit the stage and additional synth and percussion twists propel the song off the dance floor and into outer space. These extensions are where these records cross over into the film-soundtrack territory and the realm of the great disco-synth lord Giorgio Moroder.
It’s also no surprise that along with the scene at Baia Degli Angeli the other founding moment for Italo is the genre-jump made by Claude Simonetti, who after finding great commercial success with his prog-rock horror group, Goblin, doing soundtracks for Dario Argento, directed his moog obsessions to the dance floor. At first, however, because of cultural expectations, Simonetti and his colleagues had to give the records Anglicized titles and artist names — no one would believe such music was made by an Italian.
The momentum that carries Italo disco past the structural limits of its ’70s predecessors produces an exemplary lesson in the artistic relation between freedom and constraint. The musicians featured here, including Simonetti, Tullio De Piscopo and Giancarlo Meo, used cultural and commercial limitations as means of outlining a territory within which anything was possible — and, given the genre’s penchant for novelty, more than likely. The overall effect of all this highbrow/lowbrow interplay is not unlike watching a slightly B-level art movie: say, Antonioni’s Zabriskie Point, where the over-the-top stylization is draped around a pulpy, exploitative core.
Those who came to know Strut from its first-class compilations of reggae and African funk or even its Disco Not Disco comps may very well be put off by all the trashy Euro-glitz, but let it be known: This is no party for Tony Manero, but a crucial glimpse into the evolution of electronic dance music.