FROM GLITZ TO SYNTHS: THE EVOLUTION OF ITALIAN DISCO IN THE 70S, 80S AND BEYOND WITH DISCO SAVONI

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WORDS Damien Cummings
The story of Italo disco is not as easy to pin down as its signature sound, with its synths and sequencers, its widely hailed Messrs. Moroder and Flagio, and its simple, unadulterated exuberance. For many, the phrase Italo screams 80s. Yet, before becoming the globally exported phenomenon many remember it as today, the roots lie in Italian disco. A sensuous, sentimental, lavish thing that dominated the mainstream pop culture of Italy, occupying prime time slots on RAI 1, the national broadcaster.

“It’s very important to make a distinction: Everything that I really love, I qualify as Italian disco,” says Beppe Savoni, the curator, music producer and Italian disco polymath behind the Disco Bambino archive. “It’s different from the Italo disco that developed from the end of 1983, ’84, and then really booms after ’85. That’s the Italo we refer to today.”

 

This terminological housekeeping is important. In the 70s, Italian TV was making stars of women like Raffaela Carra, Sandra Mondaini and Stefania Rotolo. Beppe continues, “There were all these iconic personalities that had TV shows at noon for the housewives,” while after dark, on the stages of the same channel, they would produce fabulous, glamorous and melodic music for the masses. “[Carra] was doing all these dance numbers in leather, total references to Tom of Finland.”

 

As a narrative, it is lush with juxtapositions that speak to an ephemeral moment in Italian popular culture. It was a moment for experimentation with few rules and one where, refreshingly, nobody was dictating what was right and what was wrong. As a scene, there is a feeling that Italian disco was not just the sound, but the aesthetic. It was representative of something that Italy so needed in a time of peace after decades of political violence. Known as the anni di piombo, or “years of lead,” it was an era of economic upheaval and social tumult that marred the 60s and 70s and left scars on the Italian psyche. The following years of Italian disco were finally a moment for everyone to breathe a little freer.

 

For a sense of what was playing in homes up and down Italy, Beppe shows me a few records from his most recent haul, found digging in crates on a trip there. Here, a vinyl from Lara Orfei, a scion of the opulent Familia Orfei, whose circuses were famed in mid-century. There, an artist whose moonshot career is perhaps the result of liaisons with politicians. None of this is to pander to age-old tropes of the salacious whispers that have long swirled around showbiz, but rather to illustrate the gilded moment in which women were emerging into the public consciousness as stars in their own right. If nothing else, this was surely a new thing.

 

Take, for example, Raffaela Carra. In the broadest sense, her impact on Italian disco is unambiguous in how she helped to popularize the genre both in Italy and worldwide. She was one of the first Italian artists to embrace disco culture, and her infectious energy and charisma helped to bring the genre to a global audience. Carra was also among the pioneers in the use of music videos, which became an important part of the Italian disco scene in the 1980s. Her music videos were known for their bold colors, playful choreography and imaginative visuals. In addition to her music and videos, Carra was also known for her advocacy of LGBTQ+ rights. She frequently addressed issues of gender and sexuality in her music, and her support for the LGBTQ+ community helped to make her a hero to many people who felt marginalized or excluded from mainstream society.

 

Then, there is the boy band Easy Going, formed by legendary composer and scorer of cult classic films such as Suspiria and Profondo Rosso, Claudio Simonetti, in a direct reference to a gay club in Rome of the same name. There is Cassandra, the first openly transgender artist in Italy, and Amanda Lear, whose lyrics brought the idea of an intersex identity into the public consciousness. The takeaway here is that this scene was something to celebrate and its stars surely did, to a national audience, in the most creative and distinct of ways.

 

Speaking of that creativity, Beppe believes that the artists of the time had few references to draw on. What little did permeate into Italian culture in the early 70s needed a big twist to fit into the canon of melodic Italian music. From fashion to set design, to “TV shows, theater, radio, everywhere. People were experimenting left and right and they were trying to create something new.” Simply listening to that Italian disco and seeing the music videos on TV is enough to feel that distinction from glitz to synths in Italo, but to understand how the sound makes such a switch in the mid-80s, we must dig a little deeper.

 

It’s no secret that in disco music, including Italian disco, women expressed a highly sexualized, erotic element. “These projects were also a way of expressing another type of culture, which was the dance culture, the nightlife culture, very, very much related to women and very, very much related to sex.” That’s why most of the disco records produced in Italy at the time were all understandably very sexy. And for all the emancipatory and empowering elements of Italian disco, there’s an obvious angle here that leans heavily into the male gaze.

 

Beppe gives the example of Marie Laure Sachs, part of the cocktail-party nobility of Rome, much in the style of Sorrentino’s The Great Beauty. She was widely known in the arts and culture circles in Rome in the late 70s. “She was doing all these erotic disco tracks where she would be moaning and whispering.” So, that leaves an open question. Was this really a moment of great freedom, or simply cherry-picking, a grand circus worthy of Moira Orfei herself?

“There was an openness to Italian disco because it was on TV and because it was entertainment, but only as long as it was after dark. If we talk about daily life in Italy – definitely not. In the daytime, everybody was very square again.”

In truth, there is no reason that Italian disco could not be both. Simply, what was public entertainment was lived experience in the underground. In that underground, Italian disco had something genuine. So, it is little surprise that a string of Italian DJs like Francis Grasso, David Mancuso, Nicky Siano, and soon, Daniele Baldini, would pioneer the early nightlife of disco and house music in the USA once imported, and given the Italian twist in its heady mix of sentimentality, eroticism and after-dark entertainment. Italian disco had struck upon a concept that could now be exported back out to Europe, Japan, and crucially, America. And in imitating and influencing the scene across the Atlantic, Italo was about to strike gold.

 

Heavily influenced by disco, funk and European synth-pop, Italo disco is characterized by its use of electronic instruments such as synthesizers, drum machines and sequencers. In the 1980s, these instruments exploded in availability. So, while linkages to the old sound remained, Italo was like a new genus with a common ancestor. Gone were the film composers and the conservatory-trained musicians. What remained was something new, something that yearned towards a different mode of music production and consumption. This is in no small part thanks to the undoubted genius of Giorgio Moroder, who in 1976 had set the world alight with his production of Donna Summer’s archetypal disco dance hit I Feel Love. Moroder, among a few others, had his ear firmly to the ground on what was hot in European dance music. He correctly recognized a trend for machinal, robotic sounds with less instrumentation. The Roland TR-808 or the TR-303 was the band, and from here on in, one man could do it all.

 

In Italy, Italo disco impacted significantly its culture in the 1980s, particularly in the realms of fashion and nightlife. The fast-paced, electronic beats and infectious melodies became the soundtrack for the era’s vibrant nightlife scene, and Italo disco fashion, such as that of Milan’s paninari [characterized by an obsession with designer clothing and the luxury lifestyle], spread across Italy. Importantly, the would-be fad was immortalized overseas by the Pet Shop Boys on their 1986 hit Paninaro. With their Moncler jackets, Timberland boots, Levi jeans, and RayBan shades, this disaffected, cash-splashing, West-aggrandizing fashion trend was a far cry from the leather, feathers, spandex and sequins of those disco dames that were the craze but a few years before.

 

Some of the glorious camp elements and melodic infusions remained in the shift from Italian disco to Italo. The switch from female vocals to male vocals is one of the hallmark wonks of later Italo. When Maurizio Dami lamented his cyborg love affair on the international classic Problems D’Amour by Alexander Robotnick, the sentimentality of the old Italian disco was plain to see, yet while much more popular, it lacked something of the stylistic flair of its domestic counterparts.

 

Italian disco can lay a strong claim to its impact on Italian culture in the 1980s; Italo was soon to become a genuinely global sensation. Its fusion of European and American musical styles influenced the development of genres like Eurodance and Hi-NRG, and Italo disco songs became international hits, particularly in Europe, Japan and Latin America. Credit here must be given to the work of early Italo disco labels such as Best Record, created in 1981 by nightclub DJ Claudio Casalini, Discomagic, and Cruisin’ Records, among others. But, it wasn’t until 1983, when Bernard Mikulski, founder of the German label ZYX began filing all his Italian vinyls under the tag Italo disco that the moniker was born.

 

Then, its star rose for a whole generation of Italian musicians around the world. Ken Lazlo (Gianni Coraini), Fred Ventura (Federico Di Bonaventura), Ryan Paris (Fabio Roscioli), and Raf Coney (Raffaele Fiume) were all part of a new, largely male, export, changing their names for the ease of radio DJs and consumers that was purposefully global in scope.

 

Perhaps, by the end, the over-exploitation and commercialization of the sentimentality of Italian disco might be that which would bring Italo to its nadir. Indeed, a stigma against Italo still exists among the more dour heads of the music industry cognoscenti. Some decades and changes later, having been stripped light of its early authenticity, the sound faded from the scene between the indulgent 1980s and the grungy and knee-jerk rift of the 1990s. This, however, was by no means the end for Italo.

 

First came the popular fashion revival in New York in the noughties and into the 10s of paninari. Then, in the past few years, a new generation of artists and fans rediscovered something timeless and iconic in the emotion of Italo disco. DJs and producers quickly set about incorporating its sounds and styles into their music and sets. While the trend seemed to begin in the early to mid-2010s, Italo undoubtedly enjoyed a curious but marked uptick in popularity through the pandemic.

 

One of the core ideas of any revival is that the past is never really gone, but rather continues to influence the present in subtle and often unexpected ways. The resurgence of retro fashion trends, such as 80s and 90s styles, has become popular again in recent years. It is in the popularity of nostalgia-driven TV shows, films and music, which often draw on elements from the past to create a sense of familiarity and comfort.

 

There is a term in cultural theory called hauntology. The concept explores how the past continues to ‘haunt’ the present, characterized by its use of old and forgotten sounds, samples and aesthetics to create a sense of nostalgia and a longing for lost futures. Hauntology appears in various cultural expressions, including music, literature, film and fashion, and it reflects a broader cultural interest in the power of the past to shape the present.

 

Within that lens, it is perhaps easier to see why a genre steeped in societal optimism from its earliest incarnations might make a roaring comeback in the face of a global pandemic and an uncertain future. At a time when even the most cursory of emails hopes to find you well, the sometimes saccharine, neon-daubed joy of Italo disco struck a chord on dancefloors worldwide.

Italo is, after all, the sound of la dolce vita, of summers of love, spent meandering one’s way along the balmy Italian coast to sunset discos in Rimini and beyond.

For Beppe Savoni, both Italian disco and Italo disco “represent a very spontaneous reflection of a time where everything was new.” He remains quietly confident that the next generation will also find something new to love and to wish for in the sounds with which he was raised. For now, in an era in which we see harsh parameters placed on all types of cultural expression around the world and the decreto anti-rave [prohibiting raves of over 50 people] threatens the future of dance music organization in Italy, we may need the spontaneity of Italian pop culture from the 70s and 80s more than we know.

 

At times, there is an almost cabaret mood to the aesthetic of Italian disco.

In the 1930s, that intense outpouring of free-wheeling joie de vivre was prescient of the hammer about to fall on Europe that would send shockwaves around the world.

As the wheel turns on the next cycle of the art form, the seeds of cooperation and cultural expression sewn during the pandemic are as yet to bear obvious green shoots.

We would perhaps do well to pay more attention to the past as we carve out our own future.

Not simply the specter of its image, but in the willful essence and sentiment of the times that was expressed in joyous, glamorous technicolor.