There are no good guidebooks to Italo Disco, no beginner’s manual, no elegant list of essential tracks that can get a young record nerd started on his or her way into one of the most thrilling but generally unloved genres of electronic music.
Sure, some exist and many have tried to write them, but every guidebook, every manual and every list just seems somehow inadequate compared to digging them up yourself.
That’s the fun of it if you love Italo. You’ve got to find your own way. Plunging into Italo Disco is like wandering a strange city and making your own discoveries of things that are discoveries only to you – a restaurant, a shop, a certain building that time neglected to destroy. In Italo, a name on a label can lead you down new avenues deemed too insignificant for anyone else to bother with. You may stumble across a record nobody knows but you. You may later discover that everyone knows that record except for you. Sometimes, you’re the only one that gives a good goddamn anyway.
Italo was, for better or worse, the precursor to the modern era, of “bands” that have never actually played in the same room together and “songs” that are never intended to be performed before an audience. Many viewed it as synthetic, and this was probably right.
Yet for more than a decade, electronic music producers struggled to catch up to ingenuity of these Italian studio savants and their magnificent electro-pop machines. The records themselves have stayed relevant to successive waves of DJs. And Italo is still yielding the raw material for “new” electronic tracks made every year.
Even by Italo standards, Stefano Zito by all rights should be obscure. He never, to my knowledge, released a record under his own name. He didn’t stick around to see Italo rehabilitated as something more meaningful than the kitschy knock-off of Disco that American music critics said it was.
As a producer, Zito was active for only a brief period, reaching his peak in 1983, the year Italo burned white hot before imploding. In a short period of time, Zito released four of the greatest Italo records ever made, and he released them all on a label so lightly regarded that even its name sounds like it was selected specifically so it could be easily forgotten: The House of Music.
Stefano Zito made records because he played them. This was something of a rarity among the pre-eminent Italo producers, many of whom were musicians that didn’t necessarily understand what a DJ was looking for in a record intended for mixing.
In fact, Zito began DJing in Rome even before some legendary Disco DJs in the US got their start. Zito was first hired to play in nightclubs in 1973 – four years before the opening of the Paradise Garage, three years after David Mancuso held “Love Saves The Day”, his first party at what would become known as The Loft.
In an interview with Disco Patrick, Zito says he had no way of obtaining records from New York until another underground Italian pioneer, Claudio Casalini, offered to import them in the most literal manner. According to Zito, Casalini was employed by an airline. Casalini would buy the records in the United States, carry them on board with him and “import” them to Zito in Italy. (Casalini would later open a shop called “Best Record”, a label of the same name and was the invisible hand behind a dozen different projects and labels. Another rarity for people connected with the Italo scene: Casalini is still active in the industry today. You can find him, among other places, selling records from his personal inventory on discogs.)
Zito’s first productions were related to his background as a DJ. These were an ancestor of the modern remixer and a strange artifact of the era called “disco mixers” or medleys. These were records which featured excerpts from sometimes a dozen or more songs, often major hits. Creating a disco mixer was a serious workout in the late 1970s, though technology has made the production trivial and the end result seem rather dull today. Disco mixers often began as legit releases (albeit with a limited distribution) which were later bootlegged and played either for their own merits and sometimes by DJs unable to mix. If a disco mixer was brilliant enough, it could stand alone, similar to today’s “edits”. Here’s an example of one of the most famous disco mixers:
In 1981, Zito pressed up two such records, commonly known among collectors as the “Masterpressings” and featuring bits of songs such as Patrick Cowley’s “Menergy” and Lou Reed’s “Walk On The Wild Side”. These represented his first productions; these seemingly minor pieces are a footnote on their own, but are important primarily as a precursor for the ferocious onslaught of music Zito was about to unleash.
The Fairly Fucking Far Out: Blackway
Stefano Zito was not a Svengali, not a Prince or a Tom Scholz performing every instrument, including those attributed to others. A huge ensemble of musicians, songwriters and producers were listed on most of Zito’s records, including sometimes as many as four writers.
It captures that big empty sound that a generation associates with the Danceteria, Jay McInerney and lots of cocaine.
Unfortunately, many have died, and some who are still with us appear to have little regard for their Italo Disco records. What exactly we might attribute to whom is uncertain, and probably unknowable.
Zito was the common thread through these records, and thus the one I chose to highlight. If a guy named “Dave” was the one really behind them all, more power to the Dave.
“Blackway” is Zito’s best known alias. It was his persona facing the public for most of his early career beginning with “Music For Us”, the first of two collaborations with his wife, Elena Zito (as “Helene”). “Music For Us” begins with something like studio alchemy – the introduction of a fat bassline that almost sounds like it’s just about to be flipped over and tweaked into acid, several years before such a thing existed:
This and Zito’s next record, “New Life”/”Follow Me” were released on a label called “Moon Records Association”, a partnership with Carlo Favilli. If the Masterpressings were the warm up, these Moon Records represented one hell of an opening. “New Life” features Zito’s own voice – the kind of flat vocal that would make moody New Wave singers millions of fans a few years later. The FX are primitive but curiously vivid – I can’t listen to this, even through pops and scratches in the vinyl, without checking to see what iThing around me is throwing a tantrum. The synths underneath radiate the steady heat of what in 1982 must have sounded like the “music of the future” and while incredibly dense and excessive in places, still sounds fairly fucking far out today.
Zito, Favilli and Some Guy, Possibly Australian
The third Blackway record was carried with Zito and Favilli to their new home. This was the launch of House of Music, their new record label, which would begin with maybe the greatest (two) records of them all.
Italo was a music of sensation, not virtuosity; Italo cared about how it sounded, not what it meant.
“Livin’ Up”/”Stop” by BWH (short for “Blackway With Helene” – in other words, another record featuring Zito and his wife Elena) was, in the final analysis, probably one of the most influential Italian records in history. I’m prepared to defend that statement. The record, embedded at the top of this post, traveled far and it traveled well, showing up in classic early sets from pioneers in Chicago, New York and Detroit. It nested for awhile in Belgium and had a new lease on life in the UK a few years after. Later (and even when the songs were new), they would be picked clean by aspiring producers sampling that impossibly lush synth sound that was lacking in many Italo and most early House records.
Unlike many Italo tracks, “Stop” has a vibe that can be characterized as “uplifting”; shimmering vocals are framed by a Moroder-patented synth line, chained to piano chords that seem to fall from heaven. And that’s just the B-Side: “Livin’ Up” has an entirely different feel, more driving, less ecstatic, something of a dream pop anthem.
It had become the standard at some point for most Italo 12″ records to feature a vocal version and an instrumental on the flip. Zito however launched House of Music with two of the best Italo tracks ever made back-to-back on the same 12″, and nobody really seems to know why.
House of Music returned to the vocal/instrumental convention with “A Dog In The Night”, one of the most bizarre and confusing records of the era. The artist was listed as “Mr. Master”, which many think is actually the song title (the name is repeated in the lyrics). But there is no Mr. Master. Showing a characteristic indifference to the vocals, the producers handed lead vocalist duties off to someone we know today only as “an Australian tourist”. Seriously, nobody knows anything else about him, and even this is contested based upon some lyrics that appear to be spoken with an Italian accent.
He’s just a guy, possibly Australian. Today, people pay upwards of $150 for a copy of a Possibly Australian Guy’s record.
This was pretty scandalous, even for a genre that was notoriously disinterested in the people who sang their songs and too busy playing with keyboards to think much about writing lyrics. Far from being clones of Donna Summer, Italo vocalists were usually anonymous. Written by people who spoke English as a second language (and sometimes not very well), Italo lyrics were often hilariously insipid or bizarre, borrowing passages from the verses of popular songs without thinking too much about it. Italo was a music of sensation, not virtuosity; Italo cared about how it sounded, not what it meant.
Most Americans have never heard of Italo, and if they heard it they would think it has something to do with the Thompson Twins. “A Dog In The Night” is too groovy for New Wave but the vocal does capture that big empty sound that a generation associates with the Danceteria, Jay McInerney and lots of cocaine.
Cybernetic Love, and then Divorce
The fourth classic track from House of Music came from Casco, aka Salvatore Cusato, in what Zito would describe as a co-production between them. Is it more surprising that it would take 25 years for Daft Punk to re-discover the sound of “Cybernetic Love”, or that it lay dormant for that long? In terms of pure melody, “Cybernetic Love” is probably the best pop song that Zito & Co. made, even if it is played through the medium of a kitschy (but catchy) electronic whistle. The production is exquisite – almost night and day from Zito’s “Moon Records”, with the synths here tamed and almost restrained by comparison. From the thrilling excesses of early Italo, Zito, Favilli and House of Music had stripped things down to the essentials and… a little bit more. It sure wasn’t what anyone would call “minimalism” but they knew enough by now to get out of the way of a good hook.
A few less notable tracks – and one outright dreadful one, the incredibly bad “I Remember” by Leasly Ash – followed “Cybernetic Love”. Interestingly, these other tracks all feature vocalists rather than synths, singing genuine lead vocals rather than using the vox as a kind of “bio-synth”. Perhaps Zito & Co’s legendary disdain for vocalists had been the right way to go all along.
But that was it. The House of Music released four of the ten best Italo tracks in history, a couple of bad ones, and then disappeared from history forever. All in all, the rise and fall of the greatest Italo label happened in a little more than a year.
Perhaps House of Music was meant to be disposable (most indie Italo labels were short-lived). The strange phenomenon of Italo Disco too was ephemeral. Maybe everybody really was just trying to cash in before it collapsed, rather than worrying about how highly the future would regard them.
Zito would continue to produce music slinking toward a more recognizable New Wave sound. There are dozens of later records like this, many of which I’ve never heard and few of which seem to lead out of a dead end.
Within five years of House of Music’s unexpected rise and inexplicable fall, Zito himself was out of the music industry altogether, producing films, which he says he still does today.