We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.
In Europe, disco didn’t die; it got cheap and electronic. At first, like stateside dance funk, it was made by live musicians. But as drum machines and synthesizers became available, producers became drawn to the fact that Rolands and Linns neither required cigarette breaks nor belonged to unions, making records much less expensive to produce—guaranteeing a constant stream of new tunes to pack dance floors in Italian resorts. Confuzed Disco collects tracks from Bologna’s Italian Records, where, like with most of the burgeoning “Italo disco” scene of the late ’70s and early ’80s, dance music was stripped to its barest elements. Lyrics and musical innovation were afterthoughts, and Italo artists often recorded under various aliases—or in the case of Den Harrow, four vocalists recorded as one artist. The result was upbeat, somewhat disposable, but often impeccably produced club tracks that had a futuristic, slightly smutty optimism. A.I.M’s “So Evil (Close to the Edge),” which kicks off the compilation, sports a gigantic drum sound and must have had a big effect on New Order, because bits of it sound exactly like “Shell Shock,” that group’s 1986 contribution to the Pretty in Pink soundtrack.The Pet Shop Boys and ’80s popsters like Laura Branigan borrowed heavily from Italo, as the melodramatic up-tempo pop of Fawzia’s “Please Don’t Be Sad” makes clear: It’s roughly like a Diana Ross wannabe singing with Like a Virgin–era backing tracks. Likewise, the beginnings of techno can be heard in the stiff electronics of A.I.M.’s “Thailand Seeds,” where hammering synths, dense hand claps, and inhumanly rigid rhythms mirror the futuristic rock and melodics of Kraftwerk. While Confuzed Disco has some hilarious ESOL moments (“I am longing for my wishes to be realized on a young young girl” the rapper on N.O.I.A.’s “Do You Wanna Dance?” tells us), it can be revelatory, too: The punky Hi-Fi Bros. instrumental “The Line” and the James Chance–like jerky wiggler “Going Underground” by Gaz Nevada are both agitated enough to show that Italo wasn’t strictly about hedonistic idiocy. Oddly, the modern remixes of Italo tracks that make up Confuzed’s second set fall a bit flat, ending up harsh and abstract. That’s probably because the real joy of Italo disco is its plangent vapidity—the fact that it emerged as an unlikely roots music, foreseeing the dance-music assembly line, isn’t nearly as interesting as trying to figure out how a song called “Call Me Mr. Telephone” can touch your soul by moving your body. —John Dugan