Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Gapul remixes (italo disco)

Because I've been listening to them in the car lately, I've had italo disco on my mind for a while now.  The history of italo disco is somewhat unusual.  For the uninitiated, here's a brief capsule review:

Everyone's familiar with disco, of course.  Disco was a big hit in the 70s, and a bit into the 80s throughout most of western culture.  However, in the US and to a slightly lesser extent in the UK, there was a major backlash against disco, and it came to be viewed very negatively by about 1980 or so, including Bee Gees record burning sessions, and all kinds of other promotional events, including the infamous "day that disco died" when nearly a hundred thousand disco anti-fans showed up at "Disco Demolition Night" in Chicago.

Of course, disco didn't die in much of Europe; in fact, it continued to evolve into numerous forms.  Importantly, it lost much of its funk patina, and became a much more recognizably European, dance music form of music.  Although I used to take umbrage, during my pretentious younger years, at hearing music critics of the time refer to songs by Depeche Mode or Yaz as "disco" songs, quite frankly, that's pretty much what they were.  Disco evolved into electronic dance music, gradually.

As part of this evolution of disco into more modern forms of music, such as Eurodance, came the sideline called italo disco.  Italo disco wasn't necessarily all that different from other forms of disco in the early 80s, and its genesis was specifically rather prosaic and even banal rather than artistic.  Specifically, the exchange rate between the US dollar and the Italian lira made importing of American music very expensive, and sales plummeted, even though demand remained strong for new music.  Local record companies met this demand by having local DJs, producers and other not-quite musicians whip up quick and dirty dance tracks.  Many of these artists were disposable (Den Harrow was actually a model who lipped synced in videos, while three different vocalists actually sang and many artists produced a remarkable variety of tracks under several names.)  In fact, italo disco became, in a sense, like punk for electronic music--the first "garage band" type of electronic music that was made quick, cheap, and by anyone with a drum machine and a synthesizer.

The vocals were treated more like a another instrument--lyrics were usually in English, but the grammar was often atrocious, the lyrics frequently nonsensical, and they were sung in such a strong accent that you couldn't be sure what they were saying anyway.  This quick and dirty Italian music, made primarily in the north (curiously, it was often difficult to find in southern Italy) was originally referred to as spaghetti dance, but when German music label ZYX started importing the music as compilations, they coined the term italo disco, and popularized it throughout central and eastern Europe, as well as much of the Spanish speaking world.

Shortly after ZYX starting bringing it to the rest of Europe, "italo" disco started being made by plenty of non-Italians--Sandy Marton was a Croatian, Fancy was German, Desireless was French, Bad Boys Blue were multinational (but mostly British) who formed in Germany, Sandra was German (with a French mother, and she lived on the French border--and relocated to Ibiza anyway), Baltimora was mostly Italian, but had an Irish frontman, and Taffy and Laura Branigan were American.  For instance.  Arguably, some of them aren't really italo disco, but on the other hand, how can you really tell?  I've never seen that anyone's been rigorous about insisting that their italo disco artists all be Italians.  Although curiously, if you don't, then you also run into other problems, i.e., how do you distinguish italo disco from some early Hi-NRG stuff, and other genres that sounded exactly like it?  Other than arguably better lyrics (and certainly better pronunciation of them) how is the majority of the Bobby O output really different than italo disco, for instance?  Laura Branigan isn't often thought of as an italo disco artist, but c'mon--she mostly sang songs that italo disco artists had written; in fact, her hit single "Self Control" was out literally at the same time as genuine italo disco artist (and songwriter) Raf's version of it was also in the charts--although her version "won" the chart wars everywhere except in Italy.  Stuff like Koto could as easily be called space disco (another somewhat obscure genre that actually predated italo disco by a few years) as italo disco, and what do you call stuff like Trans X who actually were native English speakers from Canada?  Although not really considered italo disco proper, that kind of music is also strongly associated with it, and most of the internet radio stations I've seen that play italo disco also play Hi-NRG (as per their mandate) and several other closely related and sonically kind of indistinguishable other genres without bias.  So clearly the exact boundaries of the subgenre are a bit vague.

For me, I consider italo disco to largely be made up of the guys--and their closely related label-mates and whatnot--that I first heard on the Gapul releases in Argentina.  Gapul was also a mixer, and much of what he (she? they?) did was "megamixing"--longish songs made up of portions of italo disco (and occasionally Hi-NRG) tracks.  Apparently, italo disco enjoyed some mainstream success in Argentina and Brazil and elsewhere in the Latin world, although by the time I heard it there, it was already kind of old news.  I picked up a few megamix compilations that had blatantly obviously gratuitously scantily clad women on the covers and often mangled song and artist crediting, which only made my tracking down of the actual songs a bit more difficult to do.  But at the same time, it gave me a strong corpus of songs, at least snippets of which I had heard, that I could track down, and then spread out from there.

Here's Side A of "Lo Mejor de Gapul II"--"The Best of Gapul II."  If you like, I can identify any of the tracks on this megamix properly--although I was only ever marginally interested in "Spaghetti" and I never liked anything Spagna did at all.

Tuesday, December 13, 2011

We'll Be Together by Sandra

I've said many times that we had an unusual lack of exposure to some European megahits in the US, and the career of German-French artist Sandra is clear evidence of that.  Billed as the European Madonna, Sandra had an impressive string of hits, including nearly two dozen charting singles, and half a dozen charting albums.  However, US success eluded her (or she never pursued it, I'm not sure) and her only brush with fame here is when her husband and producer, Michael Cretu, had her on vocals for the massively successful Enigma single "Sadeness (Part I)"--the Gregorian/techno dreamy single that refers to the Marquis de Sade in Latin and French lyrics.

However, for American audiences looking for some pretty smart electronic 80s pop songs that they missed in the 80s, Sandra's discography is loaded with material to be mined.  From 1985's "(I'll Never Be) Maria Magdalena" to 1992's "Johnny Wanna Live" when Sandra took a hiatus to raise her twin boys (a move from which her career never recovered, despite several attempted come-backs) there's plenty of great songs to discover.  My favorite, though, is "We'll Be Together"--one of the few in which Sandra herself shares co-writing credit.  Here, check it out:

Thursday, October 13, 2011

Guardian Angel by Alphaville

I only have one Alphaville song on this blog, and the video I linked is now gone.  So, you can't listen to any Alphaville!  That's not right.

The prior post I made was for "Forever Young", their major claim to fame.  Perhaps a too easy choice.  I've actually got quite a bit of Alphaville material, and I think a lot of it is really good.  Some of it is, in fact, quite a bit better than "Forever Young" which suffers a bit from over-exposure.

Alphaville is one of those bands that continued on after the "synthpop crash" of the early 90s.  Although they were never big hitsters to begin with, their incarnation during the 90s was marked by being even further underground.  I bought a German import in about 1997 of Salvation.  It was, about three or four years later, released domestically for less money and with bonus tracks.  Grr.

Anyway, an interesting thing about Alphaville, or at least that album, is that the more "old fashioned" songs, including especially "Guardian Angel" and "Control" are quite a bit better than the more "modern" sounding ones, like "Monkey in the Moon" or "Wishful Thinking" work, but not as well.  In general, Salvation is considered a back to roots album, but relative to what, exactly, I wonder (since I never picked up Breathtaking Blue or Prostitute; the albums that came out between Afternoons in Utopia and Salvation.  To me, most of the album feels more then-current techno/club focused rather than back-to-roots synthpop.)

Monday, August 22, 2011

Perfect Girl by the Ultrasonics

I just discovered this group not long ago, and downloaded their debut album from Amazon. It only has 10 songs, and the average song length is less than 3 minutes, meaning that the entire album is just under half an hour. This is a remix of what I believe to be the best song on the album. Parralox, who I blogged about last time, remixed it also, and quite nicely. This one is a more "friendly" length, though.

Don't know much about the Ultrasonics themselves--their website and facebook and myspace pages are all pretty slight on personal information. I'm not even entirely sure who's in the group other than the lead singer, naturally.

Friday, May 13, 2011

Isn't It Strange by Parralox

Well, I just discovered Parralox and I have to share the love.

I didn't literally just discover them, of course. Heck, I bought the mp3 of "Sharper Than a Knife" way back almost exactly two years ago (and even then it wasn't exactly brand new either; it'd been out for the better part of a year.) But for whatever reason, even though I absolutely love that song, I didn't further explore Parralox until just recently, when I acquired their first three albums, Electricity, State of Decay and Metropolis. There's actually a fourth album that came out last February, but it's only about half new and the other half is remixes, so I'm not sure that it really counts.

Parralox is a new band; their debut stuff only came out in 2008, but it's really good stuff. There's a fair bit of retro-80s feel to some of their stuff, mixed with some very advanced and sophisticated newer electronic music influences. They've got a great vocalist. Heck; I told my wife the other day that Parralox, in very general terms at least, is sorta like what Lady Gaga would be like if Lady Gaga concentrated more on developing her talent instead of trying to shock us all the time to get us to pay attention to her. Maybe that's not actually true, but it's close enough. Parralox have also, apparently, gotten into the remixing business, which is interesting, because that's something that you're usually only invited to do if you're musicality as instrument players and producers has really impressed the biz.

My favorite Parralox song is... still... probably "Sharper Than A Knife" but I've got a lot more that are working their way up through the ranks as I get to know them better. "I Heart U" is a great one too that I would have included on this update if I could have found a youtube or dailymotion video of it, but I couldn't and I didn't want to whip one up myself. I included "Isn't It Strange" from their State of Decay CD. Lots of others were contenders, though--as I discover more and more of how deep their work is (surprisingly quite a lot considering their recent vintage; these guys are pretty productive).

Monday, April 11, 2011

The O Medley by Bobby Orlando and Felix da Housecat

Hi-NRG was an outgrowth of Italo-disco; it's clubby, very mid to late 1980s. Bobby Orlando was one of the biggest names in this business, although in many ways, he was a name behind the scenes. Not famous for mainstream success under his own name, his pet project, The Flirts, which featured him along with a rotating cast of female musicians, put out the hits "Passion" and "Don't Put Another Dime in the Jukebox." But his influence in production, and in the underground club scene during the 80s, was remarkable.

An interesting personality: to quote another blog's characterization of him, "He's a hyper-macho, incredibly cocky, rampantly homophobic ex-boxer who made gay disco. He once backed out of a lease because he found out the previous tenant was gay, yet he produced legendary drag queen Divine, and discovered the Pet Shop Boys. Most of his songs are brazen odes to sex and partying, and yet he's a fundamentalist Christian." Many of the cliches of dance music from the 80s and into the 90s were actually Bobby O-isms; although Bobby O himself remains a somewhat shadowy figure to mainstream audiences.

Later, Felix da Housecat sampled some Bobby O when he made "Silver Screen Shower Scene" and even later, European mix artists 2 Many DJs mashed that song with the intro to a Bobby Orlando medley to give us this little gem of a song. Then, at the height of his influence and popularity, Bobby O apparently retired from the industry.

Thursday, March 17, 2011

They're Coming to Take Me Away, Ha-Hah! by Neuroticfish

One of the post-80s fads of the electronic music world was the musical style called "futurepop". Futurepop's roots as a distinct subgenre in electronic music have to go back to before the 80s, actually. Ralf Hütter of Kraftwerk coined the phrase Electronic Body Music (EBM) to describe the music on The Man-Machine, their 1978 offering which was fairly danceable and accessible relative to some of the other Kraftwerk releases to that point (I should do a post for "The Model" or "The Robots" or even "Neon Lights" one of these days.) The term didn't really gain any traction until Front 242 re-coined it again to describe their 1984 release No Comment. EBM fell into this niche somewhere between early Industrial pioneers like Throbbing Gristle, Kraftwerk, Cabaret Voltaire and DAF mixed with a more commercialized sound. I once flippantly called it "angry synthpop" and that seems to still be more or less accurate. I also, back before I was aware of all the subgenre labels and exactly what they all meant, called it the fusion of synthpop and industrial.

Prominent early artists of this variety include Front 242, A Split Second, Frontline Assembly, Nitzer Ebb and Die Krupps. I was a big fan of some of this stuff in the late 80s, particularly Front 242's classic album Front by Front, which also has the most commercially successful industrial song ever recorded, "Headhunter." As the 80s became the 90s, though, and music continued to evolve, at least one branch of EBM started trending even more towards synthpop, although still with some clear EBM roots in terms of samples, extremely heavy rhythms, vocal delivery, etc. By this point, the music had lost mainstream appeal, at least in North America, and most of the folks who were putting it out were European. VNV Nation, Covenant, Apoptygma Berzerk, and Fictional or Ravenous (side projects of Gerritt Thomas of Funker Vogt, which is a more classic electronic industrial group. Ravenous and Fictional head into EBM and even synthpop.) By this time electronic music online luminaries like Al Crawford (anyone else remember his seminal review archive website? Huge in the synthpop scene in the mid 90s.) were calling VNV Nation, Apoptygma Berzerk and Covenant EBM/synthpop hybrids, and Ronan Harris of VNV Nation coined the term futurepop to describe this music. In the late 90s, they had their commercial breakthrough of sorts, and albums like Praise the Fallen and Empires got some significant attention, as did comparable albums by APB and Covenant at the time.

A number of other bands popped up in this same space, including Neuroticfish, Assemblage 23, Icon of Coil, Colony 5 and more. Curiously as the decade advanced, almost all of these outfits either migrated even further away from their EBM roots, or quit altogether. Neuroticfish even made some waves mid-decade by including a sampled vocal "Electronic Body Music is dead" prominantly on a few of their songs.

Anyway, I was a huge fan of the futurepop movement, and while I also like the more synthpoppish offerings of former futurepoppers and even EBMers, I also really appreciated the harder, angrier sound of some of these guys when they were more in that vein. One review I saw of Neuroticfish called it "Depeche Mode with teeth". What can I say; sometimes that's really what I'm in the mood for! For an unusual sample of what this kind of music was like, I've got Neuroticfish's remake of a goofy novelty song from 1966, Napolean XIV's "They're Coming to Take Me Away, Ha-Hah!" which Neuroticfish has managed to turn into something quite sinister and creepy. This is from Neuroticfish's 2005 album Gelb, which ended up being the last one (of three) that the band (really just one guy) put out before "closing" the Neuroticfish project for good.

Wednesday, January 12, 2011

Tenderness by General Public

Although I either missed it (or forgot about it, more likely, since it is in the soundtrack for the classic teenage hijinx movie Weird Science, "Tenderness" by General Public has shown up over and over again in 80s compilations and retrospectives. It's ironically one of the 80s songs that I've heard most since the 80s... but not that often in the 80s.

It's perhaps somewhat questionable to include it on a synthpop retrospective, but to me that's one of the interesting things about "Tenderness" (and lots of other songs from the 80s)--it's mainstream pop, and it's very heavily draped in synthlines and synthesizers. Synthpop was very mainstream during much of the 80s ("Tenderness" was released in 1984). General Public's background were, in fact, as 2 Tone ska/punk/reggae hybrid, when singers David Wakeling and Ranking Roger left the breaking group The Beat and formed General Public instead. But in the mid-80s, everyone was integrating elements of synthpop into their music. This has actually continued through to today. Even when grunge rock and other genres surged in popularity, the synthpop influence never completely went away, and hits by Madonna and Cher in the early 90s are straight-up synthpop tracks. In recent years, artists like LIGHTS, Mike Posner, Owl City and others are also arguably classified as synthpop. A string of bands for years now, including Franz Ferdinand, Blur, The Killers and more are also clearly heavily influenced by synthpop, even if they might not qualify as straight up synthpop directly.