Between 1983 and 1988 a steady procession of fatally catchy synthpop hits came out of Italy to colonise the UK Top 5. First, there was Ryan Paris’s Dolce Vita (No 5 in September 1983), then Baltimora’s Tarzan Boy (No 3 in September 1985) and Spagna’s Call Me (No 2 in August 1987), and finally Sabrina’s Boys (Summertime Love) (No 3 in June 1988). With wonky English lyrics, abrasive synths and low-rent videos, “Italo disco” was 1980s Europop in both its most basic and purest form.
Emerging from the original disco innovations of Giorgio Moroder, what was first called spaghetti disco found particular popularity in northern Europe, and it was German label ZYX that first coined the term Italo disco. Although it found little success in Italy itself, the genre was driven by a handful of Italian producers releasing records under a number of aliases and exploiting the idea of Italian exoticism. By the time Black Box’s Ride on Time (1989) swept charts across the world, Italo disco had been supplanted by Italo house and its reign was over.
While elements of Italo were adopted by the mainstream, from Stock Aitken Waterman to Madonna, and indeed it has often resurfaced, not least in Madonna’s own nu-disco efforts since the mid-2000s, the genre was very much of its time and is now largely seen as consigned to the bargain bin of 1980s music.
But some acts are keeping the torch burning for Italo disco. This week Sally Shapiro, a duo from Sweden – the home of enduring pop genius and in fact an original contributor to Italo disco via synthpop act Fake and their hit Donna Rouge (1983) – release their album Sad Cities. Appearing on the label Italians Do It Better, founded by American producer Johnny Jewel of the Italo disco-influenced Glass Candy project, this collection of indulgently retro electronic songs embraces all the glamour and fantasy of Italo disco.
Characterised by beguilingly melancholic, naïve vocals reminiscent of Saint Etienne’s Sarah Cracknell, Sad Cities is an escapist look back to the past of European pop.
Sally Shapiro have consciously followed the best traditions of Italo disco in being pseudonymous. Valerie Dore, whose singles The Night (1984) and Get Closer (1984) on ZYX are classics of the genre, was the stage name for two vocalists who variously sang on and/or fronted the project. The identity of Katy Gray, who had a sole hit with Hold Me Tight in 1985, remains shot through with mystery, and she later became the focus of rumours she had disappeared from the scene because she had been killed by a falling disco ball. “Sally Shapiro”, too, is a pseudonym, used for both the project driven by producer Johan Agebjörn and its singer, who remains anonymous and refuses to appear live.
Sally Shapiro is also true to the roots of Italo disco in being rather homemade, emerging out of the friendship of Agebjörn and “Sally”, office co-workers who started out recording at Agebjörn’s home where the reclusive “Sally” would only ever record her vocals if she was alone. Agebjörn uploaded their first track together, I’ll Be By Your Side, to some forums for “Italo disco nerds” and things took off. Even their cover art was originally deliberately basic, in tribute to the on-a-shoestring artwork of the original Italo disco releases of the 1980s.
Debut album Disco Romance (2007) lived up to its name, fully immersed in the mythology of tragic romance and dancefloor hedonism that is disco’s lifeblood. The I Feel Love synth propulsiveness of I Know, for example, is intoxicatingly exciting but the lyrics are ones of romantic longing (“I know you’re my love/ Even though/ Sometimes/ I believe/ I will wake up from this dream”). Two remix albums came the following year before second LP My Guilty Pleasure arrived in 2009 with more homespun electro-disco. Third album Somewhere Else (2013) included some more upbeat moments, like the brilliantly titled This City’s Local Italo Disco DJ Has a Crush on Me, while the single What Can I Do, with its additional instrumentation, moved in a more indie pop direction. Three years later, the retirement of the Sally Shapiro project was announced.
But Sally Shapiro was not over, and in 2018 the duo resurfaced with a collaboration with Ryan Paris himself, while Agebjörn presided over the return of Samantha Fox to her Italo disco-influenced roots by producing
her achingly retro single Hot Boy (2018).
But the real comeback came with the release of the both transcendent and harder-edged Fading Away from Sad Cities in June last year, before the duo contributed their version of Holiday to the Italians Do It Better Madonna covers album (the label’s name references the T-shirt the icon wears in the Papa Don’t Preach video). October’s single Forget About You was a return to the familiar territory of melancholy synthpop, while December’s Christmas Escape was an ethereal, haunting evocation of magical winter landscapes.
While the rediscovery of “naff” genres from the past and their repurposing into an ironic cool is common, in Sally Shapiro’s hands Italo disco becomes something with genuine emotional cut-through, largely due to “Sally’s” unique vocal fragility, and the genre is revealed as far more than a guilty pleasure.
Sally Shapiro in five songs
I’ll Be By Your Side (2006)
With shimmering synths and a low-tech feel, this debut track from the Swedish duo was pure Italo disco nostalgia.
The Chameleon (2007)
Agebjörn’s icy, trance-like remix of this track by US project Glass Candy
brought him into the orbit of Johnny Jewel, founder of label Italians Do It Better.
If You Ever Wanna Change Your Mind (2016)
Billed as the duo’s final single, this track typifies Sally Shapiro’s romanticism and appealing naivety.
Love On Ice (2018)
This collaboration with original Italo disco legend Ryan Paris (aka Rome-born Fabio Roscioli) marked the duo’s comeback only two years after announcing the retirement of the Sally Shapiro project.
Forget About You (2021)
This second single from new album Sad Cities has all the retro appeal and
the gossamer vocals that make Sally Shapiro unique.