Savage: Tonight

Savage spends the first few seconds of his 1984 national television debut frozen stiff. As the intro of his first single, “Don’t Cry Tonight,” begins to play, he poses in a half-kneel, his right hand resting on his leg in front of him, his left around his neck. A fedora covers his entire face, like an off-brand Bob Fosse impersonator. Behind Savage (real name: Roberto Zanetti) spin the neon blue lights of the futuristic set of Discoring, a show airing on Italy’s Rai 1 network that regularly features acts from the country’s burgeoning dance scene.

After eight motionless bars, Zanetti raises his head and looks into the camera. Suddenly, a jolt: His right hand pounds the ground and his left points behind him to 8 o’clock. He rises slowly, arms outstretched at his sides, index fingers pointed, then drawing them together in front of his chin. He balls his hands into fists and hides his face again, only to re-emerge when, about 75 seconds into his song, he begins lip-synching lyrics that have the syntactical incoherence but emotional clarity of someone talking in his sleep: “When you find the light to an upset shade away/If you’ll never, never let me go with every melody…” Zanetti, though, is very much awake, his eyes wide open and barely blinking. His expression, sometimes punctuated by a grimace, is so intense, its projected passion feels potentially murderous, like that of a chronically misunderstood loner in a giallo.

Zanetti’s performance elicits the same response as the best songs in Italo disco, the genre that Savage would come to exemplify. Heard the first or the fiftieth time, an effective Italo song makes you wonder, What’s going on here? What’s going to happen next? This is a style so reliant on novelty, it can shock from measure to measure. In his memoir, Italo Disco: History of Dance Music in Italy from 1975 to 1988, producer Raff Todesco (Time’s “Shaker Shake”) enumerates the elements to a successful Italo song, including synths, a lack of guitars, an embrace of technology, and, perhaps most notably, a “catch,” by which he means “something that was unique”—a vocalization, a strange sound, a weird way of singing. The result is a genre that is a true neophile’s delight, a smorgasbord of idiosyncrasies.

It has been posited that for all its garish futurism, bald-faced hokeyness, and earnest expressions in limp English, Italo is “the most amazingly uncool genre ever created,” but Savage wasn’t necessarily trying to be cool. He was trying to be different. Like the disco that preceded it and the house that would follow in its wake, the Italo hits of the early ’80s generally landed around 120 BPM, like ‘Lectric Workers’ “Robot Is Systematic,” Gary Low’s “You Are a Danger” and “I Want You,” and Klein & M.B.O.’s “Dirty Talk.” To stand out from the pack, Savage deliberately paced his first single at a slower-than-typical 104 BPM. In a conversation with Pitchfork, Zanetti said that when clubs would play his song—and it was met with such fervor upon release that this sometimes happened three or four times over the course of a night—DJs would have to stop the music to make way for the lumbering strut of “Don’t Cry Tonight.” From the jump, Savage was, simply, unmatchable.

Italo disco filled the booming club scene of ’80s Italy. Many of these spots—like Rimini’s notorious Altromondo Studios, decked out with a spaceship and robots—were coastal. As sociologist Ivo Stefano Germano puts it in the documentary Italo Disco: The Sparkling Sound of the 80s, tourists who acquired the songs they heard in the club while on vacation could bring home a souvenir of the Italian “summer that never ended.” Of the Italo labels—all indies—Severo Lombardoni’s Discomagic was the biggest, but even it struggled to cough up money for adequate promotion. Songs spread out from warehouses, where hungry DJs were invited to sample the latest productions to take back to their clubs. The local DJ culture at the time was about as intense as it got, outside hotspots like New York or Chicago, and created a preview of the decades to come for much of the rest of the globe. The songs that went on to regional, national, and occasionally international fame were generally voted through by the people and their dancing feet.

Todesco writes that the big Italo labels and distribution houses (Discomagic, Il Discotto, Many Records) were hardly choosy and “would give free access to everyone: producers, improvisers, off-key singers obsessed with the stage;” it was “chaos in search of glory.” This was, to some degree, crucial to the genre’s appeal, as it created Bizarro World versions of pop stars (get a load of O’Gar). People who had no business in the music biz, at least per conventional ideals, were now in business. Granted, eccentricity flourished in the ’80s even on relatively conservative U.S. airwaves, but Italy took it to another level. The world of Italo was one in which Tarzan loved the summer nights, penguins invaded, ah-liens attacked with their lah-sers, and whatever was going on in Sylvi Foster’s indecipherable “Hookey” was more than OK. The music was often put together as though it were made on an assembly line—there were producers, there were singers, and there were sometimes public faces who lip-synched vocals (a preview of the Milli Vanilli scandal that would grip the U.S. pop scene in the late ’80s and early ’90s).

Before he picked up the mic, Zanetti worked behind the boards in the Italo scene. Under the name Robyx (after a superstar musician character he’d written comics about in his youth), he wrote, produced, and co-produced some future Italo classics: Stargo’s ode to peppers, “Capsicum”; G.A.N.G.’s heavy and sleazy “Incantations” (a face-numbing 10-minute, 89 BPM medley of covers of Mike Oldfield’s “Incantations — Part One” and “Foreign Affair”); and Rose’s defiantly shrill “Magic Carillon” (released after “Don’t Cry Tonight,” in 1984). He says that he chose the name Savage because it “sounded better” to go with an English name, though he happened to pronounce it like the French “sauvage.” (Other Italo artists selected their English monikers to winkingly reflect phonetic double entendres in Italian—Den Harrow sounded like “denaro,” or Italian for “money,” and Joe Yellow like “gioiello,” or “jewel.”) As Todesco writes: “The Italian melodic taste, which had always been excluded from the dance world, culturally and technologically took possession of the new musical process by confronting the American and English musical domination with their own weapon... the English language.”

In Savage, Zanetti played all roles and virtually every instrument. He was Italo’s true auteur. His studio virtuosity—writing, producing, playing, and singing—was initially the result of economic concerns. He rented the synths and drum machines he played on “Don’t Cry Tonight” and the album that followed in 1984, Tonight. But much like his distinctive gesticulations, devised because he couldn’t dance and needed something to do to fill his first single’s interminable intro, he used limitations to his advantage on his album. He eventually liked having full artistic control of his tortured image. It made him unique in a genre that prized uniqueness—a multi-threat in Italo was rare, which meant Savage occupied a singular raft in a sea of novelty.

It also made his full-length more consistent and cohesive than most Italo LPs; few of the style’s artists evinced the vision that Zanetti did with Savage. (He even had a few logos, as seen on a computer screen in the “Don’t Cry Tonight” video: a digital drawing of his trademark crouch, and another of his head behind his fists.) Tonight never crawls past 108 bpm, and the song that pushes it that far is Zanetti’s similar-sounding follow-up to “Don’t Cry Tonight,” “Only You.” (“Don’t let me go/Don’t cry tonight,” goes the imperative chorus of his first hit; “Don’t push me aside/Don’t leave me to die,” he pleads on “Only You.”)

Zanetti was hardly the first dance musician who didn’t feel like fixing what wasn’t broken on his second single. By the time he recorded the “Only You,” he had upgraded his drum machine from the LM-1 to the versatile and au courant LinnDrum, but the track has a similar spare sound—the puncturing drums, the classical-inflected organ, the octave bassline, which is perhaps the distinguishing characteristic of Italo (though certainly not present in all examples). Zanetti said the bobbing basslines, which gave the songs a chunky, pixelated, quintessentially ’80s feel, resulted from his lack of access to a sequencer. Once again, making do, when done elegantly enough, came off as style.

Zanetti wrote and recorded Tonight between January and May of 1984, after the success of “Don’t Cry Tonight” created a demand for a full-length. Italo was very much a singles genre, though it did yield some notable albums: Scotch’s Evolution, Radiorama’s The 2nd Album, Kano’s Another Life, Azoto’s Disco Fizz, and, perhaps most prized among Italo enthusiasts, Nemesy’s self-titled LP. On Tonight, Zanetti walks the line between eking out a style and repeating himself. The man loved humanoid gurgling (courtesy of an Emulator) as atmosphere, four-on-the-floor beats, and the aforementioned octave basslines, but beyond those broad strokes, the songs are simply too eccentric to carbon copy. “Don’t Cry Tonight” features a high-pitched synth line—the type that would come to be most closely associated with G-funk—that bends like a slide whistle. “Radio,” per its video, opens with the sound of an atomic bomb and then a menacing metronome; its edgy tick-tick-tick reimagines Alan Parson Project’s “Eye in the Sky” with a much firmer bottom end. It climaxes in a scream. The chorus of “Fugitive” is blessed with a chirp that sounds like a dot matrix printer. It’s an embarrassment of catches, to borrow Todesco’s term.

The album is an exercise in contrasting minor chords—“A Love Again” trots in at 84 BPM and immediately sounds like it wants to take a nosedive into a pit before brightening considerably during the chorus. The decaying synth in the chorus of “Fugitive,” a song about hiding from one’s lover’s lover, gives way to a breakdown that is the spitting image of “Underground Theme” from Super Mario Bros. (though Savage’s song predated the video game’s release by about a year). The only partially beatless track, “Turn Around,” is sentimental even for the would-be New Romantic Savage, but its initial piano-ballad gloopiness is redeemed when the song is subsequently fried in a blast of synths.

Zanetti had a basic grasp of English when he wrote “Don’t Cry Tonight,” and, like Thom Yorke on Kid A, he assembled the song’s words “like a puzzle,” which helps explain inexplicable lines like, “For a thunder is as past a path we’re human been/And you rather like to feel what is my life.” Credit where it’s due: He stumbled on brilliance with the opening of the song’s third verse: “Just the random access memories of dreams.” For the record, he thinks it was a coincidence that Daft Punk named their fourth album Random Access Memories. After “Don’t Cry Tonight,” Zanetti enlisted his English-proficient engineer, Paul Jeffery, to help him make sense. As a result, Zanetti’s brooding is rendered occasionally poetic: “Radio” contains the litany, “Have you ever seen my heart in love?/Have you ever seen my eyes on you?/Have you ever reckoned with my world?/Have you ever figured with my heart?” Elsewhere in that track: “Your fantasy is my memory,” which sounds like a cool brag in a been-there-done-that kind of way. He follows it up with, “Your destiny has time to be.” So that’s a relief, at least.

The words are second, though, to the singing, which is so melancholy it sounds like Zanetti is savoring the bad taste in his mouth. His voice is clear and self-consciously suave, like Dracula with reverb. He’s more convincingly romantic than most of his contemporaries and his singing is more conventionally attractive. It wasn’t always that way within Italo’s menagerie of odd voices, though the pull of the genre can make what initially seems abject strangely alluring. Italo can take some getting used to—a song that may at first strike you as unlistenably absurd may dig its way into your brain and compel you to return again and again. In the words of Italo remixer and enthusiast Flemming Dalum in Italo Disco: The Sparkling Sound of the 80s, “Italo disco is a virus. A magical virus.”

In a 1985 issue of Record Mirror, the Pet Shop Boys rhapsodized about Italo, with Neil Tennant calling it “fantastically unfashionable, dead naff.” He noted that the banality of the genre’s lyrics “often makes them strangely moving somehow,” and praised the “boom clap boom clap boom clap — clap clap” beat. The perceived cheapness of the genre, Tennant said, was its appeal. He singled out “Don’t Cry Tonight” in particular for being “very sweet” and “very sad.” Twenty years later, on the Pet Shop Boys’ two-disc Back to Mine compilation, “Don’t Cry Tonight” was the first song on Disc 1.

What the Pet Shop Boys’ early praise of Italo gets at is its multivalence—songs can be simultaneously goofy and sentimental, incomprehensible yet moving, pop aberrations that are nonetheless utter jams. There is often, certainly, a camp appeal, but the earworms, low-end propulsion, and sheer technological euphoria rescue Italo from purely ironic listening. It’s too sophisticated for that. A single chord sequence can contain both beauty and decay. There’s real joy in the verbiage: “You’re my really disco band”; “Stop to you!”; “Nobody else than you!”; “Hey, you, take a look at you!”; “So you think you can pull my leg?” As producer and Toy Tonics founder Mathias Modica says in Italo Disco: The Sparkling Sound of the 80s: “Italo disco is part the most incredible trash and part the most total genius.” Listeners might have a difficult time deciding which part they prefer. There’s so much going on, so much to love and laugh at, that Italo achieves a rare vitality, full of the contradictions and multitudes of life itself. Perhaps it’s no surprise that over 40 years later, the genre lives on via a rabid cult of fans.

Zanetti continued to release Savage singles throughout the ’80s and early ’90s (he circled back and released a full album in 2020, Love and Rain). He found even greater success as a Eurobeat producer and label head. His DWA label put out ’90s smashes from Double You, Corona, Alexia, and Ice MC, whose “Think About the Way” features prominently in Trainspotting. Again, occupying a fairly unique space, Zanetti was able to outlive the genre and reach the masses through more frenetic (albeit less eccentric) material. At 66, he still plays as Savage, and when he performs “Only You,” he still does his trademark hand motions. What was devised to compensate for a dancing deficit just looks like dancing if you watch it enough.