Den Harrow

The hook of Dons of Disco is a good one — a feud born of a business deal that left two performers unsatisfied even while dazzling audiences throughout Europe and Asia, and a seething resentment that has long outlived the headlines that onetime disco phenomenon Den Harrow generated ceaselessly during the ’80s. “Who is Den Harrow?” the average American might ask. Not model/dancer Stefano Zandri, who has performed as Harrow for decades now. And not Tom Hooker, the American who actually sang and co-wrote the songs on the first Harrow albums and biggest hits. Den Harrow was a cornerstone of the Italo disco sound during its reigning years in clubs the world over, and the heaps of drama about the particulars of this situation are the impetus for the documentary Dons of Disco, a captivating look at the passage of time and what popular music means to its creators and fans.

What’s both wild and encouraging about this documentary — which is now streaming on Amazon Prime Video — is that it’s going to increase the average American’s awareness of Italo disco exponentially. I find that deeply exciting as someone who loves a good electronic jam. The genre had a few domestic run-ins with pop radio — Baltimora’s “Tarzan Boy” and Paul Lekakis’ “Boom Boom (Let’s Go Back to My Room)” among them. But unless you were in on the ground level back in the day at The Warehouse or got into James Cathcart’s Space Is the Place nights at The Stone Fox, for a local Italo fix you had to dig deep and do the work. So, as I did when writing about queer history and Claire Denis’ Beau Travail, I sought out an expert on the subject, in this case Nashville’s own Tan, whose DJ nights and albums play in the fields of Italo, Hi-NRG, New Beat and all kinds of danceable subgenres.

I find it really interesting that Dons of Disco exists at all. Italo disco is still a niche subgenre in modern music discussions, especially in America — it’s still beloved around the world, and certainly responsible for an insane amount of great songs, but it’s a style of music that was a phenomenon many decades ago. It feels like the reason why this documentary has U.S. distribution is because Tom Hooker is an American, and that hook is necessary to make the vast majority of American citizens give a shit about disco. Which is sad.

I’m assuming the GQ article [“Dance Battle! Meet the Warring Milli Vanilli of Italo Disco” ] may have helped with this distribution deal, although I’m really not sure why they wrote about this beef. Maybe there is a super fan out there with deep pockets? Maybe Hooker helped fund it? Italo definitely gets little recognition in most of the U.S., but in L.A. and New York there are multiple Italo nights and a good amount of interest in the genre. Maybe the interest in bigger markets made investors less skeptical?

There’s a long history of manufactured pop music experiences, going back to The Archies. But it seems like there’s a narrative that the RIAA likes to push the idea that this phenomenon is something from decadent Europe. The Milli Vanilli shockwaves are still reverberating, and what happened to Loleatta Holloway and Martha Wash at the hands of Black Box still gets proffered in music business classes and cautionary tales as what can happen to American voices. But Wash was just as exploited by America’s own C+C Music Factory. Industries are all alike: If you dig deep enough, you find shocking secrets.

Italo disco singers are like professional wrestlers to me. I am very aware, and I would think that most other fans of the genre also realize, that they are just characters, and usually models, who can’t actually sing. Are WWF wrestlers actually fighting? Are Italo disco singers actually singing? Does it really matter? 

I guess it depends on what you want from pop music. In America, authenticity in pop music is a hot commodity, as the late Rob Pilatus observed firsthand. There’s so much drama between Hooker and Zandri, but if you look at a lot of the reviews from domestic critics, a lot of them view Dons of Disco like a Christopher Guest mockumentary. My theory is that it could seem ridiculous that people are so militant about synth pop, but I find that response only comes from people who can’t let themselves enjoy things.

I get why people think it’s funny, especially if they aren’t a fan of Italo disco. It is pretty funny when you think about it. If Hooker was down on his luck and really struggling then I think it would be a different story. It would actually be kind of sad, but the guy drives a Ferrari. It’s interesting that the guy who actually struggled more in life was the guy who had all of the fame and not the guy complaining about lack of recognition. 

The thing about this doc that I feel will resonate with audiences who happen upon it tooling around on Amazon Prime — or if their algorithm includes it among other music documentaries — is that these songs are so good. “Don’t Break My Heart,” the Den Harrow magnum opus, is an undeniable banger that even the most jaded Music Row casualty would have to acknowledge. Italo as a genre is stuffed to the gills with songs that delight audiences globally.

One of the defining characteristics of Italo disco is catchy melodies. If you like melodic music and vintage synthesizers, then there is no better genre. I guess some people can’t get over the campiness of it. People either love it or hate it.

I unironically love it. And the whole reason I want people to see this captivating doc is that I want more people to learn to love this genre. So, inspired by this, what is the microfocused music-industry beef you’d like to see get its own documentary? I’d love to see a film about the early days of ’90s house act Planet Soul, and the ensuing George Acosta/Nadine Renee conflict. Or whatever happened to Deborah Le Sage.

The first one that comes to mind is the New Order feud. Peter Hook would be the perfect villain.


The following URL is a YouTube playlist compiled by Tan and Jason Shawhan for anyone who wants to get to know Italo disco further. Not geographically or vocally bound to Italy exclusively, Italo disco is a state of mind.

Like what you read?

Click here to make a contribution to the Scene and support local journalism!