Fred Ventura: Don’t Give Up
Fred Ventura is the real deal. In the fickle world of electronic music, he has remained a constant for the past three decades. Unusually and uniquely, for a singer who rose to prominence during the Italo disco wave of the ’80s, Ventura has not just survived but thrived. In stark contrast to his peers who fronted releases from that hazy but euphoric period in European culture, the voice behind stone-cold disco killers like “Wind of Change”, “The Years Go By”, Flexx’s “Love Theme From Flexxy-Ball (You’ll Never Change No More)”, and Fockewulf 190’s wave classic “Body Heat” never faced into obscurity. Instead, Ventura lived through the vicissitudes of trends and fashions, flying the flag for Italo’s electronic pulses all over the world.
Arguably, Ventura is just as relevant now as he was back in the ’80s. He still releases disco gems – as anyone who heard the magnificent, tragi-comic throb and swagger of “Don’t Give Up” will attest to – and has inspired so many younger artists to get their tear-jerking groove on. Of equal importance is Ventura’s status as facilitator and curator of a sound whose edifying humanity feels more vital and necessary than ever before. Ventura’s tireless and selfless behind-the-scenes work has seen him facilitate re-releases on Dark Entries and work as an A&R to the Archivio Fonografico Moderno label, which has been home to reissues of classics from Decadence, Kroma and B.W.H.
When not taking care of Italo’s heritage, Ventura also runs his own label, Disco Modernism – home to “Don’t Give Up” and his Italoconnection project with Paolo Gozzetti – and continues to perform around the world. This writer’s first experience of Ventura in the flesh was at Dublin night Forza Italo, where in the classic ’80s tradition, the diminutive, charismatic Italian belted out his standards over a backing track, reducing the crowd of new and older fans to an emotional mess that veered from nostalgic tears to quivering ecstasy.
It was through Forza that I came into contact with Ventura, and on a quiet Tuesday night in November, we chatted on Skype. Ventura is charming, quick-witted and extremely articulate and not short of stories. He has seen it all before but despite this, isn’t jaded or cynical and is extremely generous with his time.
First of all, what does he make of the renewed interest in Italo disco?
“It’s very strange isn’t it,” he asks rhetorically in accented but perfect English. “I have lived through a number of these revivals. At the end of the ’80s, this music became very unfashionable, but in the ’90s it became popular again. This was due to I-F and Clone. Certainly without I-F there would have been no electro or Italo revivals. He pushed it to an audience that was normally into a techno sound. The fact that he was playing these records meant that he was making this sound that was almost forgotten know to the kids,” Ventura believes.
“After a few years, it went down again and then in the ‘00s it got popular again in places like Scandinavia. Nowadays, a lot of the young DJs are into these records and they still sound good, so a lot of labels are reissuing them. This music has become fashionable again.”
In 2008, Clone collected Ventura’s career highlights to date on the Disco Modernism compilation, which brought the Italian artist’s music to a new generation. In the same way, Ventura is now bringing other key Italo records to prominence, hooking up artists with reissue labels. This work has led to re-releases of Big Ben Tribe’s “Tarzan Loves The Summer Nights”, Charlie’s “Spacer Woman”; Helen’s “Witch” and Victrola’s plaintive “Maritime Tatami” on US label Dark Entries.
“I am usually very open and I don’t want to hide it,” he says of his behind-the-scenes work. “I helped Josh from Dark Entries get in touch with the producers of these records. What he [Josh] has done is make Italo disco popular with a different crowd and the music gets a new audience. In some ways, these revivals are good because it means there are more people who are into it and the audience for Italo gets bigger and bigger,” he reasons.
However, Ventura has first-hand experience of the music industry’s murkier machinations and is also protective of the past.
“What I do worry about is whether it will get oversubscribed, too crowded,” he points out. “The same thing happened in the ‘80s, there were a lot of wannabes. If you consider now that there is a house revival, a Detroit techno revival, a deep house revival and even an Aphex Twin revival, the more reissues there are, the more likely it is that people will get bored with the music – so I really hope that all of the reissues are of a good quality.”
Given what happened back in the ‘80s, Ventura has good reason to be cautious. At the start of that decade, he had started to tinker with music production and was influenced by John Foxx, The Human League and Soft Cell, before being projected into the limelight when Italo blew up.
“I had experience with post-punk and new wave. It was actually a really natural step to write songs using a synth and with a disco beat. The biggest reason I started to do this was “Blue Monday” by New Order. I thought to myself ‘if these Joy Division guys can do it with synths, then I also have permission’,” he recalls. In the Italo hit-houses, Ventura cut a markedly different shape to the records that saw studio producers using models or singers. “Only a few of the Italo records were by real artists,” he points out.
Despite this, Ventura was at the same disadvantage as the other vocalists who suddenly found themselves centre stage.
“In those days I was really young, so I had no control,” he says. “I went from working on my own with a synth to working in the studio with the biggest producers of the day. It opened a lot of doors. I had my role and at the start everything was OK, but honestly, year after year the situation changed. I moved to another label and they tried to follow trends. I was never totally satisfied with the way the music was coming out, but this was the only way to compromise. The songs were mine, the lyrics were mine, the melodies were mine, but in the end this is why I got bored. I quit the label in 1989 after my debut album. I was bored and I had built up my own studio to become a producer myself,” he explains.
What happened to Ventura did not take place in a vacuum and as the ’80s progressed, Italo morphed into something cheesy and far more commercial.
“I was very young at the time, very unsure of what I was doing and this was now chart music,” he explains. “People in Japan had begun to discover it, but their taste was different. They wanted it too fast, too cheesy and that’s when Italo went down, Europe was no longer responding to this change,” he feels.
Ventura continued to ghostwrite Hi-NRG productions for the Japanese market, but no longer performed in his home country. Ventura never comes across as bitter or frustrated, but equally he makes it clear that it wasn’t just a changing musical climate that led to Italo’s eventual demise.
“Between 1982 and 1985, the labels were independent, the distribution was independent, it was like a parallel scene,” he recalls. “When the majors saw an opportunity, they moved in. They had different opinions about what goals they wanted to reach and they wanted me and others to be pop stars, which of course created a lot of bad vibes between the artists and the labels.”
It wasn’t just the encroachment of corporate interests that killed off Italo. In a parallel to what happened in Chicago a few years later with house music, he feels that this new sound lacked the necessary support and infrastructure to flourish and develop.
“That’s the other reason why Italo went down – it was run by people with passion. Many of them went bankrupt even though they sold millions of records. Some of them didn’t pay royalties to their artists and some of them invested money in bigger projects, album projects that failed,” he explains.
“The people running the labels were enthusiastic, but had no idea what they were creating. There were no contracts, no publishing, and no mastering most of the time. Nowadays, if you want to reissue some of the original records, you have to rip it off a vinyl. I also know of people who were not doing the right thing. Some of them made money, some of them went bankrupt and some of them disappeared.”
For those Italo producers who never got paid properly for their work, there was an extra sting in the tail. Many of the records from that period became highly sought-after and were sold for exorbitant prices online long before they were eventually repressed. The producers who suffered the ignominy of not being paid by the amateur labels that released their music when had to watch vulture collectors flogging off their records at extortionate prices after the labels and Italo scene imploded.
“The expensive records are the ones that were poorly pressed, the ones that no one wanted and were released on little labels. Mr Flagio’s “Take a Chance”; Charlie’s “Spacer Woman” and Peter Richard’s “Walking in the Neon” – original copies cost between 200 and 300 euro nowadays. Maybe they were released on small labels and given to just one distributor,” Ventura says, pointing out that “if you were looking for these records in 1989, you could probably buy 100 copies for 1 euro each. At the time, there were a lot of Dutch and Danish people coming to Italy, looking to buy them. I think some people made a lot of money from selling these records on”.
There is an argument that the rarer the record, the longer its lifespan and greater its value, but Ventura has a different explanation as to why tunes like “Spacer Woman” endure.
“The records that are still popular are the ones that were made with passion and without compromise. These records are eternal because they were made without any idea or thought about what would happen next. There was no ‘market’ at the time and you could say that the moment that people planned to make an Italo record, it was over,” he believes.
By 1986, Italo was well and truly over in Italy. Ventura continued to perform in other countries where it had also made inroads – Germany, Spain, Italy and even some of the Nordic countries – until the late ’90s. In any event, he got caught up in the house music explosion because its approach brought him back to “the minimalistic production approach” of his own early synth experiments.
However, Italo disco still commanded a sizeable audience in some unexpected places. Ventura explains that as soon as the bookings slowed down in Europe, by 1998, a revival had begun in Mexico of all places.
“I performed in front of thousands of people there – I did three gigs every week for three weeks in Mexico and in every club there had between 2,000 and 5,000 people,” he explains.
Although this attention may have seemed strange, the bookings in far flung locations had some connection to a shift in musical tastes. The previous year, 1997, an uncompromising record had appeared full of the same passion as the great Italo releases. It was I-F’s “Space Invaders Are Smoking Grass” and it inspired Ventura to start making music after a relatively fallow decade.
“When I heard “Space Invaders Are Smoking Grass”, this was the reason why I got back into music-making. At the time I remember being really bored by people like Portishead making this downbeat music, but then Legowelt, Tyrell and I-F gave me energy. It was mutual respect and we started to collaborate and we have the best relationship. We still invite one another to play in Holland and Italy,” he says. Unfortunately, Ventura has few opportunities to put on parties in his home country.
“Nowadays in Italy, no one cares about Italo. ‘80s music is still popular there, but only the international artists. In Milan, they never play ‘80s music, but if you go somewhere outside the city, they will play a mixed bag of European and US ‘80s music. We only sell about 10 or 20 records of each release in Italy,” he explains.
Like other non-English speaking countries, Italo enjoyed popularity in the Netherlands during the ’80s. In The Hague, where I-F lives, it enjoyed support on pirate radio stations, which in turn influenced those involved in the squat party scene. Ventura doesn’t think it’s a coincidence that Italo never gained a foothold in the UK and US charts.
“Italo can be pretty cheesy and the main reason why the records are like that is because the songwriting was done by people who didn’t know English as their first language. I was writing songs in English without knowing the language so well. The language put a limit on us in a way. We were always using the same words like ‘fire’ and ‘desire’ and perhaps that’s why the records were not getting big in the UK,” he believes.
However, he adds that it was this flaw that attracted some people to the music– surely only a cynic would not enjoy this immortal verse from Big Ben Tribe’s “Tarzan Loves The Summer Nights” – “I like the muscle man/ He’s very brave to play with lions/ How you rename me Jane / Together we can fight the dragons”. This, according to Ventura, is “another reason why people love them because they know that they are not perfect – there are actually groups on Discogs that analyse the lyrics of Italo disco records”.
“The biggest reason I started to do this was “Blue Monday” by New Order. I thought to myself ‘if these Joy Division guys can do it with synths, then I also have permission’.”
Ventura’s lyrics could also be construed as being trite or lacking any real meaning, as this couplet from “The Years..” demonstrates: “Alone tonight / Live on, hit the streets, alright/ Alone tonight /Alone till the morning light”.
What was he thinking when he wrote these lyrics?
“I always saw myself as a loner, fighting with emotions in an urban landscape,” he says without a hint of sarcasm. “It’s an influence from my post-punk/new wave roots. In the tracks, I don’t see myself as a happy guy. It’s difficult to explain. I like escaping from reality and imagine myself in Argentina in the ‘70s or Eastern Europe escaping from a totalitarian regime. In the ‘80s, when I went to Russia and Poland and I saw that these things were real,” he observes.
Broken English wasn’t a barrier for everyone and some Italo acts resonated with the sunburnt English-speaking masses in holiday resorts across Europe at the time. Ken Laszlo, who had hits like “Hey Hey Guy” and “Tonight” is a good example of this crossover, with sales of the Italian singer’s records into the millions. Does Ventura regret never having an international hit?
For the first time in our hour-long conversation, there is a short, uneasy silence and Ventura sighs deeply.
“Yes, I regret not having one big record, but I don’t regret not being a star,” he says. “You can make a career last a lifetime with one big record – everyone knows “Hey, Hey Guy”. I made a lot of records that were popular and I was a cult figure, but I really would have liked to have made one record like this. I suppose I was one step behind,” he adds with a palpable tinge of sadness in his voice. Despite this, Ventura can be proud of his back catalogue and what he has achieved.
Now in his 50s, he continues to knock out stone-cold classics and his Disco Modernism label is home to contemporary and original Italo producers like Alden Tyrell and Rago & Farina. Together with Tyrell, Ventura launched the label in 2012 with the epic synth hooks of “Don’t Stop”; while this year has seen them release the singalong chorus and bass-heavy throb of “Don’t Give Up”.
It’s a track Ventura describes as “very much Tyrell, we made this together three or four years ago. It was my idea to use the Italo influences, but I don’t want to use only obscure synths. I don’t want to be doing the same things that I was doing 30 years ago, but we are mixing the old and the new.”
Ventura has no plans to release another artist album as he feels that the format is not suited to his music style and as a producer, he will continue to focus his efforts on Italoconnection.
““I started the Italoconnection project to do something for the new generation – We have many plans but we don’t have so much energy anymore because we’re older,” he laughs.
The other project he’s involved with to bring his ’80s heritage to new generations is the Archivio Fonografico Moderno label. Ventura’s role is to select the records and so far, he has chosen brilliantly, with the Marlene Dietrich-style vocals of Kroma’s “Sexy Films”, Decadence’s wave anthem “On And On (Fears Keep On)” and B.W.H’s anthem “Stop” all featuring. However, Ventura admits that he has faced a lot of difficulties with the project.
“I am trying very hard to release these records officially. Very few of the producers have the masters, but we are looking for a solution to this. In some cases, it is really difficult to track down the producers of these cult underground records,” he explains. “It makes it difficult because I am trying to release the very best records from that time.”
He may face challenges from the past, but to paraphrase the title of his 2014 release, don’t expect Ventura to give up anytime soon.
Interview by Richard Brophy