Sometime in early 1998, I suddenly decided I was going to start collecting power pop albums from the 1979-81 skinny tie era. Pop-punk, my genre of choice, was starting to get stale. Power pop was making a comeback. I felt compelled to go back to the source. And for a year or two, I took a really good run at this quest. I visited record stores specializing in old, unwanted vinyl. I went to record collector expos. I posted my wish lists in my zines in hopes that readers could hook me up. I ended up acquiring dozens of LPs - some “classic” (Paul Collins Beat, 20/20), some cultural remnants of my boyhood (Vapors, The Knack), some ultra-obscure (The Cichlids, The Now), and some that were for power pop completists only (The Proof, Pearl Harbour and the Explosions). Never one to collect things just for the sake of collecting them, I actually listened to all those records. Was I wasting my time? I think not. Granted, I doubt I’ll ever again in my life feel the need to sit through Yachts’ Without Radar or Bram Tchaikovsky’s Strange Man, Changed Man. But I enjoyed them well enough. And at three bucks a pop, it’s not like those records set me back a fortune. Better yet, some of the titles I bought ended up becoming records I loved – all-time favorites of mine, in fact. Near the top of that list is the debut album by Holly and the Italians.
Listening to The Right to Be Italian, I find myself marveling that it was actually put out by a major label in 1981. The majority of commercial power pop in 1981 was really just new wave pretending to be power pop. With The Right to Be Italian, it’s the other way around. It was punky power pop marketed to the new wave crowd, and as such it was not characterized by thin early ‘80s production, contrived quirkiness, or an over-reliance on synthesizers. In the lexicon of today, you’d probably call it “pop-punk” – and I mean that in the nicest way. While nearly every other big name record producer of the day was a corporate hack entrusted by his bosses to cut the balls off a band’s music, Richard Gottehrer knew how to make great rock n’ roll records. He’d already done ace work on the debut albums by Blondie and The Go-Go’s, and as the architect of ‘60s classics “I Want Candy” and “My Boyfriend’s Back”, he was clearly no faddist. Gottehrer’s old school approach, a perfect fit for Holly and the Italians, gives The Right to Be Italian a timeless feel. It’s just a great, loud rock n’ roll album with crunchy guitars, hard-hitting drums, and a clean, crisp sound. It could have been released in 1965 or 2001 and sounded just as fresh and fun as it did in ’81. Perhaps it could have benefited from a higher “rockers to ballads” ratio. But all in all, the LP is bona fide awesomeness.
Singer/guitarist Holly Beth Vincent’s shtick doesn’t seem so revolutionary today – combining the girly appeal of the ‘60s teen queen with the snotty pop-punk ‘tude of The Ramones. But in the early ‘80s, there weren’t a whole lot of precedents for that type of thing. Along with Nikki and the Corvettes and the aforementioned Go-Go’s, Holly and the Italians form a holy trinity of seminal bands in the girl-fronted power pop (g.f.p.p.) genre. While not as consistent as Nikki and the Corvettes’ debut, or as well-known as the Go-Go’s’ first, The Right to Be Italian is in the same class as both. And if there’s one truly ultimate g.f.p.p. single, it’s “Tell That Girl To Shut Up”, The Right To Be Italian’s best tune. Whether you pay one, ten, twenty, or forty bucks for the album, this track alone justifies the purchase. With its punchy guitars, bristling bad-girl swagger, and unforgettable sing-along chorus, it hooks you from the first note and holds up to a thousand spins. Bands like The Donnas, Bobbyteens, Eyeliners, Riff Randells, Holograms, and Baby Shakes, so successful in the ’90s and 2000s, were all spiritually descended from this number. Nearly as good is album opener “I Wanna Go Home”, an anthemic rocker that rates as my all-time favorite song about America not sung by Neil Diamond. Dirty Sheets’ fearless CEO likens “Youth Coup” to a female-fronted Dictators, and I cannot disagree. “Do You Say Love” channels post-adolescent heartbreak so powerfully that it ought to have played over the closing credits of a top-tier early ‘80s teen movie. And the ballads – even if there are too many of them – are pretty freaking excellent.
Even with its big-name producer and big-name musicians (David Letterman sidekick Paul Schaffer and his bandmate Anton Fig were session players on the record), The Right to Be Italian features only one true star – Holly Beth Vincent. She was the total package, combining a flair for perfect pop songwriting with a great voice and a cool kind of sex appeal. She should have become a force in pop music – but for whatever reason she did not. She would go on to make more serious, “mature” records – which were perfectly fine but lacked the youthful energy and buzzsaw catchiness of The Right to Be Italian. We can say it’s a shame that there was no true “sequel” to The Right to Be Italian, but if there had been one it probably would have been a disappointment. Although in no way dated, this is an album that evokes the feel of the early 1980s – youthful optimism, an innocent type of rebellion, heart-on-sleeve teenage romanticism. It was a lighting-in-a-bottle moment in music, and Vincent would have been a fool to try and re-create it in later years without her original band. When you start naming the truly classic power pop LPs, the Plimsouls, Beat, and 20/20 may come to mind first. But The Right to Be Italian is right on the heels of them all – not just one of the greatest specimens of the genre but also one of the most enduring mainstream rock albums of the entire early ‘80s. Pay any price- it’s worth it.