Sunday, 8 April 2012

THE DECLINE AND THE TUNNEL OF THE EIGHTIES

Something was changing and the Golden Age of Italian progressive Rock was declining, but it’s difficult to say exactly when it was over. What were the reasons for this “irreversible change in tendency”? Stefano Testa: - Times had changed and everything was more difficult: terrorism and Moro’s assassination had definitely buried that marvellous, free period. There was no more time for creativity and experiments, music had only to reassure [1]. Vittorio  Nocenzi: - As far as I’m concerned the main reasons were the electronic loops and a new profession, the advent of the D.J.s who gradually started to act as artists while they were just programmers. This happened exactly in 1977. We, at that moment, to be in keeping with the times, released “... di Terra”, our most difficult album and in my opinion the one with the best music we have ever released. It was an album intentionally against the stream and not at all successful. Two years of work more or less vanished although I remember some wonderful concerts in Verona and in Milan. That was the worst moment for this genre of music, probably because in the “collective unconsciousness” it recalled the state of fear caused by terrorism of both the extreme wings. The lyrics and the music were like salt in wounds still too fresh. From then on music started to become just pure entertainment and the interest of the public followed only the commitment of the singer-songwriters and abandoned the bands [2].



Indeed, for the managers it was simpler and cheaper to organise concerts with singer-songwriters that used to perform only with acoustic guitar and vocals. However, in Italy it wasn’t punk that caused the downfall of progressive rock as in Britain. Franz Di Cioccio: - No, the end of progressive is not punk. Punk is nothing but another musical current that came over. The end of progressive rock is an involution in social habits, where music was again considered just as a product to consume rapidly. Tastes had changed and now progressive is again a genre of music with its own public, more or less like jazz. Often jazz blossoms thanks to some great artists and it grows in the taste of the public. Progressive albums were complex and long and they required many listenings to be appreciated, nowadays with the imprinting of radio stations things have changed. Free Radio stations started to spread in the seventies but they became really important in the eighties. Times have led to a shorter form of music that can be proposed and absorbed faster. Punk is a kind of music with a different germ of rebellion than progressive, all in all every generation has its own way to communicate. One musical form never led to the end of another, but it’s always something that comes on the side, that comes out from the previous generation [3].


From 1971 to 1977 in Italy a large number of albums were released in the progressive style, many more than the market could absorb. So often the bands couldn’t survive for a long time on a musical scene where it was also almost impossible to earn money from concerts, because of the lack of professionalism of many managers and because of “public security” problems. That’s why many groups disbanded after the release of only one or two albums and you can find so many “one-shot bands” on the Italian prog scene. Many artists abandoned progressive rock to survive in the music business and put their experience to the service of other artists as session men or recording producers as former Osanna member Elio D’Anna or Gigi Venegoni. Former Cervello and Nova guitarist Corrado Rustici produced many albums of Zucchero, today one of the best known Italian artists. Corrado Rustici: - I went to live in the US.A. and in 1980 I started my “studio-sessions” period during which I began to expand and hone production skills. It was during this time that I got to work with some great artists. I eventually ended up playing on more than 40 albums in a 7 year period. In 1985 I returned to visit Italy for the first time in many years. During my Italian trip I was contacted by Elio D’Anna, who had returned to Italy after the Nova American experience and was trying his hand at music production. Elio D’Anna asked me to help him with the musical arrangements for an album by a new artist. I quickly put a band together... The album, entitled “Zucchero and the Randy Jackson band”, marks the beginning of my long musical relationship with Zucchero...[4].



Gigi Venegoni, guitarist of Arti e Mestieri and Venegoni & C.: - There was no future for the band in 1980 so I decided to work mainly in my recording studio in Turin and quit the live scene for almost twenty years. I made a living composing and producing scores for cinema and TV, advertising jingles, sound design for big events (Fiat Conventions, Turin 2006 Olympic Games, and many museums), playing and producing records for other artists. I even had a number one single in Spain with a dance record called “She’s My Queen”! [5]. Some artists turned to disco music and commercial pop as Alan Sorrenti, I New Trolls or Michele Zarrillo, guitarist and singer of Semiramis and Il Rovescio della Medaglia, who became a successful melodic pop singer. Alan Sorrenti, vocalist and singer-songwriter linked to the prog movement: - In Los Angeles I saw for the first time “Star Wars”, when it had just come out. I had been sitting on the floor of cinema like many others because all the seats were full. It was there that, unconsciously, I conceived “Figli delle stelle” and I started to imagine a new generation that was dancing, vibrating and dreaming, united in the same rhythmic waves of a disco club. I was there and I had escaped, at least so I believed... The early seventies were perhaps the best period in the history of Italian pop. Freedom of expression, searching, refusing to be similar to anyone else were the rule and for the music business, it was very hard to keep our pace. Then political manipulation changed everything... It’s true, some people who used to love my experimentalism felt betrayed by my change of musical direction and it’s a sign that they really loved my music...[6].



Vittorio De Scalzi, singer and multi-instrumentalist of I New Trolls: - The scene had changed dramatically! We have never repudiated that kind of choice, although it was determined by several factors, not least the economic one. You know, we were a special case, we were successful, one of the few bands that in Italy had reached a good standard of living playing progressive music! Here, at some point, almost suddenly, that kind of music did not seem to interest anybody, neither the public nor the record companies. I cannot tell what got to us, maybe we were still young and we were afraid of losing everything. With that choice we lost a bit of our credibility but I think we’ve given so much to the scene of those years, both through our music and through the production activity of Magma, the independent record label we founded... [7]. Others tried to release sophisticated pop albums as Matia Bazar, a band that rose from the ashes of Museo Rosenbach and Jet.



Giancarlo Golzi, drummer of Museo Rosenbach and Matia Bazar: - How did we come to turn from the progressive rock of Museo Rosenbach to the pop of Matia Bazar? It was a natural evolution and an almost obligatory choice. Thanks to progressive we could have played everything we wanted: many of us had practically spent all their adolescence in a basement rehearsing, on improving their musicianship trying to absorb the great lesson that came from Britain in that period. Suddenly we realized that we were just imitating things that didn’t belong to us and we felt the need to create something original [8]. Some even reached success producing songs for the Italian version of Japanese cartoon series, as Vince Tempera (keyboardist of Il Volo) and Ares Tavolazzi (bassist of Area). Vince Tempera: - We started working on the basis of a market survey, trying to release an easy listening song for adults and children. We released Ufo Robot and it was incredibly successful reaching the top of the charts [9].

Vince Tempera


As for the leading bands of the progressive movement, in 1979 PFM made a very successful tour with the singer-songwriter Fabrizio De Andrè, rearranging his songs (a wonderful live album was released after the tour), then tried to produce a kind of music more straightforward and simpler. Le Orme went completely against the stream and in 1979 released “Florian” a wonderful acoustic album inspired by classical music but after that they had to accept a compromise with pop that led to disappointing results.




Banco del Mutuo Soccorso shortened their name to Banco and tried to play an original, high quality pop. Vittorio Nocenzi: - It was very difficult for me to turn from the complex compositions that were inspired by the classical music of XIX century (mini-suite) to the synthesis of short pop songs. For instance, for me writing “Paolo Pa” was harder than writing “Il giardino del mago”.  However it would have been  easier for us just to keep on walking along the old paths than to tackle this new challenge trying to write pop songs with an excellent quality standard [10].




Perhaps the only protagonist of the “progressive era” that was able to update his style and reach excellent commercial results in the eighties without completely disowning himself was Franco Battiato who released some very original and personal pop albums such as “La voce del padrone” and “Fisiognomica”.



During the eighties in Italy there wasn’t any current music comparable to the neo-prog of bands as Marillion, Pallas or IQ in Britain. In Italy in that period, the era of the ephemeral, music business was dominated by “Italian-disco” and easy listening. Market strategies prevailed over artistic skills, look was far more important than musicianship and performers didn’t even sing in concerts: they just used lip synch and playback [11]. Progressive rock was a kind of music for a few diehard fans, almost underground and completely ignored by media and labels. The few bands that tried to keep this genre alive, as Nuova Era, had a lot of trouble carrying out their projects and risked drowning in a sea of indifference. Walter Pini, keyboardist of Nuova Era: - For me the project of Nuova Era was a challenge against all the people who used to denigrate the seventies, prog and vintage sounds. In the eighties they used to spit in your face if you dared to say you liked Hammond or wha wha guitar. Then someone apologised when those sounds came back into fashion. I hate people who play to be in or those who think that everything that comes after is better than what came before. Blues has been played for ages in the same way but no one says that it is old hat or obsolete, while many “fonts of learning” pronounce judgement and assessments on prog! Our dreams were as the dreams of everybody else: to be successful and to earn money by playing our music, but we knew that our genre was the wrong way to achieve this. We would have felt gratified just playing all around the world for true prog lovers. But all in all I can say that things didn’t go so bad. We didn’t become stars but anyway we had some satisfaction playing the music we loved without compromise [12].


Anyway, on the whole, Italy in the eighties was a desert for progressive music, a genre that seemed to have almost disappeared into a black hole in that period. The only people that seemed to be interested in Italian prog and still looked for Italian prog rock albums from the seventies came from abroad, especially from Japan. As “vinyl-mania” started to spread, Italian prog albums suddenly became precious collector items for “vinyl hunters” [13] and some albums were even re-released by Japanese labels. Maurizio Venegoni, keyboardist of Consorzio Acqua Potabile: - All the members of the first nucleus of the band were friends and we used to meet each other at the concerts of the bands that had influenced us like Banco del Mutuo Soccorso, PFM, Le Orme, Genesis, Jethro Tull, Van Der Graaf and Gentle Giant... We had been playing actively until 1980. Since then the live music scene in Italy had totally changed, so we changed too and went through different stages as the move from our kind of music to pop and then to disco music. We also recorded the official anthem of our football team, Inter Milan... We even took some inspiration from the British invasion (Howard Jones) although now we’re not proud of it. The real stop was from 1984 to 1989 when the pleasure of playing and listening to Italian prog music from the 70s was revived, especially thanks to all our Japanese friends. Since 1990 we haven’t stopped writing and playing our music...” [14].



By the way, why were Japanese progressive rock fans so attracted to Italian music? According to one of them, the first point must be the similarity between Japanese popular music representing Japanese culture and Italian canzone in which ballads are sung emotionally with deep pathos. Other factors include the absence of blue notes that are the basis of British and American rock music and the trend to naturally accept Italian lyrics as both Italy and Japan are non-English-speaking countries and are not obsessed with English lyrics [15].


[1] Quote from an interview on the site progarchives.com
[2] Quote from an interview on the site www.pagine70.com
[3] Quote from an interview on the site www.wuz.it
[4] Quote from the official website of the artist, www.corradorustici.com
[5] Quote from an interview on the site progarchives.com
[6] Quote from P. MORANDO, Dancing Days – 1978/1979. I due anni che hanno cambiato l’Italia; Editori Laterza, Bari, 2009, p. 276-278
[7] Quote from an interview on the magazine Classix! #27, May/June 2010, pag. 21
[8] Quote from an interview on the site www.deagostiniedicola.it
[9] Quote from an interview on the site www.tanadelletigri.info
[10] Quote from an interview on the site www.pagine70.com
[11] About Italian disco see C. ANTONELLI – F. DE LUCA, Discoinferno. Storia del ballo in Italia 1946-2006, Isbn Edizioni, Milano, 2006
[12] Quote from an interview on the site www.arlequins.it
[13] About the phenomenon of vinyl mania in Italy see P. PALLAVICINI, Quei bravi ragazzi del rock progressivo, Theoria – Editori Associati, Ancona, 1999, p. 147 – 154. See also an interesting article by J.N. MARTIN, Cacciatori di prog, on the site classikrock.blogspot.com
[14] Quote from an interview on the site www.progarchives.com
[15] Katsuhiko Hayashi in A. CROCE, Italian Prog – The comprehensive guide to Italian progressive music 1967/1979, AMS, Milano, 2008, p. 776