Wednesday, 4 April 2012

THE GOLDEN AGE OF ITALIAN PROGRESSIVE ROCK

From 1972 to 1975 almost everybody in Italy seemed to be fond of progressive music. Almost all the bands of that period released at least one album in prog style, even the bands not involved in the prog scene (for instance Nomadi and Pooh) and even some singer-songwriters as Francesco Guccini and Fabrizio De Andrè released albums featuring slightly progressive arrangements. But what are the characteristics of Italian Progressive Rock in comparison to the progressive rock of other countries? Franco Mussida, guitarist of Premiata Forneria Marconi: - Progressive is basically a blending of three elements: the song, the improvisation inspired by jazz and the composition in classical style. This cocktail is interpreted in different ways in every country: in England, for instance, Celtic, rock and blues influences prevail. In Italy we have to cope with our classical tradition: the melodramma, Respighi, Puccini, Mascagni but also all the contemporary classical composers. It’s in this legacy, in my opinion, that the specificity of Italian Progressive Rock is concealed [1].


Gianni Leone: - In that period we, Italians, had to fight against the wall of the Italian melody. We, of Il Balletto di Bronzo, were living in Naples and we had to bear on our shoulders an even heavier burden, Neapolitan culture and Neapolitan music. We had to tackle this tradition, we had to fight against the conventions and refuse to be integrated. The New Sounds hadn’t arrived yet, there was no music for young people, there was nothing, you had to invent and build up your space. Perhaps this was the mainspring that unchained such a creative strength [2]. Aldo Tagliapietra, bassist and singer of Le Orme: - Prog was practically a kind of music that came using the forms of cultured music and that was played by musicians with a solid classical background and a Conservatory certificate in their pockets but with long hair, drums, electronic instruments and walls of amplifiers. At that time they preferred to call it “Pop” that is the shortened name for “Popular” with the meaning of diffuse and famous, different from the meaning that “Pop” has today (synonymous of something half-way between dance music and melodic songs) [3].



Bambi Fossati, guitarist of Garybaldi, Gleemen and Bambibanda e Melodie: - I believe that behind the word progressive there’s a lot of mystification. When progressive rock came out we used to look at it most of all as a mix of many genres and not as an autonomous genre, it was more like an attitude. We, Garybaldi, have always thought of progressive as a territory where you could do everything yet keep looking for something new and different and not get fossilized into hyper-technicality [4]. Donella Del Monaco, vocalist of Opus Avantra: - We didn’t want to be defined just as pop (as it was called then progressive). We had higher aspirations, such as finding our own original musical direction halfway between classical music (tradition) and experimentation (avant-garde). Nonetheless we had many roots in common with other bands of that period, for instance the idea of teamwork or the tendency to write long suites instead of single songs, and we shared an ideal commitment with the progressive movement... We have never tried to emulate British bands, although we liked them, we had and still have many other different ideas! [5].


Enzo Capuano, singer-songwriter linked to the progressive movement: - During those years, though the word “rock” was of course familiar, I had no idea I was actually playing progressive rock. Such distinctions can only be made after some time, when the genres have already established themselves. What I was sure about, though, was that my own way of bringing to life the musical stories I had in mind was modern, somehow new, even avant-garde for its times, at least as regards rock music... I have listened to a huge number of bands, though some - such as The Doors, Pink Floyd, Vanilla Fudge, ELP and other Italian bands and artists - have left their mark more than others but my musical background was made of a very eclectic range of listening experiences - songs from Italy, France, Greece, classical music, opera, jazz, church music, symphonic music, the San Remo Festival, the Naples Song Festival... The Seventies were a wonderful time for the widespread research activity that involved so many musicians. In Italy there were many exceptionally good bands, such as PFM, Banco, Duello Madre, Area, Stormy Six, just to mention a few [6].


Enzo Capuano 1975

However it would be limiting to consider as specific characteristics of the  Italian prog scene only the musical influences and the alchemies of the different blending between rock, classical music, jazz, Italian folklore and so on. Inside the albums of that period you could find attempts to blend music with literature, poetry, politics and social comment as well. Sometimes the results were excellent, at others only confused and pretentious. Ivano Fossati: - It was the tendency of those years: to complicate everything that was simple and that could have been even very simple. The albums of that period were odd, contorted and complex, following the English models, King Crimson above of all [7]. Inside the tracks of an album you could often find fragments of classical composers as Scarlatti, Bach, Vivaldi or Corelli or of Italian folklore. Augusto “Duty” Cirla, drummer and vocalist of Alusa Fallax: - When in the overall sound of Alusa Fallax wind instruments began to prevail we went in a jazz oriented direction, experimenting new forms of song but always paying attention to keep a link with our Mediterranean background. We inserted fragments of folk music from Lombardy in the pieces that we performed live on stage, keeping in mind some of Jethro Tull’s flute passages and blending them with patterns taken from the classical stylistic tradition and from Renaissance music. In the meantime the wish was growing in us to make our way, to play at pop festivals leaving behind the beat period and taking part in the rising progressive movement [8].



Ivano Fossati: - We loved giving hidden meanings to everything, and we used to do it in all sincerity, not just to plagiarise other bands. The albums of the early Seventies were very rich in ideas, although not all the ideas were good, because the “group” was considered as a gymnasium where everybody had the right to train. The political climate of those years contributed very much to strengthening this concept. The group was a democratic institution, every member could bring in an idea and ask the others to develop it. There was a lot of inexperience and ingenuity, but also a little bit of pretentiousness, due to the enthusiasm of the chance to record and release an album. There were no plans, that’s it. It’s different from today where you demonstrate your knowledge just to strike the public. The debut albums of that period were like stores. You used to put into them everything that that you had listened to, everything that you had read. Indeed everything that you could! [9]. The albums used to have complex structures and usually they were very far from “easy listening” but Italian melody often used to drop out in the singing parts, while in the lyrics you could find a little bit of everything, from Wolf Biermann’s lieder to passages from the Gospels, from the philosophy of Nietzsche to the poetry of Lodovico Ariosto and so on and on. Anyway the lyrics had to be in Italian and, with a few exceptions, Italian artists that tried to sing in English were strongly criticized. Bernardo Lanzetti, vocalist of Acqua Fragile, Premiata Forneria Marconi and Mangala Vallis: - I remember a battle I had with the magazine Ciao 2001 which, in a review on Acqua Fragile, argued that I shouldn’t sing in English because I had no motivation like PFM or I New Trolls who instead had released their albums for the international market. So I sent them a copy of the diploma I had obtained in the U.S.A. claiming my right to sing in English. Some time after the magazine published an official apology. Today it could seem a funny thing but in that period singing in a foreign language was considered a flaw...[10].


In the early Seventies there were many “pop” festivals in Italy. They were organised in the same spirit of the pioneers, with limited means, trying to imitate festivals as those of Woodstock or of the Isle of Wight. In some cases, they were conceived as music contests as for instance the “Festival della musica d’avanguardia e nuove tendenze” that took place in Viareggio in 1971. Franco Fabbri, guitarist and singer of Stormy Six: - In Viareggio everyone was sure they were playing rock... The mechanism of this “gara spontanea” (a spontaneous contest according to the organization) worked as a preliminary heat, as in the Sanremo music festival. On a rough stage, in front of a bleak flat space where the public was lying in the sand (luckily it didn’t rain like at Woodstock), the bands alternated playing just a couple of pieces. Only some of them could enter the final and play on the last night... We were definitively the most Californian of the lot and we did our best. La Premiata Forneria Marconi recalled King Crimson, Il Rovescio della Medaglia recalled Van Der Graaf Generator and Black Sabbath, I Delirium, featuring Ivano Fossati on flute, were halfway between The Band and Jethro Tull. Nonetheless everything was performed with great passion and musicianship, there was absolutely no shameless imitation and everyone knew what he was doing... Even unknown bands as Flea On The Honey, La Nuova Idea, Circus 2000 and many others played very well, they were all convincing. We did not pass the heats... The next evening we were among the audience attending the concert. Things went smoothly until The Trip went on stage. Their spokesman brought heavy charges against the organization – It’s all already decided, they already know from the beginning who will be the winner, it’s a cheat! – He shouted. The public was in an uproar, people hissed, they became agitated, no one could tell whether out of solidarity with The Trip or because they had put up with too much or because the festival just needed a riot to be memorable. From the back they started to throw stones and other objects aiming at the stage but they fell on the first rows where we were sitting. I got cut on my head by an empty paint can and I began to bleed copiously... [11].


Well, people who used to go to concerts were very interested and “active” (sometimes too “active”!). Marco Zoccheddu, guitarist of Nuova Idea, Osage Tribe and Duello Madre: - At the Villa Pamphilii pop festival I played with Osage Tribe. We had never seen such a multitude of people attending a rock concert, so we were very worried because, in the first rows there were many rioters who, if they didn’t like your music, started to throw sand bags at you. We were the fourth or the fifth band and until that moment the only band who had escaped the attacks were Il Rovescio della Medaglia. We went on stage and began our set with a cover of Cream (We’re Going Wrong). I still remember that I could see the silence coming down. Then the most touching thing happened: as a sign of their satisfaction they threw some bread at us [12].


These festivals allowed the musicians of Italian progressive bands to get to know each other and exchange ideas. The public came to know the new bands in this way and a true musical and generational movement was able to emerge. Beppe Crovella, keyboardist of Arti & Mestieri: - In the Seventies we had the basic idea, born spontaneously, that we were a “big bloc”. Everybody was like in a convoy on the road, literally but also figuratively, in the sense of a creative movement, positive and ever-changing, featuring a kind of complicity between all the elements previously indicated. The artists used to create while bearing in mind the world around them and the audience didn’t just go to the performances but used to “take part” in the concerts and make some kind of contribution. They used to feel they were a part of the happenings not only passive spectators. Journalists, labels and radios were going all in the same direction and there was substantial compactness [13]. Donald Lax, violinist of Quella Vecchia Locanda: - It was an exalting period. There was a lot of creativity, we used to share new ideas, and we were spreading the seeds of a new genre of music. At the most important concerts all the bands were together, there was no sense of competition but a sense of cooperation [14].



Lino Vairetti, keyboardist and singer of Osanna: - There were many concerts. There was a strong collective feeling. Young people liked to go around hitchhiking, with sleeping bags. It was a spreading phenomenon, a little bit like the hippies. There were festivals and concerts all around Italy. A negative note is that there were more boys than girls and that the few girls were a little bit too loose, but for that period it was a great result anyway. There were some boys that used to hitchhike from south to north following every pop festival, it was a true way of life. There were drugs as well, but in the early seventies you couldn’t find heroine or cocaine easily, there was only hashish and marijuana. As far as I am concerned I’ve never taken drugs, I’ve always fought against these substances and I didn’t even smoke cigarettes. I remember that there was a real feeling of family. At the pop festivals there were always many bands and it was great to meet P.F.M., Perigeo, Garybaldi, Nuova Idea and many others. The musicians used to sleep in the same hotels and we could play and talk together all night long. It was a magic moment [15].


Luciano Regoli: - We were constantly on the road, even before recording our album (which happened in the fall of ’72). Our manager had understood that he could make a lot of money out of us, so he got us travelling back and forth all over Italy, performing in the most unlikely places. Once in Sicily we played at a fried-food takeaway. On the other hand, there were also many important festivals, such as Palermo Pop or Villa Pamphilii, or tours with other prog bands, such as the one in the winter of ’73 with Metamorfosi and Flea On The Honey, which lasted many weeks and touched the most important venues in northern Italy. The highways became a meeting point for bands – at night it was possible to eat at rest stops with a band coming from the opposite side of the country. When we were on stage, the audience participated in an incredibly intense fashion – until politics got in the way, and the kids started smashing everything in sight because they wanted to get into gigs for free [16].

(From the book Rock Progressivo Italiano: an introduction to Italian Progressive Rock)



[1] Quote from an interview on the site www.deagostinedicola.it.
[2] Quote from G. CASIRAGHI,  Anni 70 – Generazione Rock, Ed. Riuniti, Roma, 2005, p. 106
[3] Quote from an interview on the site www.arlequins.it
[4] Quote from an interview in R. STORTI, Codice Zena, Aereostella, Milano, 2005, p. 180
[5] Quote from an interview on the site www.classikrock.blogspot.com
[6] Quote from an interview on the site www.progarchives.com
[7] Quote from M. COTTO, Di acqua e di respiro, Ivano Fossati si racconta a Massimo Cotto, ed. Arcana, Roma, 2005, p. 19
[8] Quote from an interview in Musikbox magazine, n. 108/109, October/November 2007
[9] Quote from M. COTTO, Di acqua e di respiro, Ivano Fossati si racconta a Massimo Cotto, ed. Arcana, Roma, 2005, p. 19-20
[10] Quote from an interview in the magazine Classix!, # 19, October/November 2008
[11] See F. FABBRI, Album bianco – Diari musicali 1965 – 2002, II^ ed., Arcana, Roma, 2002, p. 91-92
[12] Quote from an interview in R. STORTI, Codice Zena, Aereostella, Milano, 2005, p. 204
[13] Quote from an interview on the site www.movimentiprog.it
[14] Quote from an interview on the site www.Italianprog.it
[15] Quote from an interview in M. FORNI, Lungo le vie del prog – Storia del rock progressivo italiano. Personaggi e opere dal 1971 al 2008, Palladino Editore, Campobasso, 2008, p. 52
[16] Quote from an interview on the site progarchives.com