'Pop' the Question - Part 3: How Did Italian Pop Music Flourish in the 1970s?

Fri, 06/27/2014 - 03:00

John Bensalhia makes his way through the sideburns and flares to remember the Italian music scene in the 1970s. [Read Part 1 - The 1950s here, and Part 2 - The 1960s here.]

If there's one decade that sparks off iconic fashions, then it's the 1970s. Retro 1970s parties all over the globe usually attract hordes decked out in long hippy wigs, flared trousers, platform shoes and boots, and of course, the inevitable shiny disco gear. The 1970s carried on the trend for putting a defined, unique stamp not just on the image, but on the music.

The music of the 1970s is similar to the music of the 1960s in that it's essentially a game of two halves. The first half of the 1960s contained simple, catchy pop and rock. The second half saw a more ambitious expansion of this, with psychedelic influences and more complex musical arrangements start to creep in. The first part of the 1970s expanded on this, taking popular musical genres such as the singer songwriter movement and progressive rock, and making them even more popular. 

Progressive rock was a key staple of early 1970s music, with bands such as King Crimson, Genesis and Emerson Lake and Palmer taking this genre to new levels of success. Italy also had their own progressive rock acts making their mark. One of the most popular of these was Le Orme. Le Orme had started their music career in the previous decade, but it was the 1970s that brought them fame. The key line-up was the trio of Aldo Tagliapietra, Michi Dei Rossi and Tony Pagliuca. Their breakthrough came in 1971 with the album Collage, which cracked the Top 10 in the Italian charts. The next two years were particularly fruitful for Le Orme with the albums Uomo di pezza (1972) and Felona e Sorona (1973). Not only did these sell well, they were also well received by the music critics. Felona e Sorona, in particular, was singled out as a great example of Italian progressive rock. Both of these examples included familiar staples of progressive rock, including the predominant keyboard and synthesiser sounds, classical influences (Uomo di pezza contains an homage to Bach) and also weighty concepts (Felona e Sorona's songs revolve around two opposing planets, one prosperous and healthy, the other, doomed by plague and disaster). The hits kept on coming in the latter part of the 1970s, including the Verità nascoste album from 1976 and Florian from 1979. The latter managed the same mix of commercial success and critical admiration – which in 1979, during the new wave and disco movements, was a notable achievement.

Another notable Italian prog rock band was Banco Del Mutuo Soccorso. The band comprised Gianni and Vittorio Nocenzi, plus vocalist Francesco Di Giacomo. Like many other prog rock bands, they too swirled their music in heavy, rich keyboard sounds, using synthesisers, organs and piano to great effect. Contrasting with this was a more organic sound, utilising reed instruments (one of their influences is said to be Jethro Tull, whose lead singer Ian Anderson would regularly play the flute on songs such as Living In The Past, Ring Out Solstice Bells and Bouree). One of their most accomplished and well received albums is 1973's Darwin!, which is based on the evolution theories of Charles Darwin. Another memorable album is 1975's Banco, partly recorded in the fabled Air Studios in London, and one that combines a diverse range of styles such as contemporary electronic, chamber and opera. 1978 also saw an experimental instrumental approach with the ...di terra album, which was recorded with Orchestra dell'Unione Musicisti di Roma.

Franco Battiato also made his way into the music scene with forays into progressive rock. Albums such as 1974's Clic adopted a more experimental approach with musique concrete style tracks used by the likes of Philip Glass and Brian Eno. It's worth pointing out that Clic was released on the Island label, a label shared by Eno and his old chums, Roxy Music, one of the mainstays of 1970s music. Battiato's early albums contained their fair share of experimentation, with synthesiser-heavy sounds created on 1972's Pollution album and the experimental and award-winning sounds of 1977's L'Egitto prima della sabbie

Concept albums tended to be based around a particular theme or idea, and one notable example in Italy in the 1970s was Lucio Dalla's Automobili album. Having collaborated with Bolognese poet Roberto Roversi, Dalla crafted a number of fondly remembered albums, including the 1976 tribute to all things on wheels, Automobili (which was based on an earlier show, Il futuro dell'automobile e altre storie). The 1970s were a particularly successful time for Dalla, with the later years spawning albums such as his eponymous long platter in 1978 (housing well remembered tunes such as Anna e Marco and L'anno che verrà). A live album with his good friend Francesco De Gregori called Banana Republic also sold well in 1979.

Francesco De Gregori himself was one of the burgeoning rise of singer songwriters in the 1970s. All over the world, the singer songwriter was one of the key musical genres. The likes of Joni Mitchell, James Taylor, Cat Stevens and Carole King created personal and introspective songs straight from the heart, and this evidently struck a chord with the record buying public. In Italy, this type of music continued to do extremely well. De Gregori himself is regarded as "il principe dei cantautori" (the prince of singers-songwriters), and his catalogue of music bears this assertion out. Songs such as the title track from his second album Alice non lo sa are still highly rated today. He enjoyed commercial success in 1975 with the Rimmel album, a work that drew more on jazz influences, keeping in with the growing trend for jazz rock. Albums such as Still Crazy After All These Years by Paul Simon, Court And Spark by Joni Mitchell and Between The Lines by Janis Ian headlined this trend, and De Gregori's Rimmel is no exception. Following on from 1976's Bufalo Bill album, De Gregori went on a temporary hiatus from making music (after a political altercation at a 1977 concert) to work for a bookshop. However, this hiatus ended soon, as De Gregori returned to the recording studio to create 1978's De Gregori album, which swiftly put him back in the charts, while the following year saw the release of his live album collaboration with Lucio Dalla. 

The 1970s were also big news for two previously established cantautori. Francesco Guccini put his name on the map in this decade with a string of successful albums. One notable hit was the 1972 album Radici, which looked at the tracing of family roots and origins. The album contains many well known Guccini songs such as La locomotiva and Incontro. 1976's Via Paolo Fabbri 43 was another big seller for Guccini. It included L'avvelenata, which addressed the critical responses he had received in the past. Another successful album was Amerigo from 1978, boasting songs such as Eskimo and the title track which paid tribute to Guccini's grand uncle.

Fabrizio De André also continued his run of success in the 1970s. Admittedly, the decade got off to a controversial start with his religious-themed album, La buona novella. Although De André cited it as an achievement, some of the fans gave a more lukewarm response, questioning whether the more conservative tone of the album sat well with earlier albums that explored and championed libertarian causes. His albums from the early 1970s were in vogue with the trends for concept albums (following on from his earlier works such as Tutti morimmo a stento album). 1971's Non al denaro non all'amore né al cielo revolved around the Spoon River Anthology by Edgar Lee Masters while 1973's Storia di un impiegato was a concept album based on the 1968 protests and told from the point of view of a young worker who elects to join in with the cause. De André also covered one notable influential singer songwriter, Leonard Cohen. His mid 1970s albums included two Cohen covers: Suzanne and Seems So Long Ago Nancy. However, following on from 1978's Rimini album, the following year saw a major trauma in De André's life, as both he and his partner were kidnapped and held hostage by bandits in Sardinia. De André and his partner were freed four months later.

Roberto Vecchioni initially wrote songs for other acts such as Mina and Ornella Vanoni, but 1971's Parabola saw him become a star in his own right. The 1970s was to be a highly productive time for Vecchioni. 1974 saw the Italian music critics welcome Il re non si diverte with open arms. Commercial success was also on the way in the mid to late 1970s with albums such as Elisir, Samarcanda and Calabuig.

Another notable singer/songwriter was Rino Gaetano, whose apparently light-hearted lyrics contained darker undercurrents, frequently told from an outsider's point of view. This outsider POV was in evidence already on his first album from 1974, Ingresso libero. This theme carried on with 1976's Mio fratello è figlio unico, which saw Gaetano branch out musically with a broader palette of instruments including the sitar and the mandolin. His big hit of 1978 was Gianna, and came in the wake of a memorable appearance at the Sanremo Music Festival. Another memorable song was the the title track from the album Nuntereggae più, which listed various people from the media in the lyrics (some of the names had to be cut, such as Aldo Moro and Lino Banfi). Unfortunately tragedy struck in 1981, when Gaetano was killed in a car crash at the age of 30.

Another singer gone before their time was Mia Martini. Initially, Martini had recorded under the name of Mimi Bertè in the 1960s, but it was the 1970s that gave her the most hits such as 1972's Piccolo Uomo and 1973's Minuetto. Martini passed away in 1995.

Other female singers were making their mark in the 1970s. Raffaella Carrà scored a number of hits in the 1970s, including 1970's Tuca Tuca, 1971's Chissà se va and the international smash A far l'amore comincia tu, which also cracked the British charts in the spring of 1978 as Do It Do It Again. Carrà went on to become a familiar face on TV and was also one of the judges on the Italian version of "The Voice".

Ornella Vanoni enjoyed a successful decade in the 1970s, winning hits with songs such as Eternità, L'appuntamento and La voglia la pazzia, l'incoscienza l'allegria. Rosanna Fratello, another former Sanremo contestant topped the charts in 1972 with Sono una donna, non sono una santa. Fratello, also a successful actress, dabbled with other music styles such as folk and disco.

On the subject of disco, one Italian musician made a worldwide name for himself in this field. However, this was on the other side of the recording studio rather than before the microphone. Giorgio Moroder is widely known as one of the most influential names in disco, writing and producing a long list of classic hits. Among his most famous works are Donna Summer's Love To Love You Baby (1975) and I Feel Love (1977), plus American band Sparks' 1979 album Number One In Heaven, which boasted three big hits with The Number One Song In Heaven, Beat The Clock and Tryouts For The Human Race. Moroder has also worked with the likes of The Three Degrees, Japan and Philip Oakey of The Human League – the collaboration with the latter would see a massive worldwide hit, Together In Electric Dreams in 1984.

Just one of the many songs from the 1980s – what else did that decade have in store, musically? Tune in next time to find out...