San Remo turned out to be a song festival. Not just a song festival, but the song festival. Italian music. Oh dear. If someone were to ask me to list all the things that I hated about 1990s Italy, first place would be a close call between graffiti, litter, the national obsession with motorized vehicles, or the music. And I have a suspicion that music would have won.
Let me say at the outset that I do have a sneaking admiration for the late Neapolitan guitar-botherer Pino Daniele, whose strummings add a certain je ne sais quoi to an open air diner-à-deux overlooking the Med, as do some of the old-style Neapolitan songs. And some of the more recent stuff, for example 2021 San Remo winners Maneskin or Milano rockers Lacuna Coil, is actually pretty good. But in the 90s, most of it, heavens above, was absolutely worthless. And the San Remo festival was an orgiastic, week-long celebration of Italian musical mediocrity – incestuous, dominated by the Establishment who did their utmost to suffocate and crush new talent from without, while using the mass media to dictate and control what young Italians may, or may not, listen to. No, this is not an attack on Berlusconi. It was like that long before he arrived on the scene. And young Italians of that generation were, sadly, only too pleased to be dictated to in this manner.
Sometimes, the festival was just so bland, however, that the producers had to invent “happenings” to liven things up. So it was in 1996, for example, when a man threatened to commit suicide by jumping over a balcony at San Remo’s Ariston Theatre. The compère, Pippo “Super Pippo” Baudo, managed to talk him out of his self-destructive intentions and the story was front page news. Waves of sympathy and emotion rolled over Italy but it was soon widely believed to have been a publicity stunt and it all ended in a lawsuit. Even by San Remo’s low, low standards, this was scraping the barrel.
I had long found the Italians’ inability to make good pop music puzzling. After all, this was the country that had given us Puccini, Rossini, not to mention the great Verdi. How had they reduced themselves to such a level of musical incompetence? How had they got to the stage of churning out a constant stream of bland, cloying, emotionless shit? Imagine that the previous 30 years had never happened. Imagine, too, that there had never been The Beatles, The Stones, The Jimi Hendrix Experience or The Who, and that modern music had started with Gilbert O’Sullivan and those dreadful progressive rock bands of the 1970s – the survivors of whom, coincidentally enough, often made guest appearances on Italian music shows of the time, quite often, in fact, at San Remo itself. Now imagine that the situation had remained constant ever since. 30-40 years of Gilbert O’Sullivan and prog rock. You are starting to get an idea of what the 90s Italian music scene was like.
“Of course, what people mean when they say ‘Italian music’ is ‘Neapolitan music’,” my boss informed me as he gave me a lift home on the first evening of the San Remo song festival. “There has never been a city like Naples anywhere in the world when it comes to music. What other city can boast of so many world-famous, household names? Murolo, Ranieri, Bruni …” “Er … come again?” He took his hands off the steering wheel to count them on his fingers, an action I found more than a little terrifying, considering that he was driving a Maserati at great speed. “What other city has given the world so much popular music?” he insisted. “Er, well. Liverpool, London, Manchester, Seattle, Nashville …” I began, but he ignored me and continued to sing the praises of his townsfolk and their monumental capacity for making sublime music. “We Neapolitans have music in our blood,” he went on. “It’s part of our DNA.” I forced myself to sit through the first evening of San Remo, but it was clear from the very first song that this was an event to make the Eurovision Song Contest look like the cultural highlight of the year. The acts all seemed to fall into one of four categories:
Firstly, there were the old farts, in their fifties and sixties. These were the crooners and they knocked out the same old guff that they had been peddling for decades. Secondly, there were the young farts. Suspiciously, they had the same surnames as the old farts. They looked a lot like them, too. And they knocked out the same old guff that their fathers had been peddling for decades. Thirdly, came the foreign acts. Safe, boring and middle-aged. The Phil Collinses, the Peter Gabriels, the Mick Hucknalls and the Stings etc.
Finally came the Italian “rock” bands. Generally fronted by leather-clad men in their 40s, which counted as young in Italy, they would croak and wheeze tunelessly over a background of clunking, slightly distorted guitars and tinkling keyboards played by men in white disco suits and with 70s Liverpudlian perms. And all of them, from the crooners to the rockers, would be accompanied by full orchestra in evening dress, complete with conductor.
The real problem of Italian rock music is that the Italian language just isn’t suited to the rhythms of rock and pop. It’s too sweet, too flowery, too syllable-timed and it sounds contorted. Few can make it sound natural. And rock just wasn’t in their blood back then. Time and time again I came across substantial evidence of this, most notably at a local “Rock Festival”. Ahem! Perhaps it is unfair to scoff, as they did their ineffectual best. My wife and I arrived just in time to see two young ladies setting up their equipment for the evening’s first “gig”. Said equipment consisted of: one drum machine – set constantly to the same rhythm; top of the range pink Fender Stratocaster played by well-endowed Latin cutie-pie with sweet smile; Fender Precision Bass – being played by young elephant. And, I kid you not, music stands complete with “The Hits of Nirvana” sheet music. They ambled amiably enough through a selection of the grunge-meisters’ chart toppers, and I suppose it was quite listenable in a Perry Como sort of way. But I had never realized, until that moment, that “Smells Like Teen Spirit” was a waltz!
All of this would have been pardonable if it hadn’t been for the very omnipresence of bad music. Weddings, baptisms, graduation parties. There was not a single, potentially joyous occasion that they didn’t conspire to ruin with inappropriate, excruciating music. Just imagine it: the bride looks delectable, the weather is perfect. The ceremony was a delight and the reception looks promising too. Oysters, asparagus risotto, various fish-based delicacies to follow. Crisp, white serviettes, top quality silverware. A very classy do. And then you see it – electronic keyboard and microphone set up in the corner and connected to a woefully inadequate P.A. system. And your spirits plummet, for it’s the dreaded “piano bar”. At some point during the afternoon – that’s if you are lucky – or for the whole afternoon – that’s if you are unlucky – someone will switch the damn thing on, sit down, start pounding at the keys, caterwauling and generally creating a cacophonous racket that is so at odds with the sophistication of the surroundings that you wonder how on earth it can be that they just can’t see it.
Or perhaps you are on a friend’s motorboat with a few other couples, bobbing up and down in the bay off the island of Capri. The wine is chilled and crisp and the whitebait and lemon delicious. Whenever you feel that you are in danger of overheating, you can tip yourself backwards into the clear, blue sea and cool off. Or you can lie on deck and listen to the waves lapping at the side of the boat and the cry of the gulls and just savour a precious moment of peace and quiet. “Let’s have some music!” someone will cry. You knew it would happen, but you had been hoping against hope. On goes the stereo – sickly schmaltz or contrived, tuneless rock – and you seriously consider diving overboard and, despite the immoderate quantity of wine you have consumed, attempting to swim to shore.
“So what?” you might ask. “Not everybody can be good at everything.” And you’d be right. All nations have their weaknesses. But whereas you’d be hard-pushed to find an Englishman who claimed international repute for his countrymen’s cuisine, or an American who insisted that the rest of the world envied him his dress sense, my Italian friends were truly convinced of their supremacy in the field of popular music and were, what’s more, convinced that the rest of the world agreed with them. Try to tell them that Italian “superstars” were, by and large, unknown outside of Italy (and maybe Germany) and they simply would not believe you. After all, only last year, an Italian singing sensation embarked on a worldwide tour of Argentina. And with that the case was closed. But for all their musical ineptitude, it did have to be admitted that it was difficult to imagine Italian musicians, at least then, flicking the bird at the audience, or smashing up their guitars. And when one particularly yobbish British rock band did both in the space of a few minutes, to the incredulous horror of second tier politicians and social climbers sitting in the front seats of the San Remo festival, they were forcefully ejected from the premises on live TV. And for that I was grateful.