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Listening to Lucio Battisti

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For no particular reason that I can pin down, I’ve spent a lot of this lockdown listening to the Italian singer Lucio Battisti. Well, maybe I just wanted music to remind me of being on holiday in Italy. The taste of a decent espresso. Traffic chaos in Naples. Olive groves on a Sicilian hillside. All of the stuff that seems so unreachable at the moment. Anyway, he’s been providing good company, as he has since I stumbled across his music almost 45 years ago. By that time he was already established as one of Italy’s biggest stars, with many hit singles and albums behind him.

The thing that first caught my ear in 1976 was a song called “Ancora tu”, on which he veered away from the singer-songwriter mode into an engagement with disco music. It’s an infernally catchy piece of music, but what also struck me were the words. Even with my rudimentary Italian, it was obvious that he was using dance music as a setting for one side of a conversation between two former lovers who’ve just bumped into each other again: “You again! How are you? Pointless question. You’re like me.” “Have you eaten, or not? Yes, I’m hungry, too.” “You look lovely. Younger than ever. Or maybe just nicer.” He tells her he’s given up smoking. At some point in your life, you may have had that kind of conversation. I liked the way the singer’s tone, conveying a mixture of fondness and concealed wounds, worked beautifully over the lightly pumping rhythm.

I was doing A&R at Island back then, so I called up some of Battisti’s earlier work and lost myself for a while in albums like Il mio canto libero, Il nostro caro angelo and Anima latina, each of which showed a willingness to absorb and adapt a variety of approaches, from English progressive rock to Brazilian new samba. “Ancora tu” was the lead track of an album whose title — Lucio Battisti, la batteria, il contrabasso, eccetera — itself highlighted his new interest in disco. I also found out that while Battisti was responsible for the music, he hadn’t written those interesting words. The lyrics to all his songs were by a man named Giulio Rapetti, who called himself Mogol.

The more I listened, the more I liked the way Battisti made records that sounded thoroughly modern while retaining some quality of traditional Italian pop music. He’d got his start through things like the San Remo Song Festival, and just enough of that flavour survived in his music to set it apart from his Anglo-American influences.

What I didn’t know was his string of hit singles — like Mi ritorni in mente (1969) and I giardini di marzo (1972) — had persuaded a generation of Italian kids that, as well as worshipping the Beatles and the Stones, they could have a pop music of their very own, speaking in their voice. It secured him a special and enduring place in their hearts. “He has been a sort of musical background to our lives,” the writer Giorgio Terruzzi told me the other day, “when we were passing between childhood and adolescence.” But that wasn’t what I heard, because I was listening to it in a different place at a different time. And by then he was becoming something different, too.

At some point, somewhere or other, I met both him and Mogol. Then in London I took Battisti to lunch at the Trattoo, a very nice Italian restaurant just off Kensington High Street. I wanted to try and work out a way to get his records — none of which had been released in the UK or the US — to an Anglophone audience. I liked him: he was a reserved but thoughtful person, and he was very happy discuss the fortunes of his football team, Juventus. Sadly, the idea didn’t come to anything. (The following year, in Los Angeles, he did make an album for RCA called Io tu noi tutti, with Hollywood session men, which gave him a couple more hits at home, although an English-language version titled Images didn’t work at all.) So, as a fan, I just carried on buying his Italian albums.

By the end of the ’70s he’d acquired the habit  of recording in London, with English producers, arrangers and musicians. For a while the records got lusher and more dependent on electric keyboards and synths, as you can hear in “Donna selvaggia donna” from the album Una donna per amico (1978) and “Il monolocale” from Una giornata uggiosa (1980), both produced by Geoff Westley with musicians like the guitarists Pip Williams, Phil Palmer and Ray Russell, the bassists Paul Westwood and John Giblin and the drummers Gerry Conway and Stuart Elliott.

Then it all changed. After so many years of success, Battisti and Mogol parted company, for reasons that have never really been explained. On the singer’s next album, E già (1982), the lyrics were credited to his wife, Grazia Letizia Veronese, and the music was stripped right back to a sound bed of electronics, created in the studio by Battisti and his new producer, Greg Walsh. I found it very adventurous and striking, and a track called “Straniero” made a deep and lasting impression. Then, four years later, came an album called Don Giovanni: more conventional in its arrangements, richer in texture, with words by the poet Pasquale Panella, and featuring several classics, like the irresistible “Fatti un pianto”, with its beautiful tenor saxophone work by Phil Todd on the intro and coda.

By this time Battisti had removed himself from the public eye. He stopped giving interviews and simply released an album every couple of years, all on the Numero Uno label, which he and Mogol had founded in the early ’70s after Ricordi had been reluctant to release their extraordinary concept album, Amore non amore. Each of these new albums had a standard look — very minimal white covers featuring simple black line drawings and no photographs — and each, sadly, was increasingly unsuccessful with the public.

L’apparenza (1988), La sposa occidentale (1990), Cosa succederà alla ragazza (1992) and Hegel (1994) had different producers — Robyn Smith, Greg Walsh, and, for the last two, Andy Duncan — but I think of them as a continuous work: an extended suite of electro-dance music made by a singer-songwriter, the innate vulnerability of Battisti’s voice ensuring that it never lost its human warmth. Sometimes, at their most driving and joyous, as in “Cosa succederà alla ragazza” or “La voce del viso”, these late tracks make me think of the Pet Shop Boys holidaying on that stretch of the Tyrrhenian coast around Viareggio, warmed by the Tuscan sun. But it’s all pure Battisti, really.

Hegel turned out to be his last word. Four years after its release, in 1998, he died in a Milan hospital, apparently of cancer, aged 55. Although in recent years there has been some controversy over the ferocity with which his widow guards his legacy, his music is available to be discovered by anyone who, like me, came to it a little late and found a friend.

* Many of Lucio Battisti’s recordings, including the final quartet of “white albums”, were reissued two years ago by Sony Legacy / Numero Uno in limited editions of CDs replicating the original album artwork. They seem to be still available.

24 Comments Post a comment
  1. Great piece. I’m sure I had heard Ancora Tu, maybe on the car radio in Bari but has no idea about the artist. Thank you.

    June 30, 2020
  2. Polly Fiona McDonald #

    Well what a fascinating and intriguing story, I have never heard of him and look forward to listening now. Also delighted to be reminded of lovely Trattoo (the first time I ever tried arancini), one of my favourite London restaurants for a long time. Thank you.

    June 30, 2020
  3. Sedat Nemli #

    “Una donna per amico” with the wonderful song “Pendila Cosi” has been a personal favorite of mine since 1978. (Mario Biondi also recorded a fairly decent version of it a few years ago.)
    Thank you Richard for remembering Battisti.

    June 30, 2020
  4. GP #

    Moving tribute to a legendary artist. If you grew up in Italy in the 70’s, he was so ubiquitous you either loved or hated him with passion. I hated him first, feeling he was too mainstream for my taste. Now I sing his songs ‘a squarciagola’ when the opportunity presents itself. Thank you

    June 30, 2020
  5. Maurizio Comandini #

    Billions of thanks, Richard. Being Italian I must confess that i never read a better description of my battered country and of the art of one of its sons. Italian music never really caught me, even if I was aware that some musicians are worth trying. Lucio Battisti, Lucio Dalla, Paolo Conte, Ivano Fossati, Vasco Rossi are the first names that come to mind. An underdog like Jimmy Villotti should be worth trying too, by the way.

    p.s. Keith Tippett funeral will be on Thursday, at 12:30, London time. Please say a little prayer for one of the best piano player and band leader. I listened a lot to his first albums, including his masterpiece Septober Energy and I’m sure he will be missed a lot. RIP

    June 30, 2020
  6. Peter Jones #

    Thank you for this.

    For me, it was a joyous antidote this morning – against my better judgement, I’d been listening to Johnson’s latest speech on the radio.

    And then this dropped in.

    After University, I spent a year in Italy – initially Trieste (such an interesting city – in Italy, yet only just Italian!).

    This was the second half of the 70’s, and I was dependent on a portable Grundig radio/cassette player.

    The tapes served me well. Becker and Fagen played star roles on most of them. But I also found myself listening more and more to the radio – far less regulated than in the UK. And very broad in terms of range of music.

    And that’s how I came across Lucio Battisti.

    My big Battisti songs – Ancora tu, of course. But also Amarsi un po.

    I still listen to them today, They’ve aged well!

    While here, thank you also for the piece a month ago about the Ronal Isley/Burt Bacharach album. It’s very, very special.

    Regards

    Peter Jones

    >

    June 30, 2020
    • Trieste — what a fascinating place. Wish I’d spent more time there. All the war memorials are to wars I’d never heard of. Have you read Claudio Magris?

      June 30, 2020
      • peter jones #

        Yes, I know about Magris, without having read him; but have Danube in the “to read” pile. And I agree entirely with the analysis of Sedat Nemli – the Jan Morris book about Trieste is a triumph.

        June 30, 2020
      • and there is the cutest of museums in trieste which celebrates both joyce and svevo – it’s on the third floor of a side street . . . jan morris is a little too purple for me . . .

        July 2, 2020
    • Sedat Nemli #

      “Trieste And The Meaning of Nowhere” (2001) by Jan Morris is highly recommended.

      June 30, 2020
  7. Tim Young #

    When I mastered L’apparenza with Lucio and Robin Smith in 1988 the first thing I said to him was that I remember reading his name back in the early ’70’s when you were writing for Melody Maker! I think he realised that he owed you a favour for turning people onto him.
    The last couple of albums I found very strange, quite hard to describe really. He was a real “one off” something the Italians seem to produce effortlessly…

    June 30, 2020
  8. Thanks for this recommendation. I have now downloaded all of the albums I could find on iTunes, and am currently enjoying Amore e non amore.

    Another great lockdown discovery was Jacques Dutronc. Very talented.

    Tony Riley

    June 30, 2020
    • Sedat Nemli #

      Re Dutronc, you may also enjoy Francoise Hardy’s ” Musique Saoule”, a gem of an album from 1978 with songs mostly penned by the then up-and-coming Michel Jonasz, where she duets with Dutronc on the bitter sweet “Brouillard dans la rue Corvisart”.

      July 1, 2020
      • Rather a nice album, I think. Her husband!

        July 1, 2020
      • Marc Zalcman #

        That’s a beautiful song

        July 1, 2020
  9. Jon Wall #

    First heard Ancora Tu just after I’d joined Time Out in 1982. Geraldine, the receptionist at the time, played it to me one night – I’d never heard of Lucio Battisti, but was hooked. Latin disco with soul, tight rhythm and a palpable edge was something I’d never heard before. It’s the only song of his I know, but I still play it now and again – and for some reason I was terribly sad when I learned, several years ago, that he’d died in the late ’90s. He’d looked so indestructible, charging through that stream, on the album cover.

    June 30, 2020
  10. Carlo Massarini #

    It’s surprising and nice to read such loving words about Lucio from an English writer. Still, you seem to be missing his very first phase, the one all of Italy fell in love with, new and original pop music with a touch of black soul (his partner in Sanremo was Wilson Pickett) that (10 years after Modugno) founded modern Italian music. I’m referencing the first two Lp’s, in which there are also the originals of Bella Linda covered by The Grassroots and If Paradise is Half As Nice by Amen Corner. Singles that Lucio -incredibly productive- threw at various Italian singers, re-singing them later on. Legend goes that Macca wanted to sign him. On those songs, I think that Mogol was in touch with his musical originality and sensibility, and wrote lyrics that were wonderful mini-stories (Chuck Berry would have loved them). Around the mid-70’s, Mogol started writing like an aging common man (which he was), and the words didn’t go along too well with the music. Anima Latina is a perfect example: incredible music (his best, for me), no singles at all but music so rich and complex he was on the level of a Bowie (circa Diamond Dogs), the embarrassing words deep in the mix (the reason why they split is royalties percentages -they both thought to deserve more than the other one, you know on what side I am…).
    In the 70s he was immensely popular, but we ‘rock fans’, mainly because of the lyrics, discarded him more and more as pure commercial pop. The last phase is amazingly futuristic, he was experimenting with the nonsense and word plays of Panella, while the music was deconstructed- no choruses, but dozens of micro-choruses all in a row. Nothing like that has ever been played in Italy. Lucio was a little genius, living totally for his music, absorbing everything from Stax to Beatles to Supertramp to King Crimson, knew more about music than the usual critic, at odds with the music system and the press (Prince comes to mind), and no determination to make it internationally. Actually all our best (Battisti, De Andrè, Bennato, Dalla, Fossati, Battiato) never really cared to. Too bad, because they are on the same level of the best Anglo-Americans. But, besides problems of pronunciation, Italian and English have totally different metrics, not so easy to translate or adapt.
    Sorry for the length, but there’s really a lot to be told. Ciao

    June 30, 2020
  11. roberto salafia #

    Well, I’m flabbergasted to see for the first time in my long life a lengthy article about an Italian singer written by a foreign writer. And in such a competent vein.
    Only a writer with a vast music knowledge could appreciate and comment on a great singer like Battisti, so little known outside Italy. And this not a “sviolinata” (adulation).
    Thank you Richard Williams.

    June 30, 2020
  12. GuitarSlinger #

    Thanks for the article / essay … Richard … suffice it to say I’ll have to check his music out assuming any of it is available in these Divided States

    For me … when it comes to reminders of times in the land of my forebears ….. its the music of Cellist / Composer Giovanni Sollima .. from ” Aquilarco ” to his most recent ” Natural Songbook ” that gets my Italian roots stirring . Adding in of course the recent wave of ECM Italian Jazz Musicians such as Stefano Bollani etc .

    Ahhhh … ecco .. va bene … Italia .. suffice it to say …. should a certain 350lb orangutan be re-elected … and assuming COVID-19’s time has come and gone … it just might be time to take advantage of that dual citizenship Italy recently bestowed upon me … hmmmm ….

    😎

    June 30, 2020
  13. Edward Chambers #

    Yet again, this blog gives rise to a wonderful sequence of informed comment. Than you, Mr Williams.

    July 1, 2020
  14. Marc Zalcman #

    It is great to read about Battisti from a non-Italian perspective. I doubt there is another artist of such talent and productivity who such a legend in his country and a total unknown elsewhere. I guess you could say that was the case with Serge Gainsbourg a few years ago so one can hope your wonderful piece, mixing knowledge and personal recollections, can contribute to his post-mortem success.
    He was known to some English musicians a long time ago, Amen Corner had a big hit with ‘Il Paradiso’ which he wrote for Patty Pravo, Mick Ronson covered ‘Io Vorrei…Non Vorrei…Ma Se Vuoi’ with lyrics by David Bowie. And of course, Mogol wrote the lyrics to the Italian version of ‘Space Oddity’. It would be a good idea for Ace to do a compilation of the songs he wrote for so many other Italian artists and of the myriad of covers for their songwriters series.
    Congratulations again on your very fine piece, Richard.

    July 1, 2020
  15. Nuno #

    When I listen to Anima Spirit of Eden By Talk Talk always comes to my mind

    July 1, 2020

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