Italy isn’t typically renowned for its contributions to rock and roll.
Certainly not in English speaking lands, anyway.
Måneskin are doing their best to change that following their 2020 Eurovision win, and their targeting of the US and British charts with their latest album Rush.
Their first two albums featured a majority of songs in Italian with a few in English thrown in. The latest album switches that around. Such is the way, from ABBA to BTS: to break into English speaking markets. It pays to adopt the language.
There is another way though.
One Italian man took his own idiosyncratic approach to the language barrier. It might not have been an immediate hit. But over the decades, its taken its own scenic route to public consciousness beyond borders.
Adriano Celentano is the original king of rock and roll in Italy.
He started off as many early European rock and rollers did, by copying the sounds coming from across the Atlantic.
In the late 50s he released covers of Rip It Up, Blueberry Hill and Tutti Frutti amongst others. Within a couple of years he transitioned to singing original compositions in Italian.
He’s still going now in his 80s:
Well over 40 studio albums in, and reported to have sold 150 million records.
This renaissance man also had a parallel career acting in a string of comedies that were box office gold in Italy. Film buffs may have seen him in a cameo role in La Dolce Vita as an over-exuberant singer in a nightclub. But for the most part, his films, like his songs, didn’t travel to English speaking parts of the world.
I was familiar with his name as he’s referenced by Ian Dury as one of his “Reasons To Be Cheerful.”
But I had no idea who he was or what had brought him to the attention of Ian.
That was until a few months ago.
When I came across Prisencolinensinainciusol.
Do not adjust your sets.
Pronounced; Pre-zen-coal-ee-nine-say-nine-choose-ol. Kind of. This is a best estimate only.
[Let’s pause for a trendy, “Hey, Let’s See if AI Can Help Us, Here“ insert:]
“Hello, ChatGPT. Can you please pronounce:
(prɪs ɛn col ɪn ɛn sina ɪn ciusol)
Prisencolinensinainciusol is the name of what may well be his best known song outside of Italy. Its certainly the one that you’ve most likely heard. Even if you don’t realise it or know of its backstory.
Some of the facts behind the song are a little hazy. I’ve variously read that it came out in 1970 and failed to have any impact until 1972 when Adriano performed it on Italian TV. At which point it went to number one in Italy and across Europe.
In one interview Adriano said that it reached #86 in the US, but this seems to be artistic licence. Alternatively it came out in 1972 and the TV appearance that brought it to wider attention was 1974.
According to Wikipedia, it only reached #5 in Italy as well as going top 5 in Belgium and the Netherlands.
Whatever the truth, it’s a unique song.
Even if it didn’t make #86 on the Hot 100, its unusual composition has given it a profile far in excess of the typical mainland European hit.
It’s uniqueness stems from its lyrics. From our English speaking point of view, a casual listener may assume it’s in Italian. Makes sense for an Italian singer. It certainly isn’t in English. Closer inspection though reveals that the language is entirely in the mind of Adriano. The lyrics were delivered in a manner intended to reflect what American records sound like to the ears of a non English speaker.
In an interview for All Things Considered on NPR in 2012, Adriano said:
“I would write a song which would only have as its theme the inability to communicate.
And to do this, I had to write a song where the lyrics didn’t mean anything.”Non-native English speaker Adriano Celentano
This might sound like a conceit that would need careful planning. But in Adriano’s words, it sounds incredibly simple:
“I made a loop of four beats, four drumbeats. And so then, I went to the microphone in the recording studio, and I started improvising.
And I improvised the melody and the music.
And then I called the orchestra. …and based on that song, I made the arrangements.”
Allmusic describes it as: “proto-rap gibberish.”
I’m not sure I’d go as far as “proto-rap.”
Though it’s composition, looping those four drumbeats, may be ahead of its time. The drumbeats are the focal point musically, pounding their way through the track adorned by a repeating horn stab and constant droning guitar underneath.
It adds up to a storming glam rock and roll and funk mix, sung in an incomprehensible language.
Which the more I listen sounds remarkably like it should be English.
It’s an impressive approximation of early rock and roll.
I put the lyrics through a translating tool. The results were entertainingly bizarre and made no more sense than Adriano’s improvised malarkey. I particularly like the author’s comment underneath which is delightfully understated:
For the UK release it was decided that Prisencolinensinainciusol might be a little… off-putting.
It was re-titled The Language Of Love.
Which seems a gross misunderstanding of the premise of the song by the record label.
Even with the anglicised variation, it didn’t chart.
Rather than remaining an obsure curio, the advent of the Internet and distinctive nature of the song has given it new life. The NPR feature in 2012 came after going viral on Boing Boing.
Though in an unexpected twist, Rush Limbaugh claimed credit for its popularity.
In 2019, Rush said that he’d heard it on a TV show about the kidnapping of John Paul Getty’s grandson, in which Hilary Swank starred. He chose it to use as bumper music for his radio show. Which, he reckoned, led to the song’s acclaim, and to NPR hearing about it. Rush’s memory, like Adriano’s didn’t add up.
The Getty kidnapping show was Trust, which aired in 2018. He’s right that he heard the song in the show. But the NPR piece dates from 2012.
Never let the truth stand in the way of self promotion.
A year before Trust it had been used in season 3 of Fargo, which I watched so I’ll have heard it then without realising. Since then it has featured in Fargo, Lone Star, White Lotus and Ted Lasso. As well as continuing to go viral on a regular basis as more people keep discovering it. Everyone wants a piece of it now.
There are two Italian TV performances from whichever year it was in the 1970s, which certainly help as well.
Adriano is a charismatic performer and shows off his distinctive physicality to good effect. In the first he performs as a teacher to his female students. The woman who takes the lead female vocal and plays harmonica is his wife (of now 59 years!) Claudia Mori – herself a big star in Italy.
The other performance is only available as a partial clip. It’s a dazzling mirrored performance, giving the impression of a synchronized cast of dozens of dancers:
Both are well worth watching…
Even if none of it makes sense.
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