The major British progressive rock bands of the late 1960s and early 1970s found receptive audiences throughout Europe, with perhaps none more enthusiastic than the Italians. Italy’s symphonic and operatic heritage was undoubtedly a factor in the acceptance of a new genre blending rock with elements of classical music.
Rock musicians in Italy took inspiration from the likes of King Crimson, Yes, Genesis, and Emerson, Lake & Palmer, among others, and those bands had great success touring the country. The most famous Italian progressive band, and one of the very few to see their records released in the United States, was Premiata Forneria Marconi, or PFM. Their name was taken from that of a small-town bakery, Forneria Marconi, to which they added Premiata (meaning “award-winning”).
Guitarist Franco Mussida, keyboard player Flavio Premoli, and drummer Franz Di Cioccio had been backups for many Italian pop acts prior to forming their first band I Quelli, with bassist Giorgio Piazza. The addition of violin and flute player Mauro Pagani gave them a much broader musical palette, leading to their new incarnation as PFM.
They released two fine albums on the Italian Numero Uno label, Storia di un Minuto (“Story of a Minute”), and Per un Amico (“For a Friend”), which were sung in Italian. Storia was an unprecedented success, topping the Italian record charts. When Emerson, Lake & Palmer toured Italy, Greg Lake took notice of the band and signed them to ELP’s own new label, Manticore Records.
In 1972, the very first release on Manticore was PFM’s Photos of Ghosts, a compilation of songs from their two Italian LPs. The tracks were re-recorded in England, with new English lyrics by Peter Sinfield (lyricist for King Crimson and ELP). The album garnered a fair amount of airplay on FM underground stations at the time and even cracked Billboard magazine’s Top 200.
One track, “Il Banchetto” (“The Banquet”), was left in its original Italian. A strong influence of King Crimson can be heard in the guitars and drumming. In the middle, you’ll hear a quirky synthesized orchestral passage somewhat reminiscent of Switched-On Bach, followed by a very nice acoustic piano solo in the style of Keith Emerson.
“Appena un Po’” from Per Un Amico was re-done as “River of Life” for Photos:
PFM’s third Italian album, L’Isola di Niente (The Island of Nothing”), was similarly re-done for the UK and American markets with the ungainly title of The World Became the World. While the Italian version featured all new material, The World added a re-done English version of a song (“Impressioni di Settembre”) from their first album to serve as the title track. Personally, I think the original is vastly superior. This would prove to be their last album with English lyrics by Sinfield, as the band was not entirely pleased with his contributions (and I am in agreement – some were just embarrassing). The album also marked the departure of bassist Piazza, who was replaced by Jan (Ian) Patrick Djivas.
The album jacket (at least on the imported copies) featured a serrated cutout in the center, revealing a colorful illustration of a tropical island on the inner sleeve. When that sleeve was removed, a black-and-white image of a bombed-out city printed on the inside of the jacket was visible. The Italian version had a green front cover, while the British was printed in blue.
“La Luna Nuova” gives you a great idea of their ability to navigate high-speed musical passages:
“Dolcissima Maria” is a track that shows their sweeter side.
A live album, Cook (also known as Live in the USA), was released in 1974. Once again, there were different album covers for different markets. You can see the Italian cover in the video.
Check out the smoking jam, “Alta Loma Five Till Nine Medley”:
The next studio album, Chocolate Kings, heralded major changes for the band. While the British release remained on Manticore, in the U.S. it was issued on the Asylum label. They also began writing their own English lyrics, in addition to bringing in a new collaborator, Marva Jan Marrow, on some of the songs.
The biggest shift, however, was the addition of new lead vocalist Bernardo Lanzetti (from the Italian band Acqua Fragile). Thanks to a period of residence in Austin, Texas, Lanzetti was fluent in English. His vocal style, while more forceful, was also harsher, with a lot of vibrato (try to imagine the singing offspring of Peter Gabriel and a billy goat – on second thought, try not to – I dare you). Another comparison (a bit obscure, I’ll grant you) would be to Family vocalist Roger Chapman.
The Italian cover for the LP (with a small image of a scantily-clad, somewhat hefty blonde) was deemed unsuitable for the British and American markets. Here are both versions:
Despite the many melodic elements typical of PFM’s compositions, the vocals are hard to take at times. Try “Out of the Roundabout” (or “Out on the Roundabout,” depending on which album cover you’re reading):
Original violinist Mauro Pagani left the group after Chocolate Kings, and was replaced by American Gregory Bloch (who had been part of a later version of It’s A Beautiful Day).
Jet Lag came out in 1977, featuring a decidedly jazzier tone. Marrow again contributed lyrics for Lanzetti to sing. The album opens with “Peninsula,” a pretty acoustic guitar instrumental:
“Meridiani” shows a strong Mahavishnu Orchestra influence:
They even get real funky (especially the bass) on an odd song in praise of southpaws called “Left Handed Theory”:
Bloch left the group after that album to join the Saturday Night Live studio band. PFM continued as a five-piece unit for their next album, 1978’s Passpartù. A few other studio musicians contributed to the record, which had a decidedly less-than-prog sound. Even Lanzetti’s vocals were more palatable. While still gruff, they aren’t “billy-goat” gruff. Here’s a vocal track from the album:
The title track is a jazzy, almost tropical-sounding instrumental. The Polymoog synthesizer even sounds a bit like a violin on this piece:
The next album, Suonare Suonare, was marked by the departure of Lanzetti, leaving the vocals to be handled by guitarist Mussida and drummer Di Cioccio. New member Lucio Fabbri plays violin, viola, and cello on the session. The songs bear little resemblance to the complex compositions on which their reputation was built. “Vola a Vela” is a bouncy number far removed from their progressive roots:
Come Ti Va In Riva Alla Città, released in 1981, continued their descent into a more commercial-sounding product. Founding member Premoli left the band, and violinist Fabbri took over the keyboard spot. Di Cioccio sings all the lead vocals in addition to playing the drums. There’s no denying the musicianship, but it’s still pretty pedestrian rock and roll.
On PFM? PFM! (1984), Di Cioccio abandoned the drums to focus on singing. 1987’s Miss Baker includes, of all things, a tribute to American singer Josephine Baker. Yet another keyboard player, Vittorio Cosma, is added to the band for this one. They even use a horn section and female backing vocals on some tracks, such as “Tempo Tempo”:
Wow – that’s about as far from their roots as they can get!
Ten years would pass before the release of their next record. Ulisse, a song cycle based on Homer’s The Odyssey, finds the group back in its classic four-piece lineup with the return of Flavio Premoli. Though still not as solidly progressive as their earliest work, it marked the beginning of an upward trajectory. Nearly every cut features beautiful guitar work by Franco Mussida. Here’s the title track, which builds to a big finish:
Serendipity (released in 2000) features the same lineup, but with a decidedly heavier feel. The album was produced by Corrado Rustici, guitarist with the Italian fusion band Nova. The opening track, “La Revoluzione,” establishes the new direction:
Rustici contributes a screaming solo on the album’s final piece, “Exit”:
Next up is Dracula, their “Opera Rock.” Based more closely on the Francis Ford Coppola movie Bram Stoker’s Dracula, it is a true rock opera, with orchestration and choral accompaniment. The 2005 CD is a double album. Disc One features the original studio recording by PFM, and Disc Two contains the full stage production, with the cast members supplying the vocals.
One reviewer for the website Prog Archives (http://www.progarchives.com) had this to say: “Are you Italian? Do you speak Italian or understand it? If the answers (sic) is no, then you can appreciate this album. Otherwise, you will find it very hard to tolerate it. I say so because I am Italian, therefore I am unluckily able to understand the lyrics of this record.” He goes on to brutally excoriate the band for the quality of the lyrics.
And that is why I almost always prefer to hear bands sing in their native language. That way I just hear the music and vocal tones (as opposed to poor syntax and heavy accents). Musically it is a pretty good album, and the “Ouverture” is impressive:
“Terra Madre” has some nice guitar work, and gives you a good idea of the cuts that include singing:
Almost as though they were “all sung out” from Dracula, the next album, Stati di Immagione (2008), was entirely instrumental. Flavio Premoli left again, and the revolving keyboard position was now occupied by Gianluca Tagliavini, who also contributed violin parts. The album features some fine playing, and “Visioni di Archimede” is indicative of their stylistic range:
A.D. 2010 – La Buona Novella was subtitled on the cover as “Opera Apocrifa do la buona novella di Fabrizio de Andre.” The members of PFM had served as backup for singer Fabrizio De Andre (among others) prior to the formation of their seminal band I Quelli, and this was a reimagining of De Andre’s 1970 album with new material as well. It’s almost easy listening pop with a dollop of prog. Lucio Fabbri returned to contribute violin on this album, and is featured on the intro to “Il ritorno di Giuseppe”:
Their next album was a 2013 orchestral collaboration with the awkward title of pfm In Classic – Da Mozart A Celebration. Guess what? They’ve got yet another new keyboardist – say “Buon giorno” to Alessandro Scaglione. (“Programs!, get yer programs here – can’t tell your keyboard players without a program!”)
The first of two discs features arrangements of pieces by Mozart, Saint-Saëns, Dvorak, Mahler, Prokofiev, Rimsky-Korsakov, and Verdi. The second disc is mostly re-arrangements of PFM compositions.
From Disc One, here’s the overture to “The Magic Flute”:
From Disc Two, we have “Impressione di Settembre,” the song that was re-done as the title track of their album The World Became the World:
PFM’s latest (last?) album, 2017’s Emotional Tattoos, features only one original member, vocalist and drummer Franz Di Cioccio. Longtime bassist Patrick Djivas, on-and-off violin player Lucio Fabbri, and recent keyboardist Alessandro Scaglione serve as the only other connections to prior lineups. The guitars are now played by Marco Sfogli, Roberto Gualdi adds percussion, and – no surprise – there’s an additional keyboard player, Alberto Bravin. (Aren’t you glad there’s no quiz at the end?)
Emotional Tattoos is another two-disc release, but the trick here is that the first disc is sung in Italian, and the second features the same songs with English lyrics. It seems that only the Italian disc is available on YouTube. It’s not progressive rock, but it’s pretty listenable. The cut, “Mayday,” is fairly representative (and check out the cool visual – that would be a really hip turntable if the tonearm were longer):
In the next installment, I’ll introduce you to a few of the many other Italian prog bands, most of which never had their music released in the US.