Playlist Release: Milano ‘78

Clockwise from left: La Piazza del Duomo, Milano, 1975 | Mina performing “Ancora ancora ancora”, 1978 | Lucio Battisti, 1976

Ladies and gentlemen, we’re in the midst of a playlisting binge. In the last few months, we’ve seen Sounds of Rome, ’59 and Sounds of Bruxelles, ‘76 — and now, I’m proud to announce my latest release, Sounds of Milano, ‘78!

As always, what I’ve tried here is to capture a zeitgeist, in this case, that of Milano, 1978. And while the music on this playlist is by no means soft and easy (for reasons we’ll get to), I’m sure that by the end, you’ll agree that it does exactly what it’s supposed to do — and in such style!

Italy in the late ’70s was not exactly what we would describe as a happy place. Dealing with the quadrupling of oil prices due to the 1973 oil shock, Italy suffered heavily from stagflation, with unemployment reaching 7.2% by 1979 compared to an average of 5% from 1945–73. The government’s response was massive expenditure, which only drove up inflation further and ballooned public debt to the highest level in Western Europe.

But more importantly, Italy, and particularly northern Italian cities like Milano, was riven by internal strife, dealing with massive political terrorism and violence from extremist elements of both the left and the right. There’s a reason why these years are called the Anni di piombo — “the Years of Lead” — referring to the huge amount of ammunition expended in the violence. Secret conspiracies and plans for coups d’etat abounded, while trains and piazzi were bombed, acts possibly tolerated and encouraged by the state (i.e. the ruling Democrazia Cristiana party). Hundreds of civilians lost their lives, thousands more wounded. Even two-time former Prime Minister Aldo Moro was kidnapped and brutally murdered by the terrorist Red Brigades in March 1978.

Milano ’78 is all about this crisis. In many ways, it’s the dark side of Bruxelles ’76 — the glorious celebration of pan-European styles past, present, and future has been replaced by a bleak mix of nostalgia for the past, escape from the present, and despair for the future. Why else would Mina record a 1978 disco cover of one of her own opere magni from Italy’s postwar golden age, 1963’s “Città vuota”? And check out the desperate escapism of the queen of Italian rock ‘n’ roll, Loredana Bertè, in her anguished, yet swaggering, husky-voiced delivery:

È normale sia così
Perché noi viviamo qui
Tra i rumori di una via
Tranquillanti in farmacia
Figli dell’ideologia
E non possiamo starci

In alto mare, in alto mare
Per poi lasciarsi andare
Sull’onda che ti butta giù
E poi ti scaglia verso il blu
E respirare

This is normal
Because we live here
Among the noises of the street
Tranquilizers in the pharmacy
Children of ideology
And we can’t stay there

On the high seas, on the high seas
There, let yourself go
On the wave that knocks you down
And hurls you into the blue
And breathe

-“In alto mare” | Loredana Bertè — Loredana Bertè (1980)

Or just listen to the harsh, desolate future in the words of Italy’s greatest singer-songwriter, Lucio Battisti:

La fossa del leone
È ancora realtà
Uscirne è impossibile per noi
È uno slogan falsità

The lion’s den
Is still a reality
Escaping is impossible for us
It’s a false slogan

-“Il nostro caro angelo” | Lucio Battisti — Il nostro caro angelo (1972)

Grim stuff indeed — yet it’s done here in such style. The flaky acoustic guitars of the singer-songwriters in Monaco ’75 have been augmented with funky wah-wah guitars, stripped-down disco beats, and lush vocal and string accompaniments, reflecting the Italian obsession with funk and Eurodisco. And as in Bruxelles ‘76, synthesizers, those harbingers of the ’80s, make their presence felt in tracks like “Amara”, “Amarsi un po’”, “Agguato a Casablanca” — and we even hear something that sounds a lot like Phil Collins’ (in?)famous gated reverb in Mia Martini’s “Vola”.

But the fundamental dolore that marks this time and place is always present. The same lush string accompaniments are not only a product of this time and place, but heighten the drama and pathos inherent in every tristezza-soaked piece where they’re present, like in France Gall’s “Si maman si” or Mina’s “Triste”. Those much-maligned disco beats pull double duty too, highlighting the all-too-mechanistic vacuousness of dance-floor escapism, most notably in the bleak late-night shuffle of Battisti’s “Prendila così”.

Yet this dolore often pushes its way to the forefront through the slickness of the production, producing moments of such profound and utter despair. Listen to the wailing, regret-soaked warning of Mina’s distinctive, ever-sublime voice over the semi-Gothic organ-esque synthesizers of “Anche un uomo”, or the quintuple-tracked vocal harmonies towards the end of Claudio Baglioni’s “Un po’ di più”, breathy like sighs, almost a cri du cœur. Or for that matter, the escalating chaos of Ornella Vanoni’s “Prendimi, toccami”, as her escape into a lover’s arms collapses into the chaos of layers upon layers of screaming saxes, howling harmonicas, spiralling syncopation, and ever-so-slightly, excruciatingly rubato-lengthened vocals.

However, despite the intense pathos of this playlist, it never ceases to lose its sense of style; just like Italian society in this era, it soldiers on in the present towards an uncertain future, yet knowing that if the devastation of the last World War, still very much within living memory, can be healed, so too can this crisis — somehow, in the fullness of time. As Lucio Battisti puts it, poetic as always:

Il nostro caro angelo
È giovane lo sai
Le reti il volo aperto gli precludono
Ma non rinuncia mai

Cattedrali oscurano
Le bianche ali bianche non sembran più
Ma le nostre aspirazioni il buio filtrano
Traccianti luminose gli additano il blu

Our dear angel
He’s young, you know
Nets stop him from flying freely
But he never gives up

Cathedrals darken
White wings no longer seem so white
But our aspirations pierce the darkness
Glowing tracers, they point to the sky

-“Il nostro caro angelo” | Lucio Battisti — Il nostro caro angelo (1972)

Buona sera.

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Guitarist, cinephile, and sometime intellectual. Join me on a journey through ideas, music, and film as I read PPE at the University of Oxford.

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Perry Aw

Perry Aw

Guitarist, cinephile, and sometime intellectual. Join me on a journey through ideas, music, and film as I read PPE at the University of Oxford.

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