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Staging a city: progressive rock in Naples in the Seventies

by Stefano Bragato

In modern times, music has often mirrored young generations’ lives and feelings. Youth has found in music an artistic means for expressing its hopes, thoughts, fears, as well as a means to carve out its position in society. It was very much like this in Italy in the Seventies. Italian society and culture were changing at a fast pace: the Sessantotto, the Anni di Piombo, social tensions, unemployment, emigration, etc. As history accelerated, young musicians went searching for new forms of artistic expression: they started looking outside Italy, and to England in particular. Here a new musical genre was growing, called ‘progressive rock’. It was based on the idea of elevating rock music from the level of entertainment to that of pure art: albums were no longer conceived as containers of hits, but as artistic artefacts with an intrinsic aesthetic value. Bands like King Crimson, Yes, Genesis, Gentle Giant had started subverting the classic 3-minute song with verse-chorus structure, proposing instead long and multi-structured tracks characterised by an eclectic compositional style (rock was contaminated with classical, jazz, ethnic, etc.), complex rhythmical patterns (odd time signatures often replacing the traditional 4/4 structure), a variety of instruments, demanding texts often referencing philosophy, mythology and fantasy, and covers of artistic value. Once brought into Italy at the beginning of the Seventies, this new injection of artistic credibility into rock soon took on a very distinctive Italian identity: progressive rock instantly spread throughout the whole country and blossomed as nowhere else in Europe. Behind the three most famous bands, Premiata Forneria Marconi, Banco del Mutuo Soccorso and Le Orme, buzzed a whole universe of groups, musicians, labels, with tons of vinyl pressed and hundreds of LPs released.

In this process of national consolidation, a significant part was played by the city of Naples. Neapolitan progressive rock groups and singers managed not only to Italianize the genre, but also, in a way, to define its borders: Balletto di Bronzo’s YS and Alan Sorrenti’s Aria were for instance amongst the most experimental albums of the time. But in the vast array of Neapolitan groups and singers, a special mention is to be given to two bands in particular: Osanna and Napoli Centrale. No other bands managed to combine an innovative sound (Osanna are usually regarded by critics as those who Italianized progressive rock) with a sharp critique of their home city as they did.

When in 1971 Osanna’s first album L’uomo [Man] was released, it was immediately clear that Italian progressive rock had found a chiefly personal identity. Osanna managed to inject a well-recognisable Italian vibe into the genre by making use of traditional Mediterranean melodies, instruments and cultural references. This was also true for their lyrics, which were committed to denouncing the Neapolitan society of that time: although political engagement in music was far from uncommon at the time, no other group managed to grasp the contradictory essence of a city as they did in their third album, Palepoli (1973). Regarded as one of the most significant LPs of Italian progressive rock, it is a concept album (all the songs are thematically connected, as if ‘telling a story’) made up of three long tracks dealing with the theme of the contrast between modernity and tradition, innovation and popular culture. Two ideal cities are compared: the modern, egoistic, cold, hypocritical ‘Neapolis’ and the ancient ‘Palepolis’, seen as the place where authentic life and genuine popular values are still alive and can therefore grasped.

Gente distrutta e una città di più.

Cerca se puoi, cerca Palepoli,

la realtà di una età senza noi.

Folle di bimbi avidi,

case con donne gravide,

giochi e mestieri d’uomini,

l’ilarità di un Pulcinella […].

Storia di una città che non ha senso,

ma siamo avanti ormai con il progresso[1].

Osanna’s message is that of going searching for the roots of an ancient, primordial Naples, a repository of timeless human values which have been corrupted by the new, present city. But this journey is by no means a banal, nostalgic return to the past; on the contrary, it expresses the aspiration for a future in which the many contradictions of Naples can be overcome, thus releasing s its vast cultural potential. Naples is described in both its greatness and misery, with its colours, cheerfulness, hopes and fears.

A large part of this description is made through the album’s musical vibe. The contraposition between old and new is expressed through a mix of ancient and modern sounds: jazz, hard rock, blues mingle with traditional Neapolitan folk atmospheres, forming a noticeable Mediterranean identity. The album was followed by a tour, which again was incredibly innovative for that time: Osanna’s performances, far from being just concerts, were more like theatrical shows. Osanna were the first in Italy to paint their faces and dress costumes, and to employ a company of actors, dancers and mimes. They also organised the Neapolitan progressive rock music festival ‘Be-In’ (1973, 25.000 participants), involving some of the most active groups and musicians of those years such as Biglietto per l’Inferno, Pholas Dactylus, Cervello, De De Lind, Semiramis, Franco Battiato and Alan Sorrenti.

Such a condemnation of the Neapolitan society of that time becomes more radical in the music of Napoli Centrale. Founded in 1975 by the saxophonist James Senese and the drummer Franco Del Prete, the group sketches an angrier, full-blooded, down-to-earth picture of Naples. Far from the conceptual, idealised critique of Osanna, Napoli Centrale speak of emigration, poverty, exploitation, and of the trauma of the inexorable passage from a rural to an industrial society. For example, the countryside depicted in the opening song (Campagna) of their first album (homonymous, 1975) does not have anything to do with a return to ancient, rural, authentic origins (as it was for instance a few years earlier in Nino Ferrer’s Viva la campagna, 1969) or with the idyllic and tender country life sung by Lucio Battisti in La Canzone della Terra (1973). Napoli Centrale’s countryside is a harsh place of labour, sweat, physical effort, exploitation; it is the land on which the day labourer breaks his neck every day for nearly nothing; it is the land of the contraposition between the worker and the landowner. There is no place for the Italian language in this, just a straightforward, bare Neapolitan dialect:

Chiove o jesce ‘o sole,
chi è bracciante a San Nicola
ca butteglia chine ‘e vine
tutte ‘e juorne va a zappà.

Campagna, campagna
comme è bella ‘a campagna.

Ma è cchiù bella pe’ ‘o padrone
ca se enghie ‘e sacche d’oro […],

è cchiù bella pe’ ‘e figlie
do padrone della terra
ca ce vene sulamente
cu ll’amice a pazzià,
ma po’ figlio do bracciante
‘a campagna è n’ata cosa
‘a campagna è sulamente
rine rutt’ e niente cchiù[2].

In the second song of the album (A gente ‘e Bucciano [People from Bucciano]) the eye moves from rural to industrial society. In particular, Napoli Centrale describe the passage from the former to the latter by focusing on one of its most traumatic consequences: the necessity of emigration. This is, for Senese and Del Prete, the tragedy of people who emigrate not for improving their condition, but to keep it as it is. In other words, to keep on surviving:

C’è sta a gente a lu nord proveniente a Bucciane

addò na vota zappavi, jettanne sangu’e salute.

Ma a famme è cchiù forte r’ammore pà terre,

e à gente e Bucciane a eùùmigrate a lu nord:

nun puteve cchiù campà.

Mò va in fabbrica a faticà

jettanne ù stesse sangu’e salute[3].

The harshness of this denouncement is also reflected in the music. The voice of James Senese is sharp, aggressive and violent, and the music is a fusion of progressive, jazzy and funky vibes, stretching at times towards a pure, bare rhythmic groove. A central role is played by Senese’s saxophone, which expresses both the rage and the love for his city: he would write later in his autobiography (Carmine Aymone, Je Sto CCà… James Senese, Naples: Liguori, 2005) that ‘Il mio sax porta le cicatrici della gioia e del dolore della vita’ [my saxophone bears the scars of life’s happiness and pain]. Without the Neapolitan stage, progressive rock would probably have flourished in Italy anyway, but it would perhaps have lost the possibility of being Italianized by an injection of Mediterranean tradition, as well as by the critique of one of the most discussed Italian cities.


[1] Destroyed people, and a city even more. / Search, if you can, search for Palepoli, / the reality of an age without us. / Crowds of greedy children, / houses with pregnant women, / games and works of men, / the hilarity of a Pulcinella […]. History of a city without a meaning, / but progress is already ahead (from Stanza Città).

[2] It may rain or the sun may come out / the land labourer in San Nicola / with a bottle full of wine / goes hoeing all day long. / Countryside, countryside, / how beautiful is the countryside. / But it is more beautiful for the landowner / who fills his pockets with gold, / […] it is more beautiful for the sons / of the landowner, / who come here only / to party with their friends; / but for the son of the land labourer / countryside is something else: / countryside is only / broken necks and nothing more.

[3] There are people in the North coming from Bucciano / where once they use to hoe, sweating blood and health. / But hunger is stronger than love for one’s land, / and people from Bucciano have emigrated in the North: / they could not survive anymore here. / Now they go working in factories, / sweating the same blood and health.

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This entry was posted on June 11, 2013 by in Critic's corner.
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