Wednesday, 19 January 2011
To continue the Progressive rock theme I thought I should mention Italy’s most renowned exponents of the genre: PFM. Once again thanks to a generous donation I’ve had the chance to hear the Esoteric reissues of the records they put out in the ‘Manticore (ELP’s label) years’ – I didn’t own any of their work in the 1970s, only occasionally hearing them on Alan Freeman’s radio show. The initials stand for Premiata Forneria Marconi or ‘Award-winning Marconi Bakery’ – understandably they kept to the abbreviated version in the UK. Coalescing as PFM in 1970, they are still going and are playing shows in Italy this year.
Five years ago in Rome I bought a cd of Per un Amico, their second lp from 1972 and found it a lovely piece of atmospheric pastoral prog, heavy on the twelve-string guitars and mellotron with flurries of flute and violin, delicately arranged, like very early Genesis and King Crimson, but with a European classical influence. Last year’s reissues include the (mostly) sung-in-English version, renamed Photos of Ghosts, which came out in the following year on Manticore.
I was surprised at how different it was to the Italian release, and not in a good way: what sounded lyrical and mysterious when sung in Italian sounded crude and stilted in English, the production is much punchier and ‘in your face’ and the running order has been altered, with two extra tracks (inferior in my opinion) stuck in. Pete Sinfield’s lyrics have not improved with time; a typo in the reissue cd booklet means that Mr 9 ‘till 5 ‘shits his eyes’ - this song was better as an instrumental. I would definitely seek out the Italian version of this record if possible. It also makes me want to get hold of their first lp Storia di un minuto (1972), never released in this country.
Third lp L’Isola di Niente was released over here in 1974 as The World Became the World. I haven’t heard the original Italian version so I can only go on the reissued Manticore recording. Musically this is still impressive in places: the huge choral opening of The Mountain is typical of the period; Just Look Away is a very pretty tune, greatly in debt to Genesis, spoilt by the problem of singing the English lyrics; the title track is a nice piece of King Crimson bombast; Four Holes in the Ground is probably their most recognisable and catchy song, with some lively synth and a Yesalike chorus – a prog paradigm? Apparently Pete Sinfield was relieved of lyric-writing duties after this record and you can see why on Is my face on Straight? a satire of contemporary bourgeois mores that just sounds embarrassing today, it’s also the weakest track musically.
The live album Cook followed and in 1975 Manticore released Chocolate Kings, by which time the band had acquired a lead vocalist Bernardo Lanzetti. Unfortunately, despite the weaknesses of the previous singers, I find Lanzetti’s brash and more-sandpapery-than-Roger-Chapman voice difficult to warm to and at times positively off-putting. Having said that, there are some good bits on this record, the jaunty title track in particular, although the vocal is irritatingly abrasive and there are a number of arresting instrumental passages on the other four songs. The debt to contemporary progressive bands is obvious from titles such as Out of the Roundabout and Harlequin (there’s a song of that name on Nursery Cryme). Nevertheless, I keep coming back to this one. The accompanying live cd from a University of Nottingham show in May 1976 shows another of Progressive’s unfortunate traits: everything is played at far faster tempi than the recorded versions, erasing any subtlety from the music.
With a new singer and a harder sound PFM were aiming for success in America. However, it now seems very naïve when they claim that they were surprised at their failure to make a positive impression over there, after attempting to promote a record whose theme was the dubious legacy of US imperialist interference in Italy following World War Two. I really like the simplicity of the UK and US sleeve (with nods to Warhol and Jasper Johns?) apart from the lettering, a distinct improvement on the rather unsettling Italian version. There’s an appearance on The Old Grey Whistle Test from 1976 on YouTube where they play Chocolate Kings, but punk was already under way and they were soon to be yesterday’s men in the UK.
It’s 1977 and they issue Jet Lag. Recorded in LA - enough to make the heart sink – it’s not very good; once more the hoarse vocals give me real problems. The only track I can listen to is Meridiani, a Zappaesque guitar instrumental – the rest are tune-free attempts at a more commercial style with a sprinkling of jazz-rock. The lyrics, written by the bass player’s girlfriend are very poor, making Pete Sinfield look like Stephen Sondheim - those to Left- Handed Theory being especially funny:
Once was the sign of a witch
Now the world needs them
To teach us a different stitch
Think of Da Vinci
His ambidextrous arts
Hendrix’s guitar sang
Sweet feedback lightnin’ from Mars
And in reflection
We see the stars
Surely the only use of the word ‘ambidextrous’ in a rock lyric, although I could be wrong. After this record they seem to have given up attempting to crack the English-language music market and reverted to Italian records – I haven’t heard any of them, but I imagine they aren’t that great. Apparently in recent years they have appeared at various Prog-themed festivals.
Another contemporary ‘Progressive’ Italian group that are well worth checking out are Goblin, namely the soundtracks to the 70s Dario Argento horror films, which are not nearly as dated as the music of PFM, charming as some of that remains.