By Corrado Confalonieri (Wesleyan University)
Among the GIFs found in #postcardsfromisola, the project launched by Milanese web designers Lorenza Negri and Simona Pinto to present the stories and people of Milan’s Isola neighborhood, there is one image showing a man on a bicycle. Elegant, slim and long legged, this figure is labeled anonymously as “the musician,” but he is easily recognizable as Francesco Bianconi, singer and songwriter for the band Baustelle. With his dark jacket and retro bike, his image fits the profile of “Un romantico a Milano” (“A Romantic in Milan”), the title of one of the band’s most successful songs: dedicated to the writer Luciano Bianciardi, a Tuscan from Grosseto who lived in Milan during the Fifties, the song lyrics play ironically with allusions that in reality fit Bianconi himself (“quando canta le canzoni della Mala” [“when he sings Mob Songs”], which could refer to songs written by Giorgio Strehler and sung by Ornella Vanoni at the very end of the Fifties, but also to those from La malavita, the album containing “Un romantico a Milano”: “scola centomila Montenegro e Bloody Mary / Mocassini gialli e sentimenti chiaroscuri” [“he guzzles a hundred thousand Montenegros and Bloody Marys / yellow loafers and black and white emotions”]). Bianconi is also Tuscan, from Montepulciano, near Siena, though he long ago moved to Milan. Another transplant to Milan, some years after Bianconi, was Rachele Bastreghi, the female voice and multi-instrumentalist of the band, whereas guitarist Claudio Brasini remained in Montepulciano and still lives there today: these three are the members of Baustelle, a group first formed in Montepulciano in the mid-Nineties, well known for its intellectually refined pop music, its lyrics rich with literary references.
“Un romantico a Milano” was one of the singles from the group’s third album La malavita (“The Mob”; 2005), the first released under a major label (Warner, the band’s record label ever since) and the first to gain wider notoriety for Baustelle. Quite memorable was the opening of their first song played widely on the radio, “La guerra è finita” (“The War Is Over”), representative of a recurring aspect in the poetics of Bianconi and the group, which combines pop melodies with somber lyrics, their protagonists often young or very young (in this case, the song recounts the suicide of a sixteen-year-old girl):
“Vivere non è possibile.”
Lasciò un biglietto inutile
prima di respirare il gas
prima di collegarsi al gas
era mia amica, era una stronza
aveva sedici anni appena
(“Living is not possible.”
She left a useless note
before breathing gas
before hooking herself up to the gas
she was my friend, she was a bitch
she was barely sixteen years old)
Even before Malavita, Baustelle had already received much critical attention and had won a certain audience with two albums that, while remaining relatively niche, contained songs that were appreciated by those who heard them when they were first released, and that were later rediscovered by those who didn’t knew about them at the time: such is the case for songs like “Le vacanze dell’ottantatré” (“Summer of ’83”, recalling the discovery of sexuality: “Come sei finito a Rimini con le signore in bikini? / Le radioline cantano la pubertà” [“How did you end up in Rimini with ladies in bikinis? / The transistor radios sing about puberty”]), “Martina” (again the story of an adolescent: “Incontri per solitudine, / mascara denso per nudità. / Piccole catastrofi / per minuti intimi, / tutto ciò significa / scavare in profondità” [“Encounters for solitude, / thick mascara for nudity. / Small disasters / for intimate minutes, / all this means / dig deep”]) and “Gomma” (“Rubber,” a duet that tells a love story between high school students by emphasizing their awkwardness and their posturing: “Ed il futuro stava fuori / dalla new wave da liceale, / così speravo di ammalarmi o per lo meno che s’infettassero i bar” [“And the future was far away / from the high school ‘new wave,’ / so I hoped I’d get sick or at least that the cafés would get infected”]) from Sussidiario illustrato della giovinezza (“Illustrated Textbook of Youth”), their debut album from 2000 reissued by Warner in 2010; and the song “Arriva lo ye-yè” (“The Ye-Ye is Coming”) from the 2003 album La moda del lento (“Slow Fashion”), a story of summer love, both stereotyped and intriguing, between Italian men and foreign girls, particularly from Denmark and Sweden:
Paga tu il conto, amore,
Portami in un albergo
per due ore.
Profuma di Stoccolma
la schiena tua spogliata,
amami una volta nella vita. […]
questo film ridicolo
(You pay the tab, my love,
Take me to a hotel
for two hours.
It smells of Stockholm
your unclothed back,
love me once in your life […]
I fumble around
in the sweltering August heat,
this ridiculous film
when will it end?)
Even today Baustelle’s greatest success in terms of sales remains their second disc released with Warner, Amen (2008), known for its lead single “Charlie fa surf” (“Charlie Goes Surfing”), inspired by well-known artist Maurizio Cattelan’s Charlie Don’t Surf (1997), once again addressing the story of a teenager:
Vorrei morire a questa età,
vorrei star fermo mentre il mondo va,
ho quindici anni.
(I would like to die at this age,
I’d like to sit still while the world goes on,
I’m fifteen years old.)
This song as well as others from the album—for example, in “Il liberismo ha i giorni contati” (“Liberalism’s Days are Numbered”), which recounts, from the perspective of a recent female graduate, her disillusion with political activism and the effects of consumer society on relationships (“Vede la fine in me che spendo / soldi e tempo in un Nintendo / dentro un bar della stazione / e da anni non la chiamo più” [“She sees the end in me because I spend / money and time on a Nintendo / inside the station arcade / and I haven’t called her in years”)—perfectly express the combination of complex themes, refined lyrics, catchy melodies and pop-rock arrangements for which the band has been known since the beginning of their career. Baustelle’s Amen received the Targa Tenco award in the category “Best Album of the Year,” among the most prestigious awards in Italian music, while Bianconi has also penned songs for other artists—in particular female artists—which have garnered great success (above all “Bruci la città” [“You Burn Down the City”], sung by Irene Grandi in 2007).
One year after Amen, Baustelle composed the soundtrack for the film Giulia non esce la sera (“Giulia Doesn’t Date at Night”) directed by Giuseppe Piccioni, while in 2010 they released the album I mistici dell’Occidente (“Mystics of the West”), from which the best known song, ten years after its release, is probably “Le rane” (“The Frogs”), focusing on the theme of time:
L’ultima volta ti ho visto cambiato,
bevevi un amaro al bancone del bar.
Perché il tempo ci sfugge
ma il segno del tempo rimane.
(The last time I saw you, you had changed,
you were drinking an aperitif at the bar counter.
Because time escapes us
but the sign of the time remains.)
This song could have been at the center of Fantasma (“Ghost,” 2013), the group’s most ambitious disc both in terms of the composition of the lyrics—organized around a single theme, according to the model of the “concept album”—and in terms of its orchestral arrangement. The band members recognized the importance and also the weight of this work when presenting their next album—in reality two volumes of the same album, L’amore e la violenza (“Love and Violence,” 2017) and L’amore e la violenza, Vol. 2 (“Love and Violence Volume 2,” 2018) —as a partial departure from Fantasma and a return to the pop genre, all the while maintaining their signature attention to sound (with a preference for analog rather than digital instruments, for example) and their usual refined lyrics. Within these last two works, there are especially memorable songs such as “Amanda Lear,” “Betty,” and “Veronica n. 2,” love stories that end without much regret (“Amanda Lear / Il tempo di un LP, / il lato A, il lato B, / che niente dura per sempre, / finisce ed è meglio così” [“Amanda Lear / the time to play an LP, / Side A, Side B, / nothing lasts forever, / it’s over and it’s better this way”]), love stories gone wrong (“Betty è bravissima a giocare / con l’amore e la violenza, / si fa prendere e lasciare, / che cos’è la vita senza / una dose di qualcosa, / una dipendenza?” [“Betty is very good at playing / with love and with violence, / she lets herself be taken and abandoned, / what is life without / a dose of something, / a dependency?”]), but at times also happy:
Ma adesso c’è Veronica,
tempo di Veronica,
giorni di Veronica,
solo per Veronica,
vedi la vita diversa con Veronica,
credi che il vuoto di colpo sia bellissimo,
neghi che tutto sia vano e tutto inutile,
chiedi un mondo migliore per Veronica,
uccidi per poterla salvare, baby, baby come on.
(But now there’s Veronica,
time for Veronica,
days of Veronica,
only for Veronica,
you see life differently with Veronica,
you believe that emptiness is suddenly beautiful,
you deny that everything is in vain and completely useless,
you ask for a better world for Veronica,
you kill to save her, baby, baby come on.)
In addition to their activity as a group, the members of the band have dedicated their time to various other projects, and not only musical projects. The first to launch a solo career was Rachele Bastreghi with the 2015 EP Marie, while Francesco Bianconi’s solo album would have come out in the spring of 2020, but was delayed due to the coronavirus emergency: as of today we know its title (Forever) and two of its songs, released as singles (“Il bene” [“The Good”] and “L’abisso” [“The Abyss”]). Finally, Bianconi has also authored two novels, Il regno animale (“Animal Kingdom,” 2011) and La resurrezione della carne (“The Resurrection of the Flesh,” 2015).