By Francesco Ciabattoni (Georgetown University)
Once a singer has a minor planet named after him, it is safe to say that the singer has become a fixed star in the musical firmament, not only within a national culture, but in the universe of song legends. The name of Lucio Battisti (Poggio Bustone, Rieti, 1943–Milan 1998) became synonymous with pop music in Italy as early as the 1960s, thanks to his unforgettable tunes and his versatile voice, capable of velvety undertones as well as a screamer’s grit.
Battisti and lyricist Mogol (Giulio Rapetti) together have penned some of the most memorable hits of the 60s and 70s, shaping the course of Italian song. Confidently mixing Italian melodies, R&B, rock, pop and Latin beats, Lucio Battisti’s music and Mogol’s lyrics united in perfect harmony. Battisti’s suffering vocal style, his soft but high-pitched voice supported by an intense and rough energy, and Mogol’s brilliant lyrics, with their intimate, colloquial quality, have earned these two artists extraordinary success lasting for decades.
Their collaboration began in 1965 and ended in 1980, when the two permanently parted ways, but their songs were performed by world-famous Italian and international artists such as Mina, Ornella Vanoni, Patty Pravo, Paul Anka, Gene Pitney, Wilson Pickett, and Tanita Tikaram. The voice of Battisti himself, unique and unmistakable with its falsetto overtones, immediately became a trademark of the singer-songwriter. In Italy, the binomial “Mogol-Battisti” became as famous as McCartney-Lennon, or Gilbert and Sullivan were in the English-speaking world. Their songs of love and loneliness told the stories of the new Italian urban society, with its contradictions and its predominantly masculine instincts. And it is precisely this crisis of masculinity which emerges clearly from certain songs: in “Fiori rosa, fiori di pesco” (“Pink Flowers, Peach Blossoms”) the protagonist believes he can rekindle an old love by suddenly appearing at her doorstep, only to find that she is now living with another man, and having to back off awkwardly. In “Il tempo di morire” (“Just the Time to Die”) the protagonist pleads with the woman he loves—and who loves another—to grant him satisfaction in exchange for what he holds dearest: his motorcycle. “Dieci ragazze” (“Ten Girls”) portrays a man who tries in vain to forget the woman who left him, pretending to have numerous other women to whom he can turn. “Luisa Rossi” is perhaps one of the most explicitly misogynistic songs penned by the Mogol-Battisti duo, while “Non è Francesca” (“That is not Francesca”) is the pathetic self-portrait of a man who refuses to believe the evidence before his eyes: that the woman he loves is free, independent, and is with another man.
Along with the theme of male fragility, Mogol and Battisti explored many aspects of the pop song and its expressive potential: in “29 Settembre” the light-hearted extra-marital affair of a rather superficial man unfolds against the backdrop of a fading collective memory of the Marzabotto massacre (which began on 29 September 1944). “Acqua azzurra, acqua chiara” (“Blue Water, Clear Water”) depicts, with vaguely Petrarchan reminiscences, a love idyll that seems finally to move beyond the squalor of furtive pickups in bars and night clubs. “Emozioni” is a heartfelt introspective overview in which nature acts romantically as an objective correlative to the singer’s mood. “E penso a te” (“I Think of You”) and “Prendila così” (“Take It As It Comes”) address, in nostalgic tones, the theme of ended relationships and the persistent thought of lovers. “Una donna per amico” (“A Woman for a Friend”) resolves, with nuanced irony, the tenderness and good-natured jealousy of a friendship between two people of the opposite sex.
After ending his working relationship with Mogol, Lucio Battisti collaborated with other lyricists, among whom Pasquale Panella stands out: a poetic and elusive lyricist, an artist who painted with double meanings, calembours and paronomasias, always able to evoke a unique atmosphere well suited to the New Wave sound of “Don Giovanni” (1986).
While unappreciated by the left-wing intelligentsia for his choice of intimate, apolitical themes, Battisti was always able to count on solid and uninterrupted support from his fans, and he has now left an indelible mark on two generations of Italians with his music, his revolutionary performances and his familiar yet special stories, told in his own unique style.
By Alexandre Ciarla (Independent Scholar)
Starting in the 1980s, Battisti’s new discography slowly left the scene, dropping in the sales charts. However, the impact of the Mogol-Battisti duo on Italian culture remained enormous, and the failure of the new production consequently favored the consecration of the old repertoire with a proliferation of tributes and collections unparalleled in the Italian recording scene.
In 1982, Lucio Battisti published a first solo LP, titled E già (That’s Right). It is an introspective album whose lyrics were written in collaboration with his wife, Grazia Letizia Veronese. For the Italian public, the trauma of his separation from Mogol is further amplified by the entirely electronic arrangements, where each score is composed by Battisti himself and in which the only in-the-flesh element remains the unmistakable voice of the 1970s singing myth. Even the cover photo, featuring his son, then a little child, breaks with the norms of the record industry at the time. From this moment on, Lucio Battisti, already retired from the scene in the previous decade, would communicate in no other way than through his records.
From 1986 onward, Mogol would be replaced by a new lyricist, Pasquale Panella, and beginning from the 1986 album Don Giovanni, no one has been able to fathom what Battisti was talking about. This is because, unlike Mogol, Panella did not write for the masses, but rather to reclaim his songs from the lips of the Italians.
In an inevitable comparison with Mogol’s lyrics, his verses are full of linguistic inventions and double entendre. For many these read simply as puns while, for others, these enigmatic phrases are sophisticated metaphors which, in addition to their undeniable musicality, are capable of assuming multiple meanings.
Attempting to interpret Panella’s verses has therefore become a favorite pastime for post-Mogol Battisti fans. These songs are particularly rewarding in that everyone is free to experience them as they see fit, giving them the meaning they perceive within the unique and unrepeatable moment of each individual listening event.
It is as if, in the eyes of Pasquale Panella, Lucio Battisti had become a “character in search of an author.” The narrator of the song is no longer the typical, romantically involved male figure, but perhaps is Battisti himself, understood as the absolute prototype of the pop singer who tries to free himself from the personality in which he was clothed by his previous author Mogol. In fact, the songs of the first two albums with lyrics by Pasquale Panella seem to be veritable meta-songs about themselves, or songs of unlove that reveal the artifice of the vocal representation of feelings.
It must be said, however, that even before meeting Pasquale Panella, Battisti had already expressed the desire to address the listener in a sincere way, without interpreting a story or a character. The lyrics of the first post-Mogol album written together with his wife (E già) describe the life of a man who could very well be Battisti himself, divided between the hobby of windsurfing (“Windsurf windsurf”) and work in the recording studio (“Registrazione,” [“Recording”]).
Thus, the first entirely electronic album ever recorded in Italy is also Battisti’s first real attempt to step outside the familiar pop frame. And it is precisely in this same light that we can reread the lyrics of another extraordinary LP, arranged and produced by Lucio Battisti himself, with lyrics by Pasquale Panella, whose title suggests that the time has finally come to reveal to the public the fiction of song itself: Oh! Era ora (Oh! It Was About Time!), released in 1983. Lucio Battisti and Pasquale Panella met for the first time during the recording of this album by Adriano Pappalardo, a friend and colleague of Battisti with whom the singer engaged in musical experimentation.
Turning to the B side of Pappalardo’s record, one gets the impression of discovering the behind-the-scenes story of the song: among the four tracks on the second side, one speaks openly about sound recording (“Caroline e l’uomo nero,” [“Caroline and the Boogey Man”]), while the narrator mentions in various ways a sense of split personality (“Questa storia” [“This Story”] and “Io chi è,” [“Who Is I”]).
It is as if, through the singer, Panella is speaking only of himself and his surroundings, thus staging the inner drama of a pop singer who addresses listeners and reveals to them the mystery of the recorded song. This concept would emerge in the monumental LP Don Giovanni (1986), where, among refined arrangements with a jazz flavor and orchestral overlays, the listener discovers the new Battisti.
In this 1986 album, the narrator discovers that he is only a third wheel amidst a love triangle between himself, the female listener, and the songwriter (“Il doppio del gioco” [“Double Dipping”]). The other singers also make “canzoni come calzoni” (“songs like trousers”, punning on the double meaning of “calzoni” and its assonance with “canzoni”) in “Equivoci amici” (“Friendly Mistakes” or “Equivocal Friends”), precisely because the famous metaphor of the coat rack depicted on the cover embodies the idea that every singer wears the clothing of a character (“Don Giovanni”). In the end we ask ourselves: what sort of life did the female listener have, taking the singer’s words so seriously? (“Che vita ha fatto,” “What Life Did She Have”). The metaphor of Don Giovanni is that of the unredeemed seducer: the disenchanted singer who makes fun of the female listener.
At this point, however, the real mystery of this collaboration is why it lasted so long. If the goal was to denounce the falsity of romantic songs, after Don Giovanni there was not much more to say. Once demolished, the love song somehow needed to be reconstructed, or else be silenced forever.
Instead, in October 1988, L’Apparenza was released. This time, however, the lyrics seem improvised, as if they had been written in one go, while Panella was reflecting on what to do and wondering what he still had to talk about. It is no coincidence that from this album onwards, the lyricist would dictate the rhythm to the singer who, chasing after the words with a melody, would have to set music to previously written lyrics.
But while Don Giovanni reveals the illusory mechanism of the representation of feelings, in this second chapter, the singer seems to tell us that even the moods we experience are mere “appearance.” Life itself is an improvisation session (“A portata di mano” [“At Your Fingertips”] and “Per altri motivi” [“For Other Reasons”]).
By the end of Side A, the author finally finds the answer to the question he had initially posed: “What will we talk about next?” (“Allontanando” [“Moving Back”]). It is as if Panella suddenly realized just how far he could push the limits of song.
Indeed, the song “L’apparenza” (“Appearance”) speaks neither of the world of song nor of sentimental disillusionment, but rather seems to be an extreme attempt to express the intimacy between a man and a woman. Behind those impenetrable but still beautiful words would be, in fact, the representation of sexual intercourse described in detail, except that the erotic subject is mitigated by the theatrical descriptions and the surprising metaphors (“tiri con gli occhi chiusi sull’atlante / l’indice come un pulsante” [“you blindly place on the map / your index finger like a button”), which spreads an apparent veil of modesty where there is, in fact, no modesty at all.
In the six years following L’apparenza, three more white-cover records would be released, once every two years. Each album contained eight songs and a sparse cover, with a sketch or writing on a white background. Lucio Battisti’s so-called “white” records—L’apparenza (Appearance, 1988), La sposa occidentale (The Western Bride, 1990), Cosa succederà alla ragazza (What will happen to the girl,1992) and Hegel (1994)—constitute “periodic portraits” (“Estetica” [“Aesthetics”]) of sentimental disillusionment. Indeed, the songs on Battisti’s last three LPs all revolve around the same theme.
Although in those years he composed passionate love songs for other singers (Amedeo Minghi, Pino Mango and Mike Francis), Pasquale Panella seems to have decided to continue the partnership by making Battisti the singer of “unlove.”
In 1990, they published La sposa occidentale (The Western Bride), on which the songs speak of a bored couple, describing the marriage as if it were an ocean liner that sinks into the sea of “unlove,” punning on the word “a-mare”. In “I ritorni” (“Returns”), the word “love,” in fact, is constantly on the lips of the spouses, but it is devoid of meaning because the feeling has ceased to flow in their veins. Western spouses are therefore “Campati in aria,” suspended in the void like the object on the album cover.
In Cosa succederà alla ragazza (What Will Happen to the Girl, 1992), the singer describes the day of a disillusioned young woman who, wandering around in shops (“Ecco i negozi,” “Finally the shops”), realizes that what she had believed to be a great love was only a crush, punning on the Italian word “cotta,” which means both “crush” and “cooked”, in the feminine (“Però il rinoceronte,” “But the Rhinoceros”). It is perhaps for this reason that Panella portrays the girl in the oven as an Easter lamb, struggling with the “carciofi tenerelli” (“tender artichokes”), a typical dish of the Roman cuisine (“Cosa succederà alla ragazza”).
Finally, the 1994 album Hegel evokes the aestheticizing memory of a high school love that resurfaces in the memory of a middle-aged man, where “Hegel Tubinga” is simply the nickname of a sweetheart (“Tubinga”). But this time as well, aesthetics prevail over sentiment and the memory that remains is merely the beauty of those moments stolen from the midst of class lessons (“La bellezza riunita” [“Reunited beauty”]).
Sentimental disillusionment is the overarching obsession of Battisti-Panella, and many were surprised by the path which the lyricist took in his partnership with Battisti. Perhaps the public expected that the lyrics would somehow be influenced by Battisti himself.
The difficulty for Battisti was, in fact, having met a lyricist who, although likely having only a vague idea of Lucio Battisti’s true personality, was able to voice his inner unrest. Then Panella took over, not only by clothing the musician with a new personality, but also by closing the circle in a way that was not predictable, except in its first phase: unmasking the sentimental song from within, and then rebuilding it all over again on a new foundation, without using tired clichés, the famous “idioms” of the popular language adopted by Mogol, but instead working around the structures of sentimental writing.
While Mogol described love stories, Panella simulates the love discourse by returning its protagonist—the narrator in love—to a central position. He does not speak of love, but as a lover. Panella does not talk about the feeling but it shows it.
In conclusion, it is as if Pasquale Panella had managed to restore the expression of intimacy to its necessary singularity: the narrator of a private language between a he and a she. It is from here that the linguistic experiments of the “Trottolino amoroso, du du du e da da da …” in the famous song by Amedeo Minghi (“Vattene amore” [“Go Away, Love”]) take their cue: a popular national success of the 90s that mimics sentimental rhetoric, challenging the sense of modesty and sweetened good taste of institutionalized music.