This story starts on a train to Rome about twenty years ago when, after five years of Liceo Classico, we were taken by the school to the Eternal City. There, we were to experience the culture we studied through the (gazillion) pages by Cicero, Seneca and the many authors we had to translate daily – the infamous versioni di latino e greco. On the train from the airport to the city centre, I was sitting with my green and blue CD player on my lap, listening to the only record I brought with me for the trip: a random best of Lucio Battisti. Rome in May is another dimension, compared to the wet, cold Piemont: it’s warm, beautiful, and people talk to each other on the streets – how exotic! Besides being breathtaking, the city in spring offers something that no other cities in the world have: a mystical light. It is like a golden glow that gently covers the monuments and the buildings, all the corners, the columns, the flowers, and the temples – a feast for the eyes. I will never forget the feeling of the Roman sun warming my face through the train windows. The light was highlighting the city in front of my very eyes while I was listening to Lucio’s voice and melody of Il Nostro caro angelo – still my favourite song of his. It was like stepping into another dimension, almost like a more elevated consciousness.
Writing about Lucio Battisti means writing about the light, “la luce” in Italian. Retrospectively, his entire art can be seen as a trajectory towards enlightenment, from our planet to the sun. The music by Lucio Battisti is nothing but an ascension movement from the particular to the universal, from love songs to the idea of love, from the things that populate our world, to the ideas we use to describe it. From the mid-60s, when he began to write beautiful melodies, up till the end of the 90s when he was considered a hermit, Lucio Battisti managed to transform his emotions into a unique vision, becoming the greatest Italian musician ever lived.
This is the story of Lucio Battisti, a story of pure “luce”.
Lucio Battisti’s art is a rainbow that magically appears over the sky of mid-60s Italy, painting colours over a Nation hungry for a new musical language capable of incorporating the international sensibility to the Italian melodies. By the end of the decade, Lucio becomes so popular that every Italian knows who he is and, most importantly, knows his music by heart. Songs like Un’Avventura or Acqua azzurra, acqua chiara not only are the nation’s favourites, but become the soundtrack of those roaring years. Teenagers are singing his songs by the bonfires on the beaches, adults whistle his catchy melodies on the cars, the tv channels are dying to have him on air. He is the most famous musician in Italy.
Before that, though, Lucio’s story starts like many other stories: with a shy man and a guitar. Born in 1943 in Poggio Bustone, a village near the city of Rieti, in the Lazio region, Lucio moves with his family to Rome at the age of seven. The life of the Eternal City does not bother him much, since he only breathes music. After purchasing a guitar, and done with his studies, Lucio commences playing in a few bands, dirtying his hands with the Neapolitan group “I Mattatori”, then with the Roman band “I Satiri” and lastly with the renowned group “I Campioni”. The friendship with the last band drags him to 60s Milan, the cultural hub of the time. There, thanks to some useful connections, he meets lyricist Giulio Rapetti, whose nome de plume was “Mogol”. The duo forms the most proficuous collaboration in the music history of Italy, writing compelling, ultra-modern melodies, with smart, witty lyrics. Similarly to what the Beatles did in the UK, the Battisti-Mogol duo unhinged the rules of pop music in Italy, writing modern music. Songs like the sensual rock and roll of Il Tempo di Morire, or the intricate, yet pop, composition of 29 Settembre, proved the talent of Lucio, while lyrics by Mogol were engaging and were talking about everyday life.
Between 1969 and 1970, Battisti releases “Lucio Battisti” (Idem, 1969) and “Emozioni” (Emotions, 1970), both putting together all the singles released by then, plus songs written for other musicians and unreleased material. Every song contained in these records represent the DNA of Italian music: “Emozioni” and its dreamy impressionism, “Dieci ragazze” with its groovy rock and roll, “Non è Francesca” and its reversed finale – ahead of its time – are just some examples of the capability of the duo.
The light shed by Lucio at the end of the 60s is a kaleidoscope of colourful images. Often, the covers of his records show his face in the foreground, wearing bright foulards, sporting curly hair, like a “giardino in testa” (A garden in the head” Anna, 1971). The lyrics of the songs talk about unrequited love, broken hearts, using flowers as metaphors – in lieu of girls (“Fiori rosa, fiori di pesco”). We are in the 1968 revolution.
“Amore e non amore” (Love and Not-Love, 1971) changes abruptly the game and the direction undertaken during the 60s. Battisti releases a record, with the help of the prog band PFM, in which he joyfully plays with the form of rock’n’roll and rhythm and blues. The title track, “Se la mia pelle vuoi” and the cosmic prog of “Una poltrona ” set the mood for the experimental record rich in avant-garde ideas. The cover sees Lucio sitting under a tree, in a bucolic scenario, with a naked girl at the back of the scene. With this record, both visually and stylistically, Lucio dirts his hands with psychedelic-prog music, a genre that was becoming more popular in the UK as well as Italy. A year later, Battisti publishes two records: “Umanamente uomo: il sogno” (Humanly man: the dream, 1972) in March, and “Il mio canto libero” (My free song, 1972) in November. Before that, he releases a 7″ with two songs destined to become two of the greatest pop singles ever made. The A-side is called “La canzone del sole“, while the B-side is the heartbreaking “Anche per te“.
“Umanamente uomo: il sogno” is a curious record in which killer singles like the spacey “I giardini di marzo” and the intense soul “E penso a te” coexist with rock experiments “Il fuoco”, or divertissements like “Il leone e la gallina”. For the first time, Lucio does not appear on the cover, which is dark, and portraits a bonfire in the night, around which obscure figures are poorly illuminated. It’s Lucio’s version of the darkness of rock and roll.
Being the most sold record of that year, “Il mio canto libero” is an utter success, managing to mix international sound, to a very Italian sensibility (Luciano Pavarotti describes Battisti style as “Puccini-alike”, and David Bowie declares that Battisti is his favourite singer). Trained by the airy melody of “Io vorrei…non vorrei…ma se vuoi“, the record is a love letter to the light (“La luce dell’Est“, “Luci-ah“), with windy orchestrations (“Vento nel vento“) conveying the idea of freedom and ample spaces. The cover is a “foresta di braccia tese” (a forest of outstretched arms) and represents the intention of Lucio to free himself from the boundaries of pop music, free himself from the press, liberate his brilliant genius.
The sense of openness, hovering in the sky, is accentuated in the following “Il Nostro caro angelo” (Our Beloved Angel, 1973). In this record, Lucio and Mogol take off, and with wise use of rock arrangements and inspired lyrics write a record that is way ahead of its time. “La collina dei ciliegi”, “La canzone della terra”, “Ma è un canto brasileiro” are just some of these breezy tracks of the record.
After a trip to South America, in 1974, Battisti and Mogol release “Anima Latina” (Latin Soul, 1974) a record that starts with a 7 minutes, mostly instrumental, song called “Abbracciala abbracciali abbracciati”. Anima Latina is a record that tries to define the sensual power of music and how it can free human beings. To convey these ideas Battisti mixes Tropicalia, a touch of Krautrock and Mediterranean sensibility, and manages to create an absolute masterpiece of Cosmic Latin music. The bright title track, the astral “Due mondi”, the stellar “Uomini celesti” and “Macchina del tempo” are just a few examples.
After the psychedelic feast of the previous three records, Lucio goes to the USA to see what’s going on there, to find out this disco sound people were talking about. As usual, Lucio Battisti changes his skin, but remains himself, understanding how funk and disco work but making them his new language, in a very personal yet international way. So “Lucio Battisti, la batteria, il contrabbasso, eccetera” (Lucio Battisti, the Drum, the Double Bass, etcetera 1976) and “Io noi tutti” (Me, us, everybody 1977) represent Battisti’s journey into disco, funk, groove and FM rock. The sensuality of “Ancora tu”, and rhythm of “Il veliero” (a classic in the No-Wave New York era), the Balearic masterpiece “Amarsi un po”, the groovy “Sì, viaggiare” flirts with the concept of white funk, FM rock. The light now is a glitter ball, the yellow Californian sun over the coast of Los Angeles, the Sunset Boulevard.
At the time, Battisti is a worldwide famous musician who has deliberately chosen to step back from public life – almost no tv appearances, absolutely no interviews and a secret private life. At the end of the decade, the relationship between him and Mogol is starting to deteriorate. The magical glow that surrounded the two friends for more than ten years it’s getting darker and darker, and so it is the political scenario in Italy, controversial and violent.
In London, Battisti records and registers “Una donna per amico” (A Woman as a Friend, 1978) and “Una giornata uggiosa” (A Gloomy Day, 1980), both inspired by electro-pop and funk. Trained by some of Lucio’s best singles, the Balearic anthem “Prendila così” (Take it as it is), the title track, and “Nessun dolore” (No Pain), the first record is a shining work on the end of a love affair, a bittersweet taste. Similarly, “Una giornata uggiosa” and the masterpiece “Con il nastro rosa” (With a Pink Ribbon) represent the highlights of the 1980’s album. It is astonishing how Lucio managed to capture the murky light of London winters, the essence of those rainy days in the city, where everything is grey and shadows silhouettes around the city, under the pink neon lights of Soho. Retrospectively, the last two records by Lucio and Mogol can be seen as work on a break-up, between a woman and a man, or between two good friends, or two esteemed colleagues.
Having binged on the groove during the late 70s, Lucio is now starting to distance himself from the past, both stylistically and physically. At the beginning of the 80s, he disappears, giving up public life. He has now ceased giving interviews, he does not want to appear on tv (the last appearance would be on the Swiss tv with “Amore mio di provincia” in 1980, an infectious groove with a killer bass-line). In 1982 he published “E già” (Already Now, 1982) his first record without Mogol and any real musicians since it is entirely produced by machines programmed by Greg Walsh in the UK.
Songs like “Straniero” and “Mistero” appear to be related to the realm of consciousness, and the cover shows a mystical image, almost like an esoteric initiation: Lucio on a beach in Cornwall, dressed in total white, facing a mirror reflecting rays of light. “E già” is a defined record that breaks down the artistic production of Battisti in two. There is a before and there is an after. It is the record in which Battisti started to take distance from the world, to change the point of view, to become the singer of the truth.
What happens then is the last phase of the artist: five records between 1984 and 1996 in which he sings about concepts and ideas, no longer about the world. It is not surprising that the last record is called “Hegel” (idem, 1996), like the German idealist philosopher, and it is not surprising that the record covers become more and more conceptual. The first album is called “Don Giovanni” (idem, 1986) and it is a record of vibrant, luminous catharsis, in which the hermetic lyrics by Roman poet Pasquale Pannella perfectly match the divine fusion music by Battisti.
Just like he had channelled the 60s spirit, 70s political and social contradictions, in the 80s Lucio precedes the sound of the plastic decade, producing a heavenly fusion of electronic and synth-pop. The sound is unique, and the lyrics are poems: the ascension is completed, Lucio has dissolved into the space.
The following “L’Apparenza” (Appearance, 1988) follows the steps of Don Giovanni, becoming even more abstract and sidereal, while “La sposa occidentale” (The Western Bride, 1990), thanks to more dance grooves, is slightly more accessible to the audience. The following “Cosa succederà alla ragazza” (What Will Happen to the Girl, 1992) is a bright records of synth-pop with house intuitions “Sacchi della posta”, trip-hop sparkles “Ecco i negozi” and techno scratches “Cosa succederà alla ragazza”.
Finally, with “Hegel” (idem, 1994) he produces a perfect handbook on how much would have sounded for the following 10 years, with house, techno, Balearic and trip-hop sounds all mixed together in full fusion. “Hegel” is not an easy record, it is difficult, the lyrics are hard to grasp, the images are more and more conceptual, and it sounds too futuristic to please current listeners. Still, the record is a masterpiece full of great electro-funk songs like “Stanze come questa” or dance tunes like “Tubinga”.
Lucio Battisti dies in 1998 in Milan.
Every single Italian has a story involving a Battisti song. It could be “La Canzone del sole” played during their first kiss; it could be a cassette bought in an Autogrill, on a road trip with a bunch of friends at the age of 18, or it could be the memory of their mother whistling “Luci-ah” while hanging out the laundry on a summer day. In my case, it was a trip to Rome, kissed by the Roman sun with “ll nostro caro angelo” played on my cd player – a moment of Beauty.
The reason why we are all so attached to Lucio’s music is the fact that it became the music for the memories we created in our lives. Usually, when something remarkable had happened, when one of those sublime moments were encountered, there was a Lucio Battisti song played somewhere nearby.