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Emilia Romagna /
Bologna /
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Music

Lucio Dalla: From Bologna with Melody and Irony

Stralunato, Ironico, Stomp!

“Girando ancora un poco ho incontrato

Uno che si era perduto

Gli ho detto che nel centro di Bologna

Non si perde neanche un bambino

Mi guarda con la faccia un po’ stravolta

E mi dice “Sono di Berlino”

 

“I was wandering around

And I bumped into a guy who was lost

I told him that in the center of Bologna, 

Nobody gets lost, not even a child

He looked at me with a tired face 

And told me “I am from Berlin”.

–Lucio Dalla

While I’m writing this article, I’m flying over the city of Bologna on an airplane. From up here, I can see the little shadow of the plane drawing a trajectory over the clusters of forests, vineyards and red-bricked rooftops of the gorgeous capital of the Emilia-Romagna region. The plane’s shadow looks like the icon of the mouse on the desktop, pointing to the city of Bologna to remind me of all the beauties treasured inside those infinite arcades, piazzas and botteghe. 

Besides being famous for its food, art and history, Bologna is also the hometown of one of the wittiest singer-songwriters Italy ever had–the great, late Lucio Dalla. The link between Lucio Dalla and the city of Bologna is deep and well-documented throughout his long and successful career, during which he produced and recorded more than 40 albums. Songs like “Piazza Grande” or “Lucio dove vai?” can be considered love letters to Bologna, a stage for his stories and songs, where characters and the singer himself live between arcades, parks, gardens and towers, juggling families and relationship issues, often whispering at the moon and the stars, asking what will happen to them. 

Throughout a long career, from the 60s to 2000, Lucio Dalla consistently produced great music, recorded award-winning albums and gifted Italians with his witty humor and dazed melodies. The article you are reading is a little attempt to pay homage to his talent and his city of Bologna. 

JAZZ TO BEAT: THE 60S 

Born on March 4th, 1943, Lucio Dalla showed from a young age a natural talent for music, developing a passion for the clarinet, which eventually developed into one for the saxophone and other instruments. After WWII, Bologna was a fast and vibrant city, where factories of motorbikes were opened and where jazz from the U.S. was played in bars and clubs. Those contemporary jazz tempos and neurotic rhythms attracted Lucio Dalla, a hairy, weird and restless guy, so much so that he starts playing in local jazz bands–the Reno Jazz Gang first, the Second Roman New Orleans Jazz Band later, then followed by the Flippers and Gli Idoli. Between 1965 and 1971, Lucio Dalla recorded three albums, 1999 (1966), Terra di Gaibola (1970) and Storie di Casa mia (1971) in which he gets his hands dirty with jazz, pop and beat music, trying to find his voice, tone and style. Songs like “Paff…Bum”, “Tutto il male del mondo”, “Un uomo come me” or the iconic “Il gigante e la bambina”, “4 Marzo 1943” and “Piazza Grande” (written in collaboration with the ingenious lyricist Paola Pallotino) showed the talent of the young Bolognese musician and set the basis for his visionary, dazed and often ironic take on the word, populated by sailors, prostitutes and working-class people. They were songs in which people fell in love, wandered around Bologna and questioned the meaning of reality.

©Eredi di Luigi Ghirri

EXPERIMENTATION: THE EARLY 70S 

After the jazz and the beat of the 60s, Lucio Dalla decided to experiment during the 70s and teamed up with the Bolognese poet Roberto Roversi. Together the duo produced three records between 1973 and 1976 in which creativity flowed without boundaries and where the musical references were found in prog rock, folk and avant-garde music, playing with words and styles in an irreverent and political way. The first album produced by Dalla and Roversi is called Il giorno aveva cinque teste (1973) and is a smart mix of eccentric melodies, jazz-inspired vocals and improvisations where politics is predominant and raging. Songs like “L’auto targata TO” show a clear attack on FIAT factories in Turin, where the workers were alienated (as in “L’operaio Gerolamo” or “Alla fermata del tram”) and where the innocence of a country was lost and long forgotten. 

The following Anidride Solforosa album (1975) is an oddball in the Italian music scene of those years, especially the title track, a sort of crazy vocal play with synthesizers and a strong political message: the modern world is alienated, polluted and intoxicated. While Dalla and Roversi were writing these records, the syndicates were fighting against factory owners, urging them to increase the quality of life of working class people. At the time, FIAT was one of the biggest factories in the world, employing, at its max, around 200,000 workers. The exponential growth in employment opportunities after WWII and through the 60s declined during the 70s, creating tensions among classes. With these records, Dalla and Roversi aimed to underscore the alienation of the workers who powered car factories, targeting specifically Giovanni Agnelli, one of FIAT’s original founders, and his family. 

Following in the footsteps of Anidride Solforosa was Automobili (1976), the third record composed by the poet and the songwriter, and, as the name might suggest, a concept album on automobiles, conveying the idea that cars are a symbol of the future but at the same time force society into dependence. From the record, “Nuvolari” became an instant classic, telling the story of the Italian race driver Tazio Nuvolari, a superstar of the racing games between the 20s and 50s in Italy.  

SOLO: THE LATE 70S 

In 1977, Lucio Dalla, ready to write his own lyrics, released one of the most important Italian albums of all time: Com’è profondo il mare (1977). Ask any Italian if they know the whistle of the title track and they will start immediately singing the lyrics of the song. After the experimental feast of the three records with Roversi, Dalla wrote multiple pop gems, destined to remain unforgotten in Italian pop culture: from the title track–a metaphorical song about thoughts and ideals, depicted as fish swimming in the sea–to the iconic “Disperato Erotico Stomp”, a joyous stomp reggae about sex and onanism, to the classic “Cucciolo Alfredo” about Bologna–all songs that soundtracked the end of the 70s, when Italy was going through grave political turmoil. During the 1977 Bologna riots, a violent struggle between the extra-parliamentary left and the army/police, military tanks were called and parked in the city and a student, Francesco Lorusso, died. The emotional “Cucciolo Alfredo” song focuses on a kid, wandering around Bologna during and after these turmoils.

The following Lucio Dalla (1978) is another must-have record for every Italian music connoisseur: eight perfect songs between soft rock, yacht rock, pop ballads, and a touch of jazz and funk, all wisely mixed. The opening “L’ultima luna” is a dark, sensual disco wave track, followed by the sweetest love song “Stella di mare”, the punk-funk “La Signora”, the classic “Anna e Marco”, “Cosa sarà”, “L’anno che verrà”, one of Dalla’s most famous songs, and “Milano”, perhaps the greatest song about Lombardy’s capital. “Milano” manages to capture the soul of the city: it’s a melting pot between the north and the south. “Milano, ti parla in tedesco e ti risponde in Siciliano” (“Milan, speaks to you in German and answers in Sicilian”), sang Dalla. Unlike the “gray” Turin, a city that Dalla hated, Milan is still a city where humanity lives. 

While during the 60s Dalla was struggling to find a direction in his production and during the first half of the 70s he pushed the accelerator on experimentation and intellectual divertissements, it is with these two records that the musician from Bologna became the icon he’s still remembered as today. Here, within these 20 songs, he examined his poetry, singing lyrics about normal people who deal with dreams, illusions and the fleetingness of time. Lonely characters hoping for a better future, but with plenty of irony and skepticism. The best productions of Lucio Dalla are those that can shift continuously between melancholy and humor, playing with aulic metaphors and sordid images, mixing sacred and profane. Com’è profondo il mare and Lucio Dalla perfectly describe this attitude towards life, a mix of beautiful and horrible things.

ANOTHER CHANGE OF DIRECTION: THE 80S

The simply titled Dalla (1980), the ninth record by the Bolognese genius, opened up the 80s with another handful of classics. The groovy “Futura”, with its romantic moods, the catchy “Mambo”, the ballad “Cara” and the lovely “Balla balla ballerino” are just some of the great tunes composed for this soft rock record. At this stage of his career, Dalla is less than 40 years old, and according to national television, the most famous singer in Italy. His recent tour with Francesco De Gregori, then made into a double LP and a movie called Banana Republic (1979), transformed Lucio Dalla into the most famous singer-songwriter of the time, so much so that he decided to experiment with television and movies and appeared in several cinematic works, most notably Borotalco, a comedy by Carlo Verdone and Eleonora Giorgi in which Giorgi is in love and obsessed with Dalla.

The next year, he released Lucio QDisc (1981), a four song EP that perhaps seals up the best artistic period of Lucio Dalla, thanks to the lovely “Telefonami tra vent’anni” and the brilliant “Madonna disperazione”, a seven minute pop rock ballad with melancholic notes and a sweet melody. 

The following record 1983 (1983) is rightly considered one of Dalla’s least popular records because of unclear direction and a handful of not very cohesive tracks. But in 1984, Lucio published (for his label called Pressing, finally free from the imposition of the major labels like RCA and Sony) Viaggi organizzati, another must-have record in his collection. It is an extremely dark, sad, futuristic record, in which the sound is produced with (at the time) unorthodox instruments–computers and synthesizers. The album still sounds contemporary today. “Tutta la vita” is an ironic and melancholic description of what it means to be an artist and a musician (and weirdly became extremely famous in Australia thanks to a cover by Olivia Newton-John). On the same record, I have to quote the brilliant sci-fi/blade runner-Esque “Washington”–also remembered for its super cool video–and the lovely title track, a sort of take on “O Superman” by Laurie Anderson and “Einstein on the Beach” by Philip Glass. 

Through the rest of the 80s and the 90s, the production of Lucio Dalla then became inconsistent, with many (too many!) records that were not able to reach the excellency of the previous productions. Either he just lost his touch or it’s impossible to produce so many good records for so many years without burning out. He still managed to remain a fan favorite, though, thanks to the nine million copies of “Caruso” sold worldwide–a love letter to Enrico Caruso, the great Neapolitan Opera tenor that became famous in the U.S. at the beginning of the 20th century–and to the catchy ruffian Attenti al lupo–a reggae beat with a Fellini-esque take on the unpredictability of life. 

By the time I finished writing this article, I had almost reached Toronto, suspended in the sky for about 9 hours with Lucio Dalla’s music in my ears. It has been an interesting excursus–as we say in Italy–into the mind of a genius that left us too early by a heart attack in Montreux on a day in March, 2012 at the age of 68. If I had to define the core poetry of Lucio Dalla, I would say it stands probably in his capability to display disenchantment. Bologna was Lucio Dalla’s playground for irony and skepticism: to him, the city represented a microcosm of the whole word–a little, but metaphorical representation of the planet where cars, humans, animals, love and misfortunes lived. Only an ironic easygoingness could put all these broken pieces back together. While listening to “Anna e Marco the listener can’t help but shed a tear and a smile at the same time, since the love story between the two might be cute, but it is also pretty silly. Or while listening to L’Anno che verrà, in which the possibility for a better future is very slim, but there’s still a little space for a joke: “Caro amico di scrivo così mi distraggo un po’ e siccome sei molto lontano, più forte ti scriverò” (“Dear friends, I am going to write you, but since you are so far, I will write you stronger”).

©Eredi di Luigi Ghirri

©Eredi di Luigi Ghirri

©Eredi di Luigi Ghirri