My dear readers, I’m sorry to inform you that I really don’t know how to start this article. Franco Battiato is a figure that is so inspiring to me, a master of…what? Are there people who don’t know about him? Are there people who are asking themselves who is this guy? Are you serious Boris? Well, thank you man, you are my favourite red fish in the world. This is a good beginning.
Franco Battiato has been one of the most influential artists of Italian music and, fortunately, 2020 didn’t take him away from us (2021 please don’t screw it up). If you saw “La Casa de Papel”, you probably sang his most famous hit “Centro Di Gravità Permanente” with Berlin and The Professor. There is also one of his song, “Radio Varsavia”, in the iconic peach scene of “Call Me by Your Name”. I know that the background music is the last thing you focus on in this scene, where Timothée Chalamet without a shirt is disemboweling a poor peach, but, if you do so, you can hear the beautiful voice of our guest!
Historical, musical, sociological and whatever context
He was born (as Francesco Battiato) shortly before the end of World War II (March 1945) in Sicily, near Scilla and Cariddi. I mentioned the Homeric myth because it is a key to understand his poetics. Remember this part, we’ll talk about it later.
After finishing high school and, above all, his father’s death (he worked as a truck driver and longshoreman in New York), he moved to the beating heart of the “Italian economic miracle” in the ‘60s, Milan. They were extraordinary years for the Italian culture: if Rome was the capital of cinema thanks to Cinecittà (Fellini, Sergio Leone, Pasolini), Milan was the city of literature (Calvino, Bassani, Gadda and many others, helped also by the fascinating communist publisher Giangiacomo Feltrinelli) and art (Piero Manzoni, Lucio Fontana, Gio Ponti, ecc.).
The city of fashion has always been the bridge between Italy and Europe and so it is for music. Billie Holiday, with her concert at the “Teatro Smeraldo” in 1958, opened a great jazz season in Milan, with the performances of Thelonious Monk, Duke Ellington, Chet Baker and Ella Fitzgerald. Jazz was not the only genre you could hear in the shadow of the Madunina: The Beatles and The Rolling Stones played here too.
In this vibrant environment, a young Francesco Battiato took his first steps towards the record industry: he met Enzo Jannacci, Bruno Lauzi and, above all, the great singer and comedian Giorgio Gaber, who became his friend and helped him appear on television for the first time, in a show presented by Giorgio himself.
In that episode, another giant of Italian music, still unknown in 1967, played: his name is Francesco Guccini. So Gaber proposed to his friend Francesco Battiato to change his name to Franco, in order to not confuse the viewers at home. The rest is history. With the anarchist actor, the promising young Sicilian singer joined the 1968 edition of Sanremo festival, already with the name of Franco.
This mood was about to finish though. The Piazza Fontana bombing in 1969 pushed Italy towards the so-called “Years of Lead”, that continued until the end of the 70’s. In those years Battiato completely changed his style, going from Sanremo’s pop to experimental music, inspired by Karlheinz Stockhausen and Giorgio Moroder. Listen to this if you want to explore the interesting side of Franco’s discography and, if you are searching for a unique dystopian experience full of synths, also listen to the albums these songs are in, “Fetus” and “Pollution” (he was far ahead compared to his time).
Remember that meanwhile in Italy the neo-fascist Golpe Borghese was being arranged, USA was facing Vietnam war’s tragedies, prog rock was borning (King Crimson, Syd Barrett’s Pink Floyd, The Doors) and the psychedelic culture was becoming mainstream, due to the protests of ‘68 and Woodstock. The main source of inspiration for “Fetus” was Aldous Huxley, not by chance.
After these two works, Battiato molted again and became a hybrid, who worked on his need to create a metaphysical world with his lyrics and music, in a similar way to Giorgio De Chirico’s paintings. In order to get an idea of what I’m talking about, I recommend this, from “Le corde di Aries” (1973) and «M.Elle le “Gladiator”» (1975); he plays the organ of the Monreale Cathedral!
These are the years when “classical” Pink Floyd published “The Dark Side of the Moon”, Yes came out with “Fragile” (maybe this name doesn’t say anything particular to you, but if you are a JoJo fan you have to listen to it) and Emerson Lake & Palmer reached the 11th place in Billboard 200 with “Brain Salad Surgery”: the paradise for prog fans.
L’era del cinghiale bianco
Here we arrive to the main topic of this article, the first album of a trilogy after which the Italian music will never be the same. We have to take a little step back at the ending of the revolutionary 70’s, when the world was ready to enter the sparkling 80’s under the guide of the lassez-faire comeback (Reagan and Thatcher), after the crisis of the Keynesian economic model caused by the 1973 oil crisis, while Red Forman is complaining about something somewhere in Wisconsin.
In an Italy wounded by the killing of Aldo Moro and the last massacres of the “tension strategy” (if you are curious about this dark period of Italian history, I suggest the film “Il Divo” by Paolo Sorrentino), Franco understands that the world is quickly changing and decides to change his label to EMI Records in order to reinvent himself again.
Legend says he does it as a joke: considering Battiato’s personality it’s not unlikely, but facts are facts and what we really care about was what happens in 1978, when the unique exotic dancer that will make Italian pop’s history is ready to drop his bomb, with a little help from great musicians like the drummer Tullio De Piscopo and the experienced keyboardist Roberto Colombo.
The cover is a work of art itself, thanks to the work of Francesco Messina. He succeeds in representing Battiato’s poetics by making a collage with symbols from distant cultures: in the foreground there is a woman, enlightened by a light beam from above, that is playing a pipe organ on a lake, from which cliffs arise near to an elephant, pyramids and other icons taken from the personal library of Messina. On the back of the vinyl, we can find also a baby Battiato who is sitting in the shadow of a palm tree, playing a mini guitar.
The literal translation of the title is “The white boar’s era”: is a reference to René Guenon (his main influence in his whole spiritual growth with Gurdjaeff), who will be mentioned, more or less directly, in many points on the record. In turn, the concept of the white boar, a subject of “Symbols of Sacred Science” by the French philosopher, is a Celtic symbol for the spiritual knowledge, the wisdom that makes us understand the universe we were born into and our relationship with it. In particular, the era Battiato sings about in the first song (the title track) is the Celtic version of the “golden age” myth, common to many cultures.
Our man uses this symbology also to express his refusal of post-modernity: in fact, according to him, post-modern ideology is completely misleading mankind from the spiritual growth and we are living in the Kali-yuga, the lowest cycle of the universe. In his opinion, nowadays we see the world filtered by others’ eyes and we need to see reality like it is: Schopenhauer in a nutshell.
This is the main theme of “Magic Shop”, a bitter critique to the loss of spirituality in the name of the only God of capitalism, Money/Individualism, that has the power to transform the holy in profane (a few years later Roberto Calvi, a banker who managed a huge amount of Vatican money, will be found dead in London, probably not by suicide: it will be another Italian mystery of those years, in an affair that links politicians, Cosa Nostra affiliates, Catholic Church and important businessmen).
"Supermarkets with holy sections that sell Dior incenses open columns about Pope's hair" Franco Battiato, "Magic Shop"
“Strade dell’Est” (“East Streets”) and “Luna Indiana” (“Indian Moon”) are two great examples of the exotic fascination that will make Battiato famous in the ’80s. The first song is very hard to understand because it is full of cryptic allegories but surely the lyrics are very evocative (he sings about exotic places such as Turkey, Siberia, China and more) and the musical carpet is really enjoyable. The second is a very beautiful piano and violin instrumental, with some vocalizing at the end: it seems a little out of place but don’t worry, it’s still amazing!
“Il Re del Mondo” (“King of the world”) deserves a longer explanation: here comes again René Guenon and his book “The King of the World”, inspired by this novel of Ferdinand Ossendowski where he tells that he went to Central Asia and found an underground world, where there is some sort of obscure spiritual center.
The boss of the place is the “King of the world”, who knows everyone’s mind and silently, thanks to the help of his powerful helpers, prevents mankind from destroying the world. Battiato uses this myth as an opportunity to think about free will and the uselessness of human activities (the first part alternate visions of war and glimpse of nature), especially when something bigger than us controls everything.
"The more everything becomes useless The more you think it's real And the day of the end English won't be helpful to you" Franco Battiato, "Il Re del Mondo"
Remember that part when I said:“Guys keep in mind this”? Any volunteer? Oh come on, you already fell asleep! I see some yawns in the audience, I swear that I’m almost done.
The last two songs are “Pasqua Etiope” (“Ethiopian Easter”) and “Stranizza d’amuri” (in Sicilian dialect, “Love strangeness”). I believe this is the part of the album where Battiato reconnects with his origins, let’s see why.
In “Pasqua Etiope” the lyrics are a Catholic funeral requiem in Latin, while the instrumental, embellished by pianos, harps, oboes and Franco’s voice, is wonderful. I personally interpret this masterpiece as a reminder of the transience of life, but not like medieval ideology: our existence is limited and we’re surely going to die, so we have to use our time in order to find beauty in the universe and to search for knowledge (some distant echoes of Nietzsche?).
Furthermore, this is an answer to those who think that Battiato is an xenophile: it is impossible to reach a superior knowledge without starting from our origins and our favorite singer knows it so well that he develops the topic also in the next song.
Here we arrive to the last song of the album, “Stranizza d’amuri”. As I already said above, the lyrics are sung in Sicilian dialect and tells a love story between two young lovers in a war torn world. Between all the atrocities and the horror, they make the beauty survive by protecting their deep feeling from the banality of evil. It is both an amazing dedication that Battiato makes to his birthplace and a hymn to what cannot be affected by human cruelty, that is purity.
Battiato’s message: a synthesis
The story of “Stranizza d’amuri” reminds me also of Ancient Greek novel genre, that was often about a couple of young lovers that has to face many vicissitudes to reach a happy ending (don’t judge me, it has to be somehow useful having studied Ancient Greek in high school). This interpretation leads to where we started: Sicily has always been an incredible crossroad of different people (Greeks, Romans, Vikings, Arabs,…), because of its central position in Mediterranean Sea and its natural wealth. This particular condition made also its cultural wealth, from Siracusa’s Greek ruins to the Islamic Palermo.
This is also the amazingness of Battiato’s music and mind, the ability to absorb many influences from all over the world without losing his nature. This is also his actuality in this globalized world, where we have to meet very distant cultures all the time. The Sicilian singer says, with the position of the last song, that we don’t have to forget our background because other spiritualities are cooler, but to remember who we are to offer the best of us to the world.
Positive religions are different, the need for spirituality isn’t. Every culture has been drawing its conclusions from life and we have the moral duty as human beings to dialogue with them, because this is the only way to create a better world, free from past mistakes and prejudices, where traditions are remembered and enriched by a constant interchange with others, not eaten by the cultural Western imperialism.
The solution is not American melting pot or English multiculturalism, with an inevitable ghettoization of ethnic minorities, but a new model where immigrants get really integrated and become part of the society, without being discriminated and/or exploited, under the wing of civic teaching. We need a society based not on money and how we make it from migrants, but a society where the main principle is knowledge and the question is how we can make them good citizens with an inclusive and intersectional education.
There’s never enough money to promote this model, but there wasn’t enough for public health neither until 2020. The reality is that we always think that long-term investments are useless, until an emergency comes out and we lose much more than the money we could use to prevent the catastrophe. We have to be united against the challenges of the future such as climate change and we can do it only if we create a new mankind, awake from the sleep of reason: a white boar mankind.