It’s 1977 and, while punk is shocking the music industry, topping charts is David Bowie’s Heroes. It’s a pivotal album for a whole generation, but not until the third song, the title track. If the album opens with two solid numbers that still owe to the mid-70s British glam and rock ‘n roll revival, it’s Heroes that floors 1977 teenagers, way more than punk did. De facto Heroes is a British album, but it isn’t in its soul: it is German, to be precise it is a Berlin one. Bowie, as per usual, came first. While everybody else, Gary Numan included, was caught up in punk bands, he’d already gone further. He had given the sophisticated kids who didn’t recognise themselves in punk’s grittiness an alternative. He had planted the seeds for an alternative called new wave.
In Italy, by 1977, both the prog and the politically engaged singer-songwriter scenes had started to bore teenagers. Punk, though, wasn’t really an option. The touring ban imposed on foreign acts to prevent public disorder postponed the mass discovery of the genre to 1979, when the embargo expired, and to 1980, when Ramones’ debut album was finally pressed for the Italian market. Looking for new music inspirations, many Italian teenagers inevitably turned their heads to Bowie. The geographical proximity of northern Italy with Germany, then did the rest. A willingness to experiment with electronics, the enthusiasm for drum machines, the fascination for Bowie’s attempt to create Wagner’s total art and a nod to that German culture (“Lili Marlene” became a popular cover) suspended between Weimar Republic and the concrete grittiness of East Berlin – that’s Italian new wave.
More or less consciously, Italian new wave was influenced by the likes of Bowie, Gary Numan, Japan, Ultravox and Kraftwerk, but filtered all these through a Mediterranean pop vein. What is particularly fascinating about this scene, it’s the tremendous pop success many of the cuts featured in the playlist had despite their innovative and underground approach. Early 80s newcomers Garbo and Righeira made it in the pop realm thanks to their breakthrough use of synthesisers paired with catchy hooks, despite the grim, asphyxiating nature of their lyrics. The apparently jolly motif of Spanish-sung Righeira’s “Vamos A La Playa” hides the paranoia and fear of an atomic fallout in the pre-Berlin wall fall society.
Garbo’s 1981 debut A Berlino…Va Bene (In Berlin…It’s All Right) is possibly the best Italian new wave work. The album, that portrays on its cover Garbo with a Bowiesque quiff à-la Heroes, consecrated the singer as the Italian Gary Numan. The artwork’s grey and black palette is reminiscent of the griminess of Cold War-era Berlin, a mood excellently mirrored by the 10 essential tracks that build a symbolic bridge between the German capital and Milan. Symbolic because Garbo, then only 23, had never been to Germany, yet his compositions are as effective as Bowie’s Berlin trilogy in depicting the Weimar Republic revival culture.
Less fortunate than Garbo was the fate of Faust’O, whose first three LPs released between 1978 and 1980 are as intense as a punch in the stomach. His fascinating balance of glam-rock and proto-new wave that loads owes to Bowie is matched by an elegant-but-harsh social commentary.
Although united since 1861, by the turn of the 1980s the Italian underground seemed to be split into a multitude of micro-scenes that mostly gravitated around the cities of Bologna, Florence and Milan. While in Bologna, thanks to the work of mediation with New York promoted by artist and lecturer Francesca Alinovi, the local youth created a unique blend of German electronica, new and no wave rich in strident saxophones with the likes of Gaz Nevada, Hi-Fi bros, Confusional Quartet and N.O.I.A., Florence had in Tenax club the hotbed for a more dark-twisted new wave scene featuring bands such as Diaframma, Litfiba and Neon.
Despite the idea that new wave is often associated with the underground, the mainstream was not immune to it. The diffuse interest for the latest European trends that spread in the Italian music industry had a strong impact on the pop scene. Marvellous is the transformation former beat chanteuse and pop diva Patty Pravo embraced under the aesthetic influence of Young Americans/Diamond Dogs-era Bowie, German culture and androgynous fashion. Perfectly in line with the latest European records, 1978 Miss Italia is a charming mix of proto-new wave, cheeky synthesisers and powerful glam rock drifts. Remarkable is also its follow-up The Munich Album – you can’t get more Mitteleuropean and Ultravox than this – whose opener “New York” was originally included in Flavio Paulin’s eponymous debut Paulin, possibly the best hidden gem (it’s not even available on Spotify) of the whole Italo new wave genre.
New wave also offered troubadour Alberto Camerini a chance to re-invent himself and obtain mainstream success thanks to the clever invention of a Bowiesque electro-rock harlequin alter ego, his “Rock ‘n Roll Robot”. The visual aspect of the performances started acquiring a certain relevance especially thanks to music TV show Mister Fantasy that from 1980 to 1984 aired the videos of Italian up and coming artists, introducing them to a mainstream public.
Real innovators, though, were Chrisma (or Krisma) the experimental new wave duo former beat teen idol Maurizio Arcieri funded with his girlfriend Cristina Moser. Chrisma’s biggest talent was the ability to capture, ahead of everyone else in Italy, the changing times of European music, with a strong attention to the work Kraftwerk had been doing since the mid-70s. A compendium of so far unseen synth and drum machine experimentations, their 1977 album Chinese Restaurant should be considered a decadent electro-rock and new wave masterpiece even beyond its home borders. Follow-ups Hibernation and Cathode Mama should be praised for going further and even introduce industrial and post-punk elements familiar to Factory Records aficionados.
It’s with Chrisma that vocabulary and the public opinion started becoming really confused about this new youth culture, as it is possible to witness on 1979 TV show Sereno Variabile, where the band simply introduced as “punk”. However, most of all, Chrisma were pivotal in giving birth to a trademark aesthetic that simultaneously borrowed from 1930s rationalism and gloomy, exotic and leather-clad futurism à-la Blade Runner.
When by the early 1980s punk spread outside its niche and started growing in popularity, fascinating pastiches of new wave and punk surfaced, delivering odd outcomes like Decibel and the East Bloc-inspired CCCP who actually formed in Berlin under the initiative of Emilia Romagna-born singer Giovanni Lindo Ferretti and guitarist Massimo Zamboni. At some point the influence of dance and the soon-to-be Italo Disco further enriched – or according to some ruined – Italian new wave contributing to the evolution in sound of Gaz Nevada and other acts. However, by the mid-80s the new wave avant-garde seemed to have lost its initial spark, leaving room on one hand to Italo Disco and, on the other, to a reiteration of weak punk-rock formulas.