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Sunday, 11 May 2008

Written in granite: White Horse

I remember it vividly. It was a Sunday probably in spring 1993, and the place was the Les Glòries flea market in Barcelona. I found a cassette of an album called Il Mio Cavallo Bianco by Domenico Modugno. I'd become a huge fan of Italian pop music, especially from the sixties, Jimmy Fontana, Gianni Morandi, Nicola Di Bari and had lots of 7" singles and EPs which I'd got transferred to cassette as I didn't have a turntable at that time nor yet a CD player. So finding a cassette was actually quite a good thing. The album was from the seventies, which I may have been a little dubious about as some of those singers became a bit too rock-oriented by then, losing the wonderfully Italian slant. You might think you don't know any of this stuff but you do, actually. If nothing else then you know Pino Donaggio's Io che non vivo senza di te. Except that you think it's called You Don't Have To Say You Love Me and that it was written specially for Dusty Springfield. Now I love Dusty as much as the next man, but the original is much better, much darker, full of different drama. Or you might know Umberto Bindi's Il Mio Mondo as You're My World as recorded by Cilla Black. Again the original is something else, rising from a whisper to a scream in a matter of seconds. Drama. They know all about that in Italian pop.

Of all of them Domenico Modugno is perhaps the best-known internationally, or rather one of his songs is. Because Domenico wrote one of the most famous and most frequently covered songs of all time, one of those ones that are almost up there with Yesterday in terms of being covered in different styles by vastly diverging artists. For, back in the nineteen fifties, Domenico Modugno wrote Volare. Yes, you know that one, don't you? You might also have heard another of his fifties numbers, Piove, - sometimes known by its subtitle of Ciao, ciao bambina. Now both are fine songs and have been recorded many times (not least by Domenico himself, a man never afraid to cover his own work) but personally I'm particularly fond of his sixties material. There's a wonderful recording of Dio come ti amo – another song from the fifties – which is one of the finest, not to mention most basically honest of song titles: "God how I love you!"; after all, this is the lyrical thrust of perhaps 75% of all popular music (and 90% if we include the underlying message that "well, maybe 'love' is a strong, I'd certainly like to have sex with you"), and songs such as Sopra I Tetti Azzurri Del Mio Pazzo Amore. I hadn't really heard much of his later stuff though.

Cavallo Bianco is a truly extraordinary record. Side two of the original cassette version I had is one of the most perfect sequences of music I've heard in my entire life, there's not a foot put wrong and much of it reduces me to awe and/or tears. As for side one, well... talk about a game of two halves, Brian... It opens with Questa È La Mia Vita, a phenomenal song, gently strummed acoustic rhythm guitar, shuffling drums, female backing vocals and... you just know this is a classic album. Except that this is followed by the first oddity, a version of Mack The Knife which couldn't be more firmly date-stamped "early 1970s" if it had flares and lapels the width of the average estuary and a kipper tie. It's kind of great but it is insane. What the hell is going to come next? Well, for the first but not last time, the album veers from the sublime to the ridiculous back to the utterly sublime with the title track, which is one of the most moving songs I've ever heard and which reduced me to tears from the first time I heard it even though at that time my Italian was very sketchy, based essentially on speaking French, Catalan and Spanish and hoping that the Italian words would be the same. Cavallo Bianco should be corny, it's sung from the point of view of a soldier lying dying on the battlefield who, in his delirium, sees a white horse coming to take him home. Oh and it ends with whistling. Why does nobody whistle on records nowadays? Note to self: put some whistling on the album. It never fails to reduce me to a sobbing blob. Except that then we're back to the odd, with L'annivversario, rather a fine song, but again done with a very seventies arrangement. And then side one closes with the strangest thing of all. I saw that the title was Appendi un nastro giallo but at the time my Italian was too shaky for me to make the connection... Because this is indeed nothing less than Domenico performing an Italian version of Tony Orlando and Dawn's massive worldwide smash Tie A Yellow Ribbon. Er... Flipping the cassette over I was half expecting to find Batti tre volte or something of the kind. What I found was stranger and more wonderful. It starts with Sei una rompiscatole, which I believe means something like "You're a pain in the arse". Nice one, Dom. It sounds like the kind of thing Tom Waits would be doing a decade later, a deranged tango which ends with speeded up tape... It's rather brilliant. And then for the rest of the album we're in totally sublime mode. Noi lo chiamavamo amore, Come un tiranno, E Dio creò la Donna, Un pagliaccio in Paradiso... and then it ends with one of my favourite songs of all time, Direttisimo proveniente da... In the song Domenico is standing on the station platform waiting for the high-speed train from Milan. He describes the bustle around him, apparently you could get beer and sandwiches on Italian station platforms as there's a boy distributing them... He tells us that the girl in the song had written him a letter ending with the words "Help me darling..." Then the train pulls in and she's on it. It's described in beautiful detail. There she is on the footplate glistening with the rain and through all the people she can't see him yet and she's scared in case he hasn't turned up... It's a moment of miniscule, everyday drama and, being an Italian with an instinctive grasp of drama, at this point Domenico howls "sono qui!!!!!" (I'm here!)... Then the train is pulling away again and she's there with him, her fellow-passengers are smiling because now they understand that the reason she didn't talk on the journey wasn't because she's English (OK, I've inserted that bit myself) but because she was prey to this internal drama: would Domenico be there or would he have moved on and built himself a new life, perhaps found someone new? The train's pulling away now, the windows and doors are being closed (in Italy they do this once the train is in motion, apparently) and there's a wonderful moment where Dom and his girl are enclosed in an endless embrace, "inamorati più di prima!!!!" (more than ever in love) as the music soars off into a completely different key for the outro, it sends shivers up and down my spine every time I listen to it, and I also learned a great deal of Italian from gradually piecing together the story.

I've never been able to find a copy of this album on CD – if anyone knows of one do please let me know. I've still got that cassette though, and I've got it as MP3s. I'd've expected Modugno's entire catalogue to be available at least in Italy and thus via import, but all I've ever seen are compilations... If anybody out there can help then please get in touch. The same goes for other Italian music: I've got a CD compilation of some of Jimmy Fontana's hits, obviously entitled Il Mondo di Jimmy Fontana after his biggest hit, which we'll look at in a future piece, because it deserves it. Indeed all this stuff seems to be compilations only, which is a shame as there are some wonderful albums. If anyone does have any of this stuff on CD do please drop me a line, if you'd like to do so then sono qui!!!!!

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