In times of crisis, when people are forced to leave their home country (whether that home is their native one or adopted), there is only so much they can take with them. Clothes and money are required, along with some toilette items and what could be best called worldly goods. Among these would be music and food, the great markers of a culture and in many ways still the main definitions of any given culture around the world. If someone is homesick, food and a song or two may be their only solace, and also the best ones.
If you were used to the Mediterranean life - either as a bohemian semi-slacker immigrant or an actual native - moving (back) to the UK in the late 40s/early 50s was something of a trial. Almost nothing fit. Clothing coupons couldn't help you much with your winter needs; the local grocery shops didn't have eggplant, basil or garlic, let alone mozzarella or olive oil. If you were Elizabeth David or Anna del Conte, you had to root around Soho or Tottenham Court Road to find what you needed and were used to, indeed addicted to - the simple, strong and immensely seductive flavors that were more than worth the trouble to track down. (The Camisa Deli on Old Compton Street, I imagine, was where these two ladies' paths crossed - whether they ever actually met I do not know.) Once rationing let up in the mid-50s these things began to be easier to find, though still not commonplace.
You might be wondering why all this writing about deprivation and rationing when talking about a song? If you were an Italian immigrant to the UK in the 50s you (quite unwittingly) helped David and del Conte out in their searches, simply due to the ancient laws of supply and demand. It is bitterly ironic that it took a war - a wretchedly long war - to bring Italian food to the UK table. David may have written her books but it was the immigrants who brought the great demand; immigrants who, like her, would not stint on ingredients and wanted the real thing. Once David's Italian Food was published in 1954, things really started to change, and the influx into London and Glasgow had already begun. The vogue for all things Italian had started and in some ways has not ended; witness Jamie Oliver's trip to a place he himself feels at home in some 40 years later.
At the beginning of the 50s the 'idea' of Italy could be described by this first song (which I forgot to write about at the time) - "Poppa Piccolino" by Diane Decker, who was herself a UK/US hybrid whose high bright voice was able to please or grate on listeners' nerves alike. In late 1953 she reached number two with what could well be described as a children's song; the sort of song that still goes with huge slabs of greasy pizza and Coke that family restaurants around the world present as Italian food, though even they would be pressed to say how authentic said pizza was. Judge for yourself the spoken word (yes, it has one!) section:
"Everybody loves Poppa Piccolino. He has the cutest little monkey to collect the lira. But one day Poppa Piccolino was very sad. He lost his concertina, and he couldn't find it anywhere, and there was no music, and everyone was very unhappy. But the little monkey found it for him and gave it back to Poppa Piccolino, and now everybody is happy again."
I am not exactly sure any of the black and white hardcore neorealist post-war Italian movies had concertina-playing monkey-assisted men in them; not even in Fellini would I suppose there to be one. It is hard to resent a song like this, but it is as about as representative of 50s Italy as a box of Dr. Oetker's pizza is (no offence to anyone who likes the good doctor's products intended). (N.B.: if you get the spinach pizza, add lots of pine nuts and chopped garlic and mozzarella and it will be quite good; but then a lot of things could be improved this way.)
Fast-forward a few years - five to be precise - and the musical sophistication of the UK has caught up with the gastronomical, and lo and behold a song in Italian from Italy reaches number two - and what a song! "Come Prima" by Marino Marini and his Quartet were singers in the Neapolitan style, fast and charming and funny, but this is a big smoochy ballad that could and did echo through the cafes and dancehalls in late 1958, sounding reassuringly romantic and tender...until...twannnngggg...
The guitar that dreamily but disconcertingly decorates the quiet portions of the song sounds quite unlike anything else encountered so far in this blog. What on earth is going on here? The answer is: an effects pedal played at the same time a chord is struck on the strings. Yes, that's right, a pedal - not the same one as used by oh, say, Lush over thirty years later, but not that far off either. (The guitar on "De-Luxe" in key and general sound isn't that far off "Come Prima" only there's just the one and it's like a harmonica and it's LOUD.) (Also, let me just say now nice it is to bring in only one of my favorite bands ever into this so early.)
Marino Marini was a man ahead of his time - not only did he have the guitar sound more like, oh, Derek Bailey than anything else, he also built his very own echo chamber and mixed sound onstage - he was a fan of postwar bebop jazz and essentially pushed his quartet way ahead of what anyone would have expected from a Neapolitan quartet. I had the privilege of listening to the album that "Come Prima" comes from and at one point the guitars sound not just like Lush but like Portishead - the future is in this song of love and devotion, sitting in a Trojan Horse of gelato and wafer sweetness, the taste of that future coming in when the listener least expects it. How many who heard it knew what this would portend? I am sure David and del Conte knew, even if they didn't.