Yesterday I watched Synth Britannia, a fascinating BBC4 documentary about the development of synthpop in the UK from the mid-seventies on. This was a time -- I remember it well -- when music show Top of the Pops and future tech show Tomorrow's World went out back-to-back on a Thursday night, and it didn't take a huge amount of imagination to start wondering what would happen if you put them together. Kraftwerk first appeared on Tomorrow's World (promising that their next album would be played with instruments built into their suit lapels), but soon came to dominate Top of the Pops, in influence if not in person.
Now, in the parallel world where this is a national synthesiser documentary commissioned by Italian state TV network RAI, it's a much shorter film featuring just one participant: "computer harlequin" Alberto Camerini. Although he was born in Brazil, Camerini became the most Italian of the synthpoppers in the late 70s and early 80s, melding the sound of bands like Plastics and Telex with a persona straight out of the 16th century Italian theatre tradition of commedia dell'arte.
Whereas the synth bands featured in Synth Brittania influenced my very early years, the electronic artists who influenced me from the late 90s on were what you might call "retro-marginal Modernists": acts like Telex, Plastics, and Camerini. I was interested in how electronic sound negotiated with national folklore at what seemed like the edges of the world (Japan, Italy) and back in the mists of time.
The last time I discussed l'arlecchino elettronico -- in a 2001 website piece entitled Synth Pierrot -- YouTube hadn't even been invented yet. It was hard to find a still photo of Camerini online, let alone videos of him in performance on Italian TV. Now, if anything, there's rather too much, revealing the harlequin's roots as a Rod Stewart wannabe, his post-shark ska phase, his late Michelin Man period. Through it all, though, there's something rather intriguing: a man unafraid of stylistic excess, able to meld the ludic, the lunatic and the ludicrous. A man who seems likeable.
Today I've selected what is, in my view, the essential Camerini. Since he's a very visual and physical performer, you don't have to speak Italian to appreciate what's going on here. Let's start with the Rod Stewart phase, pre-electronics:
Alberto Camerini: Serenella
You can already see the admirable willingness to make himself ridiculous, the physical language and garb of the harlequin. All we need now is to add electronics. This next one may sound, to Folktronic fans, a little familiar at the start:
Alberto Camerini: Rock'n'Roll Robot
Tanz Bambolina alternates between a verse that sounds as if he's been listening to DAF and a gulpy-gaspy 50s revival chorus straight out of Grease. Visually he's Bowie in Ashes to Ashes, a matador with Flock of Seagulls hair, an "automatic clown" a retro-rock Pierrot. The audience are apparently robots too -- they applaud throughout:
Alberto Camerini: Tanz Bambolina
"You shouldn't cry" sounds more like Stiff label New Wave -- or Martha and the Muffins -- than synthpop, but I love the look:
Alberto Camerini: Non Devi Piangere
Another wonderful costume -- sort of Rollerball-influenced -- here:
Alberto Camerini: Neurox
I like the synth trumpet flourishes and time sig change in this one:
Now, in the parallel world where this is a national synthesiser documentary commissioned by Italian state TV network RAI, it's a much shorter film featuring just one participant: "computer harlequin" Alberto Camerini.
Moroder was born in Italy, but his first language was German and he worked in Munich. He's really part of the story of German music. Camerini may have been born in Brazil, but he's definitely part of the story of Italian music.
That's absolutely the best bit, and the one that points most directly to the commedia characterisation of Harlequin as clumsy, physically quick but mentally slow, downtrodden but upward-rising in his gestures (see this characterisation). Any old rocker can look "cool", but it takes a very great one to employ a physical vocabulary of uncoolness and fumbling awkwardness. Bowie -- educated in the commedia stock characters by Lindsay Kemp -- is a master of this. Watch these videos. First, the tentative hand gestures in this take of "Heroes":
Now the desultory giving-up gestures and winces in Be My Wife:
Now, the clumsy enthusiasm in When I'm Five:
Finally, the facial gurning and uncool gesure-memes in Fashion:
The Be My Wife video has always stood out as one of his oddest. The setting of the plain white room is identical to the Life On Mars video, but where that is so treated and bleached that Bowie's face becomes just eyes, lips and nostrils poured into a turquoise suit and topped with neon orange hair, in the Be My Wife video he genuinely looks scary.
Dressed fairly conventionally and with a neat side parting, he looks terrifying. Ill. Distracted. The bit at 1.30 where he gestures vaugely, I suppose suggesting "all over the world", but not quite - it's slightly too late - and then flicks his guitar pick from one hand to the other but then misses it, never really made sense to me, unless you consider it in the context of the deliberate awkwardness of gesture you're talking about. Fascinating.
Yes. I think greatness lies in evoking -- in wanting to evoke -- maladroitness rather than mere adroitness. Other places it appears: in the "uncool" character in the Blue Jean video, who sits at a table in the club snapping his fingers at the "cool" Screaming Lord Byron, leering foolishly and looking around for confirmation from the people around him (a confirmation he doesn't get).
Bowie's character often alludes to Buster Keaton and Stan Laurel too. In fact Lindsay Kemp describes him, in a memoir somewhere, as being like Stan Laurel.
During his pop star years (Ziggy, the Young Americans period) Bowie concentrated on a victorious gesture lexicon. After that -- and for me this is the most interesting period -- he develops a repertoire of gestures of sympathy for, or identification with, losers, the uncool, the clumsy. It reaches its zenith in his portrayal of the Elephant Man, of course.
If Ziggy is Bowie's Nike-Jesus-Narcissus (victory, messiah, narcissist) character (although also delusional and doomed), this later, lower, more self-doubting klutz-clown is a correction, and a much more humanist and compassionate character to put on the stage (or on the covers of records: on "Heroes" he's grimacing and pulling his hair out, on Lodger he's gone splat in a bathroom).
In the long-form Blue Jean video, even the "cool" Screamin' Lord Byron character is a bit of an insecure wreck - the "Is that you, nurse?" before uncool "Vic" crashes through the ceiling; the weedy "go away" he offers as he hides behind the cupboard. And even though Lord Byron ultimately steals the girl from Vic, at the end, Bowie slips out of character and now, as David-Bowie-The-Actor, addresses Julien-Temple-The-Director and complains about the injustice ("I just wanted a happy ending).
Incidentally, I always thought (elastoplast aside) that Vic looked a lot cooler than Lord Byron, and recently found out the suit he wears as Vic was designed by Antony Price. It's the same cut that Peter Godwin would wear a couple of years earlier: http://iamjamesward.wordpress.com/2009/10/27/suit-envy/
You're right, I just watched the long-form vid again and if the window-cleaner/ligger character is Tommy Steele, the Screaming Lord Byron character is... well, as the window-cleaner shouts after him: "I'm speechless, you conniving randy bogus Oriental old queen."
A friend of the Brighton singer David Devant once told me how his record company asked him to be less 'pantomime'. Britpop was big. Couldn't he be more.. cool? What about some sixties retro? Seventies even. Just less.. theatrical.
They missed a trick because the 00s seemed to be the decade where panto turned valid. The Flaming Lips sold it to indie kids; everyone from CSS to Lady Gaga waltzed it into the charts.
I vaguely remember when 'panto' goth was mocked. The Birthday Party and the Gun Club were cool, but rubber bats and spooky make-up was seen as a way of making up for lost talent.
I can't decide - is it Toyah, or to die for? Great, or grating? Isn't it a way for shrieking 'It's all about me'? Doesn't it infantilise the audience?
Thanks for the fashion show/history/fan-exam of someone we'd been told was in there in the mix, somewhere. It's telling that in America the music you'll most often hear in restaurants or shops run by Italian immigrants seems to be either tinny Sicilian ballads or Frank Sinatra/Dean Martin-era swing; maybe in the future more recent immigrants (there are still a lot of them) will be playing Camerini and "Paninaro."
This reminds me again of how import commedia dell'arte was in the 1920s; from Picasso to the Sitwells, there are Pierrots simply everywhere. Bowie (whose "Be My Wife" is a favorite video and song of mine) must have been drawing from that era as much as he was from mime; one would like to investigate the similarities between silent-film gestures and commedia and possibly Kabuki. We all know that in the late 1970s the more fringy elements of rock/pop music were drawing from/imitating the 1920s almost as much as it's 1969 all over again today. Dada never dies.
Interesting that Camerini was born in Brazil--his androgyny and stage movements remind me of Ney Matogrosso, the very pantomime-y singer from Secos o Molhados. And both seem to have been transfigured by Latinate visions of Mr. D. Jones.
PS Damn, why wasn't that vid of "Heroes" on the compiliation DVD? Bowie never looked so handsome, and those boots, those socks/legwarmers--I want them now! And I haven't watched it all the way through, I'm so excited.
Maybe he had a toothache? The subtlety of his gestures is astounding.
(Words I have to type into ReCaptcha; 3D Scotland.)
momus, do you plan on one day writing a post about your methods when creating/writing a pieace for click opera? i'd personally be really interested in knowing more about your thought process and how you build up your posts and how you manage your blog in an organisation perspective. thanks
There's not much to write, really. I don't have an idea, and then I do. I write the entries (sometimes late at night, sometimes first thing in the morning) using plain old TextEdit, post them, then do a little tweaking when they're online. I then respond to comments by reading the comments, thinking of something to say, and typing it into the box!
hi Nick, hope you remember me in Venice 2005 (Blow Up magazine "Desert island records")... thanks for mentioning Camerini... if you look for some Italian good & new stuff, you can check my http://www.italianembassy.it site, it also has a column in English... this is how new Italian indie bands play synth: http://www.myawesomemixtape.it http://myspace.com/fakep all the best for your career, hope to see you back in Italy soon, cheers enrico (enver)