November 19th, 2009


Electronic harlequins

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.

The rest of the documentary is here.

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:

Alberto Camerini: Morgana e il Re (1981)

And here's 1982's Telex, which really does sound a lot like the Belgian band of the same name:

Alberto Camerini: Telex

Here's the very Analog Baroque Mon Ami, again about robots and marionettes and Scaramouche:

Alberto Camerini: Mon Ami

I love the little break at 1.50! Could we call this -- on the model of "bamboo music" -- "macaroni synthpop"?

Finally, The King of Plastic, which again might sound familiar in places to Momus listeners:

Alberto Camerini: Il Rei de Plastica