Foreign Thursday: Chapter 2 What has ITALY ever done for pop music?
There comes a time in your life when you have to accept that you’re not going to be the best at everything. This may be in school, where you can be top of you class in maths, science, languages and many other academic subjects, but you’re probably not going to be the best at sport. Anyone who manages to master of those subjects is worthy of your suspicion, like the guy who lives in the room opposite you at university, he is stupidly good looking, athletic, intelligent, a musician, and worst of all, pleasant to talk to and easy to get along with. You know that that person is going to fail in some field, but it’s not obvious what. Excluding these social anomalies, we just have to acknowledge that this is just the natural order of the world, people have their strengths and they have their weaknesses, and he who is the jack of all trades will be the master of none, as the saying goes.
When you think of what Italy has given the world, what first comes to mind? It’s probably food. If food immediately springs to mind, don’t think this means you need to start doing sit-ups every morning, or heaven forbid, take out a gym subscription, Italy is accepted by many people to have the best food in the world, but then most people outside of the UK don’t understand the sheer joy that can come from a good savoury pie. The Italians have their food and they have their fashion, if you’re into that, but have they put in much effort with their pop music? This is the big question.
If you do a little digging, you can probably find that in your music library you’ve got a few tracks by secret Italians, although they’ll probably be dance tracks. Eiffel 65 gave us the anthem of our generation, ‘Blue (Da Ba Dee)’ in 1999, which bizarrely went on to sell over a million copies, becoming the second biggest song of the year in the UK (behind …Baby One More Time), but thankfully the second single tanked and Eiffel 65 dropped off our radars but not before doing a few ghastly remixes(“Just speed it up a lot, alter the pitch and add the sound effects from Blue! Does this count as a remix?”)
We shouldn’t write off all Italian pop because of that though: 1989’s biggest selling single was cheeky samplers’ Black Box’s Ride On Time, and they were from Italy. Fellow cheeky samplers and chimney specialists The Tampererwere also from Italy. Club Classics staple ‘Point of View’by DB Boulevard was Italian.
However, perhaps making Italy’s best contribution to pop music is Giorgio Moroder. The super producer and disco pioneer created the instrumental for Blondie’s second best single “Call Me” (which is the best part of it, as the lyrics are rather bad, “Come up off your colour chart”). He also co-wrote the equally uncomfortable and incredible Donna Summer moanfest ‘Love to Love You Baby’, the perfect soundtrack to a sensual massage, perhaps, or maybe if you’re especially unsociable and you have new neighbours but want to assure that they don’t come round to say hi. For good old Donna, he also wrote electronic trailblazer ‘I Feel Love’ and produced stippers’ anthem ‘Hot Stuff’. Then when you add into the equation ‘Together In Electric Dreams’ with Human League frontman Phil Oakey and working with King of Music, David Bowie, Moroder’s contribution to pop and dance music seems even more significant that of even Eiffel 65.
Finally, in my humble opinion, I don’t think you can discuss the output of Italy without including Raffaele ‘Raf’ Riefolo, who co-wrote and originally performed the Laura Brannigan’s 80’s classic ‘Self Control’. If you thought Self Control was good enough in the better-known Brannigan version, imagine how it would sound stretched out to six minutes and with an awkward 80’s white man rap shoved in the middle. Perfect, that’s how.
So that’s a little of Italy’s contribution to pop music. Perhaps the names aren’t as big, but the Italians have more of a tendency to be the ones behind the scenes in pop, producing the beats and provoking the earth-trembling orgasms. As I said earlier, the Italians can’t be best at everything, but they still have a little go, so we’ll respect them for that at least. Pop is obviously not their main genre, they have a few musical baskets and a lot of their sonic eggs go into opera, but every now and again you (literally) can’t hold back one of the operatic heavyweights when he wants to dip his toes into pop’s waters, as seen in this video of the unlikely pairing of the Spice Girls and Pavarotti, singing a ridiculous/fantastic version of ‘Viva Forever’.
Plus points (/10) : 6 points for Moroder Minus points (/10): -3 for the numerous house acts and their uncredited samples. Very naughty. Bonus points for Eurovision ’12 entry (/3): 2, Very good effort from Nina Zilli.
Foreign Thursday: What has ..Denmark.. ever done for pop music?
We native English speakers were lucky enough to be brought up with the language that dominates pop music. I suppose the JPOP and KPOP scenes are also fairly big, but they rarely extend beyond their boundaries, except into the bedrooms of strange, obsessive teenage girls and in one case, into mainstream global pop. However, ignoring that, the British and the Americans dominate pop music.
The French government tries to stop the public from being too Anglicised by imposing rules stating that 40% of songs on their radios must be in the French language, just in case anyone is forgetting their own language. When I lived in Spain for a little time, I was quite surprised to hear how much of Spanish radio was dominated by the usual American suspects such as Katy Perry and Rihanna, especially since a lot of Spanish music is excellent. The guitar bands from the south of Spain, including my favourite one, Los Delinqüentes, have a sound that is so obviously Spanish, yet a lot of the music we hear these days could be from anywhere and has no features that give any indication of its origin without explicitly stating it, such as Perry talking about how all the ladies on the golden coast have perfect breasts and fornicate in their cars, or the Red Hot Chili Peppers listing as many rhyming US states as they can and calling that a song.
For these reasons I’ve taken it upon myself to delve into the music of an underrepresented country to deliver an insight into their music. Spotify has a ‘Top Lists’ feature, where you can see the top tracks and albums in your country or any other, so there’s no excuse for not being a bit inquisitive and I’ve decided to investigate the music of Denmark.
I expect most folk in British will not know much about Denmark’s musical output, with them lying in the shadow of pop giants Sweden. Due to the peculiar buying habits of the British, one of the most successful acts from Denmark was Aqua, with three number one singles and several other top 40 hits (!) Thankfully Aqua have not charted here for about twelve years, not even their 2011 single ‘Playmate to Jesus’. I can’t pretend I’ve ever heard of or listened to that song before now but it’s interesting to see how their image has changed at least. They look like a Eurovisionned-up Evanescence these days, all dressed in black and grey, with the singer’s boobs pushed out a bit while she lies draped on a crucifix. “Let’s go into space / Heading for Venus / Fly around the sun / Playmate to Jesus” she sings. The lyrics are pretty nonsensical, but the music isn’t that bad. Obviously I’ll never listen to that again or I may as well castrate myself. I still have not forgiven myself for my brief “Actual the Vengaboys were pretty good” phase last year.
Perhaps the best thing Danish to happen to the British charts in recent years was the arrival of the beautifully innocent-looking Alphabeat. With 6 members, half of whom had the same name, and fronted by Anders number one and the tiny little female one, Stine, Alphabeat had three excellent singles in 2006/7, ‘Fascination’, ‘10,000 Nights’, and ‘Boyfriend’. Everyone will remember Fascination, you can still put it on at a party now and everybody will go crazy for it. Alphabeat were pretty cheesy, but it was impossible to hate them, they were just so harmless. They weren’t going to force your sons to go on a killing spree, or give your daughters an eating disorder, their only goal was to make your feet tap incessantly. That’s basically exercise, so in a sense Alphabeat were tackling our country’s obesity crisis and should have been respected for that much, at least. Second single ‘10,000 Nights’ was also bloody brilliant.
If you’re looking for poetic lyricism, you’ll be disappointed with the chorus of “You give me ten thousand nights of thunder/ but I will give them all back to you / ‘cos you’re so OOH (do do do) / you’re so AAH (do do do) / you’re so cool” but you can’t write them off for that. You wouldn’t stop playing with a puppy because it couldn’t play chess; everything has its strengths and weaknesses. Even better, if you like sing-along DO DO DOs, the album version of the song has an extra minute of them tacked on at the end. Perhaps it does drag on a bit, but then again, ‘Hey Jude’ was hardly concise and people love that for some reason.
Despite their second album, The Spell (or The Beat Is…) being as good as (or better than) the first, especially first single ‘The Spell’, (which is worth an embed), it charted only just in the top 40. The whole thing was more electro and a good step forward. A few other catchy singles followed but Alphabeat were basically over, much to the chagrin of Scandinavian pop fans all over this rainy isle. I think it may be down to them trying to be a bit sexy the second time round. Stine dyed her hair red and wore a fascinator for god’s sake! Maybe that was a clever reference to Fascination. Maybe it was a coincidence. Who knows how deep Danish outfit choices go? As much as singing-Anders tried to un-sexy the whole thing with his wild, flailing dancing and tambourine playing, the damage was done. All those well-behaved young fans from before were now out attacking people in the street and refusing Easter eggs. Maybe that’s a wild exaggeration; I think radio just didn’t really play them the second time around, which was a huge injustice.
It may come as a surprise but Alphabeat have recorded a 3rd (third!) album, the weirdly-titled ‘Express Non-Stop’ although it doesn’t have a Wikipedia page in English and it probably hasn’t been released outside of Denmark. I don’t think they even have a UK label any more. The singles from it felt a bit hollow in comparison to the previous album, and musically it was a bit of a step back. Lead single ‘Vacation’…
(“Vacation woh-oh! I wanna go, i wanna go on Vacation! Woh-oh! … Every woman, every man / put your feet in the sand)
…wasn’t enough to catch anybody’s attention. It was a bit throw-away, despite them returning to their harmless sin-free appearance. The next single ‘Love Sea’, sounded a bit like ‘How Will I Know’ by the late, great, dancing-with-somebody Whitney Houston in parts. Both the singles were very summery and chirpy, the kind of songs you’d like to hear by a pool or at the beach, not in September. The video to Love Sea featured a video camera being sent around the world to strangers who filmed their love. I don’t suppose, if that were to happen in real life, that the love filmed would be as clean as in the video, mainly consisting of various groups of friends hugging on a sunny day, but this is Alphabeat not bloody Rihanna. At one point in the video the camera is put in a mysterious looking case and smuggled onto a plane, comes off the plane at the other side, circulates the luggage carousel and is picked up by a curious lass who starts filming her friends. None of that would be possible at all. There would be a huge bomb scare, hundreds of people would be inconvenienced and Alphabeat would have to spend a day locked up before being fined for their stupidity, rather than being allowed to run back to the sea bouncing that damn beach ball around. I hope Alphabeat still have a future in this country as I’ve long wanted to see them live. They are at least playing a show in London soon, so I should try to attend that, at least for the exercise.
For a third and final name, I’ve chosen someone a bit more of the moment. Oh Land is a Danish singer who you may have heard singing the song on a Littlewoods advert recently,‘White Nights’which is quite nice. The video is very good, especially the bit where she lays down on a stool and makes a zebra shape. That’s nice if you like your women in equine poses, and I’m sure you do. As Danish pop music of the moment goes, it may be worth investigating Oh Land a little bit more. Her eponymous second album came out in March 2011 so I’m a bit late catching on really, but it’s nice enough, probably good to cycle to. She’s unlikely to set the charts alight until she sings on a David Guetta song but she may be of interest to fans of Goldfrapp who like their female-fronted pop a bit more theatrical. FUN FACT ALERT: Oh Land is the great-great-granddaughter of Otto Fabricius, who made the first zoological observations of Greenland. With a claim like that, who needs a successful pop career?
Denmark: PLUS points (/10) = 6 (for Alphabeat, mainly) MINUS points (/10) = 3 (for Barbie Girl and Doctor Jones)
BONUS points for Eurovision ’12 entry= BIG FAT ZERO