Last week, several of your Facebook friends and the people who usually IM and email you odd links most likely pointed you in the direction of a Youtube video featuring a sorta grotesque looking middle-aged Italian dude who goes from a classroom skit in a variety show into the most amazing beat-heavy performance of a hard-to-understand, possibly rapped song.
Since at least mid-2008, non-Italian Internet users have periodically rediscovered the charms of Adriano Celentano's 1972 hit “Prisencolinensinainciusol” (the song in question) and have shared the track all over with different excuses.
The latest flurry of Prisencolinensinainciusol-mania can be traced down to a December 17th post by Cory Doctorow in popular time-waster blog Boing Boing. Initially Doctorow didn't even identify Celentano, presenting the video as an exotica/bizarro thing similar to the famous breakdancing little person and other “look at the wacky foreigners” viral phenomena.
But the song and the performer have a much more interesting story.
The Prisencolinensinainciusol saga has a Fellinesque beginning, quite literally. A young Adriano Celentano appeared in 1960 in Fellini's masterpiece La Dolce Vita, performing an Italianized version of the Little Richard/Elvis Presley classic “Ready Teddy”:
By then the Milano-born Celentano was known as the kid who brought American-style rock'n'roll to Italy with his I Rock Boys, active since the moment he walked out of the theater showing Blackboard Jungle in 1956 with a full-blown Bill Haley obsession. The fact that none of these rock boys could speak English was not an impediment for Celentano and his crew–they simply replicated what they heard phonetically, which meant they got simple things like “I'm ready” or “Alright” ok, but had to invent their own English-sounding lines for the more difficult lyrics. (Fortunately for them, one of the biggest international hits of the early rock era, “Tutti Frutti,” both had an Italian title and legitimized lyrics like “A-wop-bop-a-loo-lop a-lop bam boo.”)
Like the French Johnny Hallyday and the Brit Cliff Richard, Celentano is one of those early rock performers inspired by the Elvis craze who became massive in their homelands, almost unknown everywhere else, and just kept going till the present (Celentano is now 71 and still very much around–bonus factoid: his daughter played Satan in The Passion of the Christ!!!).
Hallyday, Richard and Celentano are all established, versatile show-biz figures and buried in their massive discographies there's always some hidden gem to please fans of most genres. (This is true of The Osmonds as well. “Crazy Horses,” anyone?)
Which brings us to 1972's “Prisencolinensinainciusol.” After his leather and hip-gyrating early rock'n'roll period, Celentano spent the 1960s steering his career into the mainstream, singing hula-hoop songs, Italian canzoni, a lot of shmaltzy stuff, and participating in the ultimate show-biz sellout event, the San Remo festival. In the heavily ideological climate of 1968 Europe, his lyrics were often perceived as “traditional” (i.e., right-wing and reactionary).
In the early 1970s, Celentano began singing about “social issues,” though always from a more than slightly conservative point of view (think Sonny Bono's anti-LSD diatribe “Pammy's on a Bummer”). In 1972, he had a hit with his heavy-handed “ecological” concept album I Mali del Secolo (The Evils of the Century). In the same spirit of vague protest music, later that year, Celentano released his proto-rap bombshell “Prisencolinensinainciusol,” a nonsense lyric that, as he explained over and over, addressed the impossibility of communication and the need for “universal love” (his translation of the idiosyncratic title).
“Prisencolinensinainciusol” was released on November 3rd, 1972. It has been described as being sung “in lingua celentanesca” (“in 'Celentanese'”), and the Italians consider it “il primo rap italiano,” the first Italian rap, or “the seed of all Italian rap,” as a rapper described it during a 1994 revival. The song apparently charted in the US in 1973 and UK clubgoers remember it being played in London and even some Northern Soul clubs around 1973-1974.
In 1995 “Prisencolinensinainciusol” was remixed by Italian house producers the Visnadi brothers, with Celentano's endorsement. The singer continued lypsynching versions of his song during his frequent TV appearances through the 2000s. Here's Celentano with world-music superstar Manu Chao monkeying around to the hit (“Prisencolinensinainciusol” starts at 2:30):
But most of these revivals of “Prisencolinensinainciusol” were limited to the Italian market. This changed in early 2008 when pioneering Liverpool remix master Greg Wilson (aka GW) released his first Ruff Edits EP, where he tinkered with Celentano's track, particularly foregrounding its relentless drumbeat, and turned it into a veritable club monster.
Wilson's edit of “Prisencolinensinainciusol” got picked up in March 2008 by Liverpool blogger Stu Robinson, who wrote in Cosmic Boogie that:
This glorious oddity found favour both on UK dancefloors and throughout Europe, following its release in 1973. It was still a choice oldie when Wilson started out as a club DJ in '75, and he would frequently play it, as a 7″ single, at his club residencies in New Brighton, the Golden Guinea, the Chelsea Reach and the Penny Farthing , during the following years.
Only recently, a TV recording of Celentano performing the track has brought it to the attention of the YouTube generation, prompting major interest on influential forums like DJ History and Faith (where it was retrospectively proclaimed as Balearic Minimal Hip House!).
The following month, Cosmic Boogie's recommendation was picked up by William at Acknowledged Classic who opined that:
You don't need to be a graduate student to pick up on a whole other kind of understanding and communication that's going on in this song, so invigorating is it that sea urchins and lichen are responsive to it – remember in Ghostbusters 2, when they play that song that makes the ooze dance in the toaster? Same thing. Oh and Prisencolinwhatever is supposed to mean “universal love”.
This post led to a mainstream acknowledgement by none other than The New Yorker's controversial Sasha Frere-Jones (is he a twat? isn't he? discuss), who posted about “Prisencolinensinainciusol” in his Stop Making Sense online column:
In , an Italian man recorded a song long before disco and rap that is very close to both, and then an unnamed person choreographed it for a battalion of dancers in a hall of mirrors. If the results are really as miraculous as they seem right now, and I am not just talking myself into something, it is precisely because “Prisencolinensinainciusol” is such a loving presentation of silliness. Would any grown performer allow themselves this level of playfulness now? Wouldn't a contemporary artist feel obliged add a tinge of irony or innuendo to make it clear that they were “knowing” and “sophisticated”? It's not clear what would be gained by darkening this piece of cotton candy, or what more you could know about it: it is perfect as is. Notice that when Celentano presents his song for a second time, nobody makes fun of it, though it would be so easy to, and it's so much better for this restraint. (Also: more classroom settings for pop stars to parse their own material, please. An hour a month would be enough.)
I don't often long for worlds gone by, but this clip gets me going. I think Missy Elliott (who hasn't been around to help recently) is the only performer I can think of in recent times who is as comfortable with ecstatic nonsense as Celentano. (The below clip is a hybrid of the above two, and seems to have the best audio and video quality. It also features some excellent spelling.) Perhaps it's the lack of a known language that enables people to loosen up. So close your eyes, people, and start typing some songs.
Between 2008 and now, the awesome Greg Wilson edit of “Prisencolinensinainciusol” made its way through the clubs, music blogs, mp3 sites (look it up–it's not easily available legally–ah, the Europeans and their total cluelessness about online marketing…), and finally, it reemerged last October through a MetaFilter post where people started talking about it being the first rap (it isn't–check out Lorne Greene's “Ringo” or anything by the Last Poets), about how foreigners perceive English speech, and about how strange the whole performance is.
Someone even provided SUBTITLES:
We'll let some of the Metafilter and youtube users have the last word on this phenomenon.
elmer benson writes “I love this. There are very few things in the world that are this rock and roll.”
“Fuck me,” adds FelliniBlank. “That's great and answers the question, 'What if Os Mutantes had been Italian?'”
And we think flapjax really gets it:
This… this… this is just so magnificently dopey, so majestically absurd. It is, at one and the same time, completely selfconscious and yet, in its execution, as unselfconscious as a child engrossed in play. I am in awe.
This is the liberation of the human spirit through bizarre artifice. This man took an idea, a sound in his head, that is, his personal impression of the character of another language, and ran with it. Spectacularly unlikely. This rather goofy (in stage persona, at least) Italian fellow, in 1973, not only delivered to us some kind of proto-rap, but the over-the-top dance routine (from what seems like about 500 people) also prefigured the Bollywood extravaganzas of the following years and of today.
Arrangement-wise, it's stripped down to essentials in a very modern way. It's dry as a bone. The bare-facts boom-tchik groove is perfect, not a crash cymbal or an electric guitar to be heard (perhaps we can add Minimal House to the 'this guy got there first' list?), and that slightly ominous drone running throughout is ahead of its time. The unison group chants are simultaneously exuberant and oddly dark, the repeating horn pattern is just what the doctor ordered for between vocal-line snacks, and it all ends with… a harmonica solo!
Original performance from 1974: