By Paolo Chirumbolo (Louisiana State University)
Born in Naples in 1946, Edoardo Bennato is one of Italy’s most prominent rock stars and singer-songwriters. His career spans more than five decades. Mainly influenced by blues, folk rock, and traditional Neapolitan music, Bennato became famous for his irony, his satirical anti-establishment songs, his emphasis on fantasy and imagination as opposed to rationality and pragmatism, and his advocacy for individual freedom.
After a few unsuccessful singles (“Era solo un sogno/Le ombre,” 1966; “Marylou/La fine del mondo,” 1969; “1941/Vince sempre l’amore,” 1970), Bennato released his first album in 1973. Although not a commercial success, Non farti cadere le braccia put Bennato on the map of Italian rock music. Along with some experimental tunes (“Ma quando arrivi treno,” “MM”), in which for the first time Bennato showcased his ability as a harmonica player and acoustic guitarist, the album contains some of the singer’s most popular songs such as “Un giorno credi” (lyrics by Patrizio Trampetti) and “Una settimana… un giorno…” In 1974 Bennato released his second album, I buoni e i cattivi, an anti-establishment satire in which Bennato took aim at public institutions such as the school system (“In fila per tre”), public administrations (“Ma che bella città”), and Italian politics (“Uno buono,” “Arrivano i buoni”). I buoni e i cattivi was followed by Io che non sono l’imperatore (1975), and La torre di Babele (1976). These two albums further delved into themes dear to Bennato and established the Neapolitan artist as an outsider, as a “voce fuori dal coro” in the Italian pop music landscape, both musically and thematically.
Bennato’s breakthrough occurred in 1979 with the release of Burattino senza fili, undoubtedly one of his most creative and accomplished works. Using the popular Italian fable of the wooden puppet Pinocchio as an allegory of contemporary Italy, Bennato released an album that has become part of the collective imagery of Italian culture. Songs such as “Il gatto e la volpe” (on shady music agents), “Quando sarai grande” (on the relationship between old and young people), “Il grillo parlante” and “Dotti, medici e sapienti” (on the arrogance of mainstream intellectuals), and “La fata” (a beautiful ballad on the exploitation of women) paint the picture of a morally corrupt country in which Bennato the artist is the voice of conscience. The commercial and critical success of Burattino senza fili was topped by what many critics consider Bennato’s masterpiece, Sono solo canzonette. Preceded by the release of Uffà, uffà, an experimental divertissement, Sono solo canzonette (asserting the freedom of songs from political influence) followed in the footsteps of Burattino senza fili. This time the Neapolitan singer-songwriter used the story of Peter Pan to create a work that investigated themes such as a utopian society (“L’isola che non c’è”), the innocence of children (“Nel covo dei pirati”), the power of imagination (“Ma che sarà”), and the fight against social conformism (“Tutti insieme lo denunciam”). The title-track is a self-referential manifesto in which Bennato advocates his right of “dire sempre quello che mi va,” of being a straight-shooter who always speaks his mind, with no compromises. The album, a postmodern music pastiche that blended rock’n’roll, acoustic folk, opera, and swing, gave Bennato enormous commercial success.
After a period of three years, during which Bennato toured the country to sold-out stadiums and made several TV appearances, the singer recorded his eighth album, È arrivato un bastimento. Based on the story of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, the record does not have the artistic coherence of its predecessors. Although it displays the musical versatility of Sono solo canzonette (from heavy rock to opera, from reggae to electronic music), it is a much less inspired work of art. Furthermore, Bennato’s lyrics start sounding formulaic. To capture the energy and excitement of his famous live shows, in 1984 Bennato released a live album called È goal. Its title-track, is the singer’s first foray into the popular world of Italian soccer or “calcio.” The recording of Kaiwanna in 1985 marked a clear break from the past. The album, dominated by the sound of distorted guitars, keyboards, and synthesizers, was a commercial and critical failure. Before the end of the 1980s, Bennato made two more albums, OK Italia (1987), and Abbi dubbi (1989). Songs such as “Ok Italia,” and “Viva la mamma,” completed Bennato’s conversion to commercial pop music. In 1990, the Neapolitan songwriter released his biggest hit, the song “Un’estate italiana,” also known as “Notti magiche.” Originally released by Giorgio Moroder, the song was re-written by Bennato and Gianna Nannini, to become the official anthem of Italia 90, the 1990 soccer world cup. Bennato’s music career went on with the release of several other original albums (including Il paese dei balocchi, 1992; Se son rose fioriranno, 1994; Le ragazze fanno grandi sogni, 1995; Sbandato, 1998; L’uomo occidentale, 2003; Pronti a salpare, 2015), anthologies (Sembra ieri, 2000; Salviamo il salvabile, 2006; Sono solo canzonette – The Best Of, 2016), and live records (… Io c’ero…, 2006; Edoardo Live Tour 2012, 2012). Although he has been unable in the last few years to live up to the musical and lyrical standards of his first albums, Bennato still remains a staple of contemporary Italian popular music, and a crowd favorite.