Music

Marking the 40th-anniversary reissue of cult Italian band Gazenevada’s seminal debut record Sick Soundtrack (1980), we trace their story through Bologna’s nascent underground art scene of the time – ignited by the 1977 university riots and thriving on an energy of youthful collaboration and change.

Torn between political activism and terrorism, at the turn of the 1980s Bologna was a city in cultural turmoil. Home to DAMS, the first Italian university for contemporary arts, the city was a provincial metropolis, the perfect place for young creatives to meet and turn their intuitions into artistic sparks. In clubs and bars, the politics-fuelled urges of punk blended with autochthonous wit, Kraftwerk, and New York underground influences generating a scene exclusive to the city. Fused as one, it provided us with what can be considered the only Italian examples of No Wave, and the seeds of the Italo Disco genre soon to come.

Here operated Italian Records, a label that, besides being home to a roster of niche but cult bands and introducing Italy to the likes of Throbbing Gristle and DNA, revolved around a multidisciplinary and collective attitude reminiscent of that of Manchester’s Factory Records. Part of this family were Gaznevada, one of the most fascinating and enigmatic bands European music offered in the early 80s. Influenced by themes including sci-fi, pulp fiction paperbacks, Japanese culture and noir literature, the group’s seminal, debut album Sick Soundtrack is now getting a 40th-anniversary reissue. Proving that 80s Bologna was way more than the stereotypical narration of tortellini and heroin, this reissue underlines the contemporary relevance of the record and the Bolognese counterculture.

Marking the release, we spoke to the protagonists of those days, including Italian Records head honcho Oderso Rubini and three of Gaznevada’s members Giorgio Lavagna (aka Andy Nevada), Ciro Pagano (aka Robert Squibb) and Marco Bongiovanni (aka Chainsaw Sally), to understand what Bologna and its underground were like when the LP first came out.

September 1977, 23rd to 25th September to be precise, and in Bologna – a city renowned for its nearly asphyxiating, stuffy summer weather – students can still benefit from the last mild rays of sun before the autumn hits hard. The academic year hasn’t started yet, but it doesn’t appear like that when scanning the streets. About 70,000 people, most of whom are young, have gathered in town. Flared jeans, military jackets, beards, and hand-stitched banners in shades of red – they carry all the signs of the quintessential 1970s Italian extra-parliamentary left-wing rally. Over those three days, in fact, Bologna is hosting the National Convention Against Repression, an initiative set up by various groups of young communists to express their growing dissent at the government’s repressive strategies. A few months earlier, on March 11th, this had culminated with the killing of young communist Francesco Lorusso, shot dead by a policeman in the streets of Bologna in the aftermath of student riots.

Differently to other European countries, like France, in Italy the season of student dissent inaugurated in 1968 lasted longer, way longer, for over a decade in fact. By 1977 though, the political urges of two generations of students and workers started colliding with the nihilism and situationism of punk – somehow anticipating The Clash’s political turn of 1979 and Strummer’s Red Brigades tee, a reference to the Italian communist terrorist group. More than in other Italian cities, this sparked in Bologna, where during the days of the convention, on an outdoor stage, it is possible to spot a band sporting oversized sunglasses, leather jackets and noir cinema-inspired leather gloves in a provincial attempt to look punk. They’re shouting – more than singing – a number called Mamma Dammi la Benza, an accelerated and tongue-in-cheek allusion to Benzedrine consumption. The song ends with the band’s two vocalists screaming “Andy Warhol!” Is this Art Punk à-la Bolognaise, David Bowie embracing situationism, or what? The band is called Centro d’Urlo Metropolitano (Metropolitan Scream Centre) and their three-minute punk exploit is featured on a homemade tape circulating among the protestors.

Flash forward two years. By 1979 punk has increased in popularity and it is on the verge of turning into a cult youth phenomenon. Bolognaise label-cum-collective Harpo’s Bazaar decides to release, for the second time, the song that a few years earlier had set the convention’s crowd on fire. This time, though, the band goes by the name of Gaznevada and they are also featured on the bill of the now legendary Bologna Rock, a festival organised by some of Harpo’s Bazaar associates in April 1979. Among them features Oderso Rubini, soon to become the mastermind behind Italian Records, the label that spurred Bologna counterculture.

“Back then, Bologna was an environment rich in stimuli,” explains Rubini. “Consider that in 1971 DAMS, the first Italian university offering degrees in music and entertainment studies, was started in the city, therefore contributing to bringing students to Bologna from all across the country. Then, also keep in mind that the political situation was militant and stimulating. Me and other likeminded people didn’t want to get stuck in a conventional full-time job and, consequently, we had to come up with our own ways of making it. In the city, there was great interaction and chances for debate on everything: those making music like us would bond and document ourselves with cartoonists, writers, photographers, and videomakers. This togetherness of people and ideas generated something.”

This something was a scene flickering to life, contained within the city walls and turning it into a provincial metropolis. While Milan and Rome rivalled for the crown of Italian music capital, little did they know that Bologna was the place to be. Responsible for this florid underground scene, alongside the local university courses, was the pivotal role played by record store Disco d’Oro, who would send their staff to London and New York to handpick the latest releases.

“It all changed with the Bologna Rock festival organised by Harpo’s Bazaar in 79,” explains Rubini, “There was a lot of artistic turmoil and we were struggling to bring a solid scene together. We were putting on gigs in cinemas and parish halls, so I said to myself, “If we have to hustle this much, let’s do something proper.” Since all the big foreign groups played the [basketball arena] Bologna Palasport, we proposed to set up a gig there. At first, this thing left everybody quite puzzled, but we insisted and managed to secure the venue for a gig with fifteen mostly unknown bands on the bill.” 

Bologna Rock, an event started with an expected audience of 2,000, gathered 6,000 curious young music fans and generated a number of tales and urban legends worthy of a focus of their own. What mostly stands out, especially when compared to the current state of the music industry, is that, as Oderso puts it, “The underground press was fundamental in giving a big push to the event. The festival meant the audience was hungry for stimuli.”

“…Andy Warhol and his Factory were meaningful to us, and noir literature too, from Raymond Chandler to Dashiell Hammett…”

Gaznevada Live in Bologna / image courtesy of Orderso Rubini Archives

In 1980, these stimuli were picked up by the producer, who decided to further his experience with Harpo’s Bazaar by founding Italian Records. As strongly stated by its name, the label was projected from the very start to become the ambassador of the new Italian underground sound outside of the city and the country’s borders.

 “It was all very spontaneous. Our references were foreign, so the name Italian Records was given purposely to target the foreign market, because the home one was small. To start getting noticed, we began by pressing bands of the foreign New and No Wave scenes for the Italian market: DNA, Clock DVA, Tuxedo Moon, Throbbing Gristle. We got our insights into what was happening abroad thanks to the work done by some DAMS lecturers like artist Francesca Alinovi, who brought to Italy foreign underground experiences like No Wave, graffiti art, the work of Basquiat and Keith Haring, and, vice versa, contributed to bring to New York or London what we were doing.”

Among the first acts to be released by Italian Records were Gaznevada. “When I first heard Mamma Dammi la Benza, we had just set up our first recording studio with Harpo’s Bazaar and I thought that something like that had to be put out,” recalls Rubini, ”Although the song had Italian lyrics, it came with that typical wit punk had in those early years. I was intrigued by what those guys were doing, so we recorded a cassette simply entitled Gaznevada. On that, I started applying some techniques that I had learnt during the electronic music course at the Bologna music school, like the use of synth to filter the guitar sound on Nevada Gaz. As soon as Italian Records started having a national distribution, I thought that the time had come to release a proper LP. That’s when we recorded Sick Soundtrack.”

Sick Soundtrack is one of the first and finest examples of European No Wave, a record whose influences are rooted in arts, cinema and literature rather than in specific bands or genres.

“Gaznevada were totally autonomous in their artistic choices…”

Sci-fi, whether in the form of literature, comics or cartoons, was “the band’s most important common ground,” as pointed out by Marco Bongiovanni, who joined the group as a bass guitar player just before the album’s sessions. “We were influenced by William Burroughs, Brian DePalma and Stanley Kubrick’s films, and by Japanese anime too,” recalls singer Giorgio Lavagna.

“Also, Andy Warhol and his Factory were meaningful to us, and noir literature too, from Raymond Chandler to Dashiell Hammett,” adds guitarist Ciro Pagano, “It’s no coincidence that the name of the band comes from Chandler’s story Nevada Gas.”

This plethora of references is mirrored by songs like the sci-fi-infused Pordenone Ufo Attack and Japanese Girl, a sensual and enigmatic track whose strident saxophone and slap bass lines capture a band that had transitioned, musically and aesthetically, from punk to New York no wave. A transition that, according to the band members, happened smoothly and organically. “We followed the musical trends of the times, trying to add our peculiar style on top, which is what always happens in any art form,” adds Bongiovanni.

The album proved to be the snapshot of a one-of-a-kind band at the height of its youthful spontaneity. “Gaznevada were totally autonomous in their artistic choices,” explains Pagano, “Nobody could hardly condition us. With Sick Soundtrack we had the opportunity to elaborate our ideas by using a professional studio with as much freedom as we wanted.”

“We used electronic drums, which back then were sacrilege for a rock band,” jokes Rubini, “and we opted for a range of production techniques. For instance, on Japanese Girl, I used an acoustic piano in the style of John Cage, which was fascinating; while we decided to keep a wild version of Now I Want to Kill You to mirror the way it would hit you straight in the face when performed live. The fantastic thing about them is that they were five guys with five different personalities, but when they found their synthesis it worked splendidly.”

“We used electronic drums, which back then were sacrilege for a rock band…”

Self-labelled as “quite narcissistic” and looking like some retro-futuristic Borroughs disciples in trench coats and leather, Gaznevada and their debut album, forty years from its release, stills stand out for their authenticity, possibly also thanks to their lack of precise musical references and ability to capture the zeitgeist of the time. “I wasn’t following any Italian bands at the time, I simply set up the band I always wanted to listen and see,” states Lavagna, “When, by the late 1970s, British and American bands started touring Italy, the record market was already colonised by singer-songwriters. Therefore, I would argue that ‘Italian rock’ never existed, for this reason, I never felt like labelling Gaznevada as an ‘Italian rock band’. We were Italians and tried to play rock, but that’s different. It’s true that some New York acts captured our attention at the time and influenced us, but I think that it would have been better if we had played abroad rather than they in Bologna.”

All these elements contributed to making Gaznevada an exception to a scene that, as Oderso puts it, was “a unicum in the country.”  Those were times when teenagers would embrace an alternative music scene with the militance of a way of life. This attitude resulted in a city that turned into an open-air collective, where DNA’s Arto Lindsey would be spotted hanging around Italian Records headquarters, where he produced Hi Fi Bros, or Tuxedo Moon’s Peter Principle would be seen working alongside Central Unit on their eponymous debut album. Not to forget comic artists like Andrea Pazienza, independent publications Lux Electric and Musica 80, to whom philosopher Bifo contributed among others, Lydia Lunch-inspired director Renato De Maria, journalist Red Ronnie, and Italian Record associates Confusional Quartet who experimented with free jazz and no wave.

“We mostly looked up to New York, but the most frequent interactions actually happened with London. Especially, we started dealing with Rough Trade and, at some point, we went very close to signing a deal with WEA for the foreign distribution of [Italian Records band] N.O.I.A.’s single Try and See. In the end, it didn’t happen, but it was good to see our work captured some interested abroad,” reflects Rubini.

“I wasn’t following any Italian bands at the time, I simply set up the band I always wanted to listen and see…”

Gazenevada live / image courtesy of Oderso Rubini archives

The pan-European total art and co-operative approach that characterised Bologna created an idealistic and virtual red lining with what, over the same years, was happening in Bristol with The Slits and the Pop Group and in Manchester via Tony Wilson’s Factory Records. This attitude was also mirrored by the way Gaznevada and other artists interacted with each other and approached the making of their videos and artworks.

“As all of us were polyhedric artists, it often happened that we came up with ideas regarding our videos or graphics,” explains Bongiovanni. For example, the band’s first bass player Gianpietro Huber, aka Johnny Tramonta, directed the video for one of the band’s early singles Teleporno T.V. In other cases, as the band members recall, it was mostly a matter of “furious arguments, ideas, and more furious arguments.”

Not only Gaznevada but the whole of Italian Records’ output offered some progressive examples of photocopy art. Mostly realised by DAMS graduate and the label’s in-house graphic designer Anna Persiani, the artworks were done by using DIY gimmicks and the use of Letraset’s. “We had bought an IBM photocopy machine, which back then was like a miracle to us. We made abundant use of photocopies, cut-outs and all those techniques. Maybe not everything we did was perfect, but what truly mattered to us was trying to communicate something and be different from the rest of what the Italian music industry offered,” explains Rubini.

One of the best examples of Italian Records’ graphic output is the artwork for Gaznevada’s 1982 single I.C. Love Affair, whose sleeve stems from the band’s fascination with Asian culture. The single’s theme, which was backed by the presence of Italo-Chinese vocalist and Patrizia Pu during live performances, represented the band’s first proper commercial breakthrough and their venture into the territories of dance and electronica. Posthumously labelled as an early example of Italo Disco by many, the track nods towards the band’s Kraftwerk and proto-house influences previously explored via Sick Soundtrack track Nightmare Telegraph.

“We had bought an IBM photocopy machine, which back then was like a miracle to us. We made abundant use of photocopies, cut-outs and all those techniques.”

As Ciro Pagano explains “With I.C. Love Affair and the following single Special Agent Man, we ventured into electronic music. However, that sound differs from that of the so-called Italo Disco genre as our inspirations came from outside the Italian borders. The song was born out of a guitar and bass groove that was then replaced in the studio with a bass and piano line, that found its final form in the splendid (Italian version) mix produced by DJ Claudio Ridolfi.”

As the 80s progressed, punk started to lose its appeal and both the band and the whole scene morphed into dance and new wave. By 1981, frontman Andy Nevada had left and, within a handful of years, Oderso Rubini did too, moving to Milan to carry on his work as a producer. 

Gaznevada / photography by Red Ronnie

Bologna was a city still scarred by the devastating train station bombing attack in August 1980 as heroin started to quickly spread among the youth – eroding a generation of artists. Rubini explains that “the no wave sounds partly resulted as a nearly physical reaction to the effect of heroin,” yet the death toll in Bologna was devestating.

“The only thing I remember about heroin was the sadness of seeing many brilliant and sensitive artists and friends of mine destroying themselves, sometimes even dying,” reflects Bongiovanni. 

Meanwhile, as the nihilism of punk vanished, Italy’s east coast riviera, just off Bologna, became a nascent hotbed of hedonism, Italo Disco and, later, Italo House whose key producers, like Celso Valli, had their roots in the same electronic music course attended in Bologna by Rubini.

Four decades on, and the new 40th-anniversary repressing of Gaznevada’s Sick Soundtrack sees the record back where it should be: fizzing out of speakers to influence the next generation of soul-seeking youth.

Gazenevada’s Sick Soundtrack 40th anniversary reissue is out now via Disordine.

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