Songs No One Cares About Pt. 1: Italian pseudo-psychedelia — Franco IV e Franco I
“No One Cares About” is somewhat tongue-in-cheek, as someone clearly cares about “Ho Scritto T’amo Sulla Sabbia” (“I wrote I love you in the sand”) by Franco and Franco (Franco IV e Franco I). For one thing, it consistently turns up on YouTube; at this moment there is more than one posting of the song, though occasionally one distraught copyright holder or another pulls it off of that copyright-dubious website.
The point being that there are plenty of obscure songs worth looking into and many times they are stymied by: #1, not being US releases, and #2, not being in English. One marker of relative obscurity is whether it is (or has been) posted on YouTube. I, for one, am excited to hold an interesting record, a good song in my hands that no one in close proximity can explain or has even heard of, that can’t be found anywhere on the world wide web.
The fact of the matter is that “Ho Scritto T’amo Sulla Sabbia” is relatively well known, being of that beloved category known as the “one hit wonder”, the song achieving a sixteen-week run as Numero Uno on the Italian charts in 1968, while the tale of Franco and Franco (Francesco Romano and Francesco Calabrese) also bears many of the hallmarks of young talent, the recording industry, dubious management, fleeting fame and eventual burn-out.
But how did I trip across “Ho Scritto T’amo Sulla Sabbia”, a song I previously knew nothing about? On a road trip through the Blue Mountains National Park near Sydney, Australia in 2008, I passed through the quaint if touristy town of Katoomba that had made a thing out of vintage, antique and downright junk shops, which of course included a few used record stores. I was a bit put off by the prices of records and was willing to consider a ragged bunch of 45rpms in a what you would have to call a “junk shop”, a whole mix of disparate and semi-useless items. The box held a stack of Italian picture-sleeved 7”releases, someone’s well-used teenage collection that had been unceremoniously dumped in the shop or on a curb. But they were cheap, and in a hindsight familiar to record shopping, even though I knew nothing about the content, later on I would regret my limited purchase. I ended up only buying “Ho Scritto T’amo Sulla Sabbia”.
I later learned that region of Australia had, at one time, seen an influx of Italian immigrants. That information, as well as a palpable artefact found in a box of banged-up Italian 45rpms adds a kind of priceless value that conversely counts for nothing on the open market. This 45rpm represents the tail end of a lost personal narrative, something we can only partially recover under the auspices of internet research. But given the ongoing debates concerning recording formats and the effectiveness of relative delivery systems, the way I found the record and took a chance on it demonstrates how crate-digging allows for a unique mode of discovery.
Just as “Ho Scritto T’amo Sulla Sabbia” maintains a presence on the English-language YouTube, one can also find a brief English-language entry on Wikipedia. Seeing as Franco and Franco were of the one-hit-wonder variety, in order to delve any further I was obliged to Google-translate articles I found on dedicated Italian websites. Before I go into that, I should explain why I fell for the song. Of course, you can listen (and decide) for yourself:
Much of Italian pop music is, to these ears, under-rated. It maintains a Latin influence that at times can evoke a Brazilian trend like Tropicalia, but the country as a whole doesn’t have that essential musical spice apropos the African diaspora (or the trans-Atlantic slave trade and its cultural aftermath). Italy is a huge country, with solid, regional folk traditions, let alone a long tradition of musical patronage. There might be a tendency for over-the-top vocalizing or the ditty-fied melody in the songs that made it out of Italy (for all-too-obvious examples see “O Sole Mio” or “Funiculì Funiculà”) and emotive vocalizing is heard on “Ho Scritto T’amo Sulla Sabbia” (keeping in mind its broken-hearted theme) but the feel has been updated, fitting into a 1968 groove with fuzz-guitar, an organ drone and a solid drum beat. What’s typical (or groovy even) of 1968 is the psychedelicized harmonic up-swing of the chorus’ vocals. It would be interesting to find out who arranged or produced the session, as this is what probably pushed the song into number one territory, making for an Italian pop zeitgeist.
In an article dated October 2010 in the Milanese newspaper Libero, Francesco Calabrese states apropos the arrangement of “Ho Scritto T’amo Sulla Sabbia” : “This is the period when it was fashionable to take a break at the beginning of the song. I use this pattern and the piece goes from slow to fast. And it works.”
The Libero article is typical in its journalistic approach, a human-interest story about a former pop star who now lives amongst the ordinary people. Calabrese continues: “I prefer to live in the shade, without saying who I am.” He now owns a bar in Milan, fleeing Naples after the dissolution of his musical pursuits. He went solo for a while after his partner called it quits, pulling a fast one by occasionally inserting another Franco IV into the act. The reason Franco IV quit: “He wasn’t used to success. Popularity upset him, it was no longer him. When he went to the cinema, he would enter the hall when the lights were off.” The act was marketed in a direct appeal to the younger generation, “the beat scene”, even when Calabrese’s military service disrupted the flow: “I’m doing my military service, so I have very short hair and the RAI (Italy’s national broadcasting service) send me to Rome, to Cinecittà, to have a made-to-measure wig made. Then we participate in a dance course with Don Lurio to learn some movements and finally they give us some strange clothes, Beatles style. I watched the video recently. We looked like assholes.”
Previous to all this, the boys paid their dues, scraping by, performing in dodgy venues, hitch-hiking from gig to gig. They buckle down and write a song “Children” with lyrics in macaronic English, selling it to the established pop singer Peppino di Capri for 100,000 lire and with this money they hitchhike to Milan in search of a recording contract. They browse through the phone book calling all the major labels with no success, finally getting a half-hearted appointment with a lesser-known label that also makes chips for casinos. After a casual audition, the label becomes enthusiastic and encourages them to enter a contest, “A Record for the Summer” (“Un disco per l’estate”). There they unveil “Ho Scritto T’amo Sulla Sabbia” and though they come in third, the song goes on to become a smash hit. The rest is, as they say, history. And Francisco Calabrese (Franco I) gets the last word, “In those years there were no managers, there was little organization. Had we been managed better, perhaps we would have lasted longer.”