The Italian Job

Local imprint offers prog-rock masterworks from Italia's other Renaissance

As four generations of Italian-Americans poured out onto the streets of North Beach on July 9, waving blue jerseys in response to a victorious World Cup performance, somewhere near Lake Merritt in Oakland, an Italian immigrant was hatching a grand scheme to further his country's crowning glory.

Well, not exactly. Filippo Salvadori, president of Runt Distributions, was seated within his company's headquarters — a spacious, exposed-brick warehouse space. A dapper, bespectacled man with a neatly trimmed beard, Salvadori was not at work that fateful Sunday but planted devoutly in front of his set, though he sheepishly admits, "I couldn't watch the penalty kicks; it was too much." But while celebrating Italia's international triumph, he was also plotting his company's next step for success on a global scale.

For nearly 10 years, Salvadori has helmed the tiny record distribution company called Runt. Named not for its size and staff of seven, but after his favorite artist, Todd Rundgren, the Runt umbrella has been issuing new music by the likes of Bay Area punk legend Penelope Houston and groovy cosmonauts Mushroom (drummer Pat Thomas is also a Runt employee) while also unearthing lost treasures from that fertile crescent of music, the '60s and '70s. Under numerous label names such as Water, 4 Men With Beards, Plain, Black Beauty, Weed, and DBK Works, the company's catalog reads like a dream. It has remastered vinyl reissues of Aretha Franklin, The Flaming Lips, Otis Redding, and My Bloody Valentine. Underappreciated cult figures like Cluster, Pearls Before Swine, Terry Reid, Eugene McDaniels, and Judee Sill have received much-needed exposure to a new generation of music zealots through Runt. No genre gets overlooked in the staff's dedicated crate digging: from haunting female folk to laidback soul-jazz; gritty Miami soul to sleek Chicago R&B; facial-hair-friendly-rock to Black Panther anthems. 4 Men With Beards recently reissued a vinyl-only imprint that replicated the original film canister packaging for Public Image Limited's post-punk watermark Metal Box; soon to follow are vinyl editions of the first three Wire records.

Filippo Salvadori mines treasures from afar.
Filippo Salvadori mines treasures from afar.

For Salvadori's newest endeavor, though, he's looking back to his homeland, reissuing a clutch of albums from the golden age of Italian progressive rock on the Water imprint. Covering everyone from the country's grandest superstar (Lucio Battisti) and famed director Michelangelo Antonioni's soundtrack composer (Giovanni Fusco) to Gruppo Improvvisazione Nuova Consonanza (Ennio Morricone's improvisational ensemble) and a beloved experimental sonic alchemist turned superstar (Franco Battiato), a wide variety of Italian sounds will be on full display in the near future. Battiato's debut Fetus and Lucio Battisti's third album Amore E Non Amore are out now, with their respective follow-ups (Pollution and Umanamente Uomo: Il Sogno) due for release this week, and future pop star Alan Sorrenti's 1972 debut Aria, his initial foray into ambitious, opulent prog suites, is slated to hit stores August 22nd.

In Salvadori's estimation, this entire project hinges on introducing Lucio Battisti's influential music outside of his native country. "In Italy, he's the biggest name in music ever," Salvadori says. "He sold millions and millions of copies. You grew up in the '70s and everyone — from my mom to the kids that start on guitar now — they play him. When I told my parents I was doing some Battisti records, they thought it was a joke because he's such a big name. Well, no one knows him outside of Italy." Battisti is revealed to be a formidable talent on these reissues, confirming Salvadori's estimation that the songwriter is Italy's own John Lennon. Whether he is strumming catchy pop or blasting hard rock, Battisti always communicates, in the words of Blonde Redhead's Amadeo Pace (who wrote the liner notes for Amore E Non Amore), "honest substance."

It was Battisti's music that turned Salvadori onto the Italian concept initially, as despite his upbringing, he wasn't predisposed to his country's rock music. Born in Arezzo, Italy, outside of Florence ("it's the town you see in Life Is Beautiful" he explains), Salvadori's father indoctrinated his young son to American music with records by Frank Sinatra, George Gershwin, and Cole Porter. He couldn't understand the language, but developing within the little bambino was an appreciation for melody, no matter its place of origin. Even though he later earned a degree in economics, the thought of working at a bank disgusted Salvadori, so he instead clerked at a local record store after college.

Digging the strains of American indie-rock on labels like Matador, Sub Pop, and Drag City, in the early '90s Salvadori decided to start his own label, licensing recordings from the States and contacting artists who intrigued him. He put out a 7-inch from New York City's spastic God Is My Co-Pilot, who in turn helped him to a single by an unknown artist named Cat Power. Falling in love with the stark music of Chan Marshall, Salvadori's upstart imprint released her debut album, Dear Sir, in 1995. Within a year, he relocated to the United States to continue his musical mission. Once in the Bay Area, the task of unearthing new artists proved a daunting one in the golden age of American indie rock. Being the new kid on the block, unable to keep up with Matador, Drag City, and the like, Salvadori recast Runt as a distribution center for Italian reissue labels such as Get Back! and began to nurture a relationship with U.S. entertainment behemoths like WEA, EMI/ Capitol, and Sony/BMG. The horror stories of the little guy dealing with such corporate conglomerates are countless, yet Salvadori has nurtured a beneficial relationship with WEA, digging up forgotten nuggets that Salvadori and his employees had cherished in their personal record collections.

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