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.

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.

Long the source of ridicule, progressive rock has come back into vogue as of late, from the Gordian knots made by bands like System of a Down and Tool to hipster-cognoscenti compilations like Andy Votel's Prog Is Not a Four Letter Word. It's a reckoning that even Salvadori had to come to terms with. “I didn't grow up on Italian rock music. I was into Beatles, Todd Rundgren, Syd Barrett, Nick Drake. Then eventually, you know, those songs [of Battisti] anyhow because they are everywhere, on the radio, TV, every guy with a guitar is playing these songs.” After reading a reconsideration of Battisti in an issue of Blow-Up magazine (Italy's version of Mojo), Salvadori began to delve deeper into the music of the early '70s and appreciate its distinct pleasures, from Battisti's pop to the thornier experiments being recorded elsewhere in the country.

Take, for example, singer Alan Sorrenti. With raven tresses, a lush beard, and dark, haunting eyes, Sorrenti's figure on the cover of Aria chills like another cover it evokes, the first Black Sabbath record. It's heavy as well, but not in the same way as Ozzy and company. Instead, the 19-minute vertiginous suite of an opening track showcases Sorrenti's powerful vocal range, recalling Peter Hammill in Britain's well-regarded prog outfit Van Der Graaf Generator, Cedric Bixler-Zavala from the Mars Volta, or outre Tim Buckley, while still sounding idiosyncratic. “Eventually,” Salvadori states flatly, “Sorrenti went top of the charts with some really cheesy pop songs.”

After a slew of mid-'60s singles, at the start of the 1970s vanguard musician Franco Battiato cut two enthralling and audacious concept albums entitled Fetus and Pollution. In the liner notes for the reissue of the former, renowned tastemaker, producer, and ex-Sonic Youth member Jim O'Rourke gushes about “a golden age in Italian progressive and experimental music” and Battiato's place at the forefront. “I could hear in the music of the later '90s that there had been groups … who sat in reverence,” writes O'Rourke. Listening to the fearless amalgam of sounds (heartbeats, choirs, acoustic guitars, space landings, primitive synths, orchestras, and hypnotic rock) that Battiato welds expertly, one can hear his influence future fans like Stereolab, Tortoise, Julian Cope, Mouse on Mars, and O'Rourke himself. Last year, What's Your Function?, a tribute album to Battiato, came out, with bands like Kinski, Oneida, Circle, Hrvatski, and Acid Mothers Temple repaying their debts to his oeuvre. In many ways, Battiato's career follows contours similar to that of Brian Eno: After a few weird rock records, he ventured deeper into the wordlessness of the avant-garde, releasing a slew of albums in the mid-'70s that O'Rourke correctly deems “the definitive sound of Italian experimental melancholy.” Weirder still is that in 1978, Battiato reinvented himself again as a new wave star and rocketed to fame that he still enjoys to this day.

These particular reissues of Italian music may not rejuvenate Italy's place in the entertainment world (or have the same impact as, say, a certain notorious head butt), but they hold a certain nationalist pride for Salvadori. “Ten years ago, if you went into record stores, there was not too much French or Brazilian music,” he says. “If you go to stores now, you can find everything. The same with German music and krautrock. Now there's a huge French section, a huge Brazilian section. There's good stuff from Italy that should be up there with Caetano Veloso, Serge Gainsbourg. It'd be nice to think that there's some Italian music people will now get to know.”

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