This week sees the 69th Sanremo Festival, with the winning act given first refusal to represent Italy at the Eurovision Song Contest. But Sanremo is far more than just a way for RAI to pick a name for Tel Aviv. It has a rich musical tapestry with arguably more cultural impact than any other National Final on its country.
So, ahead of the names for 2019, We’ve asked a number of Sanremo followers to talk about the songs from the history of the Contest that have had a memorable impact.
Roy Delaney (Eurovision Apocalypse)
‘Bastardo‘, by Anna Tatangelo (2011)
The 2011 running of Sanremo was the first that I got to watch right through, and to that end it harbours many favourites. Indeed, Roberto Vecchioni’s winning song ‘ Chiamami Ancora Amore‘, is textbook Sanremo – an old stager grumbling emotionally about faith and hope and a better way forward, in that uniquely Italian manner. If I could have chosen three songs then it would definitely have been on this list.
But the song that year that got me hooked on this contest was ‘Bastardo’. Crashingly unpopular amongst the voting great and good that year, Tatangelo’s dark, almost angry delivery looked like it spoke from deep personal experience and got its hooks right into me, showing too that a contemporary hate/love song can benefit from an orchestra to give it pure gut-wrenching power. This song still gives me the shivers to this day each time I hear it.
‘Mi Va Di Cantare‘, by Lara Saint Paul (1968)
Sanremo in the sixties was home to a whole load of cracking beat pop songs that skirted the line between cool and cabaret, and the pure mistress of the field was Lara Saint Paul. Born in what was then still Eritrean Ethiopia, she’d been around the contest since her 1962 debut under the name of Tanya. But for me she hit her peak here in 1968.
‘Mi Va Di Cantare’ starts with an absolute killer a cappella intro, but the second the beat kicks in a nation of hips were swinging involuntarily, her charm and awkward grace winning you over in seconds. If you’ve been unlucky enough never to have witnessed Ms Saint Paul before, be warned – just thirty seconds in and you’ll be head over heels in love.
Alessandro Banti (OGAE Italy)
‘Almeno Tu Nell’universo‘, by Mia Martini (1989)
1989 saw the return of one of Italy’s greatest singers return to Sanremo. Mia Martini had already sung on the great stage in 1982 (and represented Italy at the Eurovision Song Contest in 1977), but decided to retire in 1983.
The return in 1989 led to a resurgence in her creative output, starting out with ‘Almeno Tu Nell’universo‘, an instant classic which is now regarded as one of the key tracks in Italian music from the eighties and was voted ‘The Greatest Sanremo Track Of All Time‘ at the turn of the century. She would return to Sanremo in 1992, claiming victory and the right to fly the Italian flag at Eurovision once more, but in musical terms it’s all about ’89.
‘Come Foglie‘, by Malika Ayane (2009)
With three appearances at Sanremo Campioni (the ‘Big Artists’ section), Malika Ayane has picked up two Critics Choice awards, her class and musical style are highly recognisable and distinctive.
She debuted in the Nuove Proposte (Newcomers) section in 2009 with ‘Come Foglie‘, drawing instant vocal comparisons to Ornella Vanoni. This song was originally written by Giuliano Sangiorgi (from the Italian band Negramaro) and has performed it numerous times with the legendary seven-times Sanremo entrant Gino Paoli.
‘Lontano Dagli Occhi’, by Mary Hopkin (1969)
I was sweet sixteen (aww…) when I bought ‘Temma Harbour’ by Mary Hopkin one cold January morning in 1970. To my surprise the B-side ( ‘What’s a B-side?’ , the youngsters are asking.) was an Italian song . ‘Hang on’, I thought, ‘I’ve heard that somewhere’. Finally, I remembered I’d heard ‘Lontano dagli occhi’ sung by Sergio Endrigo in Italy the previous summer.
It was in the days when a ‘song contest’ was a ‘song’ contest. He’d performed it at the Sanremo 1969 edition, and unknown to me , Mary Hopkin had also performed it there. In those days each entry was performed twice , by two different artists, one of whom was often an international guest. It finished second to Iva Zanicchi’s ‘Zingara’ with Bobby Solo.
The prolific lyricist Sergio Bardotti went on to collaborate with Lucio Dalla (of which more in a minute), who composed ‘Occhi di Ragazza’. It was intended to be performed by Ron and Sandie Shaw at the 1970 Sanremo edition, but it was eliminated by the selection committee at the preliminary stages . A couple of months later Gianni Morandi was offered the opportunity to represent Italy in the Eurovision Song Contest with it.
Cristina Giuntini (OGAE Italy)
‘Un Discorso In Generale‘, by Noa, Carlo Fava & Solis String Quartet (2006)
Three years before representing Israel at the Eurovision Song Contest together with Mira Awad in 2009 (‘There Must Be Another Way‘), Noa took part in the Sanremo Festival together with jazz artist Carlo Fava and the ensemble of the Solis String Quartet. Sadly, the song did not qualify for the Grand Final on the Saturday night, but it remains a hidden gem. A sweet and sad ballad perfect for Noa’s silver voice opposed to Carlo’s soft one, and is represent something you do not often hear in Sanremo!
‘Per Sempre E Poi Basta‘, by Renzo Rubino (2014)
In the 2014 Sanremo Festival, on the first night, each artist presented two songs, of which just one was chosen by the juries to proceed in the competition.
Everybody was shocked when Renzo Rubino’s ‘Ora‘, a sweet uptempo song but nothing more than that, was preferred to this masterpiece strongly influenced by Umberto Bindi’s music. The song was greeted by a standing ovation: no other performance received such a warm welcome. Eventually ‘Ora‘ came third, but this song could easily have won the whole thing.
‘24.000 Baci’ by Adriano Celentano (1961)
I’m a relative newcomer to the wonders of Sanremo, and have yet to catch up on most of the pre-2011 contests. However, looking through some of the highlights, I found an evergreen by an absolute icon. During the 1961 Festival, versions of each song were performed by two different artists, with ‘24.000 Baci‘ (24,000 kisses) sung by both Adriano Celentano and Sammarinese singer Little Tony. While the bones of the song were the same for both artists, Celentano, then a relatively new artist on the Italian scene, sold his version with incredible flair and panache in his Sanremo debut. ‘24.000 Baci‘ was arguably one of Sanremo’s first forays into rock and roll, and it helped launch a legendary career that would influence singers the world over, even spilling over into obscure Moldovan National Final submissions in the twenty-first century.
The song came in second place that year, which begs the question: what would have happened if this had gone to Eurovision in place of Betty Curtis’s ‘Al di là‘? In the days before France Gall, would Adriano Celentano have been seen as too wild, too off-the-wall, and ultimately too ahead of its time? Or would it have modernised a Eurovision that, at the time, was still rather full of chansons and balladry?
Luana Caraffa (Belladonna)
‘Vita Spericolata‘, by Vasco Rossi (1983)
It was impossible to ignore the appearance of Vasco Rossi at the Sanremo 1983 with the song ‘Vita Spericolata‘ …at least for me it is was impossible.
In the midst of so many ordinary singers with perfect, virtuoso voices and of songs of sheer ordinary melodramatic monotony, he suddenly appeared as if he had been just dragged on stage from the hazy smoke of a drunken night spent in a bar – maybe the bar mentioned in his song, the Roxy Bar.
The Roxy Bar immediately became a place where one would want to go and take refuge and witness the fleetingness of life in the eyes of every customer, a place of passage and of nostalgia for what had never been, a place where things could still actually happen for those who felt imprisoned in an ordinary life and dreamed about living a reckless one. Yes, I think it was as if Vasco that night was a link between the past and the future, between nostalgia and hope: he totally enthralled me.
And the way he sung his song, as if was truly talking to you and saying something real. I mean, you could feel that every word was really heartfelt and not just sung in order to show you how a great singer he was… and in fact he came second-to-last at the Festival because authenticity is always too much for those who have been exposed only to appearances.
I dreamed of becoming like him one day, of having a real voice and not a fake, glossy one… he has been a great inspiration to me!!
Dani Macchi (Belladonna)
‘Luce (Tramonti a Nord-Est)‘, by Elisa (2001)
I have never really had much of an emotional connection with the Sanremo Festival, I’ve always mostly ignored it, but of course I am aware that a few true pearls have emerged.
One of those is ‘Luce’, the song with which singer-songwriter Elisa won the Festival in 2001. The song managed to have a great, strong Italian melody – the fabulously uplifting chorus never fails to send shivers down my spine every time I hear it – and profound, poetic lyrics (penned by Italian singer-songwriter Zucchero) without sounding as cheesy and trite as inevitably almost all Sanremo songs do. Its minimal yet powerful arrangement gave the song a contemporary edge, another true rarity for Sanremo and in general for Italian music.
Every time someone remarks to me that Sanremo songs are always cringeworthy I play them this song, and even though it is a rare and very wonderful exception, it is also yet another proof that daring to be yourself without obliging to whatever is expected of you is always the key to creating great, memorable work.
‘Arrivera’ by Modà ft. Emma Marrone (2011)
With Italy’s return to the Eurovision Song Contest there was more international focus on the 2011 Festival from the Song Contest community, which included myself. And while the Contest followers were watching the Giovanni Contest to see who was heading to Dusseldorf (the jazz pianist Raphael Guallazi, who nearly sneaked the Eurovision win), I was drawn into the whole experience.
And driving that was what has become one of my acknowledged weaknesses – the Italian Power Duet – specifically Moda and Emma Marrone’s ‘Arrivera‘. Frankly it’s one of the best examples of the genre; you’ve got an over-arching story thread in the presentation, you have singers who tell the story through action and intonation, you have multiple layers, contrasts, rising tension, it’s every single box that I love.
Moda’s lead singer Kekko Silvestre fights for the stage as much as Emma Marrone reflecting the balance of emotions during the song, and the band has everything turned up to eleven. Emma would go on to win Sanremo in 2012 with ‘Non è l’inferno‘ (much like Roy above, if I was nominating three, this would be the third pic), and turn up at Eurovision with the weaker ‘La Mia Citta‘, but this is the one that sealed Sanremo in my heart.
‘4 Marzo 1943‘, by Lucio Dalla (1971)
Let’s just be clear for a moment. Lucio Dalla is an absolute bona-fide legend. He’s worked within multiple genres, his career spanned over fifty years, the number of collaborators is immense, there are 54 album releases with his name, he was jamming jazz clarinet with Chet Baker as a teenager…
His first Sanremo appearance was in 1966 with ‘Pafff… Bum!‘ where he was joined by Jimmy Page and Jeff Beck. He’d return the following year, and make numerous more appearances at the Festival.
But it’s the 1971 entry ‘4/3/43‘ (the title is never quite consistent throughout the decades) that lifted Dalla to a higher plane of arts. A song that pushed the red lines of censorship, requiring a change in the title (…to Dalla’s birthday, even though it is not autobiographical) and alterations to the lyrics before the Sanremo committee would let it into the Festival. It tells the story of a young mother, who had a son with an unknown allied soldier during the Second World War and deals with issues of the loss of a child and of a parent. It may only have finished third, but it achieved critical and commercial success around the world.
A few years after his death in 2012 his former backing band, Stadio, decided to enter Sanremo with ‘Un Giorno Mi Dira‘ which went on to win Sanremo 2016. Stadio also picked up another prize in the Ariston Theatre that year. To a standing ovation they won ‘Covers Night’ with ‘La Sera Dei Miracoli‘ …from Lucio Dalla’s 1980 album ‘Dalla‘.
If Sanremo represents the best of Italy, I would argue Lucio Dalla represents the best of Sanremo. And if you take a look outside of the Ariston Theatre this week, you’ll find a small bench with a life-sized bronze sculpture of the man himself, with round glasses, a comfy knitted cap, and the love of everyone who walks by him.