Not every album reveals itself instantly. It took me a while to recognize how fascinating Tango by Matia Bazar really was. Imagine, for a second, that ABBA didn’t break up after The Visitors. Imagine that they found a way to continue on after that fan demarcation line, and boldly go wherever that new point of inspiration they had, was. In a nutshell, that’s the unlikely story of Genoese band Matia Bazar.
It’s rare to see a band begin their career by making starry-eyed, middle-of-the-road, soft-rock that could light up the Sanremo Music Festival, stuff that could easily fit in Eurovision, come roaring back one decade later into that same place and perform music that better belonged in another dimension. Led by vocalist Antonella Ruggiero, keyboardist Piero Cassano, and guitarist Carlo Marrale, Matia Bazar in the late ’70s ruled Italian radio with songs like “Solo Tu”, “Mister Mandarino”, and “Raggio Di Luna”, sweet, strumming Euro-Pop that was music to the ears of young Italian mammas. If they wanted to, they could have staked their entire career simply by writing more insanely popular, tender earworms like these…
However, much like other great Italian Pop modernists such as Franco Battiato and Krisma, Matia Bazar had felt the same rarefied, Italian artistic air of the late ’70s. Thoroughly embracing a culture Italy was falling in love with – the post-modern – it was those ideas that would push them to do something drastic with their own career. Wholly cognizant of the groundbreaking music being made elsewhere by punk and electronic acts, the group decided to hitch their wagons with the avantgarde and ditch what brought them their fame. Turned on by groups like OMD, Ultravox, and Joy Division, Matia Bazar themselves began the unlikely task of trying to mix those electronic styles with these other distinctly Italian influences like tango, canzone, and opera they were exploring as well. With the aid/introduction of keyboardist Mauro Sabbione, and the departure of Piero Cassano (the most conservative member of the band), they were finally able to create an album that hinted at the electro-tango music they wanted to pioneer.
A total shock to their existing fans, 1982’s … Berlino … Parigi … Londra took direct aim at all these outposts of music they had been moved by. Trading in their disco sheen for a punkettoni image, everything from wardrobe to stylized videos, Matia Bazar, one could argue, were part of their attempt to present themselves as an entirely new band. As this new band, you (as a listener) could appreciate the difference. Reborn with mediterranean, electronic grooves that twisted around post-punk, angular melodies, it was this music that hinted there were far more interesting places this band could go, when given the chance.
Although … Berlino … Parigi … Londra became the massive sales flop that culled their true fans from their wayward ones, whatever fans remained would be rewarded with their next release. On their next album, Tango, was where they would present their clearest, most honest vision of that new sound. Entirely recorded without outside label meddling and, most importantly, in their own recording studio, this was the release that brought them back into the limelight. Curtains raised, this was the vision they introduced and shocked everyone at San Remo with…
With Peter Gabriel in attendance, Antonella Ruggiero sang “Vacanze Romane” (Roman Holiday), treating everyone to her rarely deployed 4-octave range, and the rest of the band performed a tango sent through unheard of electronic slipstreams. It’s a performance that even 13 years later, Peter Gabriel would remember clear as day and gush to Mauro Sabbione about. It’s not often you run into a band imagining Astor Piazzolla’s Libertango as another rung of Pop music to experiment with. Unabashedly Italian, and distinctly Genoese, Tango was their definitive statement staking out Italy’s place in the New Wave. Everything from the African-Electro of “Palestina” to the schizoid vocoder-funk of “Il Video Sono Io” held sonic stuff with roots deep in the wayfaring sound of that port city.
Meeting nostalgia with equal parts surrealism, a sampling of the music from Tango and their run of music videos created for RAI remain a treasure trove of material for those interested in discovering the influential role Italian postmodernism was having in the music of those at its vanguard. Kraftwerk once sang about an endless Europe, Matia Bazar tapped into exactly what it meant to them. Through flickering monochrome screen dreams, somehow, the English-speaking world completely missed out on this rare import. Here’s me hoping we don’t commit the same mistake twice.