January 9, 2012

Volare (Nel Blu Dipinto di Blu) (Domenico Modugno, Eurovision, 1958).
Volare (Dean Martin, 1958).
Volare (Bowie, 1985).

The world of Absolute Beginners is also the high tide of Italy’s cultural influence on British youth. The cliche of dolce far niente Italian life had allured Britons since the Renaissance, and now it helped that the Italians had been the inept junior partners of the Axis, so there were no hard feelings about air raids, for instance.

What Italian culture offered the postwar British was a readymade sense of style—hence the late Fifties vogue for coffee bars, Vespa and Lambretta scooters, tailor-made suits, Fellini films. Adopting Italian styles led directly to the Mods, as it offered the most appealing distance from the throwback “American” stylings of the great Mod rivals, the rockers.

Contemporary Italian pop music was part of the package. Domenico Modugno’s “Volare” (its official title was “Nel Blu Dipinto di Blu”), Italy’s entrant to the 1958 Eurovision competition, placed third at Eurovision but as compensation it became a worldwide hit, even reaching #1 in the US in the summer of 1958, with various covers, most notably Dean Martin’s, charting near-simultaneously.

Bowie’s cover (in Absolute Beginners, it’s heard only on the radio while his character, the ad man Vendice Partners, is driving around the lead, Colin) is impeccably sung, with Bowie handling the Italian lyric so well that perhaps he should’ve made an Italian version of “Heroes” rather than a French one. Bowie, like most interpreters, excised Modugno’s original weird opening, where he recalled a dream in which he painted his flesh blue and then soared off into the sky. The production is clean and sparkling, the bongo/marimba rhythms add a Brazilian flavor, the period guitar solo is executed perfectly. It’s prop-music.

Recorded June 1985 at Abbey Road Studios, London. Included only on the double-LP version and the CD issue of the Absolute Beginners soundtrack.

Top: Terry Gilliam, Brazil, 1985.