Momus has discussed the late-70s/early-80s life and times of Alberto Camerini in a recent post. It was in the context of a recent BBC4 documentary Synth Britannia, and he helpfully links to the first ten minutes of the documentary for those of us who—sometimes to our pride, sometimes (like this one) to our shame—don’t have a TV. I particularly like the bit at around 1:55 where it talks about living in the future, in the 1970s, then starts to pan up a tower block. For the first few floors it could easily be mistaken for a Japanese pagoda. That trompe l’oeil aside, it’s worth watching the whole thing.
Camerini himself, I’m not so sure about. I find the clips Momus posted awkward to watch, not least because the turn of that decade is currently passing through a phase of being excruciatingly embarrassing in retrospect. I cringe painfully at the most innocuous of foolishnesses anyway, and have yet to make it through the whole of The Office for that reason. Along with the sheer ridiculousness of people pretending they’re in the future (after all, aren’t we the ones who are actually in the future, with our music collections in our pockets as we ride our gyroscopic scooters?) there’s another cultural distancing at work, self-inflicted by Camerini but also a product of the plain fact of my separation from his own culture.
Camerini, for all his skill, is trying to be Bowie. I mean, obviously, but he seems to capture only the form, and then only with accessories that are to Bowie’s what wobbly Dr Who sets are to that of 2001: A Space Odyssey. As soon as he starts down that path he seems hamstrung by Bowie, which feels as painful as it sounds. Look at him in front of the crowd of teenage turnips on Italy’s Top of the Pops, singing Non devi piangere. His icy Aladdin-Sane cool is utterly exposed to ridicule and jeering behind him. Would the real David Bowie please stand up; in front of that crowd? Not likely. Bowie pretending to be Warhol opened up a creative goldmine, a process of vampirism that Momus has also covered; Camerini pretending to Bowie opened up a creative minefield, and he only occasionally escapes unscathed.
But more than that, and the reason why I can’t judge him as scathingly as I’d like to—think The Fast Show’s satire of mediterranean television channels—is that I simply don’t understand some of the culture he’s immersed in, both formatively and concurrent with his own singing. His difference from Bowie stems from (at least) three sources: that he isn’t Bowie, but Camerini; that Italian popstars don’t seem to be able to afford Bowie’s budgets; and that Camerini’s own influences are already remoulding the Anglosaxophone ideas of synth pop, bringing in Romantic and Latin-American influence. While missing some obvious points they’re busy making ones of their own.
I’m reminded of a recent video posted on b3ta of Bollywood doing The Beatles. It’s not The Beatles, and it clearly doesn’t understand them in much depth—four mop-top men holding acoustic guitars, with a fifth moptop singing toothily into a microphone while dancing in crowds like, well, like the overexposed Camerini?—but it makes a deeper point. It soaks up The Beatles into Indian culture, understanding on the way only the bits that culture permits. So with Camerini, playing a part in what one might want to call Brazillywood, or Napoliwood. Camerini isn’t exactly Bowie, but then who is?