“First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you. Then you win”: this maxim basically also summarizes the narrative skeleton of fairy tales, of those great adventures that make our eyes shine, that make us believe – rightly or not – that everything is possible after all; that Cinderella – speaking of fairy tales – can be chosen by the prince and in the end live happily ever after, or at least – given that always being happy and contented we suspect can also be very boring – serene and settled, as all mothers in the world would like to be. But let's not digress.
If we wanted – and we do want – to appropriate this simple theatrical concept to talk about what has been happening in the world of Italian music in recent weeks, each piece of the puzzle would fall into place, because there is a fairy tale that is materializing before our eyes that some – perhaps even most – could consider normal, though it is anything but. Even the name chosen by the musicians – the Pinguini Tattici Nucleari – could in effect conceal something fairytale-like, perhaps with a touch of sci-fi for a bit of intrigue. In reality, it's a Scottish beer, the ‘Tactical Nuclear Penguin’, produced since 2009 by BrewDog (whose beers, by the way, we highly recommend). Internet searches tell us that the first musical mission of Zanotti and co. was metal demenziale (literally ‘demented metal’); in reality, in our humble opinion, the band’s story started on a London bus several years ago.
One night, a guy from Alzano Lombardo had just finished his shift at Costa Coffee on Tottenham Court Road, in London; he was tired and particularly homesick, perhaps wondering what his friends were doing at that moment, his band – and not only musical – his Pinguini Tattici Nucleari, which he had to put on hold to pursue, like almost everyone of his generation, a big unknown that never seems to want to reveal itself.
Maybe he was thinking back to Italy, to how – no matter how hard we try, how much we try to escape – there’s only ever one real home; in fact, he was definitely thinking of Italy because he was listening to an Italian song called Gaetano on his headphones, by a guy from Latina who writes and sings in a direct and uncoordinated way, hypnotic and intense: his name is Edoardo D' Erme, but his stage name is Calcutta. Such a moment will certainly be common to many working students, even those who do not have a professional interest in music like the star of this piece of history, who instead had to be up early the next day to attend his course in Commercial Music at the University of Westminster.
Tall, blue eyes, curious and kind, Riccardo is one of those people who, when he looks at you, really looks at you. That evening, listening to that song, he realized – before many, before the wider Italian public, before the majors, before Sanremo, before the big networks, before the talent shows – that in Italy, the country he had run from, a real revolution was taking place and that, perhaps, that place, on that bus, was not for him. Riccardo Zanotti thought that something was finally happening, after years of Italian music dominated by kids with no surname regurgitated by the lifeless and anemic talent industry and a music industry incapable of going beyond Sanremo and that continued to curl in on itself, producing the worst Italian pop ever.
Something was happening and he had the strength, ideas and heart to be part of it; and then of course he had them, his Penguins – Nicola, Lorenzo, Simone, Elio and Matteo – the perfect, long-standing friends with whom to face this adventure, give it a go, to fill that gap in the Italian music industry opened up by the various Calcuttas, and the now disbanded Canova and Thegiornalisti, Niccolò Contessa, the guys from Lo Stato Sociale, Gazzelle, labels such as Maciste Dischi, Bomba Dischi, Garrincha Dischi and 42 Records.
A revolution against a system corrupted by the market and which left behind all the values that should accompany the musical offering: against the excessive TV power of the music market, against pop music that has become too ‘light’, practically weightless, that elusive Musica Leggerissima (Very Light Music) that years later Colapesce and Dimartino would sing in the face of the Sanremo mainstream audience – though it would be mistaken for a ‘smash hit’. A public who searched for and found online an idea of singer-songwriting with precise intentions, which, even metaphorically, was imbued with hard-hitting nostalgia, the sort of nostalgia that is ill-suited to the stroboscopic, fast and commercial flow of the TV and radios of the time. A public who wanted to hear something meaningful again, who no longer found anything to laugh about, who rejected the bizarre idea that music should be solely and exclusively entertainment, who demanded things to be told honestly, almost bluntly, in such a complicated period in history; and that is why he decided to crouch in the shadow of the infamous ‘indie’ music.
A wave of indie hits Italian music as if it were something new, something alien, some even consider it a musical genre in itself, without considering the tradition of the Italian underground, distinguished by names such as the Afterhours, Marlene Kuntz, Verdena, Bugo – before Morgan wondered Che succede? (What's Going On?) – and Morgan himself with Bluvertigo, and the Timorias, the Prozac+... Not necessarily – as you will notice – unknown names; all people for whom there has never been a lack, among other things, of work, a stage underfoot, today a camera pointed at them; all people who, in one way or another, have been swallowed up by chart pop – as is inevitable and not that this is a mortal sin – but who have always represented something alternative: commercial pop on one side and us, disgusted, armed with a crucifix and crowns of garlic on the other.
The indie bands of the early 2010s, on the other hand, don't offer something alternative: unnecessarily complex, a niche product, good for making a group of debauched nerds nod their heads, but it's still pop, direct and accessible, which, however, manifests its opposition to the status quo of the times by stripping itself of any careerism in terms of popularity. Don't forget that we are talking about a time in which Instagram was basically only just born and still had only a few million subscribers, so this senseless and frantic pursuit of followers had not yet begun; this new unit of measurement that helps to establish how much and in what way you are part of the things of the world.
It is in this fragment of time in the history of Italian pop that the Pinguini Tattici Nucleari emerge, who fit perfectly into this sincere and even vaguely provincial narrative, which of course is one of the merits of the indie movement. They are a band – and even a large one, the sound is immediately orchestral, in 2014 they debuted with Il re è nudo (The King is Naked), the following year it was Diamo un calcio all'aldilà (Kick the Afterlife) and then – concert after concert, first in Lombardy, then all over Italy, riding a physical ‘virality’, the famous ‘word of mouth’, still today and perhaps forever the most credible and effective medium – they released Gioventù bruciata (Grazed Youth), the first album in which the PTN truly take shape and express their unique character.
Of course, it is also the album that widens the meshes of their success, that reveals the direction, the intent. The tracks – such as Irene or Tetris – start to forcibly include the listeners in the stories, to allow them to mirror themselves in them and therefore, also, to find answers and a relationship that always seems direct. This is also one of the secrets of the Pinguini's success, their being so damned generational, often even crude in expressing malaise, but without ever putting aside their personal, poetic vision of life. Gioventù brucata was the checkpoint in the journey forward, the closing of a contract with a major record company, Sony – it was now 2018 – which, like all majors and, more generally, the whole mainstream mechanism, was trying hard to catch up, while the radios lost their way completely and were outclassed by Spotify, Claudio Baglioni – artistic director of Sanremo – gave Lo Stato Sociale a test ride on the Ariston stage (the following year it would be the turn of Ex-Otago, Motta and Zen Circus) and the talent shows tried to grow their own at home, without any success.
The whole world of music found itself disoriented in the face of the success of this generation of artists who, among other things, had also turned the spotlight back on to live shows in Italy, creating a circuit that recreated a new – but not too small – industry that would prove to be essential for the very survival of Italian music, grappling with the transition to what industry historians describe as ‘fluid music’.
Fuori dall'Hype is a practically perfect album: not a single wrong track, an even more accurate composition, an increasingly definitive sound, more and more colorful, broad, enveloping, the impression is that everyone can choose their favorite track and no one can tell them they’re wrong (ours is Sashimi but only because we've all had those relationships where “It seemed like love, instead she was a bitch. Amen”). And so more and more clubs wanted them. The van that they would sing about years later in Dentista Croazia – which was supposed to be used to transport elderly people east to get dental work done at affordable prices – found itself loaded with instruments and dreams and over the years has covered incalculable miles. The gavetta (coming up the ranks), they call it; the difference between those who want to make music, those who feel that artistic need of the heart, to the point of going beyond, and those who want to use music to get to something else, we might add. Thus came even the invitation to the May Day ‘Concertone’, which in the meantime had come back to life thanks to that enlightened and romantic dreamer Massimo Bonelli – one of those who caught the whiff in the air well before the others – restoring with ICompany the event in Piazza San Giovanni – which was also on its last legs due to the poor offering on the Italian pop scene – to its past glory, as far as becoming the countercultural event of the year and offering a musical set that for years has largely outclassed even the Sanremo Music Festival.
And yes, they also got to Sanremo, Ariston Theater, in February 2020, the moment that for many was the start of the parable of the Pinguini Tattici Nucleari; it’s not your fault if you didn't know that the band from Bergamo took to the Ariston stage already hot off the back of a sell-out concert at the Forum D'Assago in Milan, the great lounge of the Italian live indoor! Don't worry, it's the fault of the many at the time – and even today still exist – who still ignored, snubbed, yes, even mocked, this new singer-songwriter scene, continuing undaunted to view music through the lens of the TV – if you are not on TV, then you don't exist – totally unaware that while traditional Italian pop continued to dance about in sequins in the living rooms on TV, those singers of inconsistent depth failed to sell one ticket to their concerts, which were canceled due to lack of interest.
The indie revolution, which fit naturally with perfect timing with the revolution of the global music system, finally revealed that the television audience is not the same as the musical audience and – practically ten years later – this is validated by perhaps one of the most important and historic conquests of this industry. For the average Italian, sitting on the sofa, dazed by this climate of never-ending reality television, pudgy with pasta, the pretty faces that destroy the history of Italian music with covers may be just fine; but if you have to reach for your wallet and leave the house to go and hear a concert, then you expect real musicians. It seems like nothing but instead it is everything.
The Pinguini showed up at Sanremo totally fearless, singing Ringo Starr, a song that at first might seem a bit of fun, suitable for the situation, hitting the right target for Sanremo; when instead, it's actually a track that harmoniously intersects the band's discography, a calling card containing their very essence, starting precisely from the world in which everyone feels like “John and Paul” and, that year, they were still the only exponents of the indie scene, who instead want to sing Ringo Starr, because the Pinguini’s are part of a generation of Ringo Starrs, a generation of kids who seem to have ended up there by chance, who, observing the great social mechanism from afar could – sadly – seem like a tiny screw in an assembly that they don't understand, that no one has bothered to explain to them and that they suffer in an atrocious and merciless manner. What’s more, the track was composed over the years – picked up, discarded, taken up again, put back in the drawer, adjusted, shaped, as happens to a lot more songs than you might think – but that trumpet bit at the beginning that burst into the homes of Italians like an evening ray of sunshine, waking them up from their torpor, was composed by Zanotti years earlier, in London and he believed in it right from the start.
If it's right, it all works out; and more right than that seems to us truly impossible. We all know what happened at the end of that Festival of Italian Song – where the Pinguini finish incredibly in third place (incredibly because they deserved to win, considering that the syrupy lament Fare rumore by Diodato, once the curtain closes on the Ariston, was rightly lost in the wind): the memes on Bugo and Morgan, the pandemic, the lockdown, live shows stopped for practically two years, which we are all still getting over; for the Pinguini a massive, thoroughly deserved success, a shower of platinum records and ticket sales for concerts that who knows when will actually be held that reach numbers that make the sell-out gig at the Forum D'Assago seem almost normal. They don't consider it normal at all; on the contrary, they feel imprisoned in this continuous sensation of coitus interruptus. Sanremo was not supposed to represent a point of arrival but an impetus towards even more important milestones, especially at a time when they realize that what they do it is not only significant but also highly marketable, which is the perfect combination, the element that has helped make the history of Italian music. So we just have to wait, like all those in a industry penalized more than all the others, perhaps too much more than all the others, but that's another matter.
In December of the following year, when the situation was still far from resolved, they released Ahia!, which perhaps should have represented a simple EP, a way to make its presence felt on the market, a way to ask for a little more patience, not to be forgotten; and then it is perhaps in that moment that the band understood that what they do has an even stronger value, practically invaluable, a language that the public deems necessary, that it has been waiting for anxiously – not since the previous February, but for years – because the record would remain in the FIMI charts for practically 24 months, and among the songs there is one, called Pastello bianco, which is a rare treasure of clean, honest, romantic, modern songwriting, a song that calls into question the idea of ballads and opens a window on the sentimentality of that famous generation with which the Pinguini continue to grow with their feet firmly on the ground.
In this 2022 that is coming to an end, we know, everything has returned more or less to normal, the Pinguini have recovered everything that the pandemic had tried to take away from them, the Dove eravamo rimasti tour (Where were we tour) is a deluge of collective approval, a joyful and engaging musical event. The Pinguini Tattici Nucleari – having formed on a stage and not in front of the TV – give great live performances; they also make the words of this fairy tale that we are trying to tell you meaningless, because it's all there: their amazement, their enjoyment, even now that it has become a profession, so yes, their profession, seriousness, professionalism. They are your friends – even if you have never met them in your life – who enjoy a dream that somehow paralyzes you too shivers of palpable, sincere emotion.
Why? Because you feel you're part of something, even just as a listener, because it's a fairy tale and it reminds you that everything is possible as long as the dream stays in your heart and not in your wallet or on your Instagram page, as long as you have the desire to give and not to receive. But this is not the end of the fairy tale, also because perhaps it would be too plausible as a fairy tale; it would have been one fairy tale among many, wonderful, from the dives in the suburbs to the biggest stages in Italy, conquered concert after concert, always giving it their all.
We know, it didn't end here; while many in fact awaited the release of the new album, anticipated by highly successful singles including Giovani Wannabe (Young Wannabe), the aforementioned Dentista Croazia and Ricordi (Memories), with perhaps the best ballad of the year, a truly amazing song called Fake News – the perfect oxymoron for a project that has nothing fake about it at all – the Pinguini announced a surprising forward move: a concert at the San Siro stadium in Milan. Now, in the last year, there have been several Italian artists, having reached a certain status just above the average, who have treated himself to a show at San Siro: one massive party, a sort of very personal New Year's Eve for their fans – last summer, it was Salmo, Mengoni added the Olimpico in Rome. But in principle, the concept is always the same, so the first impression was that even the Pinguini Tattici Nucleari wanted to gather their community next summer for a unique and unrepeatable event.
Not that the success, if you rewind the tape, hasn't always been growing at an extraordinarily steady rate, but filling a stadium is indeed a significant and definitive step up. On November 17, at 10 am, the press office of the band issued the press release announcing the show on July 11 and, just 45 minutes later, over 15,000 tickets have been sold, which in two hours became 45,000, and at around 10 pm – so, twelve hours later – the tickets had sold out. Incredible! From that moment on, the announcements came thick and fast. The Olimpico? Sold out in two days, then San Siro part 2, then let’s try a tour all over Italy – Florence, Turin, Bari, Messina and Olbia – and Rome part 2... it will be complicated, but let’s give it a try. So far, we have reached today, Christmas Eve, when the announcement has arrived that tickets have sold out for the Artemio Franchi stadium in Florence and the Olimpico in Turin, which – those who know the industry are well aware – is not at all an easy feat. The impression is that, between now and the summer, it pretty much goes without saying that the last few hundreds of tickets available will be sold easily.
As we said earlier: “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you. Then you win.” The story of the Pinguini Tattici Nucleari concerns – as happens quite often in music – even those who follow them, because music has this extraordinary capacity to indulge you, to make you believe that it is also a bit yours somehow, as if it were a due appropriation. So these young guys from the province of Bergamo win in the end and, with them, the kids who sing their songs also win; with them, all the Ringo Starrs out there win, Cinderella wins. Obviously, that guy wins, the one on that bus, tired, as he looks out the window at that London, beautiful but not for him, listening to Gaetano by Calcutta and realizing that fairy tales basically come about when someone feels the need to write them. Thus, the winner is whoever believes in fairy tales enough to try to divert the path of a reality that instead awards fairy tales less and less room to breathe. All you have to do is listen to the Pinguini Tattici Nucleari, choose your own story – you are sure to find one that fits, that talks only about you, or at least gives you that impression – and you will immediately become part of a fantastic story. This is the fairy tale written by the Pinguini and their gift to you.
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