Prisencolinensinainciusol: A International Language (Of Sorts) In Song

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Italy isn’t typically renowned for its contributions to rock and roll.

File under: “Not exactly a surprise.”

Certainly not in English speaking lands, anyway.

Måneskin are doing their best to change that following their 2020 Eurovision win, and their targeting of the US and British charts with their latest album Rush.

Their first two albums featured a majority of songs in Italian with a few in English thrown in. The latest album switches that around. Such is the way, from ABBA to BTS: to break into English speaking markets. It pays to adopt the language. 

There is another way though.

One Italian man took his own idiosyncratic approach to the language barrier. It might not have been an immediate hit. But over the decades, its taken its own scenic route to public consciousness beyond borders. 

Adriano Celentano is the original king of rock and roll in Italy.

He started off as many early European rock and rollers did, by copying the sounds coming from across the Atlantic.

In the late 50s he released covers of Rip It Up, Blueberry Hill and Tutti Frutti amongst others. Within a couple of years he transitioned to singing original compositions in Italian.

He’s still going now in his 80s:

Well over 40 studio albums in, and reported to have sold 150 million records.

This renaissance man also had a parallel career acting in a string of comedies that were box office gold in Italy. Film buffs may have seen him in a cameo role in La Dolce Vita as an over-exuberant singer in a nightclub. But for the most part, his films, like his songs, didn’t travel to English speaking parts of the world.  

I was familiar with his name as he’s referenced by Ian Dury as one of his “Reasons To Be Cheerful.”

But I had no idea who he was or what had brought him to the attention of Ian. 

That was until a few months ago.

When I came across Prisencolinensinainciusol.

Do not adjust your sets.

Pronounced; Pre-zen-coal-ee-nine-say-nine-choose-ol. Kind of. This is a best estimate only.

[Let’s pause for a trendy, “Hey, Let’s See if AI Can Help Us, Here insert:]

“Hello, ChatGPT. Can you please pronounce:
Prisencolinensinainciusol‘ ?”

(prɪs ɛn col ɪn ɛn sina ɪn ciusol)

Prisencolinensinainciusol is the name of what may well be his best known song outside of Italy. Its certainly the one that you’ve most likely heard. Even if you don’t realise it or know of its backstory. 

Some of the facts behind the song are a little hazy. I’ve variously read that it came out in 1970 and failed to have any impact until 1972 when Adriano performed it on Italian TV. At which point it went to number one in Italy and across Europe.

In one interview Adriano said that it reached #86 in the US, but this seems to be artistic licence. Alternatively it came out in 1972 and the TV appearance that brought it to wider attention was 1974.

According to Wikipedia, it only reached #5 in Italy as well as going top 5 in Belgium and the Netherlands. 

Whatever the truth, it’s a unique song.

Even if it didn’t make #86 on the Hot 100, its unusual composition has given it a profile far in excess of the typical mainland European hit. 

It’s uniqueness stems from its lyrics. From our English speaking point of view, a casual listener may assume it’s in Italian. Makes sense for an Italian singer. It certainly isn’t in English. Closer inspection though reveals that the language is entirely in the mind of Adriano. The lyrics were delivered in a manner intended to reflect what American records sound like to the ears of a non English speaker. 

In an interview for All Things Considered on NPR in 2012, Adriano said:

I would write a song which would only have as its theme the inability to communicate.

And to do this, I had to write a song where the lyrics didn’t mean anything.” 

Non-native English speaker Adriano Celentano

This might sound like a conceit that would need careful planning. But in Adriano’s words, it sounds incredibly simple:

“I made a loop of four beats, four drumbeats. And so then, I went to the microphone in the recording studio, and I started improvising.

And I improvised the melody and the music.

And then I called the orchestra. …and based on that song, I made the arrangements.” 

Allmusic describes it as: “proto-rap gibberish.”

I’m not sure I’d go as far as “proto-rap.”

Though it’s composition, looping those four drumbeats, may be ahead of its time. The drumbeats are the focal point musically, pounding their way through the track adorned by a repeating horn stab and constant droning guitar underneath.

It adds up to a storming glam rock and roll and funk mix, sung in an incomprehensible language.

Which the more I listen sounds remarkably like it should be English.

It’s an impressive approximation of early rock and roll. 

I put the lyrics through a translating tool. The results were entertainingly bizarre and made no more sense than Adriano’s improvised malarkey. I particularly like the author’s comment underneath which is delightfully understated:

For the UK release it was decided that Prisencolinensinainciusol might be a little… off-putting.

It was re-titled The Language Of Love.

Which seems a gross misunderstanding of the premise of the song by the record label.

Even with the anglicised variation, it didn’t chart.

Rather than remaining an obsure curio, the advent of the Internet and distinctive nature of the song has given it new life. The NPR feature in 2012 came after going viral on Boing Boing.

Though in an unexpected twist, Rush Limbaugh claimed credit for its popularity.

In 2019, Rush said that he’d heard it on a TV show about the kidnapping of John Paul Getty’s grandson, in which Hilary Swank starred. He chose it to use as bumper music for his radio show. Which, he reckoned, led to the song’s acclaim, and to NPR hearing about it. Rush’s memory, like Adriano’s didn’t add up.

The Getty kidnapping show was Trust, which aired in 2018. He’s right that he heard the song in the show. But the NPR piece dates from 2012.

Never let the truth stand in the way of self promotion. 

File under: “not exactly a surprise.”

A year before Trust it had been used in season 3 of Fargo, which I watched so I’ll have heard it then without realising. Since then it has featured in Fargo, Lone Star, White Lotus and Ted Lasso. As well as continuing to go viral on a regular basis as more people keep discovering it. Everyone wants a piece of it now. 

There are two Italian TV performances from whichever year it was in the 1970s, which certainly help as well.

Adriano is a charismatic performer and shows off his distinctive physicality to good effect. In the first he performs as a teacher to his female students. The woman who takes the lead female vocal and plays harmonica is his wife (of now 59 years!) Claudia Mori – herself a big star in Italy. 

The other performance is only available as a partial clip. It’s a dazzling mirrored performance, giving the impression of a synchronized cast of dozens of dancers:

Both are well worth watching… 

Even if none of it makes sense. 

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JJ Live At Leeds

From across the ocean, a middle aged man, a man without a plan, a man full of memories, a man like JJ.

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cstolliver
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cstolliver
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July 27, 2023 6:39 am

The AI clip was hilarious! And the title certainly is a headline-buster! Thanks for this palate-cleanser, JJ; it briefly made me think today was Friday!

rollerboogie
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July 27, 2023 8:20 am

This was a cool topic to pick, JJ. I was not familiar with this song. It’s really good. The pulsating bass drum pattern isn’t exactly four-on-the-floor, but perhaps it’s a precursor to disco and house music, though maybe that’s a stretch. As far as songs with lyrics that are entirely not in any real language, the only examples that readily come to mind are the songs Enya sang in the fictional language of Loxian. Songs in English with nonsense syllables included were plentiful in early rock and roll of course, but the practice eventually fell out of favor, the title word of one of Phil Collins’ #1s notwithstanding.

blu_cheez
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July 27, 2023 4:51 pm
Reply to  rollerboogie

Don’t forget about the unnamed made-up language that Cocteau Twins often uses.

dutchg8r
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July 28, 2023 3:47 pm
Reply to  rollerboogie

My first thought was Enya’s made up language too!

Pauly Steyreen
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July 27, 2023 8:39 am

I wonder if he performed it exactly the same every time. If so, that’s a remarkable ability to memorize gibberish.

Reminds me I saw Jim Breuer (IIRC) on one of the late night shows speaking “French” by speaking gibberish with a silly accent. We do this a lot in the US because people don’t make the effort to actually learn different languages, so we learn to speak gibberish that’s meant to sound like Spanish, Chinese, Arabic, etc… Adriano Celentano is just giving us a taste of our own medicine.

Phylum of Alexandria
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July 27, 2023 8:59 am

Giving birth to rap? No. But giving birth to The Fall? Maybe!

This kind of reminds me of this video that my wife showed me recently:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Vt4Dfa4fOEY

But it seems Italy did it first…

stobgopper
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July 28, 2023 3:16 pm

It must be that flat affect that makes it sound like American English. Most other languages have a more musical timber. At least to my ear.

Virgindog
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July 27, 2023 9:29 am

I knew about the song but not all the details. Didn’t know a thing about Celentano, let alone that he’s married to Claudia Mori. Great work, JJ!

dutchg8r
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July 28, 2023 4:45 pm

That’s pretty funny. I noticed when I was watching this year’s Eurovision (no review on it, I still am only halfway through watching it, don’t think I’ll finish it either), I had the closed captioning on. The NBC feed was doing its best to keep up with all the song lyrics……. with the default setting remaining in English. So all these countries coming up and singing in their native language were being forced to be something in English for closed captioning. Made for some truly bizarre results!

LinkCrawford
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LinkCrawford
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July 28, 2023 6:22 pm

I swear that song sounds more like alternative 90s music than something from 1972. I’ve heard it a few times before and I gotta say it is pretty darned catchy! I always like hearing it. Thanks for the reminder!

cappiethedog
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July 30, 2023 2:27 am

I’m a bad film buff. I don’t love Fellini.

I Vitteloni, The White Sheik, sure.

I do remember this musical number from La Dolce Vita.

Adrian Celetano reminds me of how Selma would reimagine Elvis Presley if she was a fan of King Creole instead of The Sound of Music. The choreography for “La dolceur de vivre” has an accidental look(like in “Cvalda”, especially. I have to stop referencing Lars Von Trier.) But Celetano’s Bollywood-level energy(the movie Enid watches in Ghost World) is infectious. It’s easy to see why Italians anointed him “King of Rock and Roll”.

Fellini stages a Hawaiiana set piece in Variety Lights.

Okay. That’s my comment transcribed from my phone.

The first song that immediately comes to mind after thirty seconds of “Prisencolinensinainciusol” is “Pop Muzik”. Maybe “Pop Muzik” is a nod to both Adrian Celetano and The Fall. Oh, I’m at the background vocals, now. Good stuff. Harmonica solo, too. And it doesn’t remind you of Bob Dylan.

Edith G
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Edith G
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July 30, 2023 8:14 pm

I’ve never heard this song before and certainly never heard anything about Adriano Celentano, but it was a funny and catchy novelty.

LinkCrawford
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LinkCrawford
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August 4, 2023 9:54 pm

I just want you to know JJ that this song has EASILY been my most listened to song of the past week or so. Every single time I start playing music I want to hear it. It’s so dumb. I love it.

Last edited 10 months ago by LinkCrawford
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