By ProgBlog, Nov 19 2018 02:31PM
Contrary to my previous pronouncements about the availability of prog in Venice, I can now reveal that there is a relatively new record store in the city, Living in the Past, Sestiere Dorsoduro 3474, 30123 Venezia, and it’s pretty good. Venice was where I first made a conscious effort to collect Italian prog, in 2005, when there were two shops to choose from. My diary from that particular trip reveals that sometime after lunch on Wednesday 13th July, the second day of the holiday (my wife’s first time in Venice), we began winding our way back towards San Marco via the side streets of Dorsoduro, a slow but purposeful journey in the afternoon heat. Anyone familiar with the city will appreciate how you find yourself doubling back on your tracks as you seek a bridge over a canal so that what looks like a straightforward journey on a map devoid of detail is in fact fiendishly complex. I maintain that undertaking adventures through Venice’s maze-like alleys is the best way to explore the unique city, where you come across well-known tourist spots and less recognised gems by accident. That particular trek resulted in the discovery of what looked like prog heaven, despite its name: Discoland, a music shop with all manner of progressive rock CDs in the window, including the entire 2005 re-mastered catalogue of Van der Graaf Generator; Egg; King Crimson; Gentle Giant; Steve Hackett and more... but it was closed for lunch! A quick check of the time revealed that the store was due to reopen in 15 minutes so I popped into the Leonardo da Vinci exhibition in the Chiesa di San Barnaba until the shop owner returned, late. I asked if he had any Italian prog, but he said no. Rooting around did reveal that he had a couple of CDs by The Trip so I picked out Caronte, reissued in a cardboard sleeve, the first Egg album, and The Least we can do is Wave to Each Other, H to He, Pawn Hearts and Godbluff from the VdGG selection.
Though considered a classic progressivo Italiano record, I’m not actually such a great fan of Caronte (1971), a concept album based on the ferryman character Charon from Dante’s Divine Comedy who initially objects to taking Aeneas, a living man, on his boat; Charon is re-interpreted by The Trip as a metaphor for conformity. It’s steeped with psyche/blues characteristic of proto-prog, so comes across as more Iron Butterfly than The Nice. The Trip were actually founded in London in 1966 and included Ritchie Blackmore on guitar but the future Deep Purple guitarist had departed before the arrival of Joe Vescovi, whose keyboard style, influenced by Keith Emerson, is the best feature of the band. The other Venice music shop was Parole & Musica in the Castello Sestiere where I bought an early PFM live compilation The Beginning 1971-1972 Italian Tour. A day trip to Treviso on that 2005 holiday also involved finding a record shop where I bought Concerto Grosso n.1 and 2 by New Trolls, the very disappointing Donna Plautilla by Banco, and an album I’d really wanted to buy in Venice itself, Contrappunti by Le Orme, because that was where the band formed. Originally a beat group, they underwent some personnel changes and then released what many regard to be the first RPI album, Collage, in 1971. I managed to get to see the current incarnation earlier this year in Brescia with David Cross as a guest musician. The album that I most associate with the city is actually Le Orme’s Florian, released in 1979, named after Caffè Florian, alleged to be the oldest establishment of its kind in Europe, dating from 1720 and located under the Procuratie Nuove in piazza San Marco. A two-year hiatus following 1977’s Storia o Leggenda allowed the group to prepare for what seemed like a radical departure from progressive rock, where the electronic instrumentation was replaced with acoustic and early instruments. The result is still recognisable as Orme (they dropped the definite article from their name for the release) even though it should more correctly be referred to as chamber music or chamber prog; the original idea is said to have come from keyboard player Tony Pagliuca who realised that audiences were turning away from prog but didn’t want to subscribe to the mediocrity of commercial pop. The pieces on the album are effectively a protest against destructive economic forces within the music industry and those in the wider world choking other aspects of Italian culture. The lack of a record shop on the island(s) meant I had to look elsewhere for a copy, eventually finding the CD in Vicenza’s Saxophone record store on a day trip out from Venice in 2014; I found a second-hand vinyl copy earlier this year, on Record Store Day, on a stall in Cremona.
I spent a couple of days in Venice during the summer of 1980 on a month-long Interrail trip, staying on Giudecca in a youth hostel, and was blown away by the city. During that stay PFM were playing somewhere in Mestre but I didn’t have the wherewithal to organise getting to see them. On 15th July 1989 Pink Floyd famously played on a barge floating in the Grand Canal, nearing the end of the Momentary Lapse of Reason tour. This was broadcast live on Italian TV and precise timing restrictions meant that some songs had to be curtailed before their natural ending. I recorded this performance when it was shown on UK TV but that disappeared in a clear out of VHS tapes years ago – it’s now available as an unofficial DVD release Pink Floyd – Pazzia & Passione - Live In Venice '89 from Room 101 Entertainment.
The closest I ever got to live prog in Venice was seeing the construction of a stage for Peter Gabriel playing an open air concert in piazza San Marco in 2007; we were staying less than 50m away in the Albergo San Marco but our flight back to the UK was a matter of hours before the performance – apparently Signal to Noise and Washing of the Water were played at the sound check in the early afternoon, where Gabriel acknowledged the fans who had begun to gather around the square after realising that he was present on stage. If that had happened in the last couple of years I’d have found accommodation for an extra night and bought a flight for the following day.
Despite the presence of Living in the Past and the historic connection of Le Orme to the city, Venice doesn’t really appear to have much of a connection with the modern prog scene apart from being somewhere bands like to perform – King Crimson finishing their mainland continental European tour with two dates at the end of July this year at Teatro La Fenice, for example. The ubiquitous newsstands of Italian cities, normally packed full of journals and periodicals, handy for picking up copies of Prog Italia and maybe the DeAgostini classic rock progressivo 180g vinyl reissues, are filled with tourist tat in Venice. Last year my wife found a copy of Prog Italia on Lido for me but there was nothing on any newsstand in any of the main Sestiere this year, or in any of the larger Tabacchi.
Apart from the basic accommodation on Giudecca, I’ve previously only stayed at hotels close to the piazza San Marco when visiting Venice. This trip was a departure from that norm, splashing out on an NH hotel in Dorsoduro abutting neighbouring Santa Croce, an area largely tourist-free but filled with students; there are two universities in the area, Università Ca’ Foscari and IUAV, the architecture school, contributing to the really good vibe. There’s a relative paucity of Venetian gothic and a noticeable presence of more modern architecture, which may explain the lack of visitor interest despite its proximity to the cruise ship terminal, Santa Lucia station and the bus terminus, one of only two places where cars are allowed (the other being Lido) but there are still dozens of friendly restaurants and bars where an Aperol spritz is half the price you pay in London. It wasn’t supposed to be a prog trip – we’d gone for the Architecture Biennale – but there does seem to be more than a passing link between architecture and prog, beginning with the early years of Pink Floyd at Regent Street Polytechnic.
However far removed from modern prog, the city is still able to turn up references to the genre in some of the oddest places. Hats Off Gentlemen it’s Adequate have just released a new CD, Out of Mind which includes the track De Humani Corporis Fabrica, named after Andreas Vesalius' treatise on human anatomy from 1543 which challenged the prevailing doctrine proposed by the Greek physician Galen in the second century AD. I’m a particular fan of the song because it features some of Kathryn Thomas’ gorgeous flute and also includes a passage in 13/4 time, so when I came across the Mario Botta Architects’ installation in the Corderie at the Arsenale, a tactile, circular timber structure where the work of students was presented as tabernacle-like architectural research, I was amazed to find a section labelled De Humani Corporis Fabrica!
Like all cities Venice continues to change. Living in the Past was previously a second hand bookstore but was revamped in 2017 as a shop selling books and second-hand vinyl. There’s a decent selection of Italian prog along with a good selection of international prog and classic rock. Handily, it was a five minute walk from the hotel where we were staying and though I didn’t imagine that I’d find any records on this trip, I still had my cotton LP bag to hand for my purchases: Par les Fils de Mandrin by Ange and David Gilmour’s About Face, an album I’ve never physically owned in any format but once had a tape recorded from a friend’s LP. The shop is certainly a welcome addition to the Venetian landscape, a retail gem amongst some of the most stunning architecture in the world.