Sunday, 29 October 2017

Bologna: My Little Pretty One

Off to Bologna, where for a week my life was a waking nightmare, because I was unable to stop singing The Knack's "My Sharona" to myself. It rhymes with Bologna and it's a catchy tune. In theory I shouldn't remember that song - The Knack didn't sell any records in the United Kingdom - but thanks to the seductive, steamroller power of American culture my memories have long since been erased and replaced with those of an American. He is roughly my age. He is inside me.

Do you know Power Pop? The Knack was a power pop band. In the 1960s pop music fragmented into multiple strands, and by the 1970s there was a sharp divide between bubblegum pop music for kids and serious rock music for slightly older kids.

Power pop was a new name for Beatles-esque pure pop music aimed at a more discerning audience. It was catchy, jangly, generally upbeat, often wistful. It attracted an audience of people who were nostalgic for the pre-psychedelic Beatles; people who were curious to see what The Beatles might have produced if LSD had not led them to experiment with trumpets and Mellotrons.

It attracted a surprisingly small audience. Despite having a commercial sound Power Pop was never a huge commercial force. Big Star famously didn't sell any records; Badfinger charted, but a terrible management contract ultimately resulted in two of the bandmembers committing suicide. Later in the decade the likes of Tom Petty and Jonathan Richman took several years to build a following - Richman never crossed into the mainstream - and although there were elements of Power Pop in the work of Elvis Costello, Joe Jackson, The Cars, Blondie and so forth, those musicians were generally thought of as post-punk/new wave acts.

Power Pop never died out, but lacking a definitive quirk it became harder to distinguish Power Pop from other strands of music in the 1980s and beyond. Furthermore Big Star's legacy was such that otherwise un-power-poppy bands were influenced by them specifically rather than Power Pop itself, with the result that The Bangles, The Pixies, Ash, Supergrass, The Boo Radleys, Weezer etc all had power pop elements without ever really being Power Pop.

"My Sharona" is five minutes long and has an awesome guitar solo. Bologna however is a city in north-east Italy, notable for its university, its covered walkways, and for being sandwiched between Venice and Florence. A couple of years ago I discovered W. Cope Devereux's Fair Italy, a travel book written about Devereux's trip to Italy in 1884 with his wife. Of Bologna he writes that:

"At Bologna we had an opportunity of tasting the famous sausage-meat, and found it exceedingly good, the flavour being somewhat like spiced beef. The dogs of Bologna were, I believe, once a celebrated breed, which is now almost extinct. I do not mean by this remark to induce any uncomfortable reflections with regard to the sausages, but I really was surprised that nothing in the shape of a dog made itself visible in this town."

Otherwise Devereux merely passed through. Don't we all.

Bologna's main landmarks are a fountain (which was being renovated while I was there) and a pair of ugly towers. A long shopping street leads up to the towers; a second, slightly uphill street joins it at right angles and leads to the train station. Just outside the train station is a pleasant park which had some migrants playing a game of shouting and fighting each other.

One of them greeted me in English, which always throws me. How can they tell that I'm British? I may be pasty-faced and overweight, but so are Polish people (for example) and Russians. What was the point of talking to me, anyway? I can't take any of them with me to the United Kingdom; they wouldn't fit in my carry-on luggage. A small baby, perhaps, but I have no use for a baby.

The town itself is a maze of covered streets with a metric tonne of fancy-but-not-posh restaurants; truth be told I had never really thought about Bologna before, but it's a pleasant base for exploring the north-east of Italy. It's low-key, warmer than Milan, less ramshackle than Rome, much harder to find prostitutes than Naples.

Venice is in the north-east of Italy. 

During my stay I popped on the train to Venice and Florence; took the bus to the nearly Lamborghini Museum, read-about-but-didn't-visit the nearby Ferrari and Ducati Museums, also read about and also didn't visit San Marino, a mountainous enclaved microstate south of Bologna, reachable by train and bus. After several days of wandering around in baking heat I decided that I didn't want to walk around a mountain after all.

Bologna is also a train ride away from Rimini, a beach resort. That side of Italy is surprisingly close to Croatia, but sadly the Adriatic sea is in the way.

There were no fascists in the car park. Job done! 

Invader - the Italian man who goes around putting little mosaics high up on walls - has a presence in Ravenna, although as far as I know this particular mosaic isn't his work.

I visited Ravenna, a small town in which Dante Alighieri is buried. I have not read a single word of Dante's writing, and I have no idea why white American teenage boys all want to be called Dante, but I felt I had to go.


I can barely remember the lyrics of "My Sharona". Something about running down the length of my thigh, Sharona, and "always get it up for the touch of the younger kind". The Knack dressed in New Wave clothes but they were approaching middle age, and "My Sharona" was their only substantive hit in their native The United States of America.

It reached number six here in the UK - "I Don't Like Mondays" and "Are Friends Electric" were number one and number two that week - but their debut album only reached number 65, their second single number 66, and they never charted ever again.

And yet because Ronald Reagan and Uncle Sam and the Internet have literally forced American culture into my mind I remember The Knack and not, for example, Dave Edmunds and Rockpile. Curse you, the United States, and your cultural hegemony! And curse me, for being weak.