Surprisingly, the most influential Italian punk was more often than not a product of rural and the smaller, least-known urban areas, not the big cultural and financial centres.
As Sergio Milani of Kina once said, in Milano, fashions would explode and burn in a matter of weeks, and punk needs time to seed, grow and flourish.
Kina came from Aosta, a small alpine town. Indigesti came from Vercelli, another provincial town with a surprisingly large punk scene.
And Negazione, whose story is retold in the forthcoming photo book Collezione di Attimi came from Torino (or Turin, for Anglos).
Torino often features in The Battleground’s pages, which may give its readers the impression that it has always been one of Italy’s main cultural hubs. This is only partially true.
More often than not, Torino has been the cradle of cultural and political movements that were later hijacked by Milano and Roma.
From fashion to cinema, from advertising to club culture, Torino was always first, but new trends soon moved elsewhere.
It makes sense. Torino was the centre and the engine of Italian reunification during the XIX century, only to see its role as capital almost immediately “stolen” by Roma.
There have been many ways to explain this, from a lack of local interest in self-publicity to the geographical position of the city in northwestern Italy, to the asphyxiating prevalence of car culture in the Fiat years, when Torino briefly became Europe’s Detroit.
None of these is a definitive explanation. However, Torino has always been the unwilling or semi-willing best-kept secret of Italian culture.
When the punk movement came to Italy at the end of the 1970s, Torino was at the tail end of the Years of Lead, the decade of domestic terrorism and political violence that had its epicentre in the country’s industrial northwest.
Torino was simultaneously the hub of the so-called Second Mafia War, the single greatest explosion of mafia-related violence Italy has ever experienced. Violence and murder (both political and not) were a daily occurrence.
The era of activism that Torino had witnessed since the end of WWII was ending under the weight of police repression, the marginalisation of radicalism, and a general sense of depression and malaise.
The collapse of Torino’s industrial power had begun, and akin to what was happening elsewhere in Europe, entire districts were closing and getting abandoned.
As an industrial town, there was very little room for youth to socialise in Torino, besides bars and ubiquitous discotheques. Heavy drugs were starting to become an epidemic, and the worst was yet to come.
In other words, it was the perfect landscape for punk. And punk exploded in Torino in a matter of months, even if later than elsewhere in Europe and the US.
It was 1979. The channels were well-known to anyone familiar with punk culture: imported tapes and records, and some slim but reasonable collections of songs produced by Italian record companies wishing to milk a genre that in Italy had been largely ignored until then.
Working in parallel with the simultaneous explosion of post-punk and new wave, and British heavy metal, this marvellously confused mix generated a great hunger for “real” music. Something expressing all the frustration and anger of being a teenager in an impossible place.
Italy had an added element to this explosive mix, unlike anywhere else in Western Europe. Because of a Years of Lead-imposed embargo on rock concerts, from 1972 onwards, the country had seen little live music that was not homegrown.
“Homegrown” meant pop, or political songwriters, all imitating Bob Dylan. Hardly anything that could interest a frustrated eighteen-year-old not crazy about Eurodisco.
When the floodgates finally opened, it was the punk or proto-punk (or post-punk) groups who dared come to Italy, despite its reputation for violence at concerts.
Iggy Pop, The Ramones, UK Subs, The Clash, The Cramps, and a host of other artists filled a giant hole, which in the rest of Europe had long been occupied by rock’s dinosaurs. Think Status Quo, or Jethro Tull, with their German tours.
Of all people, the legendary Patti Smith received a Michael Jackson-like welcome in Bologna, filling a soccer stadium full of adoring fans. Smith could never imagine doing that in her native New York, not even today.
And of course, bands were formed, dozens of them just in Torino.
This first wave of garage or basement bands was as syncretic and diverse as the music everyone was listening to, and were mostly tending towards nihilism.
But at the beginning of the 1980s, politics made an unlikely return to Italian music with the hardcore explosion. The Clash was out, and Crass was very much in.
Younger people, who had been too young or too “irregular” to be involved in high school and university politics, decided they wanted to change things, but wanted nothing to do neither with official politics nor with the relics of May ’68.
The first openly radical band in this sense in Torino was 5° Braccio, named after the Fifth Block of the city’s maximum security jail, where political prisoners and terrorists got imprisoned. 5° Braccio was a political collective as much as a band.
The band’s drummer was Orlando Furioso (his real name!), who had begun drumming with a very early speed-hardcore trio called Spillettes On guitar was Roberto “Takkop” (later “Taz”) Farano.
Roberto was extremely young, but already well-connected to the international punk network, as his older brother was the Italian distributor of the venerable US fanzine Search and Destroy, Re/Search and later Maximum Rockandroll.
Another band formed with similar intent in Torino was Antistato. The singer was Guido “Zazzo” Sassola, a big fan of the Ramones, garage psychedelia and B movies. On bass was Marco Mathieu, who had Waldensian (Italian protestant) roots, which he fused with punk ethics.
At some point, Orlando and Taz decided they had enough of 5° Braccio’s Crass-derived sound, and that they wanted something louder, faster and more brutal. At the same time, Antistato imploded, and Zazzo and Marco wanted another chance. The four met, and Negazione was formed.
The name was not just for the sound. They really wanted to “Negate” everything they saw around them.
Negazione’s members were not exactly party animals, and they were the epitome of good manners if they had to be. But on stage and on record, they did what every good hardcore punk band must do: kick butt. And they did just that.
Early Negazione concerts, played in squats or in centri di incontro (semiofficial meeting points managed by local councils) were brutal to the point of being dangerous, even though most of the audiences were clean-cut teenagers who often, in early straight edge fashion, refused drugs and alcohol on principle.
There is one picture in Collezione di Attimi showing the 1983 concert at Torino’s Centro D’Incontro Vanchiglia. I was there that night, and as chaotic as the picture may look, it does not completely convey the frenzy of that concert.
Negazione was meant to be faster, wilder and noisier. This may explain the band’s apparent inability to have one “official” drummer. Orlando soon left, replaced by Michele D’Alessio, the first of a series of drummers whose replacement would punctuate, sometimes dramatically, Negazione’s existence.
It was an impressive debut. Mucchio Selvaggio was heavy. It was noisy. It was insanely contorted. In 1984, there was little that could be compared to it outside of West Coast punk in the United States or the British hardcore of early Discharge.
Thanks to Roberto’s tape trading and networking skills, the band soon began an impressive number of live shows first across Italy, then in Northern Europe.
This was followed by a 7”, Tutti Pazzi (All Crazy), which became one of their signature tracks, which Negazione played until the end of their career. It was one of the most brilliant punk songs, ever.
A “proper” record followed, the Condannati A Morte Dal Vostro Quieto Vivere (Condemned to Death By Your Hypocrisy) EP, recorded in the Netherlands, featuring much better production than their previous efforts.
All of this was achieved in the purest self-produced, self-published spirit. Besides the music, this was the element that made Negazione so immensely influential in Italy.
Other bands were successful, but it was always because of their record deals. Groups like Negazione followed a do-it-yourself philosophy, but rarely with such consistent results.
Negazione were still a political band. Their support for Torino’s anarchist squatter scene was unwavering, and often put them at odds with the authorities.
The results were not always positive, but Torino’s squats grew exponentially, culminating with the founding of El Paso, an abandoned kindergarten transformed into a live venue, which saw some of the biggest names in the international alternative scene playing there.
By the beginning of 1986, Negazione had a new drummer (Fabrizio Fiegl, ex-Upset Noise) and had played more live shows than almost any other Italian hardcore punk band.
More than that, Negazione were extending their live network beyond what was considered possible for a “simple” Italian band back then, including in Eastern Europe.
Negazione got a publishing deal with Dutch label De Konkurrent, and released Lo Spirito Continua (The Spirit Goes On), one of the most monumental punk records of the 1980s, and the best full-length debut ever made by an Italian punk band.
A monolith, Spirito acknowledges early thrash metal influences but it’s 100% punk, gloriously rooted in the continental punk spirit. The record is a typical “all killers, no filler” release, perfect in every way, including its iconic Our Gang-inspired cover.
Lo Spirito Continua generated rave reviews, and the band embarked on a legendary “30 gigs in 60 days” tour across Europe and UK.
Even more than the record, the tour cemented Negazione’s status as the ultimate hardcore killing machine. But it almost killed its members.
Little Dreamer saw Negazione aiming in a slightly different direction than Spirito. Most of the lyrics were in English, and the tone was darker and more metal friendly. In particular “Death Is Around” is perhaps Negazione’s ultimate punk statement.
The album’s best moment is “Il Giorno Del Sole”, a haunting and almost melancholic song with lyrics written by Marco Mathieu, with a feeling highly reminiscent of Kina’s “Questi Anni”, perhaps the most “Italian” and elegiac of all hardcore punk songs.
Little Dreamer was another resounding success, even if purists disliked the obvious metal elements.
Years later, Marco Mathieu told me he thought the 1988 Little Dreamer promotional tour was the most gruelling Negazione had ever done.
Helped by Dutch drummer Rowdy James as a stopgap replacement for Fabrizio, the tour was another success, and was followed by Behind the Door, another EP (with Elvin Betty, former drummer with Torino’s metal outfit Gow) and the single Sempre In Bilico, which recalled the sound of Spirito.
By that time, the band had joined forces with what was to become their most famous and unlikely drummer: Giovanni “Jeff” Pellino, who years later, with the stage name of “Neffa”, would become one of Italy’s most successful melodic pop stars. So are the mysterious ways of punk.
In 1990, Negazione was booked for what turned out to be their most intense experience: a 28 date US tour, supporting Canadian hardcore legends DOA. It was nothing like they had expected, and turned out to be a mixture of success, exhilaration, and disappointment.
The US tour was a formative moment, a pilgrimage to the “sacred places” of American hardcore, allowing Negazione to play at NYC’s CBGBs, something 99% of Italian bands dreamed of. But it was the beginning of Negazione’s end.
Another lengthy European tour followed, and then the band recorded what turned out to be their last record: 100%. It was extremely well received by the press and the fans.
By that time, I had been close to Marco for four years, as we had collaborated on a series of writing projects for different publications. And it was clear Marco was thinking about his future and was beginning to see it more as a writer than a musician.
At the same time, both Zazzo and Tax were going in different musical and personal directions, and the continuous change of drummers was beginning to take its toll.
Added to that, Marco’s personal situation, with an ongoing and complex love story with American photographer and SST records company executive Naomi Petersen (who died in 2003) did not help.
In the summer of 1991, Negazione played their largest concert ever, in front of thousands of people at the Monsters of Rock festival.
Marco was so nervous before the show that, uncharacteristically, he vomited right after getting on the stage. It was a moment of glory, but one could not help feeling Negazione wasn’t in their native element.
A telling episode happened again in 1991, when Negazione played at a very weird live event with The Ramones (Zazzo’s all-time favourite band), only to be verbally assaulted (“I’ve enough of your shitty music”) by Joey Ramone himself, who wanted the band to cut their set short, leaving Negazione absolutely gutted.
Years later, Marky Ramone told me he was a fan of Negazione and thought Joey was unwell and confused. But the episode seemed to herald the kind of professional music world that the band was heading into. And so, at the beginning of 1992, the band split amicably.
In the following years, each member of Negazione went in far different directions, with only Tax Farano continuing a musical career.
Marco Mathieu achieved his dream of becoming a writer. Besides writing about music, in 1998 he published A Che Ora E’ La Fine Del Mondo (What Time is the End of the World, a title inspired by REM), about his experiences retracing his punk acquaintances in war-torn Yugoslavia.
After converting to Buddhism, Marco later became a journalist for La Repubblica. Sadly, in July 2017 he suffered a massive stroke while in Rome, entering a vegetative coma from which he would never recover. Marco died in December 2020, at the age of 57.
While their records, in particular Lo Spirito Continua, are still as relevant today as they were thirty-plus years ago, Negazione’s story is not a story of records, but a story of the spirit that the band’s songs evoked.
Like Kina, Negazione were always a profoundly introspective band, notwithstanding their arresting and aggressive sound. Collezione di Attimi provides a mixture of exhilaration and sadness, which is just what Marco would have considered the true spirito.
Photograph courtesy of Wolfgang Sterneck. Published under a Creative Commons license.