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Elena Rigby: Beatlemania, Neapolitan-style

Beatles cover band the Shampoo reveal a side of the Naples neighborhood of Fuorigrotta that you won't find in the books of Elena Ferrante.

Cover for The Shampoo's album In Naples.

In a parallel universe straight out of Lucy in the Sky with Diamonds, the Beatles come, not from Liverpool, but from Napoli, and specifically the tough, working-class neighborhood of Fuorigrotta. Here, Day Tripper (Got a good reason / For taking the easy way out) is no longer Day Tripper, it’s instead a lewd and leering piece of melodic Neapolitan street theater, entitled E’ zizze (Her Tits). Here are the lyrics, from the original, imaginary liner notes: Donna Luisa / se mette in cammisa a cantà / Ormai ha deciso / ca nun me vo’ fa cchiù campà no. (Lady Luisa / puts on her camisole to sing / She’s made up her mind, yeah / she’s bound to be the death of me yet, ha.) Chorus: me fa vedè ’e zizze si me fa vedè / e a me che songhe n’omme me fa male, me fa male (She’s flashing her tits right at me, yeah, she’s flashing them all right / and for a man like me, it sure hurts, it sure hurts me). Sure, it’s got all the earmarks and trappings of a hallucination, but for four mop-topped young Neapolitans, it’s a hallucination that’s shown no sign of abating for forty years now. Lucky them: the last thing they want to do is come down from this trip.

The saga of Naples’ own Fab Four, the Shampoo, boasts a spiritual progenitor. Giorgio Verdelli, these days a respected author and TV director who’s spent a lifetime in the music industry, was a cutting-edge disc jockey in the seventies (“The first DJ in Naples, I think, to play the music of Bob Marley,” in Verdelli's own words). Just to set the stage, in those years the big local names were Alunni Del Sole, a state-of-the-art Italian hippie band cooked up by PR men, and the Showmen. The popular club was Pentothal in Vomero—to hear Verdelli describe it, “A broad mix of clientele: respectable and middle class, but also a strong helping of criminals and repeat offenders. Though they had plenty of valuable life lessons to offer."

These were the years of the AM station Radio Antenna Capri – the personal domain of the unforgettable Corrado Ferlaino, owner of S. S. C. Napoli, the soccer team. Sure enough, it was Ferlaino who in November 1976 gave Naples a gift that broke hearts and brought tears to eyes across the city. The occasion was a Napoli vs. Liverpool match and the news was such a blockbuster that there was no need for a press release (“The best press release you could have in Naples was: pssst, don’t breathe a word of this to anyone. And in the blink of an eye everyone in town knew all about it,” Verdelli told me). Electrified by breathless word of mouth, a crowd of fans had already collected outside the entrance of the radio station. Many doubted they’d see anything. But then a white limousine pulls up and out they step. The actual Beatles. The actual Beatles in Naples, specialissimi guests of Radio Antenna Capri. And once they strike up the melody of Twist & Shout, all doubts are quashed: those are the guitars, those are the voices. Even the Liverpool accent is spot on, when the young knights of rock and roll answer phone calls from the listeners at home with exquisitely British etiquette.

The microphones of Radio Antenna Capri are rapt witnesses to a minor page of modern history—even if the chapter of history in question is the saga of the Neapolitan gasconade, not the annals of the pop beat. That’s right, because the radio audience couldn’t possibly be expected to know that in real life John is a lawyer (Q: “Criminal law or civil suits?” / A: “Either one’s fine. As long as you can pay his fees”), Ringo is a tax accountant, and Paul and George are, from left to right, a computer programmer and a men’s apparel sales representative. Respectively, to read from their driver’s licenses, Lino d’Alessio, Pino De Simone, Costantino Iaccarino, and Massimo d’Alessio—longtime friends and “philological” scholars of Beatledom, verging on the fetishistic. Just to be clear, the British MBE answering the fans’ phone calls is just a guy who works for British Airways and who therefore speaks perfect English: “a friend of the radio station”—in other words, just someone who happened to be passing by.

The mastermind behind this gasconade is the Orson Welles of Fuorigrotta, Verdelli himself: “The prank of the War of the Worlds, you know what I mean? It was a learned reference. I mean, a reference I learned from a book. I just wanted to prove that if you said something on the radio, everybody would fall for it.” But Verdelli’s volcanic genius didn’t stop there: he sensed the band’s potential and transformed them into the Cadillacs—a Beatles cover band, years before there even was such a thing as a cover band. There followed concerts in the Neapolitan hinterland, a speck of provincial success. But it was only a taste of things to come.

The Shampoo performs Pepp!, a cover of The Beatles' Help!

What is genius? as Philippe Noiret's character Perozzi muses in Mario Monicelli's 1975 subversive landmark film, Amici Miei: “It's imagination and intuition, followed by prompt, decisive action.” The film is a tour de force of inventive, daring pranks—gasconades—and channels the spirit of those years. The answer according to the band, the Cadillacs: genius is singing in our mother tongue (“And we don’t call it a dialect, it’s a language.”). The gasconade is transformed into an epic. This is the birth of the Shampoo, the first Beatles cover band working in Neapolitan. Next come such deathless standards of the Neapolitan songbook as Pepp’ (Help), ’Nomme e nient’ (Nowhere Man), and Tengo ’e guaie (Tell Me Why). The recording company EMI-Italia, in the person of the then-creative director Bruno Tibaldi—the producer of the early work of singer-songwriter Pino Daniele and a long-time Beatles fan (we’re talking about 1980)—decides to believe in them, and goes on to produce the first Shampoo album. It was a major production, at Trafalgar studios in Rome (“The recording was done by megastar Antonello Venditti, who was a fan of ours, the Goblins, and even Keith Emerson was there”). Most important of all, though, the young people believed in them. And, in the wake of what had originated as a juvenile prank, the band found themselves hurtling north to Rome. Rome in the eighties, a city glittering with the sequin-studded smiles of Renzo Arbore (a witty and subversive radio and TV personality, an international big band leader, and one of the funniest men in post-war Italy), the halogen spotlights of the studios where Domenica In was shot, and the Ray-Bans of Gianni Boncompagni, with a gleaming reflection of the spirit of the times. Once again, the cat’s paw of History tipped the scales (“EMI released two Shampoo discs, the Green Album and the Blue Album. But then John Lennon was murdered, on December 8, 1980. And that’s when Shampoo put out their first album”). But none of that matters. What matters is that this is exactly where the hallucination climbs up onto the saddle of biography and takes off.

Glossy magazines, hit parades, parties. The four young Neapolitans from Fuorigrotta understandably weigh their options, think of bagging their day jobs. They think about it, but they’re torn by indecision—they spend their mornings and afternoons in the office in Naples, at six in the evening they hop a train for Rome, where they change into the Beatles jackets (“No: we never wore a wig. That was our real hair”), and sing Totonno hai illuse a chell’ (You’re Going to Lose That Girl), and then back home and to bed. It lasts for a year, a magical year. Verdelli is their Brian Epstein, Vince Tempera is their George Martin. Just a little higher, and they’ll be able to take definitively to their wings, and live on music alone.

One last time, however, and the cat’s paw of History gives things a shove, but this time, with ruinous results. A new boss takes over at EMI—Piero Scussel. And he’s obsessed with more classic acts like Orietta Berti and Claudio Villa. He hates the Beatles. From one day to the next, the Shampoo are basically shown the door—they fight to hold on, they come up with new ideas, but the fix is in. There isn’t going to be a second album.

For anyone else, this would have been the end of a dream. But not for them—and this, too, is a form of genius. The Shampoo made a choice: to go on living in that dream. For that matter: “When the Beatles went to Decca Records, they laughed at them and said, ‘Guitar groups are on the way out.’ A few years later, that CEO killed himself. Scussel did to them what Decca did to the Beatles in 1962. He destroyed an idea.” An idea that, if you want to really be technical about it: “In terms of syntax, our lyrics are much more precise than anything the Beatles ever wrote.”

It’s been almost forty years now. In keeping with the finest Beatles tradition, there have been artistic disagreements, divorces, changes in the lineup, and reconciliations. And then hair turned gray, then white, trim abs gave way to bellies, and children moved away, out of the country. But the Shampoo are still there, in a recording studio in sleepy Agnano, practicing scales and harmonies for their upcoming reunion (“Our idea is deathless because every Beatles song is immortal”). What remains is the memories: like when you ask them about the groupies in that one magical year they enjoyed.

“They’d come on to us. We were young and good looking, and it was basically raining groupies. I don’t know if it was something that EMI organized. I had to wonder sometimes, because it was unlike anything we’d ever seen,” John recalls. “Statt’ zitt—shut up—or they’ll hear us,” Paul interrupts. They means their wives, four lovely ladies who wait patiently outside the studio for the interview to be over.

“Our wives were saints. Because they put up with us. And they still do.”

© Peppe Fiore. Originally published in the Corriere del Mezzogiorno. Translation © 2022 by Antony Shugaar. All rights reserved.

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