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LIVE (Mellow MMP 150) [recorded 1970]

BANCO DEL MUTUO SOCCORSO (Dischi Ricordi CDOR 8041) [1972]

DARWIN! (Dischi Recordi CDOR 8094) [1972]

IO SONO NATO LIBERO (Dischi Ricordi CDOR 8202) [1973]

BANCO (Manticore/Japanese Victor VICP 60815) [1975]

GAROFANO ROSSO (Virgin Dischi MPICD 1005) [1976]

COME IN UN’ULTIMA CENA (Virgin Dischi MPICD 1001) [1976] …DI TERRA (Virgin Dischi MPICD 1002) [1978]

CANTO DI PRIMAVERA (Virgin Dischi MPICD 1004) [1979]

CAPOLINEA (Virgin Dischi MPICD 1003) [1980]

…E VIA (Italian CBS 460568 2) [1985]


B.M.S./DARWIN (Virgin Dischi BMSX 1CD) [1991]

IL 13 (EMI Italiana 7243 8 30559 2 0) [1994]

That’s an impressive list of albums, spanning three decades, and it by no means includes all of this group’s albums, omitting as it does at least four albums from the ‘80s which I haven’t encountered on CD. But the important ones are the second through the eighth.

Banco del Mutuo Soccorso (“the bank of self help” – a piggy bank) is one of the top bands of Italy’s golden age of progressive rock. They initially formed around two brothers, Vittorio Nocenzi and Gianni Nocenzi – both keyboard players who doubled on flute, clarinet and recorder – and gained identity with their vocalist, Francesco Di Giacomo, an operatic tenor. The Nocenzi brothers created the band in 1969 and even recorded a “lost” album in 1970 for RCA Italiana (three cuts of which surfaced on a promotional cassette, SOUND 70, along with material by Trip and the early version of Balletto Di Bronzo) with an early five-piece version of Banco.  

In THE RETURN OF ITALIAN POP Paolo Barotto states that “In 1971, during the second Caracalla pop festival, Gianni and Vittorio Nocenzi … got in contact with Marcello Todaro (guitarist for Fiori Di Campo) and three members of Le Esperienze: Renato D’Angelo (bass), Francesco Di Giacomo (singer) and Pierluigi Calderoni (drums)” and this formed the six-man lineup on the first released Banco album, the self-titled BANCO DEL MUTUO SOCCORSO.

But, curiously, Mellow has released a LIVE album with that same lineup, supposedly recorded on December 27, 1970. Somebody has their facts wrong, but I’m not sure whom. (I suspect the date of the live recordings is wrong.) This album is, in any event, of only bootleg sound quality and something only serious Banco collectors will want. (Three of its four pieces appear – far better recorded – on their first studio album, in much shorter versions. The live versions of two of them are over 22 minutes and over 27 minutes, respectively….) But it does show the material in the process of evolution.

BANCO DEL MUTUO SOCCORSO itself was an auspicious debut. It came out early in 1972. The music seemed to be built upon Baroque models and this was particularly obvious in “Passagio,” a work for solo harpsichord in which we hear the musician walking across the floor to the instrument, seating himself, and playing and humming to himself. It’s a short interlude between two major Banco works (both played on LIVE), “R.I.P.” and “Metamorfosi.” The latter is a stunning suite which indeed metamorphoses from one theme into another, accompanied by some synthesizer explosions at the right places. The album concludes with the short “Traccia.”

DARWIN! “deals with the evolution of the human race as an overall concept,” according to Barotto. It was released at the end of 1972, less than a year after the first album, and it builds well upon that album’s musical strengths. Interestingly, nearly every track on this album begins with a slow fade up from inaudibility. It should be remarked that while this was largely instrumental music, Di Giacomo’s vocal contributions were notable. Revealed by cover photos to be a very large man with a full beard and twinkling eyes, he sang with a pure high operatic tenor which was (and still is) unique in rock.  

IO SONO NATO LIBERO is an evolutionary successor which came out in 1973.   Not a “concept album,” it nonetheless was a strong album as well, supplying almost half the material for the English-language album that would follow.   These first three albums form a musical trilogy of sorts, full of richly progressive music. (The original LP is handsomely packaged with a die-cut cover which opens to display 12 pages of photos and lyrics. The CD’s booklet replicates only four of them.)

In 1974, during a heavy touring schedule, Banco went to England, following in the steps of PFM and Orme. PFM had been the first Italian band signed by Emerson, Lake & Palmer’s Manticore label. Manticore had ex-King Crimson lyricist Peter Sinfield write English lyrics for PFM.   Orme had cut an English-language version of their science fiction concept album, FELONA E SORONA, with lyrics by Van Der Graaf Generator’s Peter Hammill for the British Charisma label.   Banco made BANCO for Manticore.

BANCO was a mixture of new and re-recorded older material. And guitarist Todaro had left the band to be replaced by Homo Sapiens’ Rodolfo Maltese, who also played trumpet and did backing vocals on the album. This album was widely distributed in the United States by domestic Manticore, but Banco never toured the U.S. and no subsequent albums were released here (in part due to Manticore’s own problems which caused the label to lose its affiliation with Atlantic Records and eventually shut down; BANCO was released in the U.S. through Motown).

Three tracks on BANCO are new: “Chorale (from Traccia’s Theme)”, “L’Albero Del Pane (The Bread Tree)” (the only piece sung in Italian) and “Outside.”   That last sounds suspiciously similar to PFM’s “Celebration.” “Metamorphosis” is a new version of “Metamorfosi” from the first album.   Marva Jan Morrow supplied English lyrics for the remaining three tracks, all re-recorded from the third album: “Leave Me Alone” (originally “Non Mi Rompete,” also released as an Italian single), “Nothing’s The Same” (“Dopo…Niente”), and “Traccia II.” The recorded sound is richer and fuller than that of the previous albums and this album served as an excellent introduction to the band for American and British listeners.

Manticore released the next two Banco albums as well – but not in the U.S. or England. GAROFANO ROSSO, in 1976, was a completely instrumental album (Di Giacomo is credited only with “documentazione”), a soundtrack for the Italian film of the same name. My copy of the LP is on Italian Manticore, released through Banco’s previous Italian label, Dischi Ricordi. The album has 12 short tracks, the longest running less than eight minutes and most of them under three, segued together. It’s not a bad album, but feels thematically and musically a bit thinner than those which preceded it.

COME IN UN’ULTIMA CENA, released later the same year, had two editions, one in Italian and the other, AS IN A LAST SUPPER, in English. My copy of the English-version LP is on German Manticore, released through Ariola (a major German label). The version available on CD, however, is the Italian version. “At Supper, For Example” becomes “…A Cena, Per Esempio,” “The Spider” is “Il Ragno,” and “John Has A Good Heart, But…” translates to “E’ Cosi’ Buono Giovanni, Ma…”, etc. (The English lyrics were by Angelo Branduardi, a noted Italian singer who made a couple of semi-progressive albums himself.) I doubt the English version will ever be released on CD, but I’d love to be proved wrong. Barotto says of the album that “it has a sound that is even more classical than on the previous work.”   Built around the crucifixion of Christ, it has a startling cover (a photo of a spike being driven through a hand), and powerful music. In many respects this was Banco’s last album in the mode of earlier albums.   (Interestingly, on the English version the group is identified throughout only as “Banco,” but the Italian version uses their full name.)

With …DI TERRA Banco returned to Dischi Ricordi – and this album would be the capstone for the group: it is totally unlike either the albums which preceded it or would follow it, and is a masterpiece.   My gut feeling is that the Nocenzi brothers (who always wrote the band’s music) had discovered the Third Stream jazz of the late ‘50s and early ‘60s.   There are touches of Gil Evans, George Russell and John Lewis here, along with bits of Stravinsky. Although one track has elements of fusion music, most of this album is sophisticated jazz. Maltese (who composed one track) plays some excellent trumpet on the album, and Alan King provides alto sax and flute. There are no vocals. In addition to the band, Vittorio Nocenzi leads the Orchestra dell’Unione Musicisti di Roma, supplying solid orchestral support.   Had this album appeared suddenly in 1959 it would have been completely at home with the Third Stream albums then coming out. Indeed, it is better than some of them.

But it was not well received in 1978. Barotto says “it wasn’t accepted very well by the old fans of the group.” He regards the album as “not easily accessible.” Too bad, because after that the road for Banco went downhill. (It was also with …DI TERRA that Banco del Mutuo Soccorso became simply “Banco” on its album covers – although Barotto incorrectly credits this change to a later album, CAPOLINEA.)      

CANTO DI PRIMAVERA was a weak return to rock for Banco. Barotto states that “In this album there’s a definitive decline of the musical and poetical freshness of the cuts.” Gianni Colaiacomo replaced Renato D’Angelo on bass, and Luigi Cinque came in on sax.  The result was disco-fied horns and a nervous, funky bass.  It was 1979, and the Italian music scene was - as it was elsewhere in the world - rapidly changing.  The material still sounded somewhat like that of the earlier, progressive Banco, but it was stripped of ambition and musically superficial.   Banco was starting to sound tired and to lose its direction.

The final straw was CAPOLINEA, a name which must mean more to Italians than it does to me, since Barotto claims that “It is not just by chance that the next album is called CAPOLINEA. ... The album presents all the best pieces of their repertoire from 1971 to 1980 in a funky version which was not particularly appreciated by their old fans.”   This is a live album - a fact which is not mentioned anywhere on the CD, but which was readily acknowledged on the LP: “Registrato dal vivo al ‘Capolinea Jazz Club’ di Milano e durante la tournee ’79-80.”  (It doesn’t sound like an intimate “jazz club,” however.  The audience sounds like it’s a large one and in a stadium.)  The pieces range from “Il Ragno” and “Non Mi Rompete” to the previous year’s “Canto Di Primavera,” and go back to the first album’s “R.I.P.”  But all are done in versions which deny the depth, purpose and ambition of the original pieces.  The sax player is gone, but Karl Potter is added on “percussion,” and several pieces are tarted up with disco beats.  The one “new” piece is “Capolinea.”  On the original LP its first half is used to end side 1 and fades into applause.  Side 2 opens with the second half, which fades back in from applause.  Apparently no one at Virgin Dischi gave this much thought when the CD was mastered, so “Capolinea” remains in two parts, separated by applause.  The applause sounds like it was mixed in after the fact.
That was the old Banco’s last hurrah - for more than a decade.  By the 1980s the siren of popular success was singing to Banco and the band followed PFM and others away from progressive rock and into pop music.

Banco released a series of albums in the ‘80s for Italian CBS.   Barotto says “Maybe their best album for CBS, BANCO was released in 1983 and included some cuts in the group’s old style, like ‘Traccia III’ and ‘Piovera.’”   But basically the ‘80s albums were pop albums. …E VIA, for example, lacks the distinctive Banco keyboard sound, the baroque influences, and could have been recorded by any anonymous Italian band of the era. And PRESENTA FRANCESCO DI GIACOMO is a pop singer’s album, with Banco only an even more anonymous backing band.

But in 1991 Banco did a curious thing:  they re-recorded their first two albums for Virgin Dischi (which now owned Dischi Ricordi) to release as a 20th anniversary package. The double-CD jewel box came in a large plastic box, almost 12½ inches high by 10 inches wide and an inch thick, shaped like the outline of the clay pottery bank depicted on the cover of their first studio album.  By this point the band still included Vittorio Nocenzi (but Gianni was out), along with Di Giacomo, Maltese and Calderoni, and was augmented by different musicians on different tracks.  An accompanying booklet contains a thorough discography and personnel lineup (with prior bands) and long, detailed notes on each album by Vittorio - in Italian.

The re-recorded albums are far from exact duplicates of the original albums, although in places they come surprisingly close.  But “Passaggio” is no longer a solo harpsichord piece: there are two keyboard players (Piercarlo Penta joins Vittorio) and a full orchestra, making for a longer piece overall.   And “Metamorfosi” no longer has those synthesizer explosions.  The recording is richer and fuller, sonically, but the music lacks some of its original freshness of performance.

If that set proved Banco could still play the old music, the 1994 IL 13 (which was not Banco’s 13th album - it was perhaps their 15th) proved that they didn’t want to.  It marked a return to the pop of the ‘80s, and will disappoint anyone who had hoped the ‘90s would see their more progressive side flower again.   Like PFM, Banco is capable of performing their “greatest hits,” but prefers not to pursue that direction in their new works.    This is a pity, but their recorded legacy of the ‘70s remains for us.

All of their original albums are available on CD, all but one from Italy (in skimpy packages – most have only a single card in their jewel boxes; no booklets – markedly inferior to the packaging of the original LPs and often lacking personnel credits). The exception is Manticore’s BANCO, which is available only in a recently released (2000) mini-LP-format CD from Japan mastered in “20 bit K2 super coding” as part of a series of Manticore releases on CD which includes their PFM and ELP releases. The CD package accurately replicates the original gatefold LP packaging. As noted, their third Manticore album is available only in the Italian version and the second, GAROFANO ROSSO, apparently never had an “English version,” since it was an Italian soundtrack album with no vocals.

I recommend all their studio albums, from BANCO DEL MUTUO SOCCORSO through …DI TERRA, with the latter particularly recommended to those who enjoy Third Stream jazz. Skip the others unless you want to try LIVE, which is sonically crappy but musically and historically interesting.

UPDATE [06-25-01]:

Banco appeared at the 2000 Progfest and by all reports were a huge success. I saw them at the 2001 NEARfest, and can easily understand their Progfest success – because they repeated it.

Three members of the ’70s Banco remain in this band: Vittorio Nocenzi (keyboards and leader), Francesco Di Giacomo (vocalist) and Rodolfo Maltese (guitar). They are augmented by Alessandro Papotto (saxes, flutes, clarinet), Filippo Marcheggiani (guitar), Tiziano Ricci (bass) and Maurizio Masi (drums, percussion).  

The two-hour set (which closed out the Festival Sunday night) demonstrated a new return to Banco’s progressive origins, with Nocenzi’s powerful left hand at the keyboard (mostly a piano patch) the driving force. A number of the old “hits” were played, but some of them had fresh, new – and interesting – intros and outros.

I had feared a perfunctory “greatest hits” approach from the band, but those fears proved to be groundless.   This Banco played like a powerful fresh band. And Francesco, who appears to have lost perhaps 100 pounds and is still a big man, has lost none of his vocal power or clarity, his voice still a fine proud instrument. At one point he and Vittorio had the stage to themselves, creating music every bit as powerful as that of the full band.

While I was at NEARfest I saw, but did not get, Banco CDs recorded at their concerts in Mexico and elsewhere (they’ve been playing progressive rock festivals); I look forward to acquiring and reporting on these albums. I can only wonder if Banco will make a studio album reflecting this return to progressive rock.

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