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It's Gibberish, But Italian Pop Song Still Means Something

Cover art from the "Prisencolinensinainciusol" single, released in 1972. The song by Italian pop star Adriano Celentano became a hit in spite of its gibberish lyrics. (Album cover)

In November 1972, Italian pop star Adriano Celentano released a song that hit No. 1 in his home country, despite the fact it wasn't performed in Italian.

It also wasn't performed in English.

In fact, it wasn't performed in any language at all.

The song, called "Prisencolinensinainciusol," was written to mimic the way English sounds to non-English speakers.

Celentano, now 74 years old, says that he wanted to break down language barriers and inspire people to communicate more.

"Ever since I started singing, I was very influenced by American music and everything Americans did," he tells Guy Raz, host of weekends on All Things Considered, through interpreter Sim Smiley.

"So at a certain point, because I like American slang — which, for a singer, is much easier to sing than Italian — I thought that I would write a song which would only have as its theme the inability to communicate," he says. "And to do this, I had to write a song where the lyrics didn't mean anything."

"Prisencolinensinainciusol" is so nonsensical that Celentano didn't even write down the lyrics, but instead improvised them over a looped beat. When it was first released in 1972, Celentano says no one noticed it. But that didn't stop him from performing it several years later on Italian television. The second time was the charm: it immediately became No. 1 in Italy, as well as France, Germany and Belgium.

The song has been characterized as everything from Euro-pop, funk, house and even the world's first rap song — none of which were Celentano's intention.

"From what I know, 10 years later, rap music exploded in the States," he says. "I sang it with an angry tone because the theme was important. It was an anger born out of resignation. I brought to light the fact that people don't communicate."

But is that really what American English sounds like?

"Yes," he says. "Exactly like that."

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Transcript

GUY RAZ, HOST:

It's WEEKENDS on ALL THINGS CONSIDERED, from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz. And it's time now for music...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PRISENCOLINENSINAINCIUSOL")

RAZ: ...by way of Cory Doctorow...

(SOUNDBITE OF COMPUTER KEYBOARD)

RAZ: ...who spends a lot of time on the Internet.

CORY DOCTOROW: I'll stop typing.

RAZ: Cory is one of the founders of Boing Boing. That's one of the most popular blogs on the Internet. And a couple years ago, he stumbled across quite possibly the most bizarre video he had ever seen.

DOCTOROW: Yeah. I don't remember where I found it, but I remember the first time I saw it, absolutely.

RAZ: It was a music video from the 1970s - black-and-white, a lot of dancers in black unitards, in a hall of mirrors. It looked European, but there was something strange about the lyrics.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PRISENCOLINENSINAINCIUSOL")

RAZ: Cory Doctorow could not place the language.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PRISENCOLINENSINAINCIUSOL")

RAZ: Then he noticed the description on the video. It said: "What English Sounds Like to Foreigners."

DOCTOROW: It actually reminded me a lot of a friend of mine who - his background is Canadian and Finnish. And he was always able to talk in nonsense Finnish in a way that Fins, when they heard it, it was like his greatest party trick. And that's exactly what it sounded like to me. I finally had the experience of what it's like to be on the other side of that. It really sounded English-y.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PRISENCOLINENSINAINCIUSOL")

RAZ: After Cory posted the video on Boing Boing, it went viral. And soon, the real source of that video was revealed. It was a 1972 song by Italian pop star Adriano Celentano. And Celentano is one of the biggest stars in Italy. Imagine the love child of Jim Carrey, Bill Mahr and Tom Jones, and you get Celentano.

Anyway, this track, it turns out, was a huge hit across Europe at the time. It's called "Prisencolinensinainciusol" - a title, like the lyrics, that is complete gibberish, totally nonsensical. But it still managed to top the charts, and has even been called the world's first rap song. And since the track's 40th anniversary is this weekend - well, we had to get the story behind it from Adriano Celentano himself, who we reached in Milan...

ADRIANO CELENTANO: Hello.

RAZ: ...through interpreter Sim Smiley.

SIM SMILEY: Buon giorno... Guy Raz, buon giorno.

CELENTANO: Ah, buon giorno.

RAZ: All right. Explain this song to us. What is this song? How did this song come about?

CELENTANO: (Speaking Italian)

SMILEY: (Interpreting) Ever since I started singing, I was very influenced by American music and everything Americans did. So at a certain point, since I like American slang - which, for a singer, is much easier to sing than to sing in Italian - I thought that I would write a song which would only have as its theme the inability to communicate. And to do this, I had to write a song where the lyrics didn't mean anything.

CELENTANO: (Speaking Italian)

SMILEY: (Interpreting) So to make a comparison, it's like what happened with the Tower of Babel. Everyone wanted to go towards the sky, and they were punished because God confused all the languages and no one understood each other anymore. This is the reason why I wrote this song.

RAZ: You actually wrote down those lyrics. You actually wrote words down that are not really words.

SMILEY: (Speaking Italian)

CELENTANO: No. (Speaking Italian)

SMILEY: (Interpreting) I don't know if I can make this comparison in musical terms. But no, I didn't write down the text. I made a loop...

CELENTANO: A loop...

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PRISENCOLINENSINAINCIUSOL")

SMILEY: (Interpreting) ...of four beats...

CELENTANO: (Speaking Italian)

SMILEY: (Interpreting) ...four drumbeats.

CELENTANO: (Speaking Italian)

SMILEY: (Interpreting) And so then, I went to the microphone in the recording studio, and I started improvising.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PRISENCOLINENSINAINCIUSOL")

SMILEY: (Interpreting) And I improvised the melody and the music. And then I called the orchestra...

CELENTANO: (Speaking Italian)

SMILEY: (Interpreting) ...and based on that song, I made the arrangements.

CELENTANO: (Speaking Italian)

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PRISENCOLINENSINAINCIUSOL")

RAZ: So when I hear the song - right - let me tell you what it sounds like to me.

CELENTANO: Si.

RAZ: (Singing) Aye, my eyes wide, said. And he goes and goes and he's so, I, prisencolinensinainciusol. All right.

Is that about right?

SMILEY: (Speaking Italian)

CELENTANO: (Speaking Italian)

SMILEY: (Interpreting) It's not exactly like that.

CELENTANO: (Speaking Italian)

SMILEY: (Interpreting) Do you want me to sing it for you?

RAZ: Please. Yes. Yes. Please.

SMILEY: Prego, prego.

CELENTANO: (Singing) Aye, eyes, my, san fran, and you go so to with peasle. Eyes. (Unintelligible) prisencolinensinainciusol. Alright.

RAZ: Alright. (LAUGHTER)

CELENTANO: (Speaking Italian)

SMILEY: (Interpreting) I think the only correct word, in all of this, is the American word 'alright.'

RAZ: And that actually is the word - alright?

SMILEY: (Speaking Italian)

CELENTANO: Si. Alright.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PRISENCOLINENSINAINCIUSOL")

RAZ: Is this what American English sounds like to you?

SMILEY: (Speaking Italian)

CELENTANO: (Speaking Italian)

SMILEY: (Interpreting) Yes, actually. Exactly like that.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PRISENCOLINENSINAINCIUSOL")

RAZ: Wow. That's cool. I wish it sounded like that.

SMILEY: (Speaking Italian)

CELENTANO: (LAUGHTER)

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PRISENCOLINENSINAINCIUSOL")

CELENTANO: (Speaking Italian)

SMILEY: (Interpreting) When it came out in Italy, no one noticed it. No one understood it. And then I did it again, several years later, on TV - a show with the schoolgirls, and I was their teacher.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PRISENCOLINENSINAINCIUSOL")

SMILEY: (Interpreting) And this was quite striking. And so it hit the number one spot immediately in Italy...

CELENTANO: (Speaking Italian)

SMILEY: (Interpreting) In France, too, and Germany. In Belgium, Luxembourg.

RAZ: All over Europe.

SMILEY: (Speaking Italian)

CELENTANO: (Speaking Italian)

SMILEY: (Interpreting) Yes. And I remember that in the States, it hit the number 86 spot.

RAZ: Wow. I'm amazed that you can still do the (singing) ju rep te dup, you know, with your - the rolling of your tongue. How do you do that?

CELENTANO: (Speaking Italian) (Singing song)

SMILEY: (Interpreting) That's what you mean, right?

RAZ: Incredible.

SMILEY: Incredibile.

CELENTANO: (LAUGHTER)

RAZ: Adriano Celentano, thank you so much.

SMILEY: (Speaking Italian)

CELENTANO: Grazie. Grazie.

RAZ: And if you want to see Adriano Celentano's music video for "Prisencolinensinainciusol," check out our website, npr.org.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "PRISENCOLINENSINAINCIUSOL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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