Premiata Forneria Marconi (PFM) is an Italian progressive rock band founded in 1970. PFM’s unique blend of influences and genre-bending compositions echoed many of the themes of their British counterparts such as Genesis and Gentle Giant, while never sounding derivative. Given their Italian heritage, the difference with PFM was in their sense of drama and bravado, their lush melodies and operatic flourishes, all delivered in a blues and rock framework that incorporated elements of traditional Italian music. On top of their skills at composing and arranging these pieces, every band member was a virtuoso musician, including Franz Di Cioccio (drums, lead vocals), Franco Mussida (guitars, lead vocals), Mauro Pagani (violin, flute), and Flavio Premoli (keyboards, lead vocals). Original bass player Giorgio Piazza left the band just after the release of Photos of Ghosts, and was replaced by another fantastic bassist, Patrick Djivas, who has remained with the group ever since. Of the many amazing things about PFM, their live performances are legendary in prog circles based on the sheer adrenaline and talent of the musicianship on display. At times each player seemed to be outdoing the next while extending jams to such a frenetic pace, one would be reminded of a wayward locomotive train, threatening to, but never actually careening off the tracks.
PFM was founded at the dawn of the 1970s, recording two albums with Italian language lyrics Storia di un minuto and Per un amico in 1971-72 before coming to the attention of Greg Lake who signed the band to ELP’s new label Manticore. Lake arranged for lyricist Peter Sinfield, who had worked with King Crimson, ELP and others to write new lyrics, at which point the band re-recorded some of their existing songs and new pieces with these English lyrics, producing Photos of Ghosts in 1973. It’s a brilliant album, from opener “River of Life,” to closer and continuing live favorite “Promenade the Puzzle.” A combination of well chosen layers of grand piano, organ, Mellotron and Moog synthesizer, classical acoustic and electric guitar, colorful often pastoral flute and violin, all backed by powerful yet nuanced percussion renders this album a masterpiece. One track “Il Banchetto” is unchanged from its original version, presented with Italian lyrics and liner notes that explain the meaning of its beautifully sung passages. On the strength of that track alone, this writer collected the original records; a lead anyone interested in the band should follow. PFM went on to record a third Italian language record L’isola di niente in 1974, directly shipping an English language counterpart The World Became the World the same year.
The band toured the United States for the first time in 1974, opening for several established acts such as Aerosmith and Peter Frampton. They appeared for an amazing six nights July 16-21 at the Whiskey-A-Go-Go in Los Angeles, a venue that could barely contain the talent on display. PFM recorded their first live album, the aptly titled Cook on this tour, which was released as a severely truncated single LP in order to introduce the band to a wider audience. This live album was more recently released as a highly recommended expanded three CD set containing the entire performance culled from the same shows. The sets were a showcase for the band’s lightening fast delivery of tremendously complex progressive rock music, from the very Italian sounds of “Four Holes in the Ground” to the blues rocker “Alta Loma Nine ‘Til Five” featuring an impressive guitar solo from Mussida. Fans of the band who were privileged to catch any of these shows without exception recall being shocked and amazed at these fantastic concerts, often reporting that the band “stole the show” from the intended headliners.
After this tour, PFM recruited an additional lead singer Bernardo Lanzetti who took most of the lead vocals on PFM’s last two English language releases Chocolate Kings (1975) and the jazz-fusion driven Jet Lag, recorded in Los Angeles and released in 1977. Lanzetti’s powerful voice fronted a more aggressive sound on these albums, each of which contain an extended central piece, “Out of the Roundabout” on Chocolate Kings, and the title track from Jet Lag, the last record to be released on an American label. These are excellent examples of the progressive rock form, featuring more of PFM’s signature allegro jams and frantic, driven performances. In particular, an increased use of fretless bass from Djivas paired with fusionesque Rhodes piano leads from Premoli elevate Jet Lag to the top tier of the band’s many albums. Though members have come and gone since the end of the 70s, PFM has continued to record and release new material every decade since their inception, each work continuing to demonstrate the enduring talent of these fine musicians.
Many fans like this author discovered PFM a bit too late to see any of their shows outside Italy have since been able to see the band in various reformations at progressive rock festivals and short tours. It’s worth noting that while film is scarce, audio recordings are plentiful, from the most important, now expanded official release Cook, to live CDs termed “official bootlegs” which capture a series of tours since PFM’s inception, volumes numbered under the heading PFM – 10 Anni Live. Arguably given the fact that Cook captures the band in its original lineup, the most important of these is Volume 4: 1977-1978, the Jet Lag Tour, which captures a blistering live performance during Lanzetti’s tenure with the band, and includes tracks from Passpartu, which marked the end of his involvement with PFM.
Paper Charms: Complete BBC Recordings 1974-1976 (2015), Cherry Red Records, 25 min, 1.5:1
As mentioned, film of PFM is hard to find, and this author has not been able to locate a complete performance by the band during their 1970s heyday on video. However black-and-white film of the band performing songs from their first album on Italian television RAI can be found on Progressive Rock in Italy, and on streaming services, though this is difficult to find on DVD. Fortunately, the best of their television performances, taken from the BBC’s Old Grey Whistle Test in the mid 70s are available on the recent compilation available at Cherry Red Records, Paper Charms: Complete BBC Recordings 1974-1976. These films, recorded in 1.5:1 aspect ratio and somehow retaining color and clarity after all these years, are a revelation, a rare chance to see the band in their prime, in studio and stage performances of “Four Holes in the Ground”, “Celebration”, “Mr. Nine ‘Till Five” with the 1974-75 lineup and the track “Chocolate Kings” in 1976 which showcases singer Lanzetti’s contribution. The camera moves smoothly about the band members, providing revealing close-ups of keys, toms, winds and frets, uninterrupted by distracting transitions or other flourishes. This is how the band is best presented, simply performing their most enduring songs with lightening fast precision and aplomb.
Film Strip: (top to bottom) (a) Close-up of winds/violin player Pagani demonstrating rich, vibrant colors (b) Premoli with clear view of his work on keys (c) Mussida shown mid-distance provides a study of his soloing technique (d) Di Cioccio captured less frequently, as is the norm for drummers in early rock video (e) Lanzetti, in 76, part of the best preserved film segment from BBC’s OGWT