The Meli Lupi Loop
Would Clarence Bicknell have been a rock guitarist?
How have rock music, a modern day Italian marquis, an 18th century typographer and the Victorian polymath become entwined in a rich flurry of culture in Parma this week?
The story starts in the Charlie Chaplin film lot in Hollywood, California, in February 1977... that was the head-quarters of one of the most dynamic private record labels of the 70s and 80s, A&M Records, master-minded by Herb Alpert and Jerry Moss. A&M’s underground rock band Supertramp is about to burst onto the international stage with Even in the Quietest Moments released in April 1977. Band members are around the offices meeting record company executives and promoting the new LP.
Fresh-faced Marcus Bicknell, 29 years old, was appointed to the new post of CEO, A&M Records Europe, in January 1977 and was spending induction time on the lot with the A&Mers to understand the company’s business ethics and to prepare the establishment of their new office in Paris. John Helliwell, Supertramp’s ingenious and characterful sax-player and front man, struck up a conversation with Marcus which has continued for nearly 42 years. As Supertramp’s massive hits rolled out across Europe, John was most frequently the Supertramper who travelled round the continent to promote upcoming records and concerts to the radio stations and journalists, Marcus pulling the strings. Their friendship and extra-mural activities flourished; in 1982 John and his wife Christine joined Marcus and his wife Susie on 1000cc Honda motorcycles in a tour of France, the four of them sporting white leathers provided by Patrice Blanc-Francard’s France Inter radio station and in-helmet CB radio walk-in-talkies.
Years later, as John’s music career develops into jazz with his Creme Anglaise and on tour round Germany with Excalibur he accepts the invitation from Italian guitarist Raimondo Meli Lupi to play in Parma. For October 2018, Raimondo has also invited Chris Thompson, the voice on Manfred Mann’s Blinded by the Light, to play both rock classics (including a couple of Supertramp’s hits from Quietest Moments) and some mellifluous jazz-influenced tunes.
John and Marcus get talking about the 2018 Clarence Bicknell centenary, which is already packed with 40 events - film projection, book launches and talks - in 5 countries. Hmm... John mentions his friend Raimondo who is at the core of Parma’s cultural firmament, involved not just in music but in the Meli Lupi Foundation, charities and sports promotion. What about a Clarence Bicknell event in Parma. Raimondo seizes the opportunity, contacts his friend Professor Marcello Tomaselli of the School of Botany at the Università degli Studi di Parma. A date is set for 10th October for the projection of the film about Clarence Bicknell, a botanist above all the elements of his career, and presentations by Gisella Merello, Giuseppe Bessone of Bordighera and me, Marcus Bicknell, always credited as Clarence’s nephew. Oh, and on the 12th and 13th October, John Helliwell, Chris Thompson, Raimondo Meli Lupi and his musician friends will play the concerts in Parma... we will all get to experience the music too.
This plan is too much for Valerie Lester back in Boston. The biographer of Clarence Bicknell is also the biographer of Parma’s greatest son, Giambattista Bodoni, the prince of typographers, a man who as printer to the royal court was the Rupert Murdoch and the Mark Zuckerberg of middle Italy in the 18th century, the man through whose printing presses all communication flowed. Valerie had spent many months on 5 visits to Parma’s archives between 2008 and 2013 and had fallen in love with the place. Her Bodoni was published in 2016. She was not able to travel to Bordighera and Tende for the July 2018 Clarence Bicknell celebrations so she booked the flights to Parma. We added her to the list of speakers and Parma cocked an ear.
By a remarkable alignment of the planets, Helliwell, Meli Lupi, Bicknell and Lester are united this week in Parma. As I write, we are revelling in the acclaim for the Clarence Bicknell film and seminar on Wednesday; our ears are still buzzing with the roof-raising music of the Friday night concert.
The City of Parma enjoyed the Bicknell event; the dynamic council member fo the Environment and Culture, Tiziana Benassi, came to the event and welcomed us all from the podium... “we have an obligation to preserve and promote culture”. In the meantime Il Marchese Raimondo Meli Lupi di Soragna (for, yes, it is he) has been spoiling us rotten with elegant dining at his country home (indeed, Parma ham) plus visits to Parmesan cheese factories and art galleries. Valerie took us to the Bodoni Museum where she spent so much time studying and where we saw the collection of type matrices and fonts, press, printing equipment and print samples, normally closed to the public. Next door, the Teatro Farnese is the world’s biggest theatre made entirely from wood, a mind-blowing space.
No, Clarence was never a rock guitarist. But the culture of the 21st century is as vibrant as that of the 19th century. We can look back on this week, as on Clarence’s life’s work, with pleasure and pride.
We also learn (thank you John Helliwell, Raimondo Meli Lupi, Professor Marcello Tomaselli, Tiziana Benassi, Giuseppe Bessone, Gisela Merello Folli and Valerie Lester) that one of the greatest privileges of life is the willingness to say “Yes”.
Marcus Bicknell 12 October 2018, Parma