April 13, 2023

The well-written essay in the booklet that accompanies this 2-CD set gives an accurate and detailed account of the history of Circus 2000. But if you don’t wish to read through the full 24 pages then their career is summed up perfectly in the first six words of the essay: Right band, right(ish) time, wrong place. Right band in as much as they certainly had the ability; right(ish) time in that the prog scene was just developing and open to their musical style; and wrong place in as much as they were an Italian group based in Turin that sang in English (at a time when almost nobody spoke English in Italy!). The booklet rightly highlights the mismatch between Circus 2000’s guitar-based sound and the Italian prog scene of the time which favoured keyboards and melody (hence, the popularity of British acts such as Van der Graaf Generator and ELP). I would add to that the fact that Italian youth in the ‘60s hadn’t rebelled in the same way as their Anglo-Saxon counterparts, one consequence of which was that the more way out forms of music, and especially the drug-fuelled psychedelic scene, were not so strongly present in Italy.  

So, who were Circus 2000? They were an amalgamation of already-known regional singer Silvana Aliotta, and three musicians who were already playing together as a group called Best Genius – Johnny Betti on drums, Gianni Bianco on bass, and Marcello Quartarone on guitar. Best Genius had a background in jazz, but by 1969 had moved on to doing covers of Hendrix, Cream and the like. The two albums that Circus 2000 released in 1970 and 1972 are included here along with two songs intended for a third album plus various other bonus tracks. Basically, everything the group put down on tape is in these two CDs, so let’s dive in.

 The self-titled debut album is a bit of a mixed bag with some excellent songs sitting side by side with some more routine and predictable material. The debt to early Jefferson Airplane and the vocal style of Grace Slick is evident for all to hear. They do a very passable imitation of Jefferson Airplane though, so much so that they were often assumed to be an American band! I Can’t Believe is a fine example of their better work. It begins with pleasant sounding ‘60s psychedelic pop but the lyrics take it in a different direction as Aliotta laments the death of a father, firstly rather sweetly with the line ‘Only today Mom came to me and said that you died last night’ before much more angrily moving on to ‘Oh please don’t say that you’ve gone; Father, I can’t believe that you left us’. Definitely not Top Of The Pops material!

Must Walk Forever is another highlight. Again, an excellent popish song where they appear to try to go into an Egyptian dance style but by accident produce an attractive reggae beat instead! The title track and The Lord, He Has No Hands both have good rock grooves. Some typical ‘60s meddling tends to get in the way though, so that the catchy refrain of the chorus line of the title track is partly ruined by being followed by heavily distorted vocals singing some strange, invented words. But I guess that’s what you expect from psychedelic music, isn’t it? Likewise, the drug references are not hidden, such as in the warning that you might fall to the ground if you eat a magic bean (this in a song called, not surprisingly, Magic Bean).   

The one song where they seem to try something different is Try All Day which has some nice bluesy guitar that’s offset by some poor male vocals. There’s no indication of which band member took the lead on the singer, but thankfully it was the only such attempt. The ten songs barely make it to thirty minutes so it’s a tad on the short side but at least it’s pleasant listening that doesn’t overstay its welcome. It might have had a potential audience in the UK and USA, but it was only ever released in Italy and Turkey so really didn’t stand a chance.

The bonus tracks on the first CD include the English and Italian single releases of I Am The Witch with I Can’t Believe on the flip side. On the Italian version, I Can’t Believe is entitled Pioggia Sottile, which translates to Light Rain and has a different lyric – presumably because moaning about the weather is more culturally acceptable to Italians than berating parents for being dead. The first CD is completed by a single that was released in 1971. Regalami Un Sabato Sera is an upbeat number ruined by an intrusive horn arrangement. The B side was entitled Ho Regalato I Cappelli but is just a change of title and lyric for a slightly longer version of Must Walk Forever, in which sadly the ‘reggae bit’ gets toned down.

That debut album was already out of date in 1970 so something different was needed for the follow-up, 1972’s An Escape From A Box. There were only five tracks this time which hints at the change as the psychedelic pop influences are toned down in favour of a more bluesy rock proto-progressive sound……… that would have been in fashion in the UK around 1970. So, Circus 2000 still managed to be a couple of years behind the time. Despite this, An Escape From A Box is a fascinating album and hints at what might have been if they had stayed together.

The first three songs, which would have comprised the first side of the vinyl release, are all solid mid-paced efforts of around six minutes. Opener Hey Man builds up nicely from a good opening melody and through an instrumental workout to a strong climax with Aliotta now taking on more of an aggressive Janis Joplin style of vocal. You Aren’t Listening has some Indian overtones but lyrically I’m afraid it’s back to their obsession with dead parents as the song opens with the line ‘See your children growing fairly fast while your father quietly slowly dies’ – sung in a very disturbingly calm tone. Next is Our Father – this time, the one up in the sky, I believe, who at least doesn’t get killed off in the song. It’s another bluesy piece with an excellent performance by Aliotta. This had potential to be an outstanding song, but the second part deviates off into a jazzy guitar solo before concluding rather limply. The two eight-minute songs that complete the album are a little more backward looking and experimental, especially When The Sun Refuses To Shine which is a meandering and dated psychedelic piece. The other song, Need, is a more interesting and tighter bluesy affair with yet another fine performance from Aliotta.

The bonus tracks linked to An Escape From A Box are not particularly interesting – an edited version of Need and the single version of Hey Man which is simply the same song split over the two sides of the single. However, more intriguing are the two songs which were put down for a planned third album. They were sung in Italian, and the band seem to be moving into a more mainstream Italian pop sound. Dove Va La Mia Gente is particularly strong. It seems the label were looking for more rock-oriented material though and that impasse led to the end of the road for Circus 2000.

Sadly, the members of Circus 2000 didn’t make much money from the albums. They didn’t sign any paperwork regarding ownership rights, so their label claimed authorship of the songs and got any royalties as a result. Well done to Grapefruit Records who have set the record straight here and credited the band with their compositions. So, helping pay those lost royalties is an additional reason for buying this fascinating slice of music that represents one of the more unusual backwaters of the psychedelic era.