When rock music meets religion it’s often viewed suspiciously. But when the news broke in September that Pope Francis was releasing a prog album called Wake Up!, the world snapped to attention.
So is Il Papa a Genesis-loving proghead? Well, he might be the coolest pope to date – partly down to his position as a nightclub bouncer back as a student in Buenos Aires – but it’s been tough to get a fix on his actual music tastes. The bias on Wake Up! comes squarely from two collaborators: artistic director Don Giulio Neroni and progressive rock guitarist Tony Pagliuca.
Ordained presbyter Don Neroni, a lively soul and aged 80 just two years older than the pontiff, began working with Vatican Radio in 1964. “I recorded with both Pope Giovanni Paolo II and Benedetto XVI,” he says. “For me this project is a sort of custom, because it is my vocation as a priest to spread the Pope’s word.”
Self-taught musically from influences that he describes as “from another century… what moves me are the Neapolitan and Roman songs that my mum and dad used to sing when working in the fields for grape harvesting”, unlikely boundary pusher Don Neroni feels that putting speeches to progressive rock fits the Pope’s personality, and also the younger audiences they’re hoping to reach.
“Pope Francesco is different from the other popes,” he says. “They’ve all used an aulic [courtly] language, while Pope Francesco speaks in a very accessible manner. Wake Up! is three-quarters based on speeches given on World Youth Day, but we want to speak to everyone in the community. [Prog rock] is a very modern style and represents the Pope’s communication style well.”
Each track is a short speech partnered with a piece of Gregorian music, reworked as a new composition, often rather lush-sounding and beautifully orchestrated. Involved in this process is Tony Pagliuca, former guitarist with Italian proggers Le Orme, with whom he played from the late 60s to the early 90s. Pagliuca met Don Neroni 20 years ago, after he saw a TV debate around the priest’s rock version of holy chant Salve Regina.
“A big argument started in the studio, and I was laughing,” Don Neroni says. “The next day, Tony called me and said: ‘Don Neroni, you really played them!’ Ever since then we’ve been friends and we’ve done many collaborations.”
Following the release of his Christmas Mass CD La Notte Della Stella, in 1999 the Vatican asked Pagliuca to write their Jubilee Hymn, but he was unable to summon inspiration. With Wake Up! the Pope is Pagliuca’s muse right now.
“This Pope is about changing lives for the better,” he says. “He represents a big hope in contributing to a new era.”
Giving the devil some competition for all the best tunes, the reaction to Wake Up! so far has been extremely positive, eliciting the unexpected compliment “an album made by God” from left-wing Italian daily newspaper_ Il Fatto Quotidano_. Pagliuca can even envisage touring the record – “I’m thinking theatres,” he says – although Don Neroni says there’ll be no Pope accompaniment or visit to Wembley, in the historic pantofoled steps of John Paul II in 1982. “He won’t tour,” he laughs. “This Pope can’t sing.”
Wake Up! is out now via Believe Digital.