The Importance of Being Earnest: Celebrating the Godlike Genius of Mike Francis
We delve deep into the life and work of an emotional Italian icon.
"Hey survivor/Don't you be afraid/We are waiting for you/And soon you'll be back again."
Mike Francis - Survivor (1984)
The Italian city of Florence is famous for many things, yet, while it was the home of the renaissance and the Medici family, it was also home to someone else, someone more important. Florence was the birthplace of Michele Francesco Puccioni. Born in April 1961, Puccioni went on to find fame under the name Mike Francis. It was as Mike Francis that he produced some of the most beautiful music that this world's ever heard.
He could do baleful blue-eyed soul, he could do liquid silk smooth italo disco, he could do sandy bottomed balearic incantations. Everything he touched over the span of nearly thirty years was imbued with a sense of a sad hopefulness, as if his world was constantly on the verge of falling apart but maybe, just maybe, this next song would stick the scattered parts of his heart back together again. Over the course of fifteen albums and countless singles and compilation appearances, Francis dedicated his working life to exploring the possibilities of earnestness, sincerity, and sentimentality.
Francis made music seemingly custom built for confused cab rides home at 4am when your head's' spinning and your hands are in the lap of a lap you used to know and the only thing that's going to make even a modicum of sense is whatever's playing on Magic FM at that time of morning. Records like "Only For a Lifetime" and "Times out of Time" fit perfectly next to "Move Closer" by Phyllis Nelson, or The Floaters' "Float On" —these are songs that sound absolutely out of the world when heard in the back of a taxi in the rain, songs that take on their own lives in that hushed environment, at that moment when day and night have ceased to exist in a binary, at the point when you realise that everything's destined to drift along in the same sad shitty way it always does. Mike Francis, the man with a voice that'll forever remind us of pine scented air freshener and the painful pointlessness of red lights at pedestrian crossings at hours when streets are depopulated.
Mike Francis - Understanding (1995)
Like most musicians worth their salt, Francis started young, playing in groups at school. By 1984, aged just 23, he'd scored an international hit with the timeless "Survivor", the song he's best known for. Produced by Italian dream-duo P&P Micioni (the men responsible for other Italian classics like Gary Low's "I Want You" and "Grande Joe" by Banco), the song went onto become a genuine balearic classic. It's not hard to see why it sold by the bucketload, nor is it difficult to understand why those of us with a predilection for mining the Alfredo/Amnesia continuum still love it. "Survivor" is the blueprint for every magic moment the man went on to conjure up. It's heartbroken and hopeful, a potent emotional cocktail if there ever was one.
Continued international success, sadly, didn't follow. Or at least not in the way it should have done. "Friends" written for and performed with disco doyenne Amii Stewart was a modest hit here in the UK and elsewhere in the world, and is the Mike Francis record you're most likely to hear on the radio in the sadlad sketch drawn above. The follow-up, 1985's minor-but-wonderful "Together" didn't set the world alight. There was also, weirdly, a split single with Whitney Houston that arrived two years later. Francis' contribution, the aching "Still I'm Running Back to You" was overshadowed by Houston's hit single "Love Will Save the Day." The 7" never made it past the promo stage and that, largely, was that. The world moved on and forgot about the Florentian songwriter. Sure, he went on to record a series of laidback chill out records as part of a group named Mystic Diversion, but the fame he deserved largely eluded him, and he sunk into the sands of time.
Not everyone's forgotten him, though, and Francis is an artist who deserves to be remembered fondly and listened to still, for very few acts out there are able to plumb the depths of total and unerring sincerity and romanticism without falling into the death-trap that is over-done earnestness. If there's one song that demonstrates Francis' ability to conjure a very real atmosphere, it's early single "Let Me In."
"Let Me In" is an undebatable masterpiece, the kind of record that's once heard and never forgotten, a towering human achievement that's up there with the Sistine Chapel, or the McDonalds double cheeseburger. Built around the kind of plump, Italo-tinged bassline that positively drips with unbridled emotion, a piano line so pristinely perfect that it sounds like it was carved from the finest marble, and an unmistakably haunting vocal, it could soundtrack the ending to best film you've never seen.
"Let Me In" is an object lesson in just how powerful sincerity can be in pop music. Most of us learn that the only way to get through life as unscathed as possible, emotionally at least, is to couch everything we think, feel, and do in a gauzy veil of irony, because ironizing our own existence means we can't ever really be held accountable for our fuck ups and failures. It was all a joke! We never meant anything! Look at us now — crushed but superior!
Mike Francis is an anti-irony authority figure. It's nigh on impossible to listen to "Let Me In" and not feel at least some emotional affect. There's something about the openness of it, the completely untethered sense of longing, yearning, that's complete magic. The sophistipop backing, as elementally gorgeous as it is, is a perfectly blank canvas upon which Francis' dreamy voice paints a pained portrait of love lost. The relationship between music and transcendentalism is an oft-talked about topic, and most of the time our discourse revolves round the (admittedly incredible) interplay between kickdrums and Class A drugs, but this, this, is the real deal. "Let Me In" isn't of this world. It's above and beyond it.
Mike Francis - Livin' It Up (1991)
When it all comes down to it, how can you not love and respect and cherish a man who dared to dream, a man who called his albums things like Let's Not Talk About It and Features of Love and Flashes of Life and Dreams of a Lifetime and A Different Air? Do we not, in these unimaginably dark times, deserve someone like this? Do we not need them more than ever? Are we not all crying out for music this perfect and still and contemplative and, most importantly, human? Mike Francis sings the words we can't even bring ourselves to utter, and for that we should forever hold him in the highest esteem.
He passed away in 2009, after a battle with lung cancer. Just days before he died, The Very Best Of Mike Francis (All Was Missing) was released. After Mike Francis, nothing was missing.