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Rock Music in Spain: An Intro to Rock History in Western Europe's Youngest Democracy

Updated on February 7, 2012

Intro: A Trojan Horse Named Rocanrol

In the 1950s, the most culturally and spiritually traditionalist government in mid-twentieth-century Western Europe, namely Francisco Franco's dictatorship in Spain, unwittingly invited a revolutionary foreign idea through its carefully guarded borders. Franco himself opened the way by signing a 1953 treaty of alliance with the Eisenhower Administration, which provided for U.S. bases in Spain and U.S. assistance in restoring trade relationships severed on account of Franco's alliance with the Axis Powers. As a result of this treaty, soldiers and tourists alike began streaming into the country in unprecedented numbers, bringing vinyl testimony of a contagious new sound called rock 'n' roll. Though the powers that be could probably not foresee it, this new Anglo-American musical form became, and continues to be, a vital tool for Spaniards trying to come to terms with drastic changes in their society and with tensions between such competing ideas as the Spanish and the foreign (or regional minorities, for that matter), the traditional and the innovative.

Srta. Teenybopper's Golden Oldies: The Yé-Yé Years

The first mainstream rock recorded in Spain, which was released in the 1960s and early 1970s, was pleasant but derivative, due to a combination of musicians emulating their foreign idols and the added factor of government censorship. The regime's censors, closely tied to conservative Catholic clerics, would bar or bowdlerize records foreign and domestic to eliminate what was deemed sexual content and, when rock became about more than the soundtrack to the Saturday dance, political agitation. Public broadcasting outlets ran Top 40 AM radio countdowns and TV variety shows such as Fernando García de la Vega's La Escala de Hi-Fi, where youth danced to lip-synced performances in the American Bandstand tradition. In both official media, the most inoffensive, light continental pop-rock, nicknamed yé-yé, was promoted as the government-approved teen music. Also popular in France and Italy, yé-yé, named after the tendency of doo-wop songs and their rock imitations (such as the Beatles' "She Loves You") to include scat syllables, mixed the melodic, professionally written dance-pop that captivated U.S. radio in the early 1960s with the more propulsive beats and elaborate harmonies of the British Merseybeat groups (and by extension their R&B models). By 1965, the first wave of Spanish yé-yé acts (e.g., Raphael, Karina, El Dúo Dinámico, and Formula V) that cropped up in the first half of the 1960s either moved on to film and adult pop, as Elvis did stateside, or began covering, translating, and emulating the increasingly innovative work of the Beatles, the Rolling Stones, etc., at times in English. Miguel Ríos (later a pop star and producer who brought the schmaltzy Beethoven takeoff "Song of Joy" to 1970s AM pop) and Bruno Lomas were among those who graduated to the new school of Spanglish rock, while Los Bravos (of "Black Is Black" fame), Los Brincos, and Lone Star exemplified the brand-new groups on this scene. Although Spanish yé-yé was by no means artistically groundbreaking, the experience of making and listening to it was crucial in opening up a generation of young people to the completely novel form of music that was to follow.

The Rock Maquís: Regional Underground During the Twilight of Franco

Beyond Madrid and Castile proper, i.e., farther from the central government, other artists from the mid-1960s on found a wide variety of ways to innovate outside the confines of what could be played on national radio, and many of these outsiders wasted no time in critiquing the increasingly moribund Franco regime. The most "high-brow" of these pioneers undoubtedly were the new wave of folk singer-songwriters, including both linguistically persecuted Catalans (e.g., Raimon, Luis Llach, Joan Manuel Serrat) and conscientious Spaniards or Valencians (e.g., Víctor Manuel, Paco Ibáñez, Luis Eduardo Aute). Their polemics often drew on a mixture of then-contemporary Latin American nueva canción ("new song," also called nova canço in Catalan) and American folk in the Seeger-Dylan mold by using a combination of dialect and oblique metaphor grounded in oral tradition, along with skilled interpreters such as María Ostiz and Massiel, to make their point. Occasionally getting the better of the censors, as when a Serrat song won the Eurovision contest (albeit translated crudely to Spanish and sung by Massiel upon Serrat's refusal to compromise his language), these cantautores, as their compatriots called them, provided both a model and a source of covers for generations of local rockers. Some rock groups of the period, such as the Canary Islands' eponymous Los Canarios and Barcelona's Máquina, Om, and Música Dispersa, used lyrics in English and fashionable psychedelic surrealism, both for aesthetic reasons and to free them from the censorship applied to music sung in Spanish. Jazz-rock, blues-rock, and progressive rock, as was the case abroad, were the order of the day in the large cities of the Spanish north and east. Andalusian groups such as Smash, Nuevos Tiempos, and Gong added their southern region's distinctive flamenco motifs to the mix, providing the best example so far of efforts to "domesticate" rock music. If a scene this rich could exist with censored radio, an observer might conclude, a true creative explosion would surely follow when censorship was abolished.

A New Wave of Freedom: The Movida (1975-1990)

After Franco's death in 1975, his anointed successor, King Juan Carlos II, surprised one and all by facing down the most die-hard fascists (even when they attempted a coup in 1981) and replacing a crumbling dictatorship with a parliamentary democracy, including guarantees of freedom of speech. The Ministry of Culture and the various, increasingly autonomous regional governments promoted public concerts, including those by rock groups, as an economic asset, while independent commercial media sprang up along the lines of the standard Western music industry. FM radio, TV variety shows (now including music videos) such as the live La Bola de Cristal and the historical La Edad de Oro, Rolling Stone-style magazines such as Rockdelux, and a crop of indie labels such (e.g., DRO, GASA), all contributed to an innovative, daring scene the likes of which most listeners in Spain had never dreamed of before, especially in northern areas like Castile, Galicia, and the Basque Country. Although most groups availed themselves of their new freedom to write in national languages rather than English, deepening ties with Europe fostered a wide audience for British styles, starting with bands such as Burning and Mermelada that called themselves rolinga in honor of the Stones riffs they combined with glam-rock theatrics. Punk came on the scene with the frank, typically controversial work of Madrid's Ramoncín and Kaka de Luxe, not to mention Sinestro Total and Os Resentidos, both hailing from the bustling port of Vigo in northwestern Galicia. Working-class urban punk fans eventually gravitated most toward ska-punk and Oi! currents, echoed both in the Spanish-language prole rock of Leño and Barricada and in the oft-confrontational Basque rock radical vasco scene that produced groups such as La Polla Records, Eskorbuto, and Kortatu. Any discussion of Spanish rock urbano (an umbrella term for rock listened to by urban young people) would be incomplete without mentioning the hard rock of Barón Rojo, Obús, and Ñu, who often took great pains to incorporate Spanish folklore and literature into the standard palette of heavy metal subject matter and imagery. Middle-class Madrid youth, experiencing their own belated Woodstock era of sorts, listened to more melodic and less political, though no less culturally rebellious, styles of new wave and synth-pop. Mecano, La Unión, Los Secretos and Alaska y los Pegamoides made this type of music the true soundtrack of the energetic, libertine '80s Spain glimpsed in the films of Almodóvar.

Rock 'n' Roots: The Regional Side of Spanish Rock After Franco

In more rural areas, and even in regional centers such as Barcelona, Valencia, and Seville, the most popular rock groups tended to eschew reworking the latest British fads, instead opting to explore the roots of rock and of themselves, to play the Springsteen to the Madrid groups' Sting. Catalan punk may have had a following, but it couldn't hold a candle to the local radio airplay of roots-rock and neo-rockabilly groups, particularly Los Rebeldes and Loquillo y los Trogloditas, These bands reveled in exploring the rich, multiracial heritage of American rock 'n' roll that was now locally available sans government pre-approval. Flamenco-rock groups (e.g., Triana, Pata Negra, El Último de la Fila) and similar singers (e.g., Kiko Veneno, Martirio) were favored by Andalusian public radio and listeners alike, benefiting from a new regionalist political climate that was conducive to this mixture of the local musical traditions and a cocktail of blues, jazz, and rock additives.

Audio Tapas: The Present Indie Explosion

Spain's European Union membership, economic instability, and a general turn of the Movida groups toward pop created a cultural vacuum for rock-oriented Spanish Gen-X'ers and their millennial successors. The initial novelty value of uncensored rock in Spanish, like that of censored rock in the 1960s, was wearing off. Exposed to the full range of rock music worldwide through both print and new electronic media, Spanish artists and entrepreneurs were ready to start a full-fledged "indie" scene. In Spain as elsewhere, "indie" is mainly an academic umbrella term to describe an incredibly diverse set of somewhat unconventional acts, a catchall synonym for "alternative." However, some regional scenes stand out for their distinctive styles and self-sustaining business models, especially when fueled by indie labels. Luis Calvo's Elefant label in San Sebastián, Basque Country, specializes in indie-pop with flavors of British twee-pop termed the Sonido Donosti, spawning hits by the local La Buena Vida and Granada's Los Planetas. Another Basque label, Getxo's Radiation Records, has put out noise-rock by groups such as El Inquilino Comunista. Grunge and post-grunge is more the speed of Carlos Galán's Subterfuge Records (note the similar name, though certainly not intentional, to Seattle's Sub Pop). Located in Gijón, Asturias, Subterfuge launched the bands Australian Blonde and Penelope Trip. There's more to contemporary rock than suburban angst, of course. Rock urbano is as alive as ever through the efforts of Extremoduro (oddly enough, from Extremadura) and two duos from Bilbao, Platero y Tú and Fito y Fitipaldis. The nuevo flamenco groups, spearheaded by the collective Ketama, build on the groundwork of earlier flamenco-rock and aspects of African, Middle Eastern, and Asian music to craft a mélange perfectly suited for the growing "world music" market, both in Spain and around the world.

Conclusion: Does Spanish Rock Have a Future?

As we've seen, rock music in Spain has come a long way, perhaps further than that in America or the UK, by transforming from an interloper tacitly let in the back door to a vital, dynamic part of Spanish cultural life and the ultimate soundtrack to the massive social transitions Spain has made since the mid-twentieth century. Working in favor of Spain's rock music scene are the benefits of an increasingly wired world economy, in which the latest and earliest music (at least in the case of that which is recorded) from any one place can be accessed freely or cheaply around the world, connecting Spanish fans and artists with their counterparts in other cultures or regions and sometimes even across the language barrier. Working against the commercial acceptance of rock music in Spain, depending on one's point of view, is the lingering controversy, found in many rapidly industrializing countries, over whether commercially marketed popular culture styles such as rock are competing with or even diluting local traditions and values. While rock music in any language can never be completely shorn of its original connection to Anglophone culture, it should come as no surprise that Spain, the homeland of rock's defining instrument, the guitar, has produced musicians adept at making the increasingly indefinable genre of rock their own.

©earswideopen, 2012, all rights reserved

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