A Dark Rapture: The Rise of Punk in Spain

Spanish punkers came swinging harder than ever, screaming not for the sake of inducing change, but screaming for the sake of screaming – because now they could.

With the eventual collapse of the Franco regime in Spain came a strange moment of indecision, a confused emotional space. Being denied a freedom of expression for so long, the Spanish were held in a curious suspension of uncertainty and desire, a wish to explore openly and yet still hesitant to try the newfound space of independence. For the youth of Spain in particular, this new open space for discovery and creative endeavours meant that new designs could be made on the artistic cultures that couldn’t flourish as freely under Franco’s rule.

Whereas punk for the UK and the US was a comment on culture; for Spain, punk was a culture of comment.
It would seem somewhat coincidental, then, that the Spanish Constitution of 1978, a law which would redress many of the constitutional laws laid down by Franco, would be passed right around the time of the country’s insurgence of punk rock culture. In a faithful push toward democracy, Spanish youth now experimented with the arts with a restless energy; the resultant efforts would produce some of the strangest and most sublime works that still leave an impressionable thumbprint of ingenuity today.

Punk for Spain may have been a far more subversive tool than it was for England. England certainly had Thatcher, but for all her near-sighted, right-winging policies of misaligned convictions, she was no Franco. Francisco Franco, a dictator who came to power in Spain in 1939, ruled with a merciless force that earned support from local fascist movements as well as Hitler and Mussolini, erecting concentration camps and carrying out executions toward enemies, perceived and real, who posed a threat to the regime. In a stretch of rulership that lasted 36 years, Franco left an indelible mark on the social culture that would continue to affect the Spanish for years after.

The movement in Spain following the collapse of the Franco regime was La Movida Madrileña (The Madrilenian Scene). It was a movement (initially born in Madrid, later encompassing other cities) in which newfangled artistic endeavors could thrive with abandon. Whatever had been suppressed under Franco’s rule would soon surface with a vengeance within the scene, and many important musicians and filmmakers would make their mark in the movement. One of La Movida Madrileña’s most significant figures was director Pedro Almodóvar, whose risqué and taboo-busting films would soon reach worldwide notoriety. Other more insidious experiments would flourish in the shadows of the movement, namely the new fascination with recreational drugs that, at times, informed many of the artistic activities. Naturally, it was also this movement which provided a fertile ground for Spain’s punk musicians, affording them an empathetic and supportive environment in which they could put their new ideas into practice.

Ecstasy and fury, punk’s two prime ingredients, were the emotions on call for Spain’s ambiguous, sometimes surreal representations of the ideas of freedom. If you wanted to pinpoint the flagship of Spanish punk, the general mouthpiece of the movement that signalled the arrival of the culture, you could look toward Iván Zulueta’s hallucinatory horror-drama, Arrebato (1980). A minor masterpiece of paranormal sublimation and understatement, Arrebato brought to light the rise of underground drug culture in Spain, which in many ways was inextricable from the burgeoning culture of punk-rock. Zulueta’s film documented what, 25 years on from its release, would be called “heroin chic”. In the high fashion circles of London and New York during the mid-'90s, “heroin chic” denoted a trend in style, a look that glamorized the use of heroin and its dismally unhealthy side effects. In Spain, in the late '70s and early '80s, it was seen, perhaps, as an experiment and experience in differentiating identities that followed the collapse of the regime.

In Arrebato, Zulueta examines the nature of cinema through the concept of vampirism. The story follows a young, hapless filmmaker named José who spends his days and nights getting high and working on B-grade films. After receiving a strange package containing a film reel from a long-forgotten friend, José begins to notice a deeply coded message in the filmstrip, which seems to suggest that a preternatural force is at work within the frames. José will later learn that his friend has simply vanished without a trace and that the camera his friend was using holds a very real and dangerous power.

The film works to draw parallels between the allure of cinema and drug addiction. The idea that both film and the camera (the all-seeing eye of imagined reality) are the vampires of modern youth is unequivocally allied with the euphoric high of drugs. Zulueta means to illustrate that the intrinsic need for self-expression is at once seductive and damaging in the same way that heroin is (the drug of choice in Arrebato; nearly every character is under its influence). The English translation of the film’s title is “rapture”, a reference to the surging high provided by heroin and also a slyly ironic analogy between religious eschatology and cinema; Arrebato discusses, rather obliquely, the joys of self-annihilation, the obliteration of the self and identity.

Much the way certain characters in the film disappear as a result of their deadly obsession with film, punk-rock is the leveling of all uneven ground governed by superior outside forces, the vanquishing of identities that were once informed by an imposing directive. Arrebato reasons that such self-annihilation is a necessity, that joy, destruction and revelation meet at ground zero. Indubitably, the underlying element of punk-rock culture is an indirect comment on the reckless and self-serving need for personal exploration and expression. You could say that punk for the UK and the US was, quite simply, a comment on culture; for Spain, punk was a culture of comment. At its primitive core, both the culture and music provided, at least for a brief time during the reformation of the country’s past edicts, an escape from boredom as well as practice ground for testing new liberties.

Purportedly, the first punk 45 RPM to be independently released in Spain was by Almen TNT, a band that began recording material in 1978, the birth year of punk in Spain. Not much is known about the band; the information on their music is fairly scarce and patchy. But their scratchy mix of hard blues and punk indeed reveals the first seed of the movement that would continue to grow with the onslaught of other bands to come out of the scene.

Another important band to emerge from Spain during the late '70s was La Banda Trapera del Río, a band that was just learning about the constituents of punk culture and therefore still reliant on the standard principles of old-fashioned rock 'n' roll. Their music bristles with the dizzying squalls of punk-rock guitars and drum-crashing beats. La Banda Trapera del Río didn’t exactly kick down the doors of the music industry (no punk band in Spain really did), but they did help to point the way for other like-minded bands who were just finding their way up to the mic.

At the turn of the decade in 1980, the time of Arrebato’s release, a small slip of a culture had already established itself, escalating the aggressions of punk to nihilistic extremes. There wasn’t a reason to fight against an existing system, as there wasn’t one fully in place yet; Spain was just in the early and ambivalent years of reintroducing a democratic ideology into the social and economic culture, one that had existed prior to Franco’s reign. There was, however, the disinclination of forgiving past atrocities committed under the Franco regime. Divorced from the fascism that had previously ruled, many punk bands in Spain used the undetermined new space, which was now free of oppression, to unload more than 35 years worth of cultural subjugation. Thus, by 1980, Spanish punkers came swinging harder than ever, screaming not for the sake of inducing change, but screaming for the sake of screaming – because now they could.

Taking their cues from such hardcore punk acts like Dead Kennedys, as well as the gothic rock of Joy Division and Bauhaus, Spanish punk started to take shape by the start of the '80s. Parálisis Permanente, a band that mined the nihilistic dread of Bauhaus and The Cramps, found an unsettling pitch between self-destructive rebellion and unapologetic individualism. Their mercurial and volatile muddle of buzzing guitars and brittle drums plumbed the dark depths of existential despair.

Parálisis Permanente’s pretensions of angst could reach uncomfortable extremes; a 1982 promotional video for their song “Autosuficiencia” features their frontman, Eduardo Benavente, slitting his wrists in a blood-filled bathtub. It’s an obvious bid for shock value that perhaps wouldn’t elicit the same response it might have more than 30 years back when it was released. But the image does suggest an irony of the times in Spain: human anguish in an era of burgeoning democracy. Furthering their shock-rock image within the punk milieu was their ostensibly sadomasochistic album covers, featuring scantily-clad band members striking gothically macabre poses in an artifice of sex and violence. As if to suggest that their far-reaching antics of punk-rock masochism had manifested into everyday life, frontman Benavente would tragically die in a car accident in 1983, at the young age of 20.

Other bands would affect a more pop-oriented approach to their punk attitudinizing. Kaka de Luxe, a band that came out of Madrid, featured angular and jagged guitar-lines that punctured the rubbery new wave grooves. Their sound and attitude were undeniably punk, yet their clear objective was to make you dance. The band’s one and only full-length album, Las canciones malditas, was filled with bouncy, weirdo pop, awkward rhythms and a tuneful racket of new wave guitars. Much of the lyrical content consisted of personal and sometimes political rants delivered good-naturedly and with tongue-in-cheek humour. By the time their debut album was released, the group had already disbanded and dispersed, moving on to other pastures in the pop genre.

Vulpes was reputedly the first all-female punk group from Spain. Very much in the tradition of their British contemporaries The Slits, Vulpes caused quite a stir with their outrageous antics. A live 1983 performance on a TV show, in which they sang a highly ironic feminist invective called "Me Gusta ser una Zorra" (“I Like Being a Slut”), a cover of the Stooges “I Wanna Be Your Dog”, had the group publicly banned. For all the fuss that was created, Vulpes would break up shortly after. But they go down in history as one of Spain’s most belligerent and exhilarating punk acts, if even only for the brief time they were around.

Led by a young woman named Tere González, who looked more like a sleekly-dressed shop assistant than she did a punk-rocker, Desechables were a rough and tough punk act that stuck to the tried and true formula of plain and simple rock. Much of the band’s power and charisma came courtesy of González’s irrepressible snarl and her disaffected poise. González often looked bored onstage, but it was simply a front for the internal rage that boiled beneath; her demure appearance shielded a stately confidence that mesmerized and frightened in equal measure. An incident early in the band’s career occurred in which the drummer was fatally shot when he tried to rob a store with a starter pistol – an unfortunate and absurd deed that seemed to echo many people’s stereotypical view of punk at the time.

Spain’s punk scene would continue to churn out many hardcore acts with little variance; many bands traded on the aggressive vitriol and gothic trappings of such bands like The Birthday Party and The Cramps. Some bands pushed the boundaries of punk to include other influences in their sound. Seguridad Social, who formed in 1982 and continue to record today, flirted with elements of dub reggae in their earlier years. Like Kaka de Luxe, their brand of punk leaned toward pop but their rhythms were far more structured. As well, Seguridad Social were particularly skilled in penning highly melodious and catchy tunes that grabbed listeners’ attention with their sweetly crude arrangements. The band still commands an audience today, but their musical style has drastically changed, employing a far more polished pop-rock sound lightly laced with Latin rhythms.

By 1985, the punk movement in Spain had lost most of its steam. By then, many artists of the scene had already moved on. La Movida Madrileña had essentially served its purpose; it galvanized a handful of enthused youth looking to empower themselves through a reformation that an entire country was undergoing for a few speculative years. La Movida Madrileña’s most vital contribution to the Spanish was instilling a younger generation with the independence to make artistic choices free of a regulating judgment.

The punks of the movement may not have travelled quite as far as some of its other proponents, like Pedro Almodóvar; many Spanish punk bands have quietly passed into legend, if not complete obscurity. But they did manage an achievement in reassembling an internal logic of creativity and personal expression. For Spain’s youth, punk did not operate in the same way it did in England. British punk afforded its youth a revolution of the world around them; for a Spaniard active in La Movida Madrileña, punk was a revolution inside himself. Free of fascist constraints, Spanish youth were provided a vast window in which they could see realities that lay hidden in their deepest and darkest desires, where self-annihilation would beget self-revelation.

Some joys are painful. Rapture, indeed.

Above: Still from the film Arrebato (1980)

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