Buenos Aires in 1983 must have felt like a party. The Argentinian capital – and also its political and economic center – was the epicenter of the kind of change that only happens once every generation. After seven years of a gruesome, virulent military dictatorship that intimidated, tortured, killed, and traumatized hundreds upon hundreds of people since its start, in 1976 (when it was labeled as the “National Reorganization Process”). The second largest country in Latin America hailed the return of democracy with the election of civilian president Raúl Alfonsín, who took charge after the denouncement of his predecessor Leopoldo Galtieri’s reckless actions regarding the Falklands War, in which Argentinian troops were humiliated in defeat at the hands of Britain’s imperialist armed forces.
It’s but another senseless conflict in a world that increasingly perceives them as commonplace. It would remain the sort of generational landmark that would influence Argentinian art well past the ’80s, and effectively set the tone for many of the increasingly tense changes the country faces to this day.
Interestingly, one of the most notorious (and outspoken) cultural paragons for democratic elections was nowhere to be found at that moment. Holed up in a recording studio in the Village, NYC, Charly García watched everything from afar, brimming with excitement at the upheaval so many of his contemporaries, as well as himself, could have only dreamed of until then. The singer plotted his next step: by combining fledging New Wave aesthetics with his sense of irony and wit and fusing together disparate elements such as sampling, drum machines, bluesy guitars, and subliminal messages, García would drop an album that, upon release in his motherland, would be perceived as his most alienated work.
Clics Modernos is a collection of songs that – a first in his then-already legendary career – would appeal to the limbs even more than the brain. The album is oftentimes a celebratory (though occasionally reflexive) group of songs that, to quote his future collaborator and friend, Fito Páez, “depicted an artist people sought with questions, and who was tired of having all the answers; who opted, instead, to simply have his audience dance.” Four decades removed from its original release, Clics Modernos remains one of the most intriguing, fascinating, and overall fantastic records in Latin rock history, and represents a high point in a career filled with them.
By the early ’80s, García had already lived multiple lives: the prodigious piano player, born Carlos Alberto García in 1951, got his start in the folk rock duo Sui Generis in the early ’70s. After the military took control of Argentina, he fled to Rio de Janeiro, where he would plot his next big move. Alongside fellow exiled musicians David Lebón, Óscar Moro, and Pedro Aznar, Charly would put together the supergroup Serú Girán, which would find massive acclaim and pave the way for a new generation of bands that would spring into action at the turn of the new decade.
Five albums and widely successful tours later, Serú Girán would come to a triumphant end when Aznar, a bass virtuoso, left the country to study music in Berkeley, California. Now a solo artist, García responded by releasing the largely self-recorded and produced 1982’s Yendo De La Cama Al Living, whose tracks were put together in Argentina with the looming threat from the UK already taking form on the horizon. In one of the most memorable songs from that album, “No Bombardeen Buenos Aires”, the singer calls out both the Thatcherist forces and his own government, chastising its futile attempts at supremacy at the cost of thousands of lives.
Elsewhere, in the immortal “Inconsciente Colectivo”, García poured salt in the wound at the heart of Argentinian democracy, itself in a fragile state, yet fueled by the hopes of improvement. More than anything else, Charly craved change, both within himself and for his country, and with God as his witness, he would do everything in his power to bring it, whether consciously or not. Even if he had to cross an ocean to do so.
Following a high-profile concert on the heels of his first solo album, García left Argentina in early 1983 with New York as his destination. After a rendezvous with former bandmate Aznar (then a new member of the Pat Metheny Group), García chose the Electric Lady Studios in downtown NYC as his base of operations, and enlisted producer Joe Blaney to helm the boards. Working closely with Aznar, as well as renowned session guitarist Larry Carlton, the songwriter picked a list of songs previously demoed and started polishing them as they were rerecorded.
Actually, “curating” might be a more appropriate term for the process that was carried out: “No Me Dejan Salir”, one of the first tracks to be worked on, featured a sample from James Brown, in a first for an Argentinian rock record. Over a pulsating drum machine, the song relies heavily on Pedro’s fast-paced slap techniques, and its lyrics speak of the paranoid state of mind that would inform the remainder of Clics Modernos.
Another example of ambiguous lyrics backed by high-energy beats and luminous harmonies is the album’s first song, the instant classic “Nos Siguen Pegando Abajo (Pecado Mortal)”, which has since become one of García’s trademark tracks – what could be construed as passing reminiscing on a dysfunctional relationship doubles down as commentary over the nature of the tragedy of Latin American societies, as they are shoved and pushed back by totalitarian and maniacal governments and repressive administrations.
Ambiguity, as Clics Modernos enlightens, is one of Charly García’s superpowers. Be it on the truncated “Dos Cero Uno (Transas)”, or the melancholic “No Soy Um Extraño”, his songwriting prowess extends beyond the limits of social protest or pop abandon, zeroing in on threading a fine line between the two while also employing a levelheadedness otherwise alien, albeit instigating, to someone from a different sociopolitical background. “Bancate Este Defecto” and “Nuevos Trapos” are fine samples of this ability, and what made the musician stand out even amongst his peers, who scrambled to make sense of creating confrontational music in times of (seeming) peace.
That existential and even ethical conflict permeates what is generally conceived to be the emotional centerpiece of Clics Modernos, as well as one of the most memorable songs in García’s songbook. “Los Dinossaurios” aims for the hearts of countless South Americans who lived through the violence of the military dictatorship. With its many references to people who disappeared during the recently deposed government, it is a piece of music that somewhat bridges the gap between the classical training received by García as an infant and the Beatle-esque influences developed during his adulthood.
The same sort of melodic prowess is flexed in the closing song, “Ojos de Video Tape”, practically a music-form essay on isolation and the ruthlessness of time, which insists on passing everyone by while people have their eyes fixated on video screens – the end result being equal parts inherently beautiful and eerily prescient. Between these two songs lies what might be the most underrated song in Clics Modernos: also employing the six-string expertise of Larry Carlton, “Plateado sobre Plateado (Huellas en el Mar)” mashes together 4×4 disco thumps and beautiful synthetic string arrangements to create wide landscapes, which, in turn, its beautiful chorus soars by like a seagull.
Upon its release, Clics Modernos’ reception was not the rapturous praise sort it regularly (and deservedly) gets these days. For the first time, Charly consciously veered away from overt political commentary in favor of taking it to the dance floor, and, “Los Dinossaurios” nonwithstanding, the artist seemed exclusively interested in taking a step back and rejoicing in a joyful, albeit calculated, sort of abandonment. His listeners, puzzled by the strange piece of work – in which even its cover screamed post-modernism – didn’t hold back their outrage.
The subsequent tour, which crisscrossed the country and had stops in Chile, Uruguay, and Peru was marred by conflicts between Charly and his audience, who seemed unfazed by the sheer talent of the backing band (made, among others, by the aforementioned Fito Páez, as well as future solo artist Fabiana Cantilo and the members of the band G.I.T.). The main figure on stage, for his part, responded by staging several sorts of antics with equally varying degrees of shock, which could go from mooning the audience to, in what appears to have been a tantrum of sorts, attempting to flip an electric piano offstage.
The perceived alienation many noticed in García’s new phase would go on to be addressed at great length in “Demoliendo Hoteles”, the first song on his next album, 1984’s Piano Bar. This first trilogy of albums, starting with Yendo De La Cama Al Living and Clics Modernos, represents a peak of commercial appeal that García would exploit like none other. His albums thereafter would fluctuate in terms of massive appeal, and his public persona, alternating between the eccentric and the erratic, would become a common feature in tabloids and news flashes alike. His music would swing from openly commercial to obscurely heavy and experimental, reunions with both of his former bands (Serú Girán in 1992, Sui Generis in 2001) be damned.
Clics Modernos might not be the only masterpiece Charly García will release in his lifetime – some hope he might have a couple more albums in him. But it was, without a doubt, the moment in which he took a step away from being what other people expected of him, and towards being true to himself and his art. Four decades later, for better or worse, he hasn’t shown any indication of looking back.