Los Prisoneros, Corazones

Dancing Post-Pinochet to Los Prisioneros’ ‘Corazones’

Los Prisioneros evolved from a politicized youthful New Wave sound to a synthpop-infused dynamic that would propel the trio to post-Pinochet stardom.

Los Prisioneros
22 May 1990 (CHL)

Chile was a very different place by the time 1990 rolled in. Following a much-anticipated voting process that rousted President Augusto Pinochet by a vast majority, democracy was restored. Following the assassination of President Salvador Allende in 1973, a decade of military dictatorship brutally repressed the Chilean population through intimidation, kidnappings, disappearances, and government-backed murders. It was only fitting, then, that people would be hopeful at a time of such political upheaval.

The future looked and felt very different for one of the country’s most beloved and prolific bands. Formed in the early ’80s in the small city of San Miguel, Los Prisioneros achieved an impressive streak of three good-to-perfect albums in their first decade together. School friends Jorge Gonzalez (bass, keyboards, vocals), Claudio Narea (guitars, vocals), and Miguel Tapia (drums, percussion, vocals) experienced their fair share of problems maneuvering themselves through the violence of the Pinochet administration. In the process, they evolved from a politicized yet youthful New Wave sound (most notable in their 1984 debut, La Voz de Los 80) to a synthpop-infused dynamic that would propel the trio to the level of national stardom (as heard in 1986’s Pateando Piedras and 1988’s La Cultura de La Basura).

Riding an enormous high and profiting from intra-band chemistry, the group secured an opening spot in the Amnesty International Concerts that took place in Mendoza, Argentina, in 1988, headlined by household names like Sting, Peter Gabriel, and Bruce Springsteen. For a band that had seen most of their touring schedule behind their latest effort reduced due to police intervention, that event surely must have seemed like a much-deserved triumph. 

The situation changed drastically for Los Prisioneros as 1989 rolled in. Narea discovered that his wife, Claudia Carvajal, was having an affair with Gonzalez, whom he considered to be his best and closest friend. Los Prisioneros made most of their income through touring, and Gonzales was not financially able to leave. As such, he sorted himself out of his pain and decided to remain with his bandmates, mutual trust be damned. That, however, would not last either, especially once he heard the songs Jorge, the most prolific songwriter of the three, had been penning. And as soon as 1990’s Corazones, Los Prisioneros’ fourth (and overall best) record, was released, the world would know why. Most, if not all, of the new material was explicitly informed by the affair.

Production on the album started in mid-1989, with the three members putting together a set of demos that would later become renowned amongst their fanbase under the title Beaucheff 1435. However, knowing the songs were written for his wife by Gonzalez was too painful for Narea, who formally exited the band two months before the release of the new material.

The demo recordings themselves would also be ditched by Gonzalez as he straightened the creative direction the batch of songs would follow – even though one of them, “Las Sierras Electricas”, would see the light of day officially in the 1996 compilation album Ni Por La Razón, Ni Por La Fuerza. Instead, Gonzalez traveled to Los Angeles to commence work on what is, to this day, considered to be his masterpiece, and though estranged from Claudio and distant from Tapia (who, despite remaining a full-time member, could not travel due to visa issues), he had more than qualified support backing him up: Corazones would be produced by the Argentinian duo of Gustavo Santaollalla and Aníbal Kerpel. 

Legends amongst musicians in their home country (the latter known for his work in the ’70s band Crucis, the former recognized as the guitarist in the contemporaneous group Arco Iris), the two started working together once Santaollalla returned from his self-imposed exile in Los Angeles after the beginning of the Argentinian military government in 1976. Influenced by punk rock and the then-fledging New Wave movement, the pair put together a new group, Wet Picnic, and made it their mission to combine nervous, DIY production with more pretentious arrangements and experimental structures. Their work with the Chilean band would be their first as producers, and they were more than eager to make it count. 

Given Tapia’s absence, the two songs the drummer wrote for the record didn’t make the cut, although they would soon surface on another occasion (more on that in a moment). All things considered, Corazones might as well be considered Jorge Gonzalez’ first solo outing, and his personal worldview is in full display from track one. One of the most popular songs in the group’s discography, “Tren Al Sur” wears its Depeche Mode influences on its sleeve. The song steers far away from pastiche: subtle, though remarkable Cumbia rhythms shine through the pulsating drum machines and the instantly recognizable keyboard lines. The material’s many artistic inspirations–ranging from George Michael and Rick Astley to 808 State, Pet Shop Boys, and, yes, Depeche Mode – follow a similar path: merely used as a canvas of sorts, but never overstaying their welcome. 

That trend is also clear in the next two songs, although in disparate ways: while “Amiga Mía” (one of the most overtly Carvajal-inspired ones in here) allows shiny guitar lines to burst through its synthetic textures, “Con Suavidad” features slower percussion and the keyboard sounds featured throughout might make it one of the most-easily dated offerings in the record. It doesn’t ruin it, however. The same can be said about “Corazones Rojos”: originally written by Gonzalez as a gift for the performance group Las Cleopatras (which the singer’s then-wife, Jacqueline Fresard, was a member of), it fuses the dominant aesthetics of the album with hip-hop arrangements and lyrics mostly spoken rather than sung, save for the endearing chorus. Perhaps the most singular track in Corazones, although far from the most memorable. 

“Cuentame Una Historia Original” closes the record’s A-side while attempting to follow the steps of its predecessor, although it does not manage to be nearly as successful. However tiresome it might sound at first listen, it grows on the listener upon repeated tries. A far cry from the first song in the album’s second side. Heavily inspired by Narea (from Gonzalez’ point of view, that is), the soaring “Estrechez de Corazón” features some of the best synth work in the tracklist, which is definitely saying something. Jorge sounds pained, although hopeful, in a faithful representation of his state of mind going into production. Santaollalla and Kerpel’s performance manning the boards cannot be understated either: by putting the singer’s voice front and center and equalizing the keyboards to the sides, the duo manages to make one of the most immersive dance records ever dared. Equal fortune is granted to “Por Amarte”, in which the dialed-back percussion does the underrated track great favors and makes it one of the most beloved deep cuts in Gonzalez’ vast songbook.

Rounding out the tracklist are two polarized (and polarizing) songs: “Noche en La Ciudad (Fiesta)” more than deserves its title: perhaps the most agitated song in the entire set, it is also the least rewarding. Although not bad by any means, it loses its freshness over time. On the other side of the coin, “Es Demasiado Triste” also does its name justice. This song is a slow burner that, while sounding completely detached from the rest of Corazones, deserves praise for being its bravest piece. It’s a symphonic dirge filled with grandiosity; it sounds like a song beamed in from a completely different record. Its atmosphere likens it to a circus-like tune, and while that might justifiably resonate as strange and out of place, it also works as a flex or a blatant display of power from a songwriter at his peak. Is this arrogance or a dormant, daring, experimental streak? That’s up to the listener to deduce and interpret.

And the listeners did. Upon its release, Corazones was met as the best comeback imaginable for Los Prisioneros, no matter how displaced the band moniker could sound when attached to a Jorge Gonzalez’ individual effort. With Narea out (and soon to become the leader of the new band Profetas y Freneticos), the lineup for the band had to be switched a bit: Jorge would now helm guitars, with Miguel Tapia remaining on drums and former Las Cleopatras’ member Cecilia Aguayo and newcomer Robert Rodriguez being recruited to play keyboards and bass, respectively.

The cover art, which depicts Gonzalez’ “bloody” chest, became instantly iconic and a good depiction of the lyrical content displayed. With the new members fitting in, the group went on a successful tour that included two triumphant gigs at Chile’s traditional, yearly Viña Del Mar festival, which saw Los Prisioneros playing for some of the largest crowds of their career. 

That would not be enough, though. Feeling restrained by being Los Prisioneros’s public face and constantly having to answer questions regarding his personal life and his feud with his ousted bandmate, Jorge Gonzalez opted to dissolve the group in 1992, kickstarting an acclaimed solo career the following year. The year 1993 also saw the release of the titular debut album of Jardin Secreto, the new technopop project that featured Tapia and Aguayo at the helm, in which the songs were originally written by the drummer for Corazones would finally see the light of day.

Los Prisioneros would remain dormant for the rest of the ’90s, save for the release of their aforementioned compilation, before the classic lineup of Gonzalez, Narea, and Tapia finally got back together in 2001, playing Santiago de Chile’s Estadio Nacional (in a concert that was recorded and released the following year) and releasing a self-titled new album in 2003. That reunion would not last much longer, as Narea exited the band again the same year. Gonzalez and Tapia remained bandmates and briefly added Los Tres’ Álvaro Henríquez to their ranks and managed to knock out another effort, Manzana, in 2004. Los Prisioneros broke up for good and acrimoniously in 2006. 

Jorge Gonzalez would go back to the songs in Corazones regularly, performing the album in full on several occasions and even releasing a live version of the record as performed alongside his solo band. In September 2023, the band’s fourth record would be ranked 23rd in Rolling Stone’s 50 Best Latin American Rock Albums of All Time list. As recognized and incensed as it might be, though, it is important to recognize Corazones for what it is: a collection of songs informed by passion, romantic longing, and the possibilities of the future, as helmed by a young, gifted songwriter at the peak of his powers. Who would have guessed that heartache at the height of redemocratization could be so fun to dance to?