Celebrating 40 Years of Spain’s ‘La Movida’ Rock and Roll Revolution
Imagine going to one of those lousy Jingle Ball pop concerts - only instead of seeing Ariana Grande and Diplo - you got to see the greatest punk, new wave, and indie acts of the ’80s. Now imagine all this took place in Spain.
To celebrate the 40th anniversary of Madrid bar El Penta, key figures from the country’s rock ‘n’ roll revolution threw a one-night festival at Palacio de Deportes -- the arena Real Madrid’s basketball team plays in. During the late ’70s and ’80s, Penta served as an unofficial clubhouse for the bands of La Movida Madrileña, the cultural awakening that exploded after the death of dictator Francisco Franco. As the country transitioned to democracy after 36 of military rule, La Madrid became ground zero for a blossoming scene full of music, cinema, and art (and drugs and sex, naturally) -- La Movida’s most-famous export was film director Pedro Almodóvar, but the bands shouldn’t be overlooked.
Penta was something akin to CBGB in New York; at the bar Johnny Cifuentes of the band Burning would spin underground records for young musicians to devour. The place began its trip toward immortality when Nacha Pop’s Antonio Vega mentioned it in his 1980 song “La Chica de Ayer” (“The Girl of Yesterday”) -- if you could somehow combine the artistic introspection of Elvis Costello’s “Alison” and nostalgic yearning of Simple Minds’ “Don’t You Forget About Me” into a single song, you would start to approach the impact “La Chica de Ayer” had on Gen X Spaniards.
But I’m getting ahead of myself.
Penta’s 40th birthday party, originally booked at massive Madrid club La Riviera, sold out so quickly organizers moved it to the arena. Plenty of people pine for the days of La Movida, but not enough to fill 15,000-seats, so about 4,000 crowded onto the floor to see over three hours of music. Backed up by an ace house band, old icons, and up-and-coming stars -- who honestly can’t quite match the energy or writing chops of musicians twice their age (noted exception: Zahara) -- came out to sing their biggest hits.
The classic artists covered the full-range of modern rock styles. The Refrescos boogied to some pretty damn two-toned ska. Pistones took the inspiration for their name from the Ramones, but their “El Pistolero” crashed into ears sounding more like the Fixx. The frontman of Los Nikis, Emilio Sancho, bounced around while doing the old-school skate punk gem “El Imperio Contraataca” (“The Empire Strikes Back”).
Seguridad Social’s Jose. M. Casan somehow found common ground between the grunt of Motorhead and charm of Enrique Iglesias. Gabinete Caligari leader Jaime Urrutia crooned and jerked through the band’s signature song, “Al Calor del Amor en un Bar” (“To the Heat of Love in a Bar”), with the geek cool of Jonathan Richman (who is, not surprisingly given their good taste, very big in Spain). Ariel Rot of the band Tequila played some hot rockabilly that Chuck Berry would have (probably grudgingly) dug.
Of course you haven’t lived until you’ve heard Miguel Costas’ earthy, aggressive reinterpretation of “Sweet Home Alabama” sung in Galego, the official language of the Spanish province of Galicia. One of the driving forces behind the band Siniestro Total, Costas has a rare skill for balancing hardcore and roots rock (but let’s face it, the guy’s true talent is turning a Skynyrd song into a punk anthem).
Maybe the promise of new bands derived from the Ramones, Modern Lovers, and Elvis Costello has you itching to make a La Movida playlist (which I have kindly already done for you with all the songs from the setlist mentioned here). But you don’t speak Spanish. Well, “no pasa nada,” or “it’s cool.” The Penta anniversary concert reminded me that, unless you are listening to Bob Dylan, Lou Reed or a handful of others, lyrics are way less important than feel. Rock is about duende. Who cares what they are saying in “Wild Thing” or “Blitzkrieg Bop” or “Smells Like Teen Spirit?” The feeling is obvious and visceral.
With that in mind, let me recommend getting into the songs of Alejandro Diez. A mod through-and-through, Diez is the Paul Weller of Spain and is famous for leading Leon’s Los Flechazos, which roughly translates to The Loves-At-First-Sight (or should that be The Love-At-First-Sights?). Last night Diez blasted out a few tunes with a nice a reverence for ’60s beat and R&B. The best one (and the best starting point for the band): a romp through joyous, organ-fueled nugget “A Toda Velocidad” (“At Full Speed”).
Johnny Cifuentes closed down the parade of stars with “Qué Hace una Chica Como Tú en un Sitio Como Este” (“What’s a Girl Like You Doing in a Place Like This”). If “La Chica de Ayer” is the A-side of the Movida experience, Cifuentes’ ballad is the B-side. It has the same winsome glory -- spin it back-to-back with the Velvet Underground’s “Oh! Sweet Nuthin'” for a real emotional one-two combo to the gut.
There was no question the show would end with “La Chica de Ayer,” but Antonio Vega passed away in 2009, so who would sing it? The answer: everyone. With the lights low on the stage, the house band ran through the song with a couple thousand Spaniards singing every lyric. The moment was like the climax of a rock ‘n’ roll wake.
Like too many great musical movements, La Movida was crushed under the weight of Bon Jovi and Phil Collins. But it’s heartening to see a healthy number of Spaniards celebrating their unique sonic history despite the ever-present onslaught of bad foreign rock and worse pop.
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