Drogas, Sexo, Y Un Dictador Muerto: 1978 on Vinyl in Spain
Mortimer strike me as merry pranksters, but I couldn’t help but wonder if they saw some link between the summer of hate and the Cabaret Voltaire because of their 1978 single’s A side, “Idi Amin Dada.” (They released a second single in 1979.) Though Dada, the avant-garde art movement, was resolutely international, the Spanish influence on the movement seems to have been limited to the Spanish influenza that killed off many in Cologne who might have otherwise survived World War I in the months before the Armistice—a horror on top of horrors that inspired Dadaist absurdism. (In contrast, Surrealism was associated with Spain more than any other country except perhaps France.) Did Mortimer intuit the connection between the historical avant-garde and punk rock that theoreticians like John Savage and Greil Marcus later declared concrete? The answer is no—Idi Amin Dada was simply the General’s given name.
But the choice to sing about a military dictator from Uganda in the aftermath of Francoism was not idle or random; it was no feel-good topic for a rocknroll song. Like a few other topical punk bands of 1978 (K9s, Black Randy & the Metrosquad, Battered Wives, Sex Pistols), Mortimer did indeed sing about Idi Amin, but given the context, singing the lyrics “mi general” did not represent simple punk satire and offensiveness. Instead, the song can be seen as an experiment in obliqueness, especially considering the sunny feel of the music, which is out of joint with its subject matter. A song explicitly about the now-dead Franco may have been impossible due to the Falangist hangover of 1978, but to locate their critique outside Spain, at sufficient distance, was to create the space for a sarcastic attack. It was to say that those who hailed Franco as “mi general” were no different from those who supported Idi Amin, whose crimes against humanity were a hot topic in the world media at the time. For what is a dictator if not a Saturn-like father who devours his nation? In Idi Amin’s case, the cannibalism was actual. Moreover, I believe that the picture on the back of the record cover, which shows each band member wearing the gag glasses-and-nose complicates their critique. This picture, which takes away the bloodiness of the gag glasses from the front cover (which must be meant to represent Idi Amin) and places the glasses on the band members, can be read as Mortimer disambiguating the connection between their song and Franco. They are saying that Idi Amin—Franco—was inside each of them, not in the sense of evil possibility incarnate, but that to have grown up under Franco was to have internalized the fascist optic to some degree. Idi Amin, by the record’s logic, was interchangeable with Franco.
Like Basura, Mortimer’s sound is not what anyone would consider punk rock nowadays. It’s rock, not even really hard rock, with somewhat echoey vocals that strike me as influenced by rockabilly, a style that would become hugely popular in Spain. The tunes are less hooky than Basura’s, but comparing Mortimer to their flares-‘n’-slippers contemporaries makes it clear that simplicity and lack of pretense was the essence of punk music for them. And maybe there is something Dada-esque about the sleeve art after all. You tell me.
Glam’s influence was most overt with Madrid’s leading punk band, Kaka De Luxe. (Perhaps it’s no surprise that Cock Sparrer’s only 70s album, which was a 77 update of glam and the classic British R&B sound, was released in Spain, not England.) Kaka De Luxe took the London punk image seriously. They were all snot and bile, and their punkness, based as it was on image, was not built to last. At their punkest, Kaka De Luxe still sounded more like a traditional rock band playing vampy updates of Little Richard tunes (uh, is that the definition of glam?). Kaka De Luxe featured the 14-year-old Mexican sex symbol Alaska Vómito Popelín (née Olvido Gara Jova), who would go on to fame and (ill) repute as a new wave-cum-popstar-cum-sex activist. Alaska also acted in Pedro Almodóvar’s first film, which featured members of Kaka De Luxe portraying a band she joined. Other members later landed in Paralisis Permanente, Paraiso, and other bands; they became painters, television stars, and the like. Alaska’s father was a Mexican diplomat stationed in Madrid, and the other members came from similarly upper-crust backgrounds, with parents who were doctors or lawyers. It may not be possible to discern an upper-class sound in Kaka De Luxe’s songs, but I believe the differences between this band and La Banda Trapera Del Río ultimately boil down to class. However, I should not give short shrift the gender aspect (especially because LBTDR had its macho side): it was no small matter for an underage woman to be so sexually provocative, redolent with promiscuity, in those days when women’s liberation was emerging. Spain was playing catch-up in this department, and Kaka De Luxe, like Almodóvar, and then later the 80s punk bands Las Vulpess, Desechables, and Ultimo Resorte, seemed determined not only to charge forward, but to push norms to a point of liberation that no society has reached even in 2008. In Alaska’s case, within a few years, her provocations would become fodder for popular acclaim and she would become a mainstream sex symbol. Kaka De Luxe’s music may not possess the sonic urgency that, for example, Ultimo Resorte later would, but they, like the Sex Pistols, were a controversy set to music rather than the other way around. Still, Kaka wrote some great tunes, and, at this late date, it’s difficult not to see punk rock’s dialectic emerge from the two different approaches La Banda Trapera Del Río and Kaka De Luxe took—a path not chosen so much as dictated by circumstance, class and geography, mostly.
Although the members of La Banda Trapera Del Río were truly social outsiders, the environment in which Kaka De Luxe existed was particularly unfriendly, because Madrid had been the seat of Falangist power. Therefore, punks in Madrid faced a hostile reception. The punk scene in Madrid, it seems, reproduced this hostility internally. The punks fought each other as well as their antagonists in the city. Bands from Barcelona received a violent reception. Ultimo Resorte, in their amazing Maximum Rocknroll interview in 2007, recalled a trip to Madrid that landed them in jail after the audience attacked the band while they played. (I highly recommend reading this interview, as it is full of information about the early Spanish punk scene and the emergence of hardcore in Spain.) As I think about Kaka De Luxe, I can’t help but wonder what John Savage or Greil Marcus would have had to say about them as they wrote their versions of punk’s history. Would they have considered them mere imitators of London’s scene? In my opinion, they were not. Would these writers have hailed the punks’ subaltern status in the post-dictatorship society? Wasn’t Johnny Rotten’s imprecation about the Queen’s “fascist regime” mere bluster in comparison to Kaka De Luxe’s tenuously post-fascist world, which saw bombings and assassinations committed by both the right and the left that could have brought a return to authoritarianism?
Above: Alaska Y Dinarama
Mariscal Romero, a hard-rock radio DJ, founded Chapa Discos to promote the new hard rock and urban rock bands emerging in Madrid in the late 70s. He championed them through his radio show and released their records. Some of these bands (Baron Rojo, Leño, Obus) became quite famous. Although Chapa specialized in hard rock, the label tried punk too. Though Kaka De Luxe recorded an LP in 1978, only a four-song EP was released at the time, with two slightly different pressings. Kaka De Luxe’s 7" was released by Chapa because the label sponsored a contest for a record release at the first Villa De Madrid festival. Romero recorded the record for the band. There’s a well-known anecdote that circulates in the Spanish punk scene about Romero securing an audition for Kaka De Luxe in front of music-industry executives. At the audition, they played a song called something like “What A Bunch of Idiots I Have As My Public” while the singer pointed to the assembled industry bigwigs. Scandal!
Other than a track on v/a “Bloodstains Across Spain” taken from the 78 EP, none of Kaka De Luxe’s records has been reissued, but a few sites have downloads available. Their full LP was not released until 1983, at a time when the Spanish hardcore punk scene was flourishing. (It was also bootlegged not long after in Mexico; Alaska Y Dinarama sold millions of records and toured Latin America in the 1980s.) The audience for Kaka’s LP in 1983 probably was larger than it would have been in 1978, but, at the same time, its decidedly slow, non-hardcore sound probably would not have appealed to the faster-and-louder youth. In truth, it was most likely released to cash in on the popularity of the members’ other projects at the time, particularly Alaska’s new wave group and her television program.
Though a hard-rock band, Red Box El Rojo undoubtedly veer toward punk with the aggressiveness of their sound and, more so, their lyrics—though maybe ‘bangers would consider the band proto-metal too. Their two-song 45 was released on Chapa Discos and it was apparently some sort of advertisement for a blue-jeans company. Maybe a comparison is in order here: Red Box El Rojo, from Madrid, advertised jeans; La Banda Trapera Del Río’s name translates loosely to the River Rag Band. Anyway, members of Red Box El Rojo had played in a band called Madrid 20 earlier and then went on to Obus, one the biggest metal/hard-rock groups in Spain. It’s difficult not to assume that the “red” theme running through Red Box El Rojo (seriously, what’s that supposed to mean?), including the song called “Red Anger,” was meant to demarcate their politics. I do not know what reception this caused, but the inflammatory, left-wing tone is part of the reason I would consider this band proto-punk. This sort of language had some precedent in folk/protest music in Spain, but, as far as I can tell, Red Box El Rojo’s was the first rock/punk record to expressly invoke a “red” politics. Here’s a sample of their lyrics, from “Ira Rojo,” a song marked by its insistent, driving drumming: “I am fed up with this city / I am fed up with good and bad / I am fed up with being lazy / I am fed up with myself / I am fed up with you and me / I am so fed up.” Again, pretty punk if you ask me. It gets better. On the flipside, in “All of Us,” Red Box El Rojo sang, “They have the television / We have the streets / They have the money / We have the life / They have the bullets / We have the hearts.” This is grade A, timeless counterculture stuff. So was a jeans company capitalizing on this sentiment? Perhaps. But the obscurity of the record leads me to think they didn’t succeed. Besides, jeans were not yet fashionable in Spain in 1978. In comparison to the juvenile and potty-mouthed Ramoncín, one can say only that Red Box El Rojo managed to exceed whatever commercial ambition their backers may have had. Besides, Chapa Discos’ label logo is a spoof of Coca-Cola’s logo, long before such satire was as common and mainstream as the corporate culture it skewers. In fact, that culture was burgeoning in Spain in 1978, and one can read this spoof as a subtle protest against the eruption of the consumption-based mass society for which many Spaniards had been clamoring during the destitution of the dictatorship: Chapa’s logo predicts that the next epoch in Spanish history would be marked by Americanization, rather than a realization of ira roja. Even today, the band’s songs stand as strong statements of protest. At so many years’ distance, it is tough to see how this record was compromised by its association with an advertisement for jeans. Whereas Ramoncín was constitutively exploitive, clearly using the marginality of punk to further his own selfish sex-and-drugs lifestyle, Red Box El Rojo, if anything, used the commercial aspect as cover for a message that might have actually be much more difficult to digest on its own.