Drogas, Sexo, Y Un Dictador Muerto: 1978 on Vinyl in Spain
I fear this article has proceeded in reverse order. La Banda Trapera Del Río has been perched as the angel, fallen perhaps, watching over my accretion of Spanish punk and punky hard-rock records from 1978. Each band, fairly or not, explicitly or not, has been compared to them. Though they were important at the time, the centerpiece of the nascent punk scene in Barcelona, they fell into obscurity until around 1991 when La Perrera covered one of their songs. A reunion and a reissue of their 1978 LP sparked a resurgence of interest in the band, which has led to them today being—deservedly—the most well-documented early Spanish punk band, with their records lavishly reissued and a beautiful hard-cover history by Jaime Gonzalo published. They lived a punk lifestyle, on the margins of the outskirts of Catalan society (itself marginalized and suppressed by Franco), and their songs attempted to capture the tensions, the Apollonian and Dionysian forces, inherent to not only creating art (music) but to exclusion from bourgeois society’s normal structures of reward, where criminality and nihilism offer a respite from poverty, boredom, and wasted time. Morfi, the band’s leader, was doubly an outsider because he lived in the slums when the band formed and because his childhood had spent in Melilla, a colonial outpost of Spain in Morocco. Gonzalo described Cornellá de Llobregat as “the perfect setting to earn a following for La Banda Trapera Del Río.” He said that the band “articulated the feelings and thoughts of young people in Cornellá. It was like an Indian reservation, far away from Barcelona and the world.” To describe this “hermetic society,” he listed some adjectives: “underworld, tough, folkloric, ethnic, underground, isolated.”
In my opinion, La Banda Trapera Del Río deserve to be held in the same regard as Radio Birdman or the Saints, even though their proto-punk sound emerged simultaneously with the worldwide punk explosion, meaning that it was not temporally proto-punk nor sonically punk proper—rather the excitement and effervescence of the “new” music combined with the social and cultural ferment of the end of the dictatorship to inspire a new sound in Spanish music, and in music worldwide. La Banda Trapera Del Río’s original sound is not quite like that of any of its influences, from Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin, Ted Nugent, Black Sabbath, Alice Cooper to the Stooges and David Bowie. Gonzalo again, “As idiot savants, they managed to assimilate … all [these influences] and mix it with classic rocknroll and an urgency of their own.” Perhaps the band’s sound was less of a break from the present than that of early punk bands like the Ramones, Television, Suicide or Buzzcocks, Slits, Gang of Four, but what they managed to achieve was a amalgamation of the urgency of the post-dictatorship moment with the aggressiveness and antisocial vibe of punk rock while updating the sound of the proto-punks and hard rockers from the early part of the 70s. In comparison, as much as the Saints may have had a ear-catching, innovative sound (circa “Most Primitive Band in the World” era only, natch), La Banda Trapera Del Río created music that to me is more impressive and more fulfilling as a listening experience because it feels like it’s balanced on a knife edge, headed almost certainly for oblivion. (In truth, the band’s delinquency would soon win out; by the early 80s, heroin addiction would weaken their sound and tear the band apart.)
La Banda Trapera Del Río’s only specific domestic influence was Pau Riba, “a Catalan rock songwriter rooted in the local folk movement of the late 60s.” Morfi’s admiration for Riba caused him to sing in Catalan—but this choice was also meant to be provocative. To sing “Ciutat Podrida,” a real-life narration of the rot at the core life in Barcelona, in Catalan was, on one level, to reject four decades of Franco’s suppression of the Catalan nation within Spanish culture, but, on another level, it was also to reject Catalan national pride by saying that this identity had failed a group of young people who saw no prospects in it, who chose not to become a part of what would in a decade or two a fully integrated and acceptable cultural identity/commodity because that identity did not allow room for their subaltern experience. As a member of Ultimo Resorte remembered of the scene in those ghettos in the very early days, “Punk was a strange wave of violent people trying to justify their violence.” He continued, in the interview in Maximum Rocknroll, about La Banda Trapera Del Río, “We used to go to their shows to do what you did in those times—spit at the band and get into fights. Many of the people around us were pure delinquents, into robbery and shit. Then punk started mixing the people who came for the music, the aesthetics, the social movement, etc., with people who were just plain bad. Truly dangerous people and we all hung out together. We even robbed each other! We got our practice space broken into twice and it was people from our own gang.”
On the A side of their 1978 single, “La Regla” features Morfi’s strident vocal stylings, a harangue meant to catch the attention of any respectable citizens within earshot—and to repulse them. Whereas Johnny Rotten’s singing was all sarcasm and snot, Joe Strummer’s was all suss, and Joey Ramone’s was all arch mindlessness, Morfi’s is all desperation. The guitarists’ dexterous interplay on this song is far more intricate than what one typically associates with punk’s class of 78, but it never feels cultivated like 70s hard rock. Rather, it’s meant as agitation. The caustic guitar sound strikes me as at least five, maybe ten, years ahead of its time. “A Cloaca,” or “From the Sewer,” is the faster of the two, with El Maderas’ lead guitar wailing throughout. The tune is based on a typical rocknroll form, in line with glam’s influence, but it is much less fey than anything produced during the classic glam period of the early 70s. “Cyborgs Revisited,” the posthumous proto-punk classic by Canada’s Simply Saucer, may be the best comparison to La Banda Trapera Del Río. The sounds are not alike but they are similar, combining a rugged simplicity with technical dexterity. This combination was not a wholly unusual formula in the pre-hardcore (or pre-postpunk) days. Many guitarists in those days were trained and prepared to play a musical form that was maximalist, expressive, and indulgent. Yet the momentum of stripping ornament from rock music, which we can now view retrospectively as having begun with a variety of proto-punk bands in Detroit and elsewhere, led, I would argue, to both hardcore punk and UK DIY. Before we arrived at those extreme distillations, however, we encountered La Banda Trapera Del Río and Ramoncín y WC? in Spain; Pankrti in Yugoslavia; Benitokage and 3/3 in Japan; industry-insider fake punks like Gyppo in England; and drug- and sex-addicted degenerates like the Dogs, the (other) Dogs, and the Shitdogs here in God’s Country; all these bands brought technical proficiency to bear on glam- and/or psych-influenced fast rocknroll.
On a single Munster released last year, “La Paja de Diego” is the earliest extant recording of La Banda Trapera Del Río. (The flipside is a live recording from 1980 of “Comics y Cigarillos”; thus, it technically falls outside the purview of this article.) “La Paja de Diego” is an early version of the tune “Meditación del Pelos en su Paja Matinera” (from “Diego’s Wank” to “Diego’s Morning Meditation on Wanking”), which appeared on their LP. The live recording emphasizes the rhythm guitar, which seem like a very accidental realization of the anti-rockstar attitude of punk. But it was certainly accidental: underneath the rather undistorted rhythm guitar, one can hear wild guitar leads that edge from psicodélica into psychotic. This, friends, is thug-punk of the highest order, not quite as blunt as some of the New York/Detroit classics of the subgenre, but with the menace and unpredictability—and general oddity—imbued by guys dressed in drag and wearing make-up, or else in the ripped and torn clothes of unemployed lumpen proles, furtively passing dimebags and flashing blades. It’s the camp the bubbles beneath the surface in A Clockwork Orange or The Warriors. Only here, at Barcelona’s second punk festival, in February 1978 when “La Paja de Diego” was recorded, it was the real thing.
Moving on to La Banda Trapera Del Río’s LP, what I notice foremost when listening to it is the dynamism of the recording, highlighting equally Morfi’s outrageous lyrics (and delivery), with the endless lead guitar attacks just behind. (Though I must say the guitars are more prominent than the vocals on the single, which makes me wish the LP had tipped the balance in this direction too.) The lyrics propel this band far to the punk side, particularly in comparison to the generic and ultimately forgettable lyrics of the Saints, for example. The Trapera musicianship exudes energy—another quality that makes the band so inherently punk—even as the tempos vary and the songwriting builds upon itself, so unlike the paragon of punk’s explosive energy, the Ramones’ first LP. Of course I can intellectually recognize that La Banda Trapera Del Río’s 1978 LP was not recorded straight through in a single take, but as I listen to it, I have noticed myself nonetheless wondering how the band sustained such energy for the entire length of the recording. In this way, the LP captivates me, brings me into its world, which is a unique one that is not accessed by any other record I’ve ever heard. How I wish I could have seen the band live—particularly at the October 1977 festival in Madrid sponsored by the Partido Comunista de España—to witness what must have been a formidable display of rocknroll energy tempered (or burnished?) only by the mayhem that certainly ensued among their fans.
I should mention that I’ve never heard, or even touched, an original copy of the LP, which currently sells for over $250 in mint shape (no easy find), but Munster’s reissue sounds excellent. The Munster 2xLP includes four live songs that were recorded not long before the LP. They offer a glimpse into the evolution of the band’s sound. The guitars are cleaner, perhaps more typically punk circa February 1978 than the sound captured in the studio. Again, the rhythm guitar is louder than the lead guitar, unfortunately. Morfi’s vocals remain prominent, demonstrating the centrality of his severe antisocial streak to the Trapera live experience. The live version of “Ciutat Podrida,” complete with a plastered gang chorus (probably comprising actual gang members) is particularly compelling. “Eunocos Mentales” features an extended solo/improv section, which shows that the band was not ready to leave behind the early 70s musically as much as their antics and lyrics would have been impossible under the dictatorship. The main drawback of the 2xLP and single is that the original records’ sleeve artwork is not reproduced. The original sleeve is far superior to the reissue’s.
As I close my discussion of La Banda Trapera Del Río, and of the vinyl produced in Spain in 1978, I feel I must focus on one song from the B side of the LP, “Padre Nuestro,” which may be the most hard rock tune on the album. It begins with a Detroit-esque intro that is a take on a Nuge classic and then becomes a vampy, accent-on-the-downbeat 70s rock tune. It’s a classic formula. “Padre Nuestro” is, to me, the sound of hopefulness that knows it is self-sustaining, and thus will soon be exhausted. Gonzalo wrote that if Belter Records had had any hope of cashing in on this LP, it was dashed by this song’s lyrics, which satire the “Our Father” prayer by saying essentially that democracy was becoming Spain’s new religion—and not in a good way. The song’s ambiance, more than the lyrics, suggests, if our father cannot save us, we will have to save ourselves. And maybe, just maybe, everything will be okay. But, most likely, it won’t. But at least we will be able to say, as the LP has been saying all along, that we had a blast in the meantime.
In conclusion, the punk explosion in Spain sounded nothing like that of other countries and may not have been as strict in its legibility qua “punk rock” as other explosions. Indeed, the classic “Bloodstains”/“Killed by Death” sound, which has in the last 15+ years retrospectively revised the dogma about what the underbelly of punk rock sounded like in the 70s, did not emerge in Spain until the early 80s, at which point it also overlapped with the hardcore punk explosion. The 1978 sound itself, which was diverse, cannot be attributed to the political situation per se, but the influence of 70s hard rock on the sound was certainly due to the proximity and overlap of punk rock with the withering of Spain’s hippie countercultural moment. In other countries, if I may briefly rehearse the traditional narrative of punk’s genesis, that withering occurred early in the 70s and ushered in the early years of heavy metal and the general darkness that characterized the post-hippie sound but it also ushered in prog, stadium rock, symphonic collaborations—self-important indulgence that obfuscated the rebelliousness that once characterized rocknroll. Bloated on its own onanism, the music grew so elaborate that it lost touch with rocknroll’s roots and, of course, the fans’ everyday realities. Punk rock reversed the trend by being radical—going to the root. (This historical sketch is not without faults and I and others have critiqued it.) In Spain, however, to be radical, because of the political circumstances, did not necessarily, or only, entail tossing aside the glitzy artifice of 70s progressive rock. That artifice did not exist in Spain to the degree it did in the profligate United States or Britain rock milieux, simply because the budgets afforded to Spanish bands were infinitesimal in comparison. But, in another way, Spain’s artifice ran deeper. It was in the entire society’s shameful acceptance of four decades of dictatorship. It was in the fiction that the democratically elected government that took power would be less corrupt, less venal, less dysfunctional than the fascist regime that preceded it. Yes, the punks wanted to get rid of obsolescent, obdurate musical habits, but they wanted to get rid of everything else too. I mean everything. And I see no contradiction between this nonspecific lashing-out and the effluent maximalism of, for example, the guitar work of La Banda Trapera Del Río. Minimalism would come later, after the possibility that I argue characterized Spain’s post-dictatorship punk explosion had been recognized as thwarted.
Endless thanks for many forms of assistance: Paco Mus, Eduard Barcelón Juvé, Marc from Wah Wah, Jaime Gonzalo, Christy Thornton.
For further information, I recommend the documentary When Franco Died, which can be viewed online, and the book Ghosts of Spain: Travels Through Spain and Its Silent Past by Giles Tremlett.