Wednesday, January 23, 2013

They Won't Let It Grow: Spanish rock music

It is a thankless task being asked to come up with a list of the ten best. One man or one woman's ten best might well be another man or woman's ten worst. Lists of the ten bests provoke debate rather than being definitive, though there are doubtless selectors of ten bests who would argue that their choices are definitive.

Music offers a ripe breeding-ground for lists of the best. The ten best pop/rock singles of all time might, typically, include some of the worst crimes committed in the name of popular music. Queen's "Bohemian Rhapsody", for example. Ghastly, pompous, self-indulgent and made all the worse by a video featuring some of the most unpleasant haircuts in musical history. "Hey Jude". When Macca stumbled into the intro to this at the Olympics, I thought oh God no, anything but that. A too-long song that would have benefited from serious editing: about six-and-a-half minutes of editing.

"Rolling Stone" magazine has come up with its ten best, nay greatest, Latin rock albums of all time. What this has done, apart from sparking the anticipated debate as to the merits of these ten greatest, is to highlight the almost total absence of efforts by Spanish rock acts. For the casual observer, a pertinent question might be: what Spanish rock acts?

The Rolling Stone ten have been drawn from what is a wide interpretation of "Latin": Spanish, Portuguese, central and southern American, plus a touch of US Latino. The all-time number one, it would appear, is the 1994 album "Re" by the Mexican band Café Tacvba. Only one of the ten is likely to register with most of you, Santana's "Abraxas" ("Oye Como Va", "Black Magic Woman" and others). Of the rest, there is only one by a Spanish artist, Manu Chao's "Clandestino", recorded in 1998.

Santana couldn't have been ignored. It was they, more than any other act, who popularised Latin rhythms within the rock genre. Though the singles are the best known tracks from "Abraxas", lesser known is "Incident At Neshabur", a startling instrumental which was to bring down the curtain, for the final time, at San Francisco's legendary Fillmore West theatre in 1971.

But if I'm right in thinking that Santana would be the only name that means anything, what does this say for the general popularity of Latin rock outside of a Latin music audience? Not very much, I suspect. Santana would register among a select group of acts that have acquired anything approaching global fame - Julio Iglesias and the boy Enrique, José Feliciano, Gloria Estefan, Sergio Mendes, Herb Alpert, Los Bravos, Ricky Martin - and none of these are exactly rock, while Los Bravos were brave for only as long as it took for everyone to forget their one and only big hit. Latin pop has given us Shakira, Thalía, Christina Aguilera and J-Lo, none of them Spanish. Pitbull, who is from Miami, divides opinion. If he's as bad as some argue that he is, then why is he so popular?

The anonymity of Spanish and Latin rock acts may be due to the fact that they aren't particularly good. But there may well be other explanations, such as a bias towards white Anglo-Saxon rock and a lack of obvious official promotion of music, as is pretty much the case in Spain. Or perhaps it is because Latin styles are better suited to other genres. Spain, and the Balearics in particular, have been to the fore in dance and club music over many years. Ibiza, in Europe at any rate, held the key to the explosion of various club styles from the mid-1980s onwards.

There are some efforts to lend a hand to Spanish rock. For example, Mallorcan and Catalonian bands were given financial assistance to cross the Atlantic last year by the Ramon Llull Institute. They took part in various festivals, such as South By South West in Austin, Texas. Of Spanish mainland acts, La Oreja de Van Gogh has cracked the international market better than most, but the group's success has nevertheless been confined primarily to foreign Latin markets. 

It isn't that there is a lack of talent or that language is an obstacle. If I had to nominate one Spanish group that deserves being heard by a wider audience, it would be the Madrid band HATEM (Hola A Todo El Mundo). A single released last year, "They Won't Let Me Grow", is a gem. The group was nominated by "Rolling Stone" as one of its emerging acts in 2011. Maybe the title of the song says much, though. Official indifference to Spanish popular music is preventing it from growing.

* For the ten greatest Latin rock albums, go to

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