Times are tough in Spain. Suffering the aftereffects of the collapse of a speculative real-estate bubble in 2008, debarred from improving its export position through devaluation because of its participation in the Euro, the government of Mariano Rajoy has recently proposed a budget plan involving cuts of over $85 billion in the next two and a half years.
The announcement of the budget proposal led to tens of thousands participating in demonstrations in more than fifty Spanish cities. In this context, it is hardly surprising that the Spanish hardcore scene is at the forefront of a renaissance of oppositional culture.
Spain has never had the highest of profiles in the international punk scene. This is not to say that it has not produced its share of great bands. As punk became truly transnational in the 1980s, people in the punk metropoles in Great Britain and the U.S. had the opportunity to hear bands like Bap!!, Ruido de Rabia, and Kortatu. But, even with the added exposure brought by the expansion of the fanzine and tape trading culture of that era, Spanish bands never quite sparked the same degree of fascination that other peripheral regions such as Japan, Scandinavia, or even Italy.
In part this is due to the vagaries of chance in the media culture of the 1980s. Raw Power, for example, were a little known band from the town of Reggio Emilia until they toured the U.S. in the summer of 1984. Their legendary Screams from the Gutter LP, recorded during a tour stop in Indianapolis and produced by Zero Boys front man Paul Mahern, ended up selling 40,000 copies and giving a signature sound to Italian hardcore.
This could just as easily have happened to any number of Spanish bands, but it didn’t. It’s not that Subterranean Kids or Ultimo Resorte rocked any less hard than Negazione or Cheetah Chrome Motherfuckers. But the former neither captured the international punk imagination, nor defined a specific sound in the way that the latter did.
There are a lot of styles represented within the contemporary Spanish underground music scene. The Internet has provided a platform for the more extensive colonization of cultural space by powerful media entities, but it has also allowed for a greater porousness in transnational cultural exchanges. It has thus come to pass that Spain has produced a crop of d-beat bands that are a match for anything that one might find in Stockholm or Umeå.
D-beat has achieved certain cachet as the definitive form of modern punk. Rooted in the path breaking work of Discharge that led the transition from the commercialization of the dregs of the ’77 era to the nascent European hardcore scene of the early 1980s, d-beat took root in the cultural soil of Scandinavia. The image and sound of hardcore in those years was shaped by wave after wave of bands from Sweden and Finland sporting charged hair and studded jackets. The atheoretical anarchism of bands like Anti-Cimex, Rattus, and Crude SS played out against the backdrop of blistering, overdriven bursts whose simplicity made the compositions of Mick Jones and Captain Sensible seem positively symphonic by comparison. With the diffusion and domestication of other, more accessible styles of punk, d-beat and its adherents are, to an extent, the torchbearers for those varieties of youth revolt that cannot be easily marketed at mall-punk outlet Hot Topic.
The Spanish scene has experienced a notable revival on a countrywide basis. However Catalonia is arguably the epicenter of this resurgence. This is somewhat ironic, given that the economic situation in Catalonia is somewhat less parlous than in the country at large. So much so, that the necessity of transfer payments to the more troubled regions of the country have led to an intensification of separatist politics in the region. This separatist movement, controlled by oligarchs hoping to profit from secession from the struggling Spanish economy, has little purchase in the hardcore scene, the political bent of which runs mostly to anarchism and the squatter culture. Indeed, although the economic situation in Catalonia is not as grim as in most other regions of Spain, Barcelona is home (according to a report in July in the national daily El Pais) to the most extensive squatter scene in the country.
Barcelona is also home to Kremón Records which, since its formation in 2001, has grown to become the most prolific purveyor of hardcore music and culture in the country. The first major document in the rise of the Spanish d-beat scene was the Barcelona Kaos compilation, released by the label in December 2009. Although the bands featured ran the stylistic gamut from old school hardcore (Avoid Notes, Cinder) to metallic thrash (Violent Headache) and impenetrable crust (Mugrind, Crani Sèptic), the main approach on offer was d-beat of a specifically Spanish flavor.
While the current crop of Scandinavian bands (such as Martyrdöd and Skit System) rely on the practice of downtuning their guitars to the point that only elephants can hear them, the Spanish take tends to stay closer to standard turning, and employs major key melodic overlays.
Instinto, hailing from the Barcelona suburb of L’Hospitalet de Llobregat, are leading figures in the d-beat scene, both in terms of the style of their music and in their grassroots political engagement. The sound of Instinto’s music is cleaner than that typical of Scandinavian bands in this vein, and the vocals can actually be understood, illustrating the immediacy of the political content. In addition to their musical pursuits, members of the band are also involved in organizing the Merkadillo Punk, a neighborhood event featuring music, small vendors, and vegan food; an attempt to extend the grassroots anarchism of the hardcore scene into broader regions of community organizing.
The reasons for the greater prominence Spanish punk in general and the d-beat scene in particular are difficult to pin down. Generalizing about punk rock is notoriously difficult. This is true for a number of reasons, not the least of which is that punk is not really one thing, but a range of social phenomena comprising varied, sometimes mutually contradictory tendencies. It has neither a beginning nor and end, but merely emerges in the cultural space of advanced societies and diverse guises, shaped by some combination of local and global cultural formations.
It is for this reason that the futility of the attempt to link punk to socio-economic factors in any systematic way. The British punk scene of the mid-1970s can, in many respects, be seen as an outgrowth of the fading of the postwar boom in Europe and of the sclerosis of the Laborite welfare state. In the case of Spain, it is clear that the roots of the scene extend back to the period before the outbreak of the crisis. Yet the deterioration of the economic situation in the country and the concomitant challenges to the institutions of the Spanish state have created political and cultural conditions in which the anarchist ethics of the hardcore scene and its rejection of middle class politics have an unaccustomed relevance.
Photograph courtesy of gramz. Published under a Creative Commons license.