By Robin Cembalest
Photo credit: Robin Cembalest
The following article, referred to by Greil Marcus in part 3 of his interview with Simon Reynolds on our main site, was originally published in the Village Voice Rock & Roll Quarterly, Summer 1988. Reprinted with permission of the author.
In Priego de Córdoba, a hill town in southern Spain, neighbors are gathering before the siesta in Bar El Llano. Outside are white stucco houses, Baroque churches, a Roman/Arab castle, a statue of Jesus, and a few goats. Inside, teenagers wear black spiked haircuts, black leather jackets embellished with chains, safety pins, and beer-can pop tops, and black combat boots with red laces. They are shouting their phonetic interpretation of the song played on the sound system, “God Save the Queen.” They call themselves punkys, say they are anarchists, and talk about the fascist regime as though it was still in power. Only this is 1986, a decade after the death of Franco and the birth of punk.
Priego is in most respects a typical Andalusian town, with 20,000 inhabitants, a deep Catholic tradition, and olive harvesting techniques that date back centuries. Some new technology has arrived, like mopeds and video shops. But in general, Priego has not made a strong effort to move into the modern era. So while it renamed public spaces after Franco died, no one ever got around to removing the old signs. The main square has two markers, side by side — the now-defunct “General Franco,” and its generic replacement, “Plaza de Andalucía.”
I arrived in Priego on Corpus Christi. Even though I was a bourgeois American, the kids invited me to their table and asked me to translate the rest of the song (they already had the gist of “no future”). Then they explained why they’re punkys. “This pueblo is the most facha [fascist] in Andalusia. Someone had to come along who would tell them to shove it.”
Their clothing is meant to distinguish them from the general population, especially the pijos (yuppies). “You want to dress so that no one looks like you, so that when you go in the street everyone stares,” one explained. Actually, the group dressed almost identically, except for personal flourishes like the baby pacifier that one girl wore tied to her chains, or the tattoos of a marijuana leaf, Charlie Chaplin cane, and Star of David on her friend’s arms. “I like the way they look,” he explained. Another wore a swastika badge. “It’s not for the ideology. I just want to shock people.”
They listen to foreign groups like the Dead Kennedys and the Clash, and Spanish ones like La Polla Récords (polla means penis), Cicatriz (literally, scar), and MCD (initials for Me cago en Dios, I shit on God). “The music is potent, provocative; it releases you.” “The songs express what you’re thinking. They say it in street language, like you talk; they give you the words.” “They attack the things we’re against, religion and the government.” They showed me the album cover of a group called Eskorbuto (scurvy), which depicts a terrorized Christ jumping off the cross. One of Kortatu’s songs is titled “La Cultura es Tortura.” La Polla sings “El patriota — un idiota. La tradición — una maldición” (The patriot — an idiot. Tradition — a curse).
The general sentiment in the Spanish punk movement is that everyone in the establishment should drop dead. Since Franco is long gone, they attack his ideological successor, Manuel Fraga, a minister and ambassador under Franco who founded the main right-wing party in the democracy, Alianza Popular. “Fraga, Reagan, muérete.” “Una buena ecología, mata un madero cada día.” (A good ecology, kill a policeman every day.) “Con las tripas del último militar, ahorcaré al últímo cura.” (With the guts of the last soldier, I’ll hang the last priest.) “Vete a tu casa, mata a tu padre.” (Go home, kill your father.)
The country didn’t pay much attention to punk until 1987, when the image of a one-legged boy wearing a jacket scribbled with anticlerical slogans, smashing a street lamp with a cane, became the media’s motif for alienated youth. Newspaper and television commentaries were enhanced by the fact that the boy, Juan Manteca, was known as Juan el Cojo (cojo means lame), creating a convenient rhyme with Dany El Rojo (Daniel Cohn-Bendit), icon of a previous generation. The only thing that punk groups want, the press said, is “to provoke.” “They heat up the scene with their ultraleft slogans,” a national paper reported after a La Polla concert at which members of the audience jumped on stage, seized the microphone, and shouted “policía asesina!” The police responded with smoke bombs.
This might seem violent for a generation that grew up under the democracy. Born around 1970, these kids were five when Franco died, and are really the first to remember his regime from hearsay rather than experience. In the late ‘70s Spanish youth had erupted in a hysterical surge of decadence, experimentation, and transgression. Whatever was prohibited or discouraged before, like drugs, premarital sex, revealing clothing, was taken to its extreme. It seemed that every new play managed to incorporate a nude scene, crucifixion, and crooked priest, no matter what its subject.
With the clues presented in imported films, music, and fashion, teenagers had the opportunity to choose their identity from among the styles of the ‘50s, ‘60s, and ‘70s. There were modernos, dressed in black and listening to Talking Heads; heavys, with skulls on their T-shirts, playing AC/DC; rockabillies with long sideburns; hippies with long hair. The older styles were not exactly revivals, since Franco’s Spain never experienced those original moments. Nor were they carbon copies. They were curious amalgamations of foreign cultures adapted to Spanish taste.
In the late ‘70s, some of the changes reached Priego, as the punkys reached adolescence. They began to consider themselves different. “Instead of listening to Julio Iglesias, we were already listening to Siniestro Total, to Kaka de Luxe.” “The records in the stores aren’t the ones you want to hear.” “Heavy metal has already been assimilated into society. There are heavy groups on TV. Punk is different. Punk groups don’t make videos.” “Punk is considered distasteful, dangerous to society.”
Small town society, they discovered, was not like the big cities. When they began to dress punk, their parents hassled them, their friends from school wouldn’t talk to them, and the Civil Guard stared at them menacingly. Considering themselves outsiders, they identified with the rebels of the opposition under Franco, when social revolt was a risky expression of political resistance, and painting unpatriotic, anticlerical, or scatological graffiti was likely to result in arrest or imprisonment. There is a certain nostalgia for those days, when, it seems, everything was somehow clearer — you were either a liberal or a fascist, and everyone on the left was automatically united for a common goal.
In their opinion, democracy in Priego is not so different from fascism, only it has a respectable veneer. If these days, the repression is more social than political, if the town simply paints over the graffiti and bemoans the situation in sermons and editorials, the punks still feel oppressed, disenfranchised. They resent the socialist government, saying it hasn’t delivered. “No hay libertad de expresión,” they write on the walls. “No debo nada ni a dios ni al gobierno por haber nacido por el coño de mi madre.” (I owe nothing to God nor the government for having been born from my mother’s cunt.)
The irony about belonging to the post-Franco generation is that people tell them they are the lucky ones, that they have endless possibilities, only it isn’t working out that way. They are caught in the middle — they don’t know fascism, they don’t know freedom. So they dramatize the freedom they are supposed to have by making themselves seen and heard, by placing themselves in the historical continuum of revolutionaries (which validates their discontent), by using the catchphrases of revolt, wherever they find them. The punks in Priego, without a scene they feel they can relate to, make their own through a kind of creative appropriation, by fusing disparate elements from pop culture, politics, history, and abroad.
They imitate the tactics of an illegal underground. Punk is disseminated through a network of bootleg tapes and xeroxed fanzines passed hand to hand. Initiates recognize each other through obscure symbols, like ordinary military boots transformed with red laces or stripes of white paint, and speak a private language of song lyrics.
That Spanish punk would flourish clear across Spain in the Basque country is somewhat understandable, because an industrial city like Bilbao has certain aspects more in common with British cities than it does with Andalusia. The Basque groups took their cues from English groups whose lyrics were easily adapted to the Spanish context. So “the fascist regime” is echoed in “todos los fascistas viven cara al culo” (all fascists live face to their ass), a parody of the falange fascist anthem “Cara al Sol” (face to the sun). “Anarchy in the UK” became “anarquía en el coño de la reina” (anarchy in the queen’s cunt). At the same time, they parodied those Spanish kids who wanted to be too English — “se hacen una para mirando una postal de Piccadilly” (they jerk off while looking at a postcard of Piccadilly).
The Basque country is also the region of Spain with the strongest opposition to the central government. The Basque punk groups, as most “politically aware” youths do, support the movement for autonomy. In Priego the idea of the Basque struggle (like the idea of English punk) is based on selective interpretation, from newspaper reports, brief encounters with natives, and the general mythology about how the Basques opposed Franco. So the Priego punks say they support Herri Batasuna (Popular Unity), a coalition of militant groups whose agenda is regional autonomy. They respond to one of HB’s slogans in the last election, “dálea donde más les duele” (give it to them where it hurts the worst). “It’s like saying ‘fuck the government,’” they say. “You vote for what you know can’t win.” The Basque language, prohibited under Franco, becomes another symbol of the struggle. But since they can’t speak it, they adapt some of its characteristics, like the k, in their graffiti — anarkia, okupaxion, tekieroati (te quiero a tí, I love you).
This all seems to have more to do with a desire to be offensive than with the actual agenda of the movement. Herri Batasuna is the political arm of ETA, the Basque terrorist group, and in Priego they write Gora ETA(long live ETA) on the walls. But when I asked them how they felt about terrorism, they said they were against it, and could not support the murder of innocent people.
Andalusia does not have a comparable separatist movement, nor a strong opposition. But it certainly has an anarchist history, which is preserved in a kind of collective memory. Priego had its own general strike back in 1918, when all workers, including even the nursemaids hired to suckle rich people’s babies, paralyzed the economy for several days. In the end the strike was suppressed, the cavalry appeared to let people know who was in charge, the workers’ organizations were crushed, and, as historian Manuel López Calvo put it, they “returned to their previous attitude of resignation.”
Later, at the time of the republic, it seemed like a real possibility that the left would unite to collectivize the country. The various Communist and Anarchist parties inspired huge enlistments of both Spaniards and foreigners. George Orwell described the mentality of men from pueblos who journeyed to Barcelona to join them:
There was something rather pathetic in the literalness with which these idealistic Spaniards took the hackneyed phrases of revolution … at that time revolutionary ballads of the naïvest kind, all about proletarian brotherhood and the wickedness of Mussolini, were being sold on the streets. I had often seen an illiterate militiaman buy one of these ballads, laboriously spell out the words, and then, when he had got the hang of it, begin singing it to an appropriate tune.
There is something of this spirit in the punkys, who sing along with the Sex Pistols and only know the most general facts about the Civil War leftist movements, like that some of them burned down churches. That these kids are middle-class, and never talk about the specific agenda of these movements, or about workers, reflects the fact that it is the historical, almost mystical memory of the Civil War that attracts them, not any specific desire to change society in the way those groups proposed. Their definition of anarchy is based on a more general defiance: “You wouldn’t even have to vote. You would be your own government.” “No one would tell you what’s prohibited.”
One other thing that distinguishes Priego from the neighboring towns is that it has an organized branch of Izquierda Unida, a coalition of several parties of the far left, including the historic PCE (Partido Comunista de España). While in the past Communist parties had been run by veterans of the Franco opposition, and indeed, of the Civil War, IU, founded only three years ago, is run by a new generation. Its organizer in Priego is 32-year-old Manuel López Calvo, the writer who has been reminding the town of its radical heritage, like the strike of 1918, an event not included in conventional histories. His platform in the 1987 mayoral election proposed declaring Priego a nonnuclear zone and taking progressive stands on ecology, social services, and the problems of women and youth. After the election, López Calvo commented to the town paper, “It doesn’t cease to surprise me that the results of our party have been good in the rest of Spain, and that in Priego we had an almost total disconnection with the electorate.”
Some punkys voted for López Calvo because he was a friend. It wasn’t that the others had a problem with IU, but that they prefer anarchy, “an ideal that won’t happen here or anywhere.” A deeper motive is that they seem to be intimidated by the prospect that they actually have a role, and that’s another reason for adopting the position of outsider. “The new generation has freedom, but they don’t know what to do with it yet… it will be the next generation that makes the changes.”
I was surprised to find when I visited in 1988 that the punkys had toned themselves down. They still discussed anarchy, they listened to the same music, but they had cut their hair and modified their dress code to basic black. Was it the beginning of the end of a middle-class interlude that had run its course, or was Priego really too repressive to tolerate rebelliousness? “We stopped wearing punky clothes because it was too much of a problem with our families.” “They wouldn’t let us in the bars” (along with other people who went too far, like men seen embracing in public). The town paper’s editorials were accusing them of robberies, blaming violent behavior on “seemingly inoffensive movies that sublimate the recourse to force, terrorism, and even the sad fame acquired by individuals like Manteca.” (“And they spelled our name wrong! — punkis,” the kids complained.) The Civil Guard closed down the “punky caseta” they had set up at the feria, a particular blow since it had put them on the punk map — “people from other places found about it, and came from Cordoba, Granada, Seville. But Priego didn’t want people like that in town.”
There were also external forces that diminished the safety of numbers. While in the past a boy could simply declare himself a conscientious objector, in 1987 a new law required objectors to spend 18 months in civil service (or nine months in jail), while military service itself lasts only a year. So some punkys went off to join the army. Another problem is the economy, which is growing much more slowly than elsewhere in Spain. For a few seasons they picked olives or strawberries (“It doesn’t matter how you dress for those jobs”), or begged in other towns (“In Priego they’d never give you anything”). “I can’t imagine spending my whole life here,” most say. But after roughing it outside, they seem comfortable in the town where they grew up, where their friends are, and where they can enter their fathers’ trades, as carpenters, shirtmakers, mechanics.
“If a girl is a punk, it’s harder — they think you’re an undesirable, a prostitute, a drug addict,” one said. Last year, she left home with plans to go to Bilbao, but only made it as far as Madrid, where she met other punks (“I went up to people dressed like I was”) and was impressed by the hippies (“I think punk will end… but hippies will last forever”). But she grew tired of sleeping in the Plaza Mayor, and, when the weather got colder, she went home. “In the end, I keep being punk inside,” she insisted. “But I want to lead a normal life.” Now she lives with her parents and sews dresses for a boutique in Barcelona.
Still, the punkys did not really lose the battle, because it was about something besides anarchy, Basque independence, or killing the priests. They asserted themselves as a generation different and apart, with its own culture, a youth culture that was intentionally obscure, intentionally not indigenous, but linked to a radical heritage bound to provoke backlash. Even as the town was trying to crush them, it was implicitly acknowledging the fact that they will not accept tradition, that society must change. That was their revolution.
Robin Cembalest is the current executive editor of ARTnews and author of the Tumblr letmypeopleshow.com.