“Bless The Chaos”: La Movida Madrileña

GENERALISSIMO Francisco Franco had been dead for a while before those he repressed felt brave enough to celebrate in public. The old man’s four-decade dictatorship of Spain did not neatly expire with him in 1975, and the country was still effectively run by soldiers and priests when a ragged lineup of young punks staged a free concert at Madrid Polytechnic on February 9, 1980. Forty years on, that night is remembered as the inciting event of La Movida Madrileña, the countercultural eruption of this city during the fragile and volatile “transition” to democracy.

The show was thrown together as a rock’n’roll memorial for José Cano, or Canito, the drummer for a group called Tos, who had been killed in a car crash. His bandmates, soon to reform as Los Secretos, invited friends and peers to play: Nacha Pop, Mermalada, Alaska And The Pegamoides – the latter fronted by a 17-year-old girl. Alaska, aka María Olvido Gara Jova, would become perhaps the first and biggest icon of La Movida. None of them looked like good Catholics. Their songs sounded insolent, anti-romantic, aggressively secular.

“They played poorly, but with passion,” wrote DJ and music critic Diego Manrique, and their sheer loudness, in terms of volume and of colour, contrasted wildly with “the greyness of the Franco regime.” Like they say of that fabled Sex Pistols gig at Manchester Free Trade Hall: everyone who wasn’t there would later claim they were, and anyone who was would start their own band. And while Johnny Rotten asserted dubious poetic licence in rhyming “Queen” with “fascist regime”, to sing for anarchy in the Kingdom of Spain was to risk being taken literally.

Servando Carballar says he was and is an anarchist. Founded in 1982, his indie record label DRO came to represent “about 50%” of the bands linked to La Movida, starting with his own sci-fi synthpop group Aviador DRO And His Specialized Workers. “None of the major labels would even look at us,” says Carballar. “Though we were pretty bad musicians back then.”

Sitting in a Madrid branch of Generation X, his nationwide chain of comic book and boardgame stores, Carballar remembers the Canito tribute concert as making such an impact because it was broadcast on TV and radio – a signal that times had changed at last, in the capital at least. The first stirrings came a few years earlier, he says, down at the city’s El Rastro flea market, where teenage scenesters sold their own fanzines and dug out precious finds on vinyl.

“Some records were like trophies. They were so hard to get here it was almost easier to go to London and bring them back.” Never Mind The Bollocks, and the DIY-ethos behind it, “was like a renaissance in all of our minds.” Taking additional notes from dadaism and futurism, Carballar formed Aviador DRO in 1979, adopting the stage name Biovac-N and styling the band as techno-mutants behind anaolgue keyboards. They were promptly arrested when they stepped outside for their first photo shoot, wearing aeronautic goggles and homemade hazmat suits.

People forget, he says, just how long the customs and practices of church-sanctioned military rule persisted after Franco. Homosexuality was only decriminalised in 1979. Spanish women, including his bandmate and future wife Marta Cervera (aka ArcoIris), had long been subject to a patrician curfew, more habitual than official, that made most streets and bars entirely male domain by nine pm. The Civil Guard could still break up any gathering of more than three people, and detain anyone whose clothes, hair, or face gave them the flimsiest pretext under the prevailing law of “dangerousness and social rehabilitation”.

Guardsmen later raided an Aviador DRO gig while the band were playing Anarchy In The Planet, their quasi-cover of the Sex Pistols single that fired them up. Their friend Ger Espada, vocalist of Oviformia Sci, was hauled away for wearing makeup on his face.

“We sang about the future,” says Carballar, “but only in the abstract. An equal society seemed like a utopian fantasy, like Star Trek. In reality, we thought all of this could end any second. Maybe with a nuclear war, maybe with a military coup.”

On February 23, 1981, 200 armed officers tried and failed to force a return to Francoism by seizing the congress building in Madrid. The transition process was too far along, and the city council was now led by Marxist mayor Enrique Tierno Galvan, whose cultural policies turned steadily supportive, permissive, even exploitative. Galvan came to be known as “the Mayor of La Movida”, subsidizing underground art to promote a new paradigm at the former core of fascist Spain. “Bless the chaos,” he said, “because it is a sign of freedom.”

That chaos spread to street fashion and photography, cartoonists and muralists, the burgeoning queer community and the flourishing drug trade. The name itself, “movida”, was supposedly derived from a slang term for hash and heroin transactions, and a new dialect known as Cheli coopted lingo from prison inmates and prostitutes. “Cutre,” for example, meaning seedy in a good way.

Pedro Almodóvar’s early short films, and his 1980 debut feature Pepi, Luci, Bom (starring Alaska as lesbian rocker Bom) were shot in and around the hangouts of the era, against a backdrop of drag shows and dick-measuring contests. Almodóvar’s own story was like a ballad of La Movida – country boy comes out in the big city, trading his religious education for sex and self-expression – but he never seemed sure how to define the context he emerged from.

“We weren’t an artistic movement, we weren’t a group with a concrete ideology,” Almodóvar said in retrospect. “We were just a bunch of people who coincided with an explosive moment.” The photographer Ouka Leele begs to differ slightly with her old friend. Sitting in a quiet Malasaña cafe around the corner from El Penta and La Vía Láctea, the rock bars that once hosted all the key players, Leele remembers feeling part of something that might have been as big a deal as Surrealism. The late painter and illustrator Carlos Sánchez Pérez, better known as Ceesepe, “used to say we were the new Picassos”, she recalls.

Born Bárbara Allende and raised in a cautiously liberal household, she was just starting art school when Franco died. (Her new name was invented by her flatmate José Alfonso Morera, aka El Hortelano, another signature painter of the period, also recently deceased.)

“The cage door was opened and we all got out,” says Leele. “So, we had this new sense of freedom but we also had ETA setting bombs off, police persecuting students, ultra-right groups coming into bars with guns and singing [fascist anthem] Cara Al Sol. We were sick of all that and we thought of art as medicine, as a cure.” This was acutely the case for Leele herself.

Diagnosed with lymphoma in her early 20s, she had her own perspective on the hedonism of those times. “When you’re so young and suddenly death is there, the future disappears, which is not a bad thing. You live in the present, and every minute is a wonder.” Her work itself became absolutely emblematic of La Movida – highly theatrical portraits and tableaus on monochrome film that she hand-painted over with lurid watercolours.

She drew on ancient myths, classic images of the Spanish Golden Age, and the mild subversions of her childhood, when kids would wear flourescent green, pink, or orange socks to set against the orthodox blacks, whites, and browns of their grandparents. Later, she “rebelled against the rebels too.” “When they all dressed like punks, I dressed like a nun.”

As things turned out, Leele survived where many others did not, because her cancer remitted but also because she had a “horror” of drugs. By the mid-1980s, Malasaña was a hot zone of AIDS deaths and overdoses, and she thought Mayor Galvan hugely irresponsible when he famously told a rock festival crowd in 1984: “Whoever is not high, get high now.”

Galvan himself died two later, and Leele felt “used” by his successor Juan Barranco. In 1987, he made a kind of campaign poster of her masterpiece, a monumental work of photographic performance art around the Cibeles fountain at city hall, based on the myth of Hippomenes and Atalanta. “He thought it would help him win reelection,” she says. “It didn’t. That photo marked the end of La Movida for me. It began with the artists and it was destroyed by the politicians.”

Today, Madrid is run by a right-wing coalition who refer to that period, if at all, as a brief spell of leftist decadence. Its prominent names have since become establishment figures in their own way – Ouka Leele an artist on commission for big fashion houses, Alaska a reality TV star, Almodóvar a beloved auteur of world cinema, and Carballar a leading board game entrepeneur, featured on a recent cover of Forbes. “Strange place for an anarchist,” he admits, though he doesn’t know else what to do except what interests him.

Those now inclined toward nostalgia for Franco will also tend to minimise La Movida as a myth in itself – a nasty, noisy party attended by a hardcore of no more than 100 people. They are not entirely wrong, says Carballar. “But that’s all it takes to make an avant-garde. A few people doing the things they feel they must do. History decides if these things are significant. La Movida, or whatever you call it, felt like something then, and it feels like something now.”

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