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- Posted on Feb 9th 2010 2:00PM by Steve Hochman
Veneno may be the Andalusian Velvet Underground, at least in that regard. Coming a decade later, Veneno's lone album didn't bear much musical relation to the VU, but it marked a similar place in the history of Spanish rock, a revolutionary, raw and progressive take on flamenco traditions that barely made a blip on the pop radar but could well be seen as a wellspring of a new era. Not least of that was that as the Velvet Underground led to the higher-profile solo careers of Lou Reed and John Cale, Veneno begat the teaming of brothers Raimundo and Rafael Amador as the iconic nuevo flamenco duo Pata Negra, as well as a solid solo career from leader and eponym Kiko Veneno.
Now there's another chance to embrace this bracing music. 'Veneno' is being reissued by the Spanish label Vinilisssimo. And in a nice bit of symmetry, it's a limited edition of a thousand high-grade vinyl copies, available in the US via Forced Exposure. It's part of a Spanish rock reissue series that also includes another flamenco-prog classic of the era, 'Gipsy Rock,' the debut by the group Las Grecas, fronted by sisters Carmela and Tina Muñoz Barrull -- which did have a greater commercial impact.
For a taste of Veneno's distinct approach, you can hear an excerpt of the song 'La Muchachita' here and one of 'San Jose de Arimatea' here. These only give a hint, though, of the wonders of this music, extended trips blending new and old sounds with a vivid sense of both emotion and economy, groundbreaking from start to finish. The 'Veneno' material embraces the flamenco's flourishes and drama, the acoustic guitar flurries and rawly emotive vocals, in a surprisingly natural pairing with the ambitions of the folkier sides of progressive rock. The songs land somewhere between Fairport Convention and Jethro Tull, maybe -- yet with none of the bombast or preening pretensions that sometimes saddled the latter. There's a sense of economy and space that marks these pieces, allowing the musical ideas room to breathe and bloom.
And, while the Velvets' sound was clearly a product of its New York genesis, Veneno were very much the product of their very different setting in mid-'70s Spain, where the four-decade nationalistic dictatorship of Gen. Francisco Franco had just come to an end with his death in 1975.
"The whole country was changing to democracy," says Kiko Veneno. "And we lived moments of collective hope. I took the opportunity to experiment with music."
Even as the Spanish started exercising new freedoms, though, such experiments were rather daring and even rebellious.
"Yes, in some ways it was," he says. "I wanted to make songs in a freer way, break some standards and show our message nude and raw."
The Franco years had not totally stifled a new Spanish music scene from developing in the '60s and '70s and Veneno cites several bands including Los Brincos (the "Spanish Beatles"), Los Gatos Negros, Peret and then later Joan Manuel Serrat, Paco Ibañez and Camarón (José Monje Cruz, aka flamenco innovator El Camarón de la Isla) as having brought an Iberian sensibility to rock and pop, and vice versa. But Veneno saw a way to take it further, and, ironically, it was the embrace of a musical sense of nationalism that proved the final, key piece in the puzzle.
"I first became interested in pop and rock, then in blues and jazz," he says. "Punk was coming in, but we didn't know it. I listened to the classics of my generation -- the Beatles, Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan came out as a new form and had big influence on me. Jimi Hendrix was setting fire to guitars and there was also the mystery of Miles Davis. With Frank Zappa, everything was possible. I took from them everything I could take."
But then ...
"When I discovered flamenco music deeply -- I knew it before, of course, but only superficially -- I put it in my backpack as another music of the world, the one that was closest to me."
The mix of music and musicians came together very naturally.
"Raimundo, Rafael and I became friends," he says. "They were already great guitar players, and we began to create our songs, playing flamenco guitars with a rock 'n' roll or bluesy flow, eventually playing with a pick and trying to sing in a freer way. Since the beginning, that sound came out in our music -- and not anything could stop it."
The songwriting came out of jamming, for the most part.
"It didn't look like anything that already existed," he says. "But we loved to play blues, bulerías [a branch of flamenco], Pink Floyd, Jimi Hendrix, whatever caught us."
The resulting songs, he says, "were psychedelic and experimental songs but also rooted in flamenco tradition. Lyrics lead the whole thing in some ways. You had to know what you were talking about to sing them, because the message could be wild. And the music had to be very exciting with that."
It proved hard for the group to gain a foothold, though. The Spanish division of CBS Records, which signed the group, had no idea what to do with it.
"The record label found the recording too daring," Veneno says. "There was controversy. Some people didn't understand anything. Some liked it."
Even a bold statement in the band's choice for cover art -- a photo of a block of brown hashish with the band's name stamped in it, roundly rejected by the label (though restored in this edition) -- got lost against the background of the dramatic shifts going on in Spain's transition from Franco to the modern age.
"It didn't really have any impact and the recording was not at all spread," he laments. "There wasn't even a place for controversy."
The group also managed to be able to do only 10 concerts during the course of two years, though they were memorable and in some cases showed that under different circumstances Veneno could have caught on hugely.
"The best one was the first concert we did in a big place," he says. "It was a soccer field in a coastal village called Punta Umbría. It was exciting because for the first time we got to communicate the real sound of the recording to an audience. Such things didn't happen often."
Frustrated, the group came apart. But over time the seeds it sowed grew and flourished, both in Pata Negra and Veneno's solo work and in a spirit that has manifest in a wide range of Spanish rock bands and flamenco innovators, such as the global-reaching artistry of past Around the World subject Son de la Frontera.
"We didn't know then that we were writing an important page of Spanish music," Veneno says. "For me it was great to start in music like that -- and then it was over. It was hard to go on by myself without Veneno."
How does it sound to him today?
"The recording had such an anarchic end that it wouldn't be accepted today," says the musician, who has released a new album in Spain titled 'Dice la Gente.' "But the songs have the same strength. In fact, I keep playing some of the in my concerts now."