Monday, 29 April 2013

20 years of the Xixon Sound

Gijon  © Arle Corte

Gijon (Xixon in the local Asturian language - pronounced "SheeSHON") is a medium sized city (pop. 277,733) perched on the northern coast of Spain between the Bay of Biscay and the Picos de Europa mountains. It’s a port surrounded by declining heavy industry, empty shipyards and closed mines. The city has been suffocating in a kind of post industrial malaise for the last 30 years or so which has only been partially alleviated by tourism (Gijon is a great place to spend your summer provided you don't mind a few grey days and occasional rain - There's a lot going on culturally but don't expect Ibiza).

As a fading industrial town it shares certain characteristics with Seattle or Liverpool and 20 years ago it gave birth to a musical scene which the press quickly dubbed the “Xixon Sound”. It may not have had the international impact of Merseybeat or Grunge but it did have an enormous influence on Spain’s national rock scene. It was also notable for the high quality of music of many of bands that emerged from it.

Like Merseybeat or the Seattle scene, what most of these bands had in common was geography rather than “sound” however they did represent a kind of freshness that was comparable to the contemporaneously emerging Britpop and a rejection of the 80s values of flash and fame at all cost. There was an indie ethos which, for the most part, the bands stayed true to. Musically, they seemed to take their cues from the Velvet Underground, the Pixies and Sonic Youth however with time those influences widened to include Britpop and 1960s rock and folk. The bands also shared a collaborator and producer in Paco ‘Loco’ Martínez and used his studios near Gijon to record.

By the early 1980s Spain had thrown off 40 years of a bigoted and blinkered petty bourgeois dictatorship and had embraced democracy and the future. Everything that for decades the dwarf-like dictator Franco and his henchmen had kept the lid on was now emerging into a new cultural spring. Suddenly ideas could flourish and Spain seemed to be a country that was dominating the arts, music, fashion, and culture. It even had the Olympics in 1992. Spain had hit fast forward and was enjoying the ride.

The Xixon sound also represented a kind of generational change. This generation, which came of age in the 1990s and which most of these bands represented, was the first to be raised post Franco. They had no personal memory of life under Franco and seemed to regard themselves as part of the great world cultural flow rather than something separate. Spain was no longer, as Franco had claimed, “different”.

The Xixon bands therefore seemed to reflect a fresh, new outlook, a more independent spirit and a rejection of what had previously been taken for granted. Many of the bands unashamedly sang in English (or their version of it) although it must be said that as the bands started to find and explore their own creative voices many realized that their native language gave them greater potential for self expression and reverted to Spanish. Also, for the first time in Spanish rock, bands like Nosotrash, The Undershakers and Pauline en la Playa were all female.

Manta Ray
For me the two talents that really stand out are Manta Ray; one of the best bands to ever come out of Spain and whose high powered post-rock music deserved to be better known internationally (and who have a separate post here) and Francisco Nixon (whose bands include Australian Blonde and La Costa Brava) who has a gift for writing really catchy 60s inspired pop and rock. Other bands like Dr Explosion, Nosotrash, Pauline en la Playa and Nacho Vegas have also maintained a high quality of output over careers now spanning 20 years or more.

Francisco Nixon
Why all this happened in a moderately sized port on the northern coast of Spain is anyone’s guess. You could write a book about it. Someone should because as far as I know there are no Spanish histories of this scene as yet which is a little strange considering its cultural importance.

The choices below reflect my own taste rather than being a representative roundup. The best bands, in my opinion, were the bands which demonstrated a folk / psych / pop direction and that’s why most of the songs chosen below tend towards those styles.

So here are 15 tracks from 20 years of the Xixon Sound. Maybe it's the sun(!). Maybe it's the sea. Maybe it's the surfers on San Lorenzo beach. But there's a lot of wonderful high quality pop and rock here...

Australian Blonde - Cool Dive
Named after an ad seen in a London telephone box offering the services of an Australian blonde, they were the band that achieved the most success in the mid 90s. Formed by Fran Fernández (AKA Francisco Nixon), the band went on to have a national megahit with Chup Chup which was featured in the film Historias de Kronen and also in a Pepsi ad. They later recorded an album in New York with Steve Wynn of the Dream Syndicate.
The band were produced by Paco 'Loco' Martinez who would also produce many of the other Gijon bands and whose influence on the scene was substantial.

Australian Blonde - Control is perhaps my favourite by the band and displays Francisco Nixon's knack of creating Beatlesesque perfect pop.

Doctor Explosion - La Chatunga
The jokers in the pack and a band best seen live. Mid 60s R'n'B, punk, garage, surf and Link Wray riffs all mixed up with a lot of tongue in cheek humour - and the band work up a storm. allmusic link here

Doctor Explosion - Chesterfield Childish Club - A cover-version of the garage tune "Night of the Phantom" by Larry & the Blue Notes in Spanish. From the band's LP "¡¡ Chupa Aquí !!Doctor Explosion!!" (2008)
Better than the original!

And they also do a cool psych version of Joy Division's Blue Monday here.

Penelope Trip - Zoom
Here at their most pop and not necessarily representative of the rest of the band's work which is much more noise oriented and feedback-drenched. More about the band here

Nosoträsh - Completamente Sola
Wonderful. Perfect pop. Formed in the mid 90s and according to legend quite spontaneously one night when the girls were out in one of Gijon's (many) bars and suddenly decided to get a band together. They have developed their own quirky style and are still gigging. More on the Wikipedia here

Nosoträsh - Gato Al Sol.

Nosoträsh - Mis muñecas. Written by Alicia Álvarez of Pauline en la Playa (see below). Classic hook.

La Costa Brava - Natalia Verbeke
Francisco Nixon (of Australian Blonde) again with his other band La Costa Brava. Although the lyrics do not reference her specifically, the song is named after the Spanish actress who played the girlfriend in the Spanish version of British TV's Doc Martin. Just thought you'd want to know.

La Costa Brava - Adoro a las pijas de mi ciudad. Tongue in cheek but affectionate song about his love for a certain type of local girl. Pija is a difficult word to translate but online it turns up as posh / preppy / stuck up / swanky / elitist / exclusive / swank / toff... Whatever. He adores them.

Francisco Nixon - Nadia 
Francisco Javier Fernández Martínez on his own with yet another piece of classic pop. This time the muse is Nadia Comăneci.
More on MySpace here

Pauline En La Playa - El mundo se va a acabar (2013)
Formed by sisters Mar and Alicia Álvarez in 1997 when they started writing songs that didn't fit in style-wise with their previous more rock oriented band the Undershakers. This is the title track from their latest album. Band website here

Pauline En La Playa - Un Muelle
Unplugged and live in Paradiso - one of the best independent bookshops in Northern Spain. They have a great vinyl LP section too. Worth a visit if you're passing through!

Nacho Vegas - Perplejidad
Currently one of Spain's most successful solo artists. As I said here about Nacho Vegas, "A great song-writer and story teller. His songs probably best portray contemporary Spain. According to (and a few other places) he "blends the polyhedric language of rock and the most stark lyricism into an intense whole. His lyrics are painful and celebratory, pathetic and grand, brutally lucid and of an intimate beauty; a desperate philosophy of survival shines with a wicked sense of humour and a longing for the divine".
You have to listen now, don't you?

Manta Ray - Cartografies (I.Mi, II. Última, III. Esperanza)
A band so good I've already posted about them here. One of the best bands to come out of Spain in the last 20 years or so.
This is a longish track which seems to merge the 90s minimalism of Massive Attack with the 60s psychedelia of Pink Floyd and the Beatles. The last 5 minutes are really rather glorious. Crank it up.

If you liked this, check out these...

The Return of the Manta Ray


Horizonte Eléctrico - 10 Great contemporary Spanish bands that should be better known outside Spain


Horizonte Eléctrico - 10 Flamenco Rock Classics


Horizonte Electrico - Spanish Rock on


Playa Poniente, Gijon © David Mainwood

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