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The Serrat–Sabina generation: sitting comfortably

Spain’s two leading singer songwriters of the last four decades, Joaquín Sabina and Joan Manuel Serrat, are proving enduringly popular, both individually and as a double act.


The voices of a generation: Sabina (left) and Serrat.

Looking back over the last 50 years of so of popular music, it’s probably a safe enough conclusion to draw that at least one of the secrets of a performer’s enduring popularity is to be inexorably associated with fast-changing times.

For most of us, however banal it might seem to the rest of the world — and we may ourselves not even realise it at the time — there is always a moment in life after which things are never quite the same; a high point or an event, a moment, after which events overtake us; when we grow up and settle down to earning a living, raising a family; that sort of thing.

For the more Romantic among us, the times leading up to that high point in life, otherwise known as youth, usually come with a soundtrack. And for the luckier among us, those youthful years and their accompanying soundtrack sometimes coincide with fast-changing times, with major events in the wider world, when one historical period closes and another clearly begins to emerge and take shape.

In Spain, for the generation now in their fifties and sixties, that period is the decade or so between the early 1970s and the mid-1980s: when its members would have been in their late teens and early twenties. It opens with Franco moribund, but still deadly, and then passes on through the uncertain years after his death, years of political struggle for some, and years when the country lightened up.

Two of the most emblematic singer-songwriters of that period are, in historical order, Joan Manuel Serrat, and Joaquín Sabina. The pair teamed up in 2007 to record Dos pájaros de un tiro (or ‘Two birds with one stone’), in which they sing versions of each other’s songs, as well as duets. They subsequently undertook a lengthy and highly successful tour in Spain and Latin America that significantly revived their careers.

Now they’re back with another joint venture: La orquesta del Titánic (or ‘The Titanic’s Orchestra’), a new album and tour that begins in Argentina on March 5.

Meanwhile, Más de 100 mentiras (‘More than 100 lies’), a musical based on Sabina’s songs, has been packing them in at a Madrid theatre since October.

Serrat’s career began in the mid-1960s: he was soon embraced by those who loathed Franco following the debacle surrounding his being replaced in the 1968 Eurovision Song Contest, which was being staged in Spain, and was obviously a showcase for the regime. The story goes that the 19-year-old Serrat was due to perform La la la (written by the ghastly El Dúo Dinámico). Nobody has ever questioned Serrat closely about it, but the story is that he insisted on singing in Catalan. However, I have always suspected that he realized that appearing in the Eurovision and representing Franco’s Spain, in any language, would be a death blow to his nascent career. In the event, fellow Catalan warbler Massiel pipped Cliff Richard’s magnificent Congratulations to the post — there are rumours that General Franco fixed the vote. I digress.

Exile and romance

After this, Serrat’s career as the gentle voice of protest was set, becoming the leading figure in the Nova Canço, the musical wing of the Catalan nationalist movement, with 1971’s Mediterráneo consolidating his success in Latin America. He further irritated the regime, which had banned his music, by condemning the shoot-to-kill policy against political activists, and going into exile in Mexico in 1974. He returned to Spain triumphant after Franco’s death in late 1975, bringing with him his brand of poetic, highly romantic songs, typically performed with lush instrumental backing.

In 1995, he was awarded a medal by the Spanish government for his contribution to Hispanic culture; five years later the SGAE performing rights society named him as one of the 10 most important musical figures of Spain’s 20th century. His songs have been recorded by most of Spain’s major artists over the last three decades, many of them on the two LPs Serrat eres único (‘Serrat you’re unique’) recorded in 1995 and 2005.

Six years his junior, Joaquín Sabina’s career took off a decade later than Serrat’s, but like the older man, he too lived abroad during the final years of the Franco regime, fleeing to London after throwing a petrol bomb into government offices.

After spending a couple of years in the English capital, where he seems to have been blissfully unaware of the burgeoning punk movement around him, he returned to Spain, having to perform military service before, in 1978, releasing his first album, Inventorio, which set the style and tone for his work thereafter: where Serrat’s romanticism is Mediterranean moonlight and cava, Sabina’s is Madrid streetlamp and a bottle of whisky.

He soon moved to CBS, which was able to promote heavily his Malas compañías (‘Bad company’) at a time when the Spanish music scene was expanding rapidly, resulting in his first number one: Pongamos que hablo de Madrid (‘Let’s say I’m talking about Madrid’), which has become one of his most famous songs, exploring his obsession with the small-town boy from Andalusia swallowed up by the big, bad city.

Revelling in his role as the Spanish Bob Dylan, Sabinas kept up a gruelling recording and touring schedule over the next two decades, and selling millions of albums in Spain and Latin America, and partying hard along the way.

The dream team

But in 2001 he suffered a mild stroke and took time to rest, but was back the following year with a new album: Dimelo en la calle (‘Step outside and say that’), releasing two other albums until in 2007, he decided to team up with Serrat.

The pair are obviously good friends, and appear to enjoy working and touring together: let’s face it, at their age, it would be sad if they had only teamed up for the money.

Like their sixties survivor counterparts in the US and the UK, Serrat and Sabina maintain a loyal following that has grown older with them, and that can look back to the far-off days of Franco as a time when life seemed simpler, when the issues were more clear cut.

The Sabina-Serrat generation has benefitted most over the last three decades from Spain’s transformation, enjoying the economic boom and the benefits of job security and in many cases generous early retirement. And unlike their children and grandchildren, they can afford to pay upwards of €50 for a concert ticket, and presumably wouldn’t dream of illegally downloading their heroes’ albums.

Serrat and Sabina begin their tour in Argentina on March 5. They reach Spain in June. 

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Published: Feb 27 2012
Category: Culture, Featured, Music, IberoArts, Spain News
Republication: Creative Commons, non-commercial
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