- "It had elements of disco, but it also wasn't rock"—a new Dark Entries anthology captures the chaos and creativity of '80s synth music in Mexico.
- Until about 1990, rock concerts were illegal in Mexico City. This had been the case since 1971, when hundreds of thousands of Mexican hippies converged on a village outside the capital for a three-day festival called Avándaro. When word got out about the open drug use and free love at the event, Mexico's authoritarian regime bristled. Fearing the destabilizing power of youth culture, they instituted a ban on rock and pop concerts that lasted through the '80s. This was just one of the hurdles faced by Mexico City bands like Syntoma and Decada 2, pioneers of the fiercely DIY music scene captured on the anthology Back Up: Mexican Tecno Pop 1980-1989.
Not only were their clandestine gigs relegated to bookstores and community centers, they also struggled against the country's conservative musical tastes. Robert Castañeda, the musician and radio DJ who compiled the anthology, described the backlash they experienced in Mexico City. "Crowds would get aggressive when these bands played because they hadn't seen a drum machine before," he told me on the phone, from his home in Tijuana. "They didn't know if it was disco, because it had elements of disco, but it also wasn't rock."
Back Up: Mexican Tecno Pop 1980-1989—a revamped edition of a CD released by Castañeda's Tijuana label AT-AT in 2005—is the first and only compilation to capture this moment in history. It was after the heyday of disco and punk, but before electronic music had come into its own as a global subculture. And in contrast to the punk and prog rock that preceded it, this techno pop scene, as it came to be known, didn't take itself so seriously. It was artsy and intellectual, but ultimately it was about having fun and dancing.
Syntoma, founded in 1980, is the earliest and best-known act on the compilation. A mint copy of their 1982 self-titled 7-inch could set you back up to $200 on Discogs, while highlights from their slight discography were released as a 2015 LP by EM Records. Syntoma's frontman, Alex Eisenring, was one of the first musicians in the scene to buy synths and drum machines, and because the equipment was so expensive, a lot of gear was passed down from one band to the next.
Syntoma's track "No Me Puedo Controlar" channels Devo and Kraftwerk with its automaton rhythms and catchy hooks. Eisenberg's other band, El Escuadrón del Ritmo, also features with the comparatively chaotic "Cucarachas," a hilarious, Dada-esque fever-dream of a song about being attacked by cockroaches. "They're in the bedroom," yelps vocalist Jesús Bojalil. "They're in the drawers, and in the pantry!" At the end of the song, they call the cops, and when the squad car doors open, even more cockroaches spill out.
"Alfabeto" is an instrumental EBM chugger by the two-piece Decada 2, one of the bands that used Eisenberg's second-hand gear. With its almost comically dark sound palette, you could imagine it getting played by eclectic '80s revivalists like Kris Baha or Elena Colombi. Cou Cou Bizarre, which included Carlos Robledo of the venerated art-punk band SIZE, contribute a self-titled synth-pop number that should be favored by DJs for its steady drums and brain-tickling textures. Volti, a multinational band with iterations in Mexico City and New York—where they performed at Downtown clubs like Danceteria—taps into the '80s exotica craze with their salsa-flavored downtempo track "Corazón."
The earliest bands on the compilation hailed from Mexico City, but as the decade rolled along, Tijuana rose to prominence. This was, in part, because it was right next to California. US border policy was comparatively lax at the time, so you could drive up to Los Angeles, see a show, and be back at your parents' house in Tijuana by curfew. This made it easy to buy second-hand instruments that weren’t on the market in Mexico. And unlike Mexico City, Tijuana never banned concerts.
Tijuana native Robert Castañeda got turned onto the outré sounds of the '80s by a late-night radio show called Fast Forward. It was broadcast by a San Diego station called 91X, whose antenna sat atop a hill in neighboring Tijuana. He started a radio show of his own, Sintonía Pop, and a band called Ford Proco, and soon he was at the center of a small but robust local scene of bands making experimental pop. They would often see each other at the legendary Tijuana venue Club Iguanas for shows by the likes of Front 242, Psychic TV and Devo. Meanwhile, they kept in touch with friends in the capital by sending cassettes back and forth in the mail.
The Tijuana bands on the album sound more mature than their Mexico City counterparts, which makes sense since they had a few more years to develop. Vandana's "Cambios En El Tiempo" has an irresistibly sticky chorus that you'll end up humming even if you don't understand Spanish, and with its slick studio production, it could easily play between Tears For Fears and The Human League on a big-time '80s station. Avant Garde's "Pesadillas," while endearingly lo-fi, is no less catchy, demonstrating a knack for the fundamentals of pop songwriting. Artefacto's "Mundo Sin Viento" has a tough industrial edge, which they balance out with a big vocal presence and a striking command of melody.
When Castañeda began compiling the original version of this compilation, back in the mid-2000s, Tijuana was in the midst of a newer musical boom. The Nortec Collective, a group that included Roberto Mendoza and Jorge Ruíz from Artefacto, had reinvigorated the scene by remixing traditional Mexican music with modern electronic instruments. The group spawned breakout acts like the producer Murcof, whose widescreen ambient techno has made him a MUTEK favorite, along with the duo Bostich + Fussible, who continue to explore Nortec's electro-folkloric sound.
Electronic music was starting to cross over in Mexico City too, with bands like Sonido Lasser Draker who revived '80s synth pop and Hi-NRG for the indie-rock crowd. (The Mexican Hi-NRG scene, which was buoyed by the mega-club Patrick Miller, and existed mostly in parallel to the scene described here, deserves its own retrospective.) The impetus for compiling this anthology, Castañeda told me, was to demonstrate that the 2000s electronic music boom didn't magically appear out of nowhere. And when Josh Cheon from Dark Entries offered to reissue it as a deluxe vinyl edition, it was an opportunity to correct the record on a much wider scale.
With these kinds of alternate history anthologies that highlight overlooked movements outside Western Europe or the US, it can feel like a historical wrong has been righted. But it can also feel like another twirl of the hype cycle, driven by labels that exist to unearth scenes that haven't already been raked over. Contrary to what some blurbs and reviews have said about the record, it doesn't, in fact, contain any audibly Latin rhythms, unless you count the chintzy piano solo on "Corazón." It's not singularly weird or sui generis. If anything, it's impressive what these artists got away with given the intolerance of their milieu.
What set these bands apart from their counterparts in other countries was their magpie approach to the music that inspired them. They united the techno-fetishism of Kraftwerk with the angst of Joy Division and the chaos of Einstürzende Neubauten, with each band tweaking the formula to fit their needs. The music we hear on Back Up isn't a radical departure from what came before. But it is wildly energetic, sophisticated and—until now—unknown to all but the headiest record collectors for the last 30 or 40 years. Who wouldn't want to share that with the world?
01. Avant Garde - Pesadillas
02. Vandana - Cambios En El Tiempo
03. Syntoma - No Me Puedo Controlar
04. Artefacto - Mundo Sin Viento
05. Cou Cou Bazar - Cou Cou Bazar
06. Volti - Corazón
07. Nahtabisk - La Dama De Probeta
08. Escuadrón Del Ritmo - Las Cucarachas
09. Década 2 - Alfabeto (Cold Version)
10. Silueta Pálida - El Paso Del Tiempo (Versión Remezclada)