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Charly García: A Guided Tour

We take a look at the career of one of Argentina's most influential musicians

By | [email protected] | March 8, 2019 1:45pm

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Have you ever felt like you wanted to get into a specific musician — a musician who has been around for a long time, influenced countless listeners, and essentially crafted an entire music genre in their own image — but their body of work is so vast and wide-ranging that to even begin to approach it feels like a gargantuan, daunting task? And yet you’re torn between the desire to have new music that could potentially enrich your life, and the utter “ugh”ness of actually putting in the work to get into it? Look, we get it. That’s us a lot of the time. It’s the same impulse that causes us to constantly put off watching that prestige TV show that everyone keeps telling us we absolutely must watch but is also six frickin’ seasons long.

Don’t despair. That’s why your friends at The Bubble are here to carve out a quick little starter guide for you. And we’ve done it before! From our in-depth look at the purveyors of psychedelic pop Babasónicos to our piece on Kings of Kitsch Miranda! and our examination of the fascinating body of work of one Juana Molina — we’re there for you. And though we’re not able to pick-and-choose your next favorite song — that’s something you have to do on your own– we’re at least able to give you a head start, by presenting the cold hard facts of a massively respected Argentine musician’s career.

This time around we’re turning our attention to one of the most talented, versatile, massively influential figures in rock nacional. Someone who has been pumping out quality work since the early seventies, and whose stature in the Argentine music scene can’t be overstated. We’re talking, of course, about the great Charly García.

You’re probably at least a little bit familiar with Charly García. If you haven’t heard much of his music, then at least you’ve gazed upon his trademark multi-colored mustache on some magazine cover. At the very least, you’ve likely found yourself in the back seat of a porteño taxi cab at midnight, where his rendition of the Argentine national anthem tends to ring out from the car radio when the clock strikes twelve. Over the course of five decades, Charly García has managed to piss off fans, the press, other figures in the Argentine music scene, and even himself. He has led an insane life, battling his inner demons in a remarkably public manner, and has managed to come out the other side. Let’s take a look at his body of work and try to make sense of it all.

And, as always, we accompany these guided tours with a nifty little Spotify playlist made up of choice cuts from the man’s storied career. For more playlists like this one, as well as our weekly staff picks, follow us on Spotify!

Early Years

It would probably be more dramatically satisfying to start this off with a rags-to-riches story; the story of a young boy overcoming his financial disadvantages to rise up through the ranks of Argentina’s rock world. But nope, Charly García was born into an upper-middle-class family in 1950s Argentina, the son of a teacher and a radio producer. Through his mother’s radio programs, Charly was exposed to a wealth of folkloric music, and started developing an ear for melody and arrangements.

As with much of his generation, Charly’s life and musical upbringing was forever rocked by the introduction of The Beatles in the early 60s. The combination of pop melodies, classical sensibilities and avant-garde leanings opened up his world to what was possible in the realm of songwriting. In his teenage years, he became acquainted with Nito Mestre, and the two formed what was Charly’s first serious musical project: Sui Generis.

The band’s early work was sparse, deliberately delicate, and made up mostly of piano, vocals, and flute. Through the release of their first two albums, Vida and Confesiones de Invierno, the duo made a name for themselves among the Argentine youth; the music was traditionally “pretty”, and the lyrics were straightforward and romantic. However, Charly and Nito weren’t comfortable sticking with that sound, and soon decided to expand their sonic palette to incorporate the more traditional rock instrumentation of their peers.

The band soon released the album Pequeñas Anécdotas de las Instituciones, showcasing a more mature sound, a wider range of instrumentation, and lyrics that reflected the social-political reality of Argentina in the mid-70s. Of course, the group faced a backlash; not only were some of the more inflammatory lyrics in their album censored, but the public wasn’t entirely thrilled with their new direction either. Amid growing tensions between Charly and Nito, the band broke up in 1975 with a legendary farewell show. Of course, hindsight being 20-20, Sui Generis’s later work has been rightly lauded, and served as foreshadowing for what was to come for Charly García.

If the third Sui Generis album was a departure, Charly’s next musical project was a whiplash-inducing left turn for fans of the band’s earlier, more delicate sound. La Máquina de Hacer Pájaros was conceived as a “symphonic rock band”, with song structures that more closely resembled prog-rock than the folk-leaning sounds of old. In fact, the two albums that Charly released with this project have been referred to as musical touchstones for the nascent prog-rock movement.

Charly’s career once again suffered for being ahead of its time, and La Máquina de Hacer Pájaros languished in obscurity during its time in activity. Sophisticated, complex, and deliberately difficult, the band released two albums before disbanding in 1977, the same year that punk rock broke into the public consciousness and rock music was rebelling against overly complicated song forms. A change needed to happen. At this point in his career, Charly was financially ruined and far from the zeitgeist he was trying to position himself in. He needed to rebuild, rethink, and reform. He took an extended break from Buenos Aires, and upon returning formed Serú Girán with bassist Pedro Aznar, drummer Oscar Moro, and David Lebón on guitar.

Originally presented as “Charly García and Serú Girán”, the band made it very clear from the start that they were their own unique artistic entity, not merely a backing band for their frontman. The fluid and melodic bass playing of musical prodigy Pedro Aznar was of particular note, serving as a propulsive force for their music, which was eclectic and daring without sacrificing tunefulness. Complex musicianship and multi-part songs were holdovers from the Máquina days, though they were more successfully incorporated into complete musical experiences rather than jarring transitions.

Serú Girán was not an instant hit. Their relationship with the Argentine press was at first contentious and bitter, once being dubbed “the worst band in Argentina” by people who were expecting a continuation of Charly’s previous musical projects. The band forged ahead and carved out a more clearly defined musical identity with each release, while also establishing political and personal themes as part of their artistic statement. Sharp critiques of Argentine’s government were clearly embedded in their songs, as well as lyrics that attempted to paint a realistic (and ultimately damning) portrait of everyday life in Argentina..

Serú Girán released four albums over as many years, and finally disbanded after Aznar left Argentina to pursue a music education in the United States. The Serú Girán farewell concerts were compiled and released as an album, and proved to be huge commercial successes. In 1982, Charly was once again without a band– but not without things to say.

Middle Years

Musicians like Charly García can’t stay quiet for too long. It’s just not in their nature to sit back and let the world spin without wanting to comment on it, or to capture it on canvas. And Charly’s canvas is songs. This is why soon after Serú Girán disbanded, the singer-songwriter decided to release his own music as a solo artist, making music that is entirely his own without needing to concede any artistic control to creative partners. His music was then free to be whatever it wanted to be, and so it more closely approximated pop music than anything that came before. His lyrics were also as politically-minded as ever, commenting on the Malvinas war as a backdrop to develop themes of anxiety and isolation. His first three solo releases, Pubis Angelical, Terapia Intensiva and Piano Bar, are understood to form a loosely woven trilogy both musically and thematically.

The mid-to-late eighties was a successful and prolific period for Charly, releasing a collaboration with his old Serú Girán collaborator Pedro Aznar (Tango), as well as the massive hit Parte de la Religión. The latter contained songs that have become iconic over time, such as “No Voy en Tren” and “Rezo Por Vos”. Cómo Conseguir Chicas followed in 1989.

His music was growing darker and more aggressive, as did his public persona; he had grown sullen and ill-tempered, bordering on nihilistic. It would take a few years for the world to catch on to the fact that, at this point, Charly had plunged deep into drugs and alcohol; though his career was booming, he was living his own private hell.

In the early 1990s, Charly recorded an album tiled Filosofía Barata y Zapatos de Goma, which included guest spots from collaborators he’d had over the years. This included Andrés Calamaro and Fabiana Cantilo (who had both been members of his touring band as a solo musician), Nito Mestre (from Sui Generis), Pedro Aznar (from Serú Girán) and others. The album includes Charly’s rock version of the Argentine national anthem, which wasn’t without its controversy. Its release was forbidden for some time, which was eventually overturned by a judge.

Charly’s collaboration with his old bandmate must’ve activated something in him, as he soon announced a Serú Girán reunion, releasing a brand new collection of songs collectively titled Serú 92. Though it represented a bit of a departure from the classic Serú Girán sound, the album was well received by the public as well as the press.

The mid-90s saw Charly enjoying his newfound status as an elder stateman of Argentine rock. He released the album La Hija de La Lágrima, as well as two interesting live albums: Estaba en Llamas Cuando Me Acosté, made up of covers of songs by bands such as The Beatles, Bob Dylan and The Rolling Stones; and his MTV Unplugged session, which was a massive success commercially. Shortly afterwards, Charly released Say No More, an album that featured the phrase that would also serve as a sort of mantra for the musician in the next few years.

A collaboration with Mercedes Sosa and another covers album followed soon afterwards. At the turn of the century, something pretty astounding happened: Charly reunited with his former writing partner Nito Mestre to revive Sui Generis. Sinfonías Para Adolescentes was the result of them revisiting this project after decades, and though the music didn’t quite resemble the duo’s classic sound, fans were thrilled at the notion of them playing together again. Their second (and final) release during this period was ¡Si! Detrás de las Paredes.

2002 saw the release of Influencia, a brand new solo album featuring some translated covers and re-recorded versions of old songs. Though only 50, Charly looked considerably older and haggard, and his sub-par performance on the follow-up album Rock and Roll Yo caused some fans to worry about the singer’s health and well-being.

Later Years

The public would soon learn that those concerns were valid. In the next decade, Charly was faced with a number of health, addiction and violent issues that caused him to take an extended break from music. After extensive psychiatric help and treatment, Charly was finally sober and stable. In 2009, Charly returned with a brand new song which lit up the Argentine rock charts.

After a series of successful live tours, as well as a few medical setbacks, Charly finally released his most recent album Random. This album re-contextualizes Charly in the age of social media, smartphones, and instant gratification; though his voice is weathered, his words as just as vital and sharp as they had ever been. The album received rave reviews from critics and fans alike.

Charly has built, destroyed, and rebuilt his musical identity for over five decades. He has been dubbed the father of Argentine rock, and his wide catalog is littered with a wealth of incredible tunes. It would be hard to be able to give a truly comprehensive guide to this long and storied career– there are entire books written about him — but what we’ve provided here is a starting point. A Cliff’s Notes, if you will, for you to discover this incredible artist on your own. Hope you enjoy the ride.