One year ago today, Gustavo Cerati, the lead singer for the Argentinian rock group Soda Stereo died at the age of 55. He had been in a coma for over four years following a heart attack shortly after a show in Caracas, Venezuela. When Cerati died, it seemed that most of the English language press his death received was an attempt to explain the importance of Soda in Latin America and how Cerati in particular was as important and influential to alternative music on the continent as Robert Smith, Dave Gahan, Michael Stipe or Michael Hutchence were on others. In this editorial, I want to expand on that and give an overview of what made them and him so special.
Soda Stereo were one of the first rock bands, and certainly one of the first alternative acts, to become successful throughout Latin America. And yet in the United States, they barely registered at all among alternative rock circles that were welcome to foreign acts from places as far fetched as Iceland. Part of this has to do with the fact that Soda’s discography (and Cerati’s solo work as well) is entirely in Spanish.
It seems that for all its claims of being edgy and alternative, modern rock radio in the United States simply didn’t touch much foreign language stuff. In my copy of Joel Whitburn’s Rock Tracks book, which compiles every chart entry on the Mainstream Rock and Modern Rock (now Alternative) Billboard charts from their inceptions to its 2008 publication, there were just a handful of foreign language entries and they were the songs that you’d expect them to be.
I’ve always said that if Soda Stereo released an English language record, they would have easily broken through and become worldwide superstars, but – even with British rock music being one of the fundamental building blocks of their sound – it would have been the expense of much of what made them uniquely Soda Stereo.
Cerati was such a masterful and emotional vocalist that you don’t even need to know Spanish to be captivated by his voice. Soda themselves – the band was rounded out by bassist Zeta Bosio and drummer Charly Alberti – were such a tight and superb band instrumentally that I was drawn to them immediately from the moment I discovered them. Over his career, both with Soda and in his solo work, Cerati was one of the most musically experimental alternative artists of his generation. They covered so much stylistic ground in their career, and had a discography that was on par with their American and British peers.
The band’s debut self-titled record came out in 1984 and showcases the nascent band’s early influences of The Police, Television and The Specials. Released in the aftermath of the return to democracy in Argentina, the album had moderate success in the country with hits like the ska-influenced “¿Por Qué No Puedo Ser Del Jet-Set?” and the more new wave “Sobredosis de T.V.” and “Un Misil En Mi Placard.” However, the band hadn’t quite crossed over into the rest of Latin America, a difficult feat for any group at the time, but especially so for a rock group.
After a debut record that seemed like a Whitman’s Sampler of the band’s favorite British rock styles, they came into their own with 1985’s Nada Personal. The record made them one of the top rock acts in Argentina, but the band also began touring outside the country to major success. In the mid-80s it was rare for an artist to become successful in several Latin American countries, and nigh impossible for a rock band, but Soda did it with their massive tour following Nada Personal‘s release. For their sophomore outing, the band took on a darker new wave guise with much of the ska elements that were present in their sound on their first album nowhere to be found. For the record’s best known song “Cuando pase el temblor,” the band utilized Andean pan flutes to connect their modern pop rock with the traditional sounds of Argentina.
Sé que te encontraré en esas ruinas
ya no tendremos que hablar
te besaré en el temblor
será un buen momento
from “Cuando Pase el Temblor”
Nada Personal‘s follow-up albums Signos (1986) and Doble Vida (1988) sustained the band’s success in Argentina and significantly expanded their fan-base in South and Central America. Both records were accompanied by blockbuster tours that turned the band into one of the biggest pop acts on the entire continent. The albums’ gripping post punk at times recalled Echo and the Bunnymen or INXS with Cerati’s dramatic baritone front and center. Signos was one of the first albums from a South American act to be specifically recorded for compact disc, and the band made good use of the medium by opening the album with the sweeping “Sin Sobresaltos,” which includes one of Cerati’s best vocal performances amongst a field of blaring horns.
Signos is a grand-sounding record, with the album also featuring another one of Soda’s biggest hits, “Persiana Americana,” which showcases the British rock music that continued to significantly influence them as a group and Cerati as a singer and lyricist. I’ve heard “Persiana Americana” described as an anthem by people that I assume have never looked at the lyrics. Cerati was a master at hiding dark lyrics into upbeat pop songs, and “Persiana Americana”‘s giddy bounce hides lyrics of stalking and surveillance akin to The Police’s “Every Breath You Take.” The success of the song made the band seem poised for an American or European crossover, but it only served to be one of many instances where worldwide fame fell out of their reach and not for a lack of quality in their excellent records.
Doble Vida on the other hand was a more laid-back affair that turned out to be another major hit for the band. Produced by former David Bowie guitarist Carlos Alomar, the record showcases two parts to Soda’s sound: upbeat jangly alt-pop on “Pic Nic en el 4toB” and darker tinged dramatics on “En la Cuided de la Furia,” both of which Cerati handles ably with his impressive range. Doble Vida seems like a summary point of what Soda could do at this point, both as musicians and with the sound that they had been evolving into throughout the 80s. The album is a turning point as the group’s next three albums deviate radically and produced some of the most satisfying alternative material of the 90s.
Soda Stereo ended the 80s as one of the biggest bands in Latin America. but their success in the decade was only a dress rehersal for what would happen next. 1990’s Cancion Animal is perhaps the band’s most popular record, largely do to the blockbuster single “De Musica Ligeria,” an anthemic power pop number that the band’s discography barely hinted at before and turned into the biggest hit of their career. The lyrics are minimal, just two brief verses and a whopper of a chorus, and Cerati’s commanding vocals. One of the most catchy and immediate songs in their catalog, it’s usually the go-to for most Soda fans to introduce the band to those interested in them. Cerati bellows the chorus and his guitar solo on the track is one of the best examples of his intricate heady playing style. The rest of the album contains little trace of the new wave influences evident on their past records, particularly on songs like “(En) el Séptimo Día” and “Sueles Dejarme Solo,” which features Charly Alberti’s crashing drums and heavier guitars that had been absent from the band’s previous efforts.
Because of the success of Cancion in Latin America, their label gave Soda their most aggressive promotional push yet in Europe and the United States: the band was featured on MTV Europe, but that was coupled with a disastrous tour of Spain and relative commercial disinterest in the American issue of Cancion Animal outside of the Spanish language rock market. Alternative radio would try out literally anything in the 90s, but it seemed like its breaking point was foreign language music.
Cancion Animal was a blockbuster of an album, so it was a bold move of the band to make a follow up as drastically different as 1992’s Dynamo. My personal favorite of their albums, it’s also their lowest selling and has a bit of a mixed reaction among the band’s fans. I’m not particularly sure what fans were expecting from Soda’s next move after Cancion Animal, but I bet they weren’t thinking they’d make a shoegazing album. It was an unusual move for a band this big to devote an entire album celebrating a subgenre which didn’t even have much commercial leeway in the United States, let alone Latin America. Heavily influenced by My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless and Ride’s Nowhere, the album is loud, ambiguous, uncompromising and certainly non-commercial. Cerati’s voice is often buried under fuzzed out guitars and his normally mysterious and cryptic lyrics are more ambiguous than ever. First single “Primavera 0” is a great example of what to expect from Dynamo as a whole; it’s ragged, dark and challenging and is a must-have for any fan of shoegazing.
Following this record, Cerati released his debut solo album Amor Amarillo, which proved to be a good indicator of where his solo career would go following the end of the band: a mixture guitar driven psychedelic pop like “Te llevo para que me lleves” and the electronic trip hop romanticism of songs like “Pulsar.”
Following a three year hiatus, Soda released their final album Sueno Stereo in 1995. Another stylistic change-up from Dynamo, Sueno Stereo is easily their best and most consistent album. It’s filled to the brim with shiny neo-psychedelic pop numbers like “Zoom” and “Paseando Por Roma.” The record seems completely detached from everything going on in alternative music in the English language world at the time – certainly different from the tail end of the grunge boom over in America, but also very distinct from the Britpop coming from the British rock scene that had produced the band’s influences. Even the Beatles influences on the hit “Ella usó mi cabeza como un revólver” sound different than the Fab Four toolbox that Oasis was exploiting in Manchester. Cerati’s vocals never go into the stratospheric dramatics that he was accustomed to, but his more understated delivery works perfectly for the album’s artier fare.
Following the album the band released just one more major recording: 1996’s MTV Unplugged: Comfort y Música Para Volar, an MTV not-quite-Unplugged album (in addition to some electric instruments, it also includes a couple new studio songs) which includes a radically re-arranged version on the previously Police-influenced “Un Misil En Mi Placard” heavily influenced by “Chrome Waves” by Ride. The record feels like the end of something. Indeed, the band announced their split just nine months later in May 1997. Their final concerts were accompanied by a superb greatest hits album, Chau Soda, which became their only Billboard chart appearance in the United States when it made #46 on the Hot Latin Albums chart in 1998.
Although Gustavo Cerati had released an album in 1993, his solo career began in earnest with 1999’s Bonacanda, a dreamy collection of trip-hop that proved to be a perfect showcase for both his vocal talents and his cryptic-as-ever lyrics. Cerati was a huge star in Latin America as a solo artist, but just like Soda, he could never quite find his breakthrough in America. His subsequent solo albums – 2002’s electro-rock Siempre es Hoy, the more guitar driven 2006 release Ahí vamos (featuring the big hit “Crimen“) and his folky final album Fuerza natural from 2009 – were all major sellers that continued his taste for experimenting with and mixing together different genres.
Soda reunited one more time in 2007, for a massive final concert tour titled Me Verás Volver. The tour included three best-selling shows in the United States that proved to be a bit of vindication for a band that was never able to really crack the mainstream rock market there. Two years later Gustavo Cerati suffered a stroke that ultimately resulted in his death last year, which was a massive loss to the alternative music world and Latin America in particular. It seems that many Americans discovered Soda after his death, which is a bittersweet way to start listening to a band that was one of the finest alternative bands on any continent during their heyday.
Cerati had one of those immediately identifiable voices with just a hint of vibrato, an occasional flair for the dramatic, and a talent for understatement. He always proudly wore his influences, but he never sought to emulate any of them, which resulted in a unique style that took him from Soda’s first albums through to his final solo recordings.