Cod is a DJ! Bakalao, the extreme club scene that divided Spain
On carretera de El Saler, a highway leading through the Albufera natural park half an hour from Valencia, the road is flanked by paddy fields growing rice for paella. Tourists ride bikes, and horse-drawn carts plod around the land as I head towards an old barraca, an adobe farmhouse with sloping roofs, traditional in Valencian agriculture.
It is hard to believe that this was once one of Spain’s wildest nightclub scenes, home to bakalao, a relentless Eurodance sound that drew partygoers to Valencia from across the country and beyond. Also known as Ruta Destroy (destroy route), a hint at the scene’s extreme reputation for having it large, mention bakalao to Spaniards today and they are just as likely to go misty-eyed in reminiscence as grimace in disapproval: iconic for some, ill-famed for others, the movement would make but also mar Valencia.
The building I’m standing outside was where it all began, as the nightclub Barraca. At the start of the 80s – while other clubs in Spain played funk, disco and Latin pop – Barraca’s resident DJ Carlos Simó opted for Pink Floyd, Sex Pistols, Led Zeppelin and new-wave icons like Ian Dury and Nina Hagen. Simó later tells me about his trips to London, where he would stock up on the latest local sounds; Barraca quickly became a gateway for international music unheard elsewhere in Spain.
“English people would come and say, damn, there’s more English music being played here than in England!” recalls Simó. Come the end of the decade, British bands such as James, Inspiral Carpets, the Stone Roses and Happy Mondays would grace his stage. And it wasn’t just music: a night of revelry at Barraca also included performances by drag queens and experimental theatre groups like Tutú Droguería and Putreplastic. Other clubs opened nearby too, including Chocolate, famed for a more sinister sound; Espiral, which released Dunne, an anthem from the era; and Spook, still one of Valencia’s biggest techno venues.
Driving me along the remains of this epic club crawl, known as La Ruta, is DJ José Conca, who began as resident DJ at Chocolate in the mid-80s. Here, he mixed his favourites from British post-punk – Bauhaus, Sisters of Mercy, Siouxsie and the Banshees – with industrial rock bands such as Ministry and the electronic sounds of Nitzer Ebb, Renegade Soundwave and Underworld.
“We played everything: electronic music from Miami, industrial music from Chicago,” he recalls, as we approach the venue, a strikingly designed former rice warehouse, where he played for 16 years. “Guitars combined with the most avant garde techno of the time – that wasn’t common.” Before the arrival of Technics decks, it was an electrifying mix.
While Madrid had the La Movida Madrileña (the radical punk wave that birthed Pedro Almodóvar, Alaska and Ouka Leele), La Ruta was Valencia’s own movida. According to Joan Oleaque, author of the book In Ecstasy: Bakalao as Counterculture in Spain, one of this party trail’s triumphs was its social function, uniting disparate urban subcultures. “Punks, skinheads, mods, rockabillies, psychobillies, new romantics – they were all there,” he says.
This movida valenciana is now widely cherished as a time when avant garde artists, designers and musicians rejoiced in the liberty granted after the end of the Franco dictatorship in 1975. “Artists could express themselves and be transgressive,” says Simó. “Lots of LGBT people would come here; I had gay and lesbian bar staff. While gay people in the 80s were being called maricón [faggot], we were opening the spectrum, so that all people would feel comfortable and united.” The wider cultural currency of the movement is clear from an exhibition at Valencia’s Institute of Modern Art (Ivam), which is displaying more than 130 posters produced to publicise the nightclubs: cutting-edge pieces of illustration and graphic design that testify to the artistry and creative vision of the community.
By the early 90s, with the proliferation of acid house, trance and new beat, Valencia’s sound was taking on a new flavour and the term bakalao emerged. Valencia’s homegrown musical production had also taken off – notably, Fran Lenaers and his trio Megabeat, whose EBM (electronic body music), synth pop and techno mix made them poster boys for the sound of Valencia – and new independent record labels opened to hawk local material. Among them was Contraseña Records, where Víctor Pérez – now 50 – worked when he entered the scene. He recalls the bonkers journeys between all the nightclubs. “Eight of us in a car, or three of us on a motorbike.” He chuckles incredulously at the days before breathalysers. “We were crazy!” Now, Pérez is organising a festival in honour of the route’s glory days, Homenaje a la Ruta (Homage to the Route), gathering some of its most memorable names.
Among them is Arturo Roger, once headliner at the venue ACTV. “We all had our own styles,” Roger tells me over paella, remembering how each unique flavour helped concoct a mixture that defied straightforward musical categorisation. “Each place had its magic.” At this summer’s festival, he will spin early 90s bangers from across Europe by the likes of U96, Format #1, Inner Planet and Space Master. “What we played here in Valencia wasn’t being played anywhere else, so buses from all over Spain would come here every weekend,” he says. “It was an explosion – I doubt there’ll be anything like it again.”
Foodies with a fondness for the Mediterranean may have spotted that bacalao is Spanish for cod – so how did this edgy party scene acquire its fishy nickname? Some attribute it to a venue with the same name, while others claim it’s because of the music from Britain, where cod is fished in greater abundance than in Valencia’s waters. Today, the term is nebulous, either referring to the high-tempo industrial electro-techno mix known as máquina (machine) that developed in the 90s, or, more generally, to the eclectic diversity of the scene in those golden years. Either way, qué buen bacalao! (“that’s great cod!”) became a common utterance for the distinctive sound of Valencia’s dancefloors.
But as dance music continued to evolve in the early 1990s, so did the scene. “The music became heavy, with fast, thumping beats,” says Simó. “Everything became more commercial.” The bpm sped up, and ecstasy became ubiquitous among the 25,000 people who reportedly arrived every weekend for 72 hours of madness.
Here, La Ruta became bumpy. A 1993 documentary by the broadcaster Canal+ painted a grim picture as it followed busloads of aggressively hyped up youngsters hitting club after club with dilated pupils and grinding teeth; promoters were shown dealing cash in hand and popping pills to stay alert through the weekend. Spain’s parents watched in horror.
Alarmist reactions against club culture were widespread in the 90s and Spain was no exception, with bakalao coming under increasing scrutiny. Road accidents – some fatal – were linked to reckless driving after clubbing at La Ruta; it was feared that litter generated by partygoers in the area risked contaminating the surrounding waters and land.
The musicians of La Ruta, however, feel they were unfairly punished by the media and the political inquisition that ensued to tackle the threat of this out-of-control lifestyle. “They invented a story – one of drugs,” argues Conca. “The quality of the music didn’t interest them. Maybe it was partly out of envy, because Valencia had a movement that Madrid didn’t.”
Pérez agrees that his home town’s insurgence as a new nexus of party culture was a factor in its censure in the Spanish press, mostly run from the capital. “We didn’t have national media here,” he says. “If something happened in Madrid, it got all the coverage. The Movida Madrileña was cool, but we were the bad guys.”
Amid negative publicity in Spain, some were exporting bakalao abroad – including Carol McCloskey, one half of the Eurodance duo Double Vision, who moved to Valencia from Dublin aged 20, living La Ruta from its beginning. She and her collaborator Pedro Cerveró topped the charts in Germany, Austria, Belgium and the Netherlands in the mid-90s with tracks such as Knockin’ and All Right, spreading the word about what McCloskey describes as Valencia’s “cathedral of freedom”.
“It was revolutionary,” she says. “The pulse here was strong; everybody was buzzing – I think that was reflected in the music. We went all around Europe doing shows but we were carrying Valencia with us.”
With La Ruta’s car parks packed every weekend, many came with their own drinks and sound systems to keep the party alive outdoors in between the clubs – a custom known as parkineo. As authorities cracked down on road safety and outdoor raves, driving out here for wild weekends became increasingly unfeasible, which meant this scene’s days were numbered.
But La Ruta is back on the agenda: as well as Ivam’s exhibition and the Homenaje a la Ruta festival, television producer Atresmedia is making a drama series based on life in these fabled nightclubs to air later this year, hopefully further vindicating the cultural merit of a much-vilified movement.
“There were no problems; there were no fights,” insists McCloskey. “Everyone was chucked in the soup; we were all mixed together and it was fabulous. It was all about music, art and freedom – we who lived it know how special it was.”