Enrique Sierra: Guitarist with the influential Spanish band Radio Futura


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The Independent Online

If Enrique Sierra, the ex-guitarist from Radio Futura – Spain's most important rock band of the post-Franco years – was to be remembered for one song, it would be the 1983 hit "Escuela de Calor". Relentlessly catchy and shot through with co-writer Sierra's simple, snappy guitar riffs, "Escuela de Calor" remains for many Spaniards a musical high-tide mark of la movida Madrileña. This was an explosion of artistic creativity, coupled with the breaking down of previously rigid social barriers and mores, that followed General Franco's death in 1975. For intensity, willingness to experiment and sheer novelty, la movida has never since been equalled in Spain. As for Radio Futura, they were one of la movida's musical standard-bearers.

Born into a working-class family in Madrid, Sierra started playing the guitar in his early teens. By 14 he had all but given up on school, playing in bands and (as he proudly recalled) making a contribution to the family budget.

His first important movida band was the Madrid-based Kaka de Luxe, which barely got off the ground before it disintegrated in 1978, so when the Auseron brothers – bass player Luis and singer Santiago – asked Sierra to join the fledgling Radio Futura in 1979, he quickly agreed. For the next 12 years, while he was never the showman – albeit sporting a huge peroxide mohican – Sierra's guitar work and writing skills made him one of the three central pillars of a band which El País newspaper recently said is "essential for understanding the history of rock in Spanish."

Although la movida Madrileñá's best-known film director, Pedro Almodovar, goes from strength to strength, the bulk of la movida's pop music was derivative, drawing heavily on its British and American contemporaries, and it has aged badly. Not so Radio Futura, one of a handful of Spanish bands of the era to gain and retain international prestige. That said, at the start it was one of numerous identikit New Wave bands, and – as the members themselves recognised – their first LP in 1980, despite selling 20,000 copies and containing two hits, "Divina" ("Divine") and "Enamorado de la Moda Juvenil" ("In Love with Juvenile Fashion"), threatened to leave them in a cul-de-sac.

A radical change of direction towards experimental rock gave Radio Futura a new lease of musical life. In 1982, their second album, La ley del desierto/La ley del mar ("The law of the desert/The law of the sea") contained the hugely evocative "Escuela del Calor" ("School of Heat") and "Semilla Negra" ("Black Seed") and is widely credited with laying the foundations for rock latino, a mixture of traditional Latin American, particularly Cuban, dance sounds and western European rock.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, given that Santiago Auseron had studied philosophy at the Sorbonne, Radio Futura's songs had thought-provoking lyrics. One of their earliest hits, 1982's doom-ridden but uplifting "La Estatua del Jardí* Botanico" ("The Statue in the Botanical Garden") is every bit as laden with cultivated, understated existential angst as anything their contemporaries The Cure were producing.

Other smashes like "La Negra Flor" ("The Black Flower"), which is essentially a lengthy conversation with a prostitute on Barcelona's Las Ramblas, or "El Canto del Gallo" ("The Cockerel's Song"), which contains vivid scenes from a village fiesta celebration, provide huge, hot-blooded slices of Spanish life in the 1980s.

While their lyrical sources were Iberian, their music veered away from their New Wave roots towards Latin American rhythms and reggae. This did nothing to dent their popularity: by the end of the decade they were Spain's biggest, most influential band. Their third album, La Cancion de Juan Perro ("Juan Perro's Song"), sold 150,000 copies in 1987. But the group was falling apart under the pressures of constant touring, and Sierra had health problems which led to two kidney transplants; in 1992, the band split up.

Sierra switched to record production, so successfully that his sound-engineer work on discs by singer Rosario Flores earned him two Latin Grammys in 2002 and 2004. He was also briefly in two groups, Los Ventiladores and Klub, in the late 1990s and, together with his wife, Pilar Román, produced a much-praised LP of children's songs in 2007. But all these later achievements, sadly curtailed by his losing battle with kidney failure, are overshadowed by his 12 years in one of Spanish rock's most inspirational bands.

Alasdair Fotheringham

Enrique Sierra, musician and artist: born Madrid 1957; married Pilar Román; died Madrid 16 February 2012.