Let’s step into the Wayback Machine to check out San Antonio’s mid-1980s music scene. Back then I was a television director for Univision, sound guy at Earfood concerts, and an occasional Current freelancer. The dominant live music genres were Tejano (yes, I worked with Selena) and heavy metal (gee thanks, Joe Anthony and KISS-FM). And, of course, country and folk were well-represented. New wave was relegated to a few cover bands playing MTV’s greatest hits. But aside from this mainstream, there was a cross-cultural community of local musicians who created a unique San Antonio sound.
It all grew out of the 1960s, when bands like the Sir Douglas Quintet, formed by the legendary Doug Sahm, briefly reached international prominence. Similarly, performers like Freddy Fender, Flaco Jiménez and Augie Meyers provided meaningful contributions to the local music scene. Ironically, they would once again rise to even greater prominence when they came together as the Texas Tornados in 1989.
“It’s important to look at the past history of music in S.A. since the 1920s,” says Earfood bandleader and retired Express-News music writer Jim Beal, Jr. “San Antonio has always been a vital part of music in the United States.”
There was indeed a vital local music scene. It could be found in dive bars and ice houses such as the legendary Los Padrinos, Beauregard Café, The Ize Box, The 12th Hole, Brazakas Reef, Good Time Charlie’s and the Meridien. These places came and went, due to financial woes or other issues, especially noise complaints. The ice houses like Los Padrinos had the hardest time with noise, being open to the outside air to catch the evening breezes. For some reason, the neighbors didn’t appreciate the music.
Looking back, local bands fell into two camps. There were Alt bands like the newly-formed Infidels and the iconic Butthole Surfers, and there were Roots bands like Earfood, Los #2 Dinners, the Smith Brothers and Claude Morgan & The Blast. But back then, hardly anyone made that sort of distinction. They were all “local” bands. Music hadn’t yet been subdivided into sub-genres like post-punk, goth, trance, house, etc. More often than not, the choice of venue was the primary factor. My favorites tended to be the Beauregard (because I could walk home) and Los Padrinos (because it was so fucking cool). You just knew that whoever played there was going to be good.
What were the key differences in the local music scene between then and now? Most of the action occurred on the weekends, there were no Monday-night 10-band paloozas. The venues were fairly small – no Paper Tigers back then. And most importantly, there was no internet. That meant we had to grab a copy of the Current or read Beal’s “Nightlights” column in the E-N to find out what was coming up that weekend. Perhaps check out the band posters at Hogwild Records.
Or just show up at our favorite club – that was what we called social networking in the 80s. — Page Graham
Ours is a musically malnourished city, at least insofar as new or original music is concerned. New music does exist but its cadre is a small one, buried somewhere among the darkened routes of that land of inner city myths that lies inside The Loop.”
That’s the bleak assessment from Page Graham's article that ran in the Current some 30 years ago. The cynical among us might argue that not much has changed; realists might point to the natural ebb and flow of talent and money and ambition that’s over time given us artists like Santiago Jimenez, bands like Girl in a Coma or Lonely Horse, or venues and performance spaces like the Paper Tiger (RIP White Rabbit), K23 Gallery or the Tobin Center.
And yes, the more things change, the more they stay the same. The grousing in that 30-year-old Current piece prefaced a story on someone still making waves in and around South Texas Music, Chris Smart, and his 80s-era post-punk band Lung Overcoat.
You might know Smart from many different things if you’ve lived here for any amount of time. He’s been DJing and making music here for decades. He plays with Chrysta Bell, the Alamo Heights singer who caught the eye of avant-garde auteur David Lynch and hit it big. Smart also co-owns Robot Monster Guitars, a music and vintage shop tucked away at the end of the ever-changing St. Mary’s Strip, which remains the city’s only real live-music corridor.
Smart’s assessment of San Antonio’s music scene in the 80s is about as bleak as the intro to that old Current article. “There was no support for local music or at at all,” he says. Media, he recalls, often ignored local music on the assumption that if you were actually any good, you’d be up in New York, Nashville, or at least Austin. Looking out onto the Strip today, he says, “There are ten clubs on this street right now where you can play original music … There was one for the longest time, and it didn’t even have a PA.”
That doesn’t mean there aren’t good memories. Smart recalled playing house shows in the 80s with Jeff Smith of the Hickoids until the barbecue joint where Smith was working let them use the patio. There, they’d play alongside a slew of other alternative acts coming out of or visiting the city, including The Dick Gas Five (who would eventually change their name to The Butthole Surfers).
Sure, San Antonio has long held the reputation (whether earned or not) as a city of metal heads. But artists like Smart – the kind that have for decades had a home in the pages of the Current – leaned more toward the avant garde. And in fact, Smart says that in today’s young artists, the ones grinding through a punishing scene, he’s seeing a resurgence in the fringe, the weird, the experimental.
You could argue that the dark wave punk band Filthy is following in the same footsteps as artists like Smart. Smart even befriended guitarist Leonard Guerra and bass player Alex Alvarado in the Tacoland days – their bands would sometimes open for Robot Boy, Smart’s project at the time. They remember Smart introducing them to music like A Certain Radio, an English post-punk band in the style of Smart’s own Lung Overcoat.
Which might explain why Filthy has that perfect vintage, 80s-revival aesthetic, incorporating drum pads and sequencers and noisy-pop guitar hooks with Guerra’s brooding vocals. Go back and listen to Lung Overcoat. It’s like we’ve come full circle. — Chris Conde