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By the time MTV Latin America aired Los Prisioneros' (The Prisoners) video "We Are South American Rockers" -- the first video to roll when the network hit the air nine years ago -- the Chilean rock band that released four studio albums between 1984 and 1990 was already dead. But the network couldn't resist the song's celebration and hilarious sendup of the rise and fall of all rock movements in Latin America pre-MTV: "We are South American rockers/We have no shame/We stir up styles/With a gringo smell/You can dance to ... We envy real rockers/There's no shame in that!"
Today the three original members of Los Prisioneros are back together after a bad breakup twelve years ago. Lead singer and bassist Jorge Gonzalez reflects on the group's significance, so well described in that 1988 single.
"Would you believe me if I tell you that everything we say in 'South American Rockers' is true?" Gonzalez muses.
"I know it sounds ironic, but that's the way we are," he says with a smile, sitting in Warner Music Miami Beach offices with guitarist Claudio Narea and drummer Miguel Tapia. "We were talking about all the South American bands in the Eighties, all of us were some sort of a fake, but we knew that's how it was, and [so] we were honest. [Argentinean trio] Soda Stereo would come to Chile wearing dark sunglasses after copying an album or a song from the Cure, or Echo and the Bunnymen, and would say that they had invented it!" he laughs. "We didn't do that. We said we were copying Anglo bands."
Soda Stereo got a lifetime achievement award at the first MTV Video Music Awards Latin America broadcast at the Jackie Gleason Theater two weeks ago, and Los Prisioneros were remembered as the first band that aired on the network. The morning after, Gonzalez addressed the issue: "I like to know that our records still have importance, especially considering that back then we were the only band touring Latin America that did not come from Argentina or Spain."
Things have changed. The Chilean rock band for export these days is La Ley, another faux-Eighties trio, that went home with two MTV awards, for best rock artist and best group in the region. Not wanting to spark any controversy in the Chilean press, Gonzalez has only kind words for the colleagues who quickly filled the empty space left by Los Prisioneros' breakup.
"After such a career, La Ley deserves the awards. They've recovered from really difficult situations, with the death of a band member [La Ley guitarist and songwriter Andres Bobe died in a motorcycle accident in Santiago in 1994], and they're still in the game," emphasizes Gonzalez. "I feel proud to know that bands like us, La Ley, and Los Tres invented an alternative that didn't exist before in Chile, the alternative way of life that is to become a rock musician and to be able to work."
The Chilean rockers have a more complicated love/hate relationship with their Argentine counterparts, stemming from the heavy airplay Argentines received in Chile during the last six years of dictator Augusto Pinochet's regime. When Los Prisioneros released their first album in 1984, the emblematic La Voz de Los 80 (The Voice of the Eighties), Argentina was leaving behind a seven-year period of military dictatorship. The return to democracy also brought a wave of happy pop-rock bands that didn't want to talk politics. In Chile, all these Argentine bands, including Soda Stereo, got massive media attention that Pinochet didn't want for local bands.
By contrast, Los Prisioneros may have copped U.S. rock style, but the words showed no love for that nation's -- or Chile's -- government: "Latinoamerica es un pueblo al sur de los Estados Unidos [Latin America is a town south of the United States]," griped one line. The message on the 1986 Pateando Piedras (Kicking Stones) is even more clear: "Why don't you go!" Ironically in 1990, the year Pinochet did fall, Los Prisioneros broke up.
Under the regime's shadow, the name Los Prisioneros became a countercultural symbol. Banned from official radio and TV, the band managed to release four albums and become ultra-famous based on word of mouth alone. The military saw the group as a threat -- "a negative influence on young people" -- putting Los Prisioneros on a media blacklist and stopping a national tour by the band in 1987.
Chaotic tours through the rest of Latin America followed the release of the 1987 album La Cultura de la Basura (Garbage Culture), and Los Prisioneros arrived in Mexico after successful stops in Peru, Colombia, Venezuela, and Bolivia. Mexico was the right place -- fans there loved Los Prisioneros -- but it was the wrong time for the band itself.
Although Tapia had been trying for years to calm the musical and personal tension between Gonzalez and Narea, the two turbulent musicians reached the point of no return, and Narea left the band in 1990. Gonzalez and Tapia continued with Los Prisioneros for another two years, releasing a fourth album (Corazones, or Hearts) and a greatest-hits collection before disbanding after a series of highly profitable farewell shows.