A name from the past that wasn’t mentioned at the rather depressing induction of the Clash into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame or any of the eulogies to the late Joe Strummer was Alvaro, the Chilean with the Singing Nose.
“Who?” I hear you ask. “Strummer was a punk, he didn’t have anything to do with singing gnomes….”
Nose. Singing Nose. Here’s the story.
Alvaro Peña-Rojas was born in Chile in 1943 and released a couple of singles there 1965 there in a band called Los Challengers, followed two years later by “El Twist del Infierno” as a member of Los Bumerangs.
In 1973 he fled Chile after Pinochet’s fascist coup and took his saxophone to England, where he met up with Joe Strummer (who at the time went by the rather unpunk name of “Woody” Mellor) to form El Huaso and the 101 All Stars — named after the squat where they lived at 101 Walterton Road, Maida Vale, in north London. The band, whose name became shortened first to the 101 All Stars and then the 101ers, played fast, earthy r’n'b, what was then known, not always approvingly, as pub-rock.
The band played for two years, released the still listenable “Keys to your Heart” on Chiswick before splitting early in 1976. Their last two gigs were supporting a bunch of upstarts called the Sex Pistols. It was seeing the Pistols that made “Woody” suspect that playing old Chuck Berry riffs in sweaty London pubs was a dead end and the future lay elsewhere. So when Mick Jones and Paul Simeon came around asking if he wanted to form a band with them he didn’t need to be asked twice….
For pub-rockers the 101ers gave birth to some unlikely musicians. Aside from the renamed Strummer, other members went on to join the Raincoats, PIL and the Passions, whose “I’m in Love with a German Filmstar” is an early goth favorite around these parts and about as far from gutsy r’n'b as you can imagine. One of their guitarists, Martin Stone, even made the strange transition into a literary character and now crops up in novels by Michael Moorcock and Iain Sinclair.
But Alvaro was the most unlikely of all. He put away his saxophone and recorded the curious, infamous Drinkin My Own Sperm, 500 copies of which were released on his own Squeaky Shoes label in 1977 — and mainly disapeared without trace. (I remember seeing it mentioned in Zigzag when it came out and was mildly intrigued, but they didn’t have it in the local branch of Virgin so I probably bought something by the Residents or Devo instead and forgot all about it.) Ever since, punks and collectors have been intrigued, confused and horrified by this record. Expecting some sort of outrageous proto-punk grail they’ve spent up to several hundred dollars on what turns out to be mostly rudimentary piano thumping, nursery rhyme flute-tooting, minimal percussion and “ridiculously schmaltzy singing”. What I’ve heard of this album could be considered “outsider music” but for the fact that it is playful and catchy, even when it’s as disturbing as the title song. “Don’t worry about the bum notes,” say the sleeve notes.
Only 200 copies of the follow up, Mum’s Milk Not Powder, recorded in Germany in 1978, were released. This features Alvaro on piano, percussion, bass and nose-whistle and a friend on drums, percussion and “washing the dishes sounds”. You just know that Joe and Alvaro had well and truly parted ways musically by this point.
Unnoticed by the rest of the world, Alvaro has gone on releasing tapes and vinyl. To celebrate his 50th birthday in 1993 he put out a single called “I’m not so young anymore” (b-side: “Watching the fridge defrost”). In 1997, twenty years after its original release Drinkin… (I’m not typing that title again) came out on CD and may still be available. I’ve think he’s now returned to Chile after all these years with the Pinochet regime out of the way. He’s had a website for years, although most of the useful information is in Spanish or German, which explains why this piece is so patchy. There are some audio samples of his songs if you’re feeling brave. It’s fun to finally hear the title track of his first album after all these years, to hear what else was going on when we were all pogoing to the sond of his old bandmate bashing on about white riots and London burning with boredom — although I wouldn’t recommend you played it too loud in the office….