Cast your mind back, if you can, to a night in late 1973, with David Bowie headlining "The Midnight Special." It was a riotous occasion. Before a live audience drawn from friends and the fan club, Bowie — whether we knew it or not — was bidding his final farewell to the painted, costumed creations he had nurtured through the last 18 months of superstardom, and a handful of guests were on hand to help.
There were the Troggs. There was Marianne Faithfull.There was Amanda Lear. And there was Carmen, an Anglo-American rock band that seemed poised, for one gloriously giddying moment, to usher in a musical hybrid that was unlike any we had heard before: Flamenco Rock!
What a combination it was. Across two songs on the TV broadcast, and an hour’s worth of alternate takes that were shot during the three-day filming, Carmen was simply electrifying, a swirl of color and musical dynamics, laden with imagery and swimming in ideas. And the two songs they performed, “Bulerias” and “Bullfight,” still stand out as highlights of a show that was bristling with the things. The difference was, while Bowie, the Troggs and Faithfull all raised their game for the occasion, Carmen simply played through their regular routine. They were always this good.
“The stage show was fairly hard work to achieve,” recalls founder David Allen. “It required a lot of rehearsal. Roberto [Amaral, the band’s vocalist] is a choreographer, as well as a dancer, so we were able to bring professional skills to the dance sections. We used the heelwork as percussion by attaching Barcus Berry Hot Dots [a percussive device used by tapdancers and the like] to a custom-built dance stage. We were able to amplify that sound and mix it with Paul [Fenton]’s drums at very high volumes.”
Allen and sister Angela had been in the U.K. for less than a year by the time they filmed “Midnight Special,” but already they had caused a major stir. In a land fixated with the Glam Rock that Bowie, T Rex, Gary Glitter and so many more had already made their own, Carmen’s blur of costume and stomp slipped effortlessly in alongside the genre’s more cerebral contenders — wowing the prog crowd as well. It was only slightly surprising, in 2007, to find Carmen’s Fandangos In Space album nestling comfortably within Goldmine’s Top 25 Prog Albums poll, an honor for which Allen thanks everyone who voted for it.
“That’s lovely to find out. I’m very pleased that enough people are now aware of Carmen to have voted us into that position. We always thought of ourselves as a cross between Led Zeppelin and Genesis via Spain, with a healthy dollop of glam thrown in. We didn’t really know where our audience was for sure, so we just kept playing to every audience that was available.“
It was that uncertainty that held the band back throughout its earliest years. The Allens formed Carmen in Los Angeles in July 1970 — the Spanish influence was drawn from the flamenco restaurant, El Cid, that their parents ran on Sunset Boulevard, the rock from the arrival of the Beatles, that set the youngsters’ minds reeling. The quest to combine the flamenco music they grew up with, and the electric rock that they loved became a passion.
The band’s primary gig was at the restaurant. “When I put the first version of Carmen together, there were seven of us,” says Allen, “including a second guitarist and a lead singer. Angela and a male flamenco dancer — not Roberto, yet — came onstage only when they danced.
“We survived because my parents turned the restaurant into a music club, three days a week, for us. Fortunately, our live act was popular enough that they were able to afford to do that for three years.&rd