Allan McCarthy. / SUR

Return of the bad boy of jailhouse rock band

Short-lived fame. After a radio presenter prompted a revival of his music, a Scottish guitarist seeks to restart a band he formed in a Spanish jail 30 years ago

TONY BRYANT

A Scottish musician who, in 2020, returned to live in Spain almost 30 years after he was released from prison in the country, is attempting to reform a band he founded while in jail. Glasgow-born Allan McCarthy formed his band, Berlin 90, with some of his fellow inmates while he was serving a prison sentence for drug related offences at Sangonera prison in Murcia.

His band, labelled the "bad boys of rock", made the Spanish headlines after a music teacher at the prison submitted a demo tape to a talent contest organised by the local radio station, Onda Regional, a competition to find suitable songs for a compilation recording titled A Year of Rock in Murcia 1991.

One of the songs, written by Allan "virtually on the spot", was selected to be included on the double cassette, along with others by several relatively well-established bands of the region.

"I ended up on the Costa del Sol for a few years and began mixing with people that were not from my walk of life "

The prison authorities got behind the project and supported the band with a rehearsal space and instruments; while the other inmates became their audience, and their critics.

The band "didn't hold out much hope", but when they were selected, it caused ripples within the prison service, because they had to be granted a special day release to record the track in a local studio.

"It was funny, because the prison had really backed us because it gave the establishment credibility, and they believed it would demonstrate how they had rehabilitated these criminals. But, when we were asked to go to record the track, the authorities were backed into a corner and could not refuse," Allan explains to SUR in English, laughing as he remembers the incident.

The media attention that followed the album's release resulted in the band being given permission to leave the prison again, this time for an interview with Onda Regional DJ Ángel Sopena: a few weeks after the interview, Allan and his band were released once again to perform a concert at a music venue in Murcia.

However, the Scotsman's new-found rock stardom was relatively short-lived because he was transferred to the notorious Carabanchel prison in Madrid, and all contact with his fellow band mates came to a halt.

The 59-year-old Glaswegian's six-year stint in a Spanish jail came after he had begun to mix in the wrong circles when first arriving in the country in 1984.

"After leaving university, I came over to Spain for a break and ended up staying on the Costa del Sol for a few years. I began mixing with people that were not from my walk of life, but I was young at the time. I came over just after my 21st birthday and was back in Glasgow just in time for my 30th," Allan says.

Allan headed back to Scotland on his release from prison, where his life took another unusual turn.

"My sister had had a child that I had never met - my nephew. Unfortunately, she had a mental breakdown and I ended up bringing the child up, so that kept me out of mischief," he explains.

He also forged a career in magazine publishing, working on publications like the Scotch Whiskey Association and The Scottish Personal Health magazines, along with The UK Schools Directory, the official publication of the bicentenary of the Battle of Waterloo, and The Beat Goes On, a magazine promoting police recruitment.

Return to Spain

Following his retirement, Allan returned to Spain legally - for he had been banned from entering the country for ten years after his release - to spend time with his girlfriend, and her family, who owned two businesses in Murcia.

On his return, Allan made contact with the DJ, Ángel Sopena, to ask for his help in locating his old band mates.

The DJ had continued to present his radio show, Música de Contrabando, which celebrated its 30th anniversary in 2021, and one of the bands he continuously played on his show, according to the proud Scot, was Berlin 90.

Allan and DJ Ángel Sopena meet at the radio studio for the first time in 30 years. / sur

"At the time, Ángel was giving interviews about his radio programme because it had been running for 30 years. He said in every interview that one of the best memories he has from his career was the story of Berlin 90. This guy has met Bowie, The Stones and many other top names, but he said the one thing that sticks out is the prison band he was involved with at the beginning," Allan declares.

Unfortunately, Allan was to learn that one of the old band members had died, one had returned to Madrid and had disappeared from the scene, and the drummer, who was French, had returned to France.

Allan says that if he cannot reform the original band, he intends to start a new version of Berlin 90, whose music is back on the radio thanks to Ángel Sopena.

He also says that he has been discussing the possibility of returning to the prison where he was incarcerated to do a concert for the inmates. However, one thing he says is certain is that his time as a rock and roll jailbird has long been left behind him.