Another serving of Hotdog

By Tina Arceo-Dumlao | Inquirer Magazine • Aug. 3, 2014

It may have been some 40 years since the seminal band Hotdog burst on the scene and served up music never before heard over Philippine airwaves, but the power of this group led by brothers Dennis and Rene Garcia to get people on their feet and dancing has hardly diminished.

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Sure, many of the hardcore fans who have been with Hotdog from the time the defunct Villar Records released the band’s “Unang Kagat” in 1974 are no longer as spirited on the dance floor as they used to be.

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But it hardly matters, because Hotdog’s irresistibly danceable tunes “Beh Buti Nga,” “Annie Batungbakal” and “Bongga Ka Day,” as well as quirky love songs such as “Pers Lab” remain efficient time machines that never fail to take them back to their salad days marked by long hair, platform shoes and bell-bottom pants.

No wonder their children’s generation happily join these hardy former habitués of Coco Banana and Dewey Blvd. joints on the dance floor, as even they realize that the band’s happy music continue to connect with people from Forbes Park to Gov. Forbes.

And the brothers Garcia are only too willing to dish out the same songs they have been performing thousands of times since they were first recorded and gained the distinctive label “Manila Sound” from their hit single “Manila.”

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For Dennis, the main lyricist of the band, Hotdog’s songs have remained relevant because the themes they touch on—unrequited or reciprocated love—know no season and remain fresh.

“Good music has no expiry date,” the elder Garcia brother says.

“I call them three-minute movies, but they can also be love letters made into songs. There are four I made for my wife—‘Dying to Tell You,’ ‘Ikaw Pa Rin,’ ‘Panaginip’ and Langit Na Naman,’” he adds.

“The arrangements and instrumentations also sound as if they were made just a few years—instead of decades—ago,” says Dennis, who managed to combine his budding career with the band, with his corporate responsibilities as creative director of a top advertising company.

“It was a hard balancing act for me in the early years of Hotdog. I was a young, 20-plus creative director at Lintas while performing in TV shows, concerts and regular gigs like that at Alibi Bar in the Regent that sadly burned down on the night we had a show,” he recalls.

“I had to balance performing with Hotdog with my day job at the ad agency, where I led brainstorming sessions, worked with writers, art directors and broadcast producers, and attended shoots and recordings,” adds the Hotdog stalwart.

Fortunately, one profession enhanced the other.

Music helped Dennis improve the creative execution of advertising campaigns, making for unique and powerful brand messages for the company’s clients.

As an 18-year-old copywriter at Philippine Advertising Counselors, for example, he spearheaded the milestone campaign “O Anong Sarap—Isa Pa Nga” for San Miguel Beer.

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It is ironic that the long-haired rocker was able to capture the essence of the alcoholic beverage considering that he and brother Rene do not drink nor smoke, unlike most of their contemporaries in the music world.

Dennis worked on the San Miguel account again in 1990 when he was lured out of his job in Kuala Lumpur by McCann Erickson, to help retain the campaign. The chemistry resulted in the landmark “Kahit Kailan, Kaibigan” campaign and helped McCann keep the multimillion-peso account to this day.

Such discipline at crafting punchy taglines and expressing a multitude of thoughts using just a few lines gave Hotdog’s songs their unique lyrical flavor, evident from their first hit “Ikaw Ang Miss Universe ng Buhay Ko,” inspired by the international pageant wins of Gloria Diaz and Margie Moran.

If Dennis was responsible for the words and the bass guitar behind Hotdog’s music, brother Rene took care of the lead guitar, the lead vocals and most of the band’s infectious melodies.

“I was really the rocker in the group. I worked on my guitar because I wanted to be a Jimmy Page, a Jimi Hendrix,” says Rene. “Then when we set up Hotdog, we wanted good chord progressions that were still commercial,” says the Garcia brother who remains the face and voice of the band that has seen numerous lineup changes through the years.

Rene says he approached the task of writing melodies in a very deliberate manner instead of waiting for the proverbial muse to appear before he comes out with the riffs.

“It is like driving. Once you get used to it, then it becomes easy. What I would do is start with the verse and then the refrain, then take a break and sleep. Then I repeat the process and record what I came up with on a Sony Walkman,” says Rene, who cites the music of The Beatles among his greatest influences and inspiration.

He still actively performs with Hotdog but mainly abroad, where Filipinos yearn for a taste of home.

When he is not fronting for the band, this Garcia sibling tends to his collection of 150 guitars, 10 keyboards and 10 drum sets in his home, and writes instrumental rock music for corporate and individual clients.

“I write these rock songs for a change. I just let the guitar sing,” says Rene, who considers his Fender Stratocaster his workhorse.

As far as Hotdog’s songs go, he says he does not get tired of singing them over and over again because he feels it was something he owes to their fans. The songs may not be new to him, he says, but they could be new to some people in the audience.

“I also try to improvise. I change them a bit so that I play or sing them in a different way each time. They must always be refreshing to the crowd because people can tell if you are not singing from the heart. If you feel the song, then kahit sumablay ka (even if you sing out of tune), they will know that you tried your best to make them happy,” says Rene.

Rene readily admits that even if he and Dennis are as close as two brothers can be, they have had their share of disagreements. But they’ve always managed to come out on top because of mutual respect and the single-minded determination to produce not just good, but great, music.

“We’re serious about this. When we are working on the music, we don’t joke around so that only the best will come out. It must be a Garcia trait, the desire for excellence. We think: you exert the same effort whether you do well or not, so why not try for something good?” says Rene.

The Garcia brothers feel fortunate that Hotdog made it big at a time when Original Pilipino Music was king, when it dominated the airwaves and forced foreign recordings into playing second fiddle.

“OPM then had the ‘right of way’,” recalls Dennis who adds sadly: “But the tables have turned. OPM now is a second—sometimes, third, class citizen today, played on air just to ‘follow’ the mandated rule of four OPM songs every hour. Repeat, mandated. And anything ‘mandated’ is never done wholeheartedly. Ever.”

Hopefully, as Hotdog continues to entertain music lovers with its certified classics, Dennis and Rene hope to influence lawmakers into passing laws to help Filipino songwriters or musicians. Among the laws they have in mind is reducing or altogether doing away with taxes on musical instruments and home recording equipment.

They also hope more Filipino songwriters would follow in their sizeable footsteps.

For these wannabes, Dennis offers this piece of advice: “Write from the heart. Bare your soul. The most unforgettable songs resonate because they are genuine sentiments, never just rhyming words stitched together. Always go counterflow—never go with the herd. Write about why it’s cool to be Pinoy.”

Dennis, who services clients as a freelance creative director both here and in Jakarta and has picked up painting with a passion, continues to write songs, stockpiling them as a legacy to his children. It will be hard, he says, to duplicate what Hotdog accomplished in the 1970s these days when OPM no longer lords it over the airwaves.

“A big idea is big only once,” explains Dennis, a thought that’s definitely something to chew on.

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