Growing up in Los Angeles the punk music scene in 1997 was thwarted by the wall of the L.A. River. Chicano Punk bands weren’t able to get gigs in venues like the Whisky, The Troubadour, The Starwood or even the hard core club The Masque. Even Ester Wong who’s club Madame Wong’s had trepidation to book the Chicano element . It was the geography of Los Angeles and the promoters not willing to bring Chicano Punk into Hollywood.
Los Angeles Chicano punk was about more than just brown skin ABK MONEY. The bands displayed a consciousness of La Raza in words, sounds and images. Unlike Hollywood, this scene wore Chicano identity on their sleeves, incorporating Spanish lyrics, Mexican imagery and mariachi influences into the music yet there was a strong sense of comradely among these bands “de hermanos”. Undoubtedly they had their ideals that didn’t always work but overall they had their focus on having their music exposed to the Anglos of Hollywood.
Chicano punk found a venue that would take them and on every Thursday would promote shows that featured Chicano punk and the club was known as a The Vex.
The Vex also promoted the art that was sister to the music.
It was partially prejudice and part economics. The L.A. River was almost like a simile to the Berlin Wall. It was practically impossible to make that cross from East L.A. and Boyle Heights into the prestige of other well-known clubs. Regardless, the movement was too strong to ignore and slowly L.A. bands like X and the Blasters, out of sheer curiosity infiltrated into the East side and eagerly sponsored these acts to play with them. The Chicano punk scene would perform in backyard parties and travel to anywhere who would let them play. They sang of their proud heritage and adopted a musical style that was unique yet would imitate the musical styles that were common to bands like The Ramones. The scene was real and their crossing over the L.A. River was a ballsy proposition for them since booking across “The River”was imperative to their success and notoriety.
I’m going to start at point zero for Chicano Punk and that was ? and the Mysterians .They had a tremendous national hit with “96 Tears” in 1966. Ironically the band wasn’t from Los Angeles at all, rather, they were from Bay City Michigan. 96 Tears was a major hit record and sold over a million copies. Peaked at #1 in Billboard’s top 100 and received over 3 millings spins at radio. The track even got covered by Brit Punk band The Stranglers who had a great time with this “chop-stix” melody.
Chicano Punk Bands could never cross the “bridge” to get gigs where white punk band shows were bountiful in the late 70’s and early 80’s
Chicano punk bands like Los Illegals, The Zeros and The Plugz to name of few, broke out of the pack and were invited to cross the L.A. River “wall” and find venues that would book them. The pressure from The Blasters, X and Suicidal Tendencies was getting just too great to ignore. Madam Wong was first to blink and “bingo”… the fans came on slow nights.
Los Illegals, icon Chicano punk band, spokesman, Willie Herron describes the racial prejudice that caused the line of demarcation. Unlike Hollywood, this scene wore Chicano identity on their hearts, incorporating Spanish lyrics, Mexican imagery and street politics into the music. Los Illegals refused to display hackneyed Mexican imagery like velvet Elvis paintings, preferring instead a more authentic, street-level public persona as punk rock “Pacheco’s”.
Finally, L.A. celebrated band X invited these artists to support their show and the “wall” was finally broken down.
While this was going on many L.A. club still resisted and sensed greater profits by booking bands like the hardcore punk band the Circle Jerks and other Anglo punk artist. Along with X, the Circle Jerks sensed the popularity of this musical infiltration from East L.A. and reached out to ally with the Chicano Punk movement to help introduce them to the Anglo audiences.
The World Famous KROQ had the “balls” to play the music of Chicano Punk and this allowed the “Gringo” listeners to hear a genre of music that was original and commanding. This was boldy done by D.J. Rodney Bingenheimer, icon of L.A. radio.
In 1977 a Chicano band originally from Chula Vista, just south of Sand Diego and was in the shadows of Tijuana, were referred to as the Chicano version of the Ramones, The Zeros. The principals of the band were Javier Escovedo and Robert Rodriguez. Rodriguez later created an alter ego character of El Vez, the Mexican version of Elvis Presley.
The following video shows the band performing for a morning show in San Diego. Its petty barbaric footage but you get a glimpse of a band that was hugely talented and had a focused musical direction. The following video was a live performance from a morning television station show on KFMB. The clip is a bit hazy but very much ground breaking. They performed their best song, “Don’t Push me Around”.
East Los Angeles photographer, Anna Summa, created a photo essay of L.A. Chicano punk and her work is absolutely fabulous, accurate and it’s a must see. Unlike many photographers Ms. Summa added the social insight of the movement.
The band that really created a name for themselves and had morphed so many times but created music that transcended other Chicano Punk groups and they were the centerpiece of Chicano Punk for a great many years, The Plugs, featuring the center piece figure , Tito Larriva.
Tito was an extremely handsome young lad and he had the artistic nuances that allowed him to venture into other mediums. His “Ricky Ricardo” good looks allowed him to associate with movie directors Robert Rodriquez and David Byrne. The Plugz even toured as Bob Dylan’s backup band where Dylan sincerely tried to assimilate into the Chicano culture.
The Plugz had recorded a track for the 1977 cult film, “Repo Man”, which was produced by former Monkee Michael Nesmith, with an amazing instrumental that was a cross from surf music reverberation meets a Spaghetti Western, titled “Reel Ten”; somewhat similar to Ennio Morricone’s, “The Good The Bad and The Ugly.”
The Chicano punk scene continued on, however. The Plugz eventually morphed into the Cruzados, and released two records on Arista Records which yielded a top 10 record on the rock charts.
The addition of guitarist extraordinaire, Steve Hufsteter gave the Cruzados a sound that was extremely forceful like racing fuel compared to anything else, yet was not necessarily accepted by radio stations. He even joined Tom Petty at many of his shows. I knew the aloof Hufsteter from his earlier bands, The Quick and The Falcons; the first Hispanic blue eyes soul band! Steve was no slouch at the guitar. His goal was to play backup guitar for James Brown. Unfortunately though he had the chops to play deep rooted funk, but Brown wasn’t exactly ready to hire a Hispanic into his band. His guitar slinging style grew into a form similar to Stevie Ray Vaughn (please don’t hate me for making this comparisons and it may even me sacrilegious) but it was true. Hufsteter is that good!
Larriva went a step further musically and abandoned The Cruzados and formed Tito and Tarantula.
His compelling song “After Dark” which had a musical kinship to The Door’s classic, “Moonlight Drive” and was placed in one of the best zombie movies ever filmed, “From Dusk to Dawn” directed by Robert Rodriquez.
I promoted this song and though its airplay was limited it seemed to receive heavy rotation at many topless bars across America. The track was sultry, sexy and downright nasty. It was a masterpiece!
Tarantula moved to Austin,TX. yet found their notoriety would grow while touring in Europe.
Watch Steve Hufsteter just jams on this song!
While Los Illegals continue to play today and The Zeros occasionally reunite when Robert Lopez isn’t doing his El Vez thing. For its part, East Los Angeles is home to a vibrant underground punk rock scene of backyard shows not too different from those held in East Los 30 years ago. The movement continues to flourish but from the new bands I have seen I find them a far cry from the pacesetters of the late 90’s and early 90’s.