Robert Rose is the founder of LA-based record label Punk Outlaw and director of documentary Punktology, who you’ll recall from our monthly August indie label feature of El Mix, Vol 6. Upon traveling to in Latin America and making a stop in Lima, Peru, Rose discovered unwritten history: Punk music was actually discovered a decade before its “emergence” was “officially” documented, in the outskirts of Lima, Peru!
The question of how and when punk music really began, or who really was the first punk band have fueled many documentaries, books, articles and more than their share of drunken conversations over the years. Hell, they may have even contributed to a bar room brawl or two. Despite being steeped in the scene the past few years both at home and abroad, I’ve never really felt qualified to have much of a discussion on these points.
There is so much written about the history of punk, yet it seems so easy to get the info twisted, such as getting the dates of punk’s emergence mixed up. And to be honest, I really hadn’t cared that much about punk history. I’m a fan of ’80s west coast punk and it seemed a bit pointless to worry so much about history when there is so much good stuff going on right now. While I respect it, I don’t want to live in the past. If old school bands like The Damned, Dead Kennedys or Social Distortion are touring, I want to hear all their songs, past and present.
All this changed when I visited Lima, Peru. Now, Peru is known for some serious history, mostly the indigenous kind with ancient ruins (If you didn’t know it, Peru is home to Machu Picchu and many other ancient ruins), but you’d be excused if “the home of punk rock” doesn’t exactly pop into your mind when I mention Lima. But what if I told you that Lima, Peru was in fact home of one of the very first punk bands in the world, years before the Sex Pistols and the Ramones popped onto the scene? Despite my previous statements, I do have a rough, sort of working class knowledge in a general sense of punk history. I’ve read the books, I’ve seen the films, I know about the Sex Pistols, Malcolm McLaran, “God Save the Queen” and all that good stuff. I’ve read extensively about Joe Strummer, The Clash and the influence of Jamaican immigrants in England on their music.
COUD IT BE BE, THAT DESPITE ALL WE HAD BEEN TOLD, ALL
THAT HAD BEEN WRITTEN ON THE SUBJECT….THAT SOME OF THE
FIRST INKLINGS OF PUNK MUSIC BEGAN IN SOUTH AMERICA?
Having lived many years in New York City just a few blocks from the famed CBGB’s, I know and certainly appreciate the Ramones and that now-deceased venue’s (and others like Max’s Kansas City, Coney Island High, etc.) incredible influence on the scene. I know about the Sonic, Iggy Pop, the MC5 and Detroit’s own influence on the scene. I’ve read and even vaguely remember that Blondie was punk, before they were funk, and how a young David Bowie was looking for talent at places like these former hot spots cum dive bars dotting the lower and then sketchy parts of Manhattan in New York City.
The reality is that the true beginnings of punk and even subsequent subgenre’s like psychobilly (The Cramps, Meteors, etc.) and fore bearers like rockabilly (Elvis Presley, Eddie Cochran, etc.) are up for debate and really hard to pin down. Relying on sometimes extremely foggy memories of an increasingly small base is not exactly scientific research. To further complicate matters you have that pesky and equally popular little question: What exactly is punk anyway?
But in all the debates and conversations, how many times have you heard of Peru even mentioned? If you live in South America maybe, but I’ll wager if you live anywhere else in the world, probably not. While traveling down in Latin America working on my documentary Punktology… The Worldwide Influence of Punk and blog for Punk Outlaw, I had heard for a couple of years about a band from Lima, that was playing some cool music in the mid ’60s, well before the Sex Pistols, The Clash and The Ramones and right around the time bands like the MC5 were lighting the motor city and surf was making a splash on the west coast. Now remember, kiddies, no internet back in these days, so underground music was traveling quite differently (and much more slowly) back in those days.
At first I thought maybe my Spanish needed improving, during my travels in Latin America, and I was just misunderstanding the folks who kept mentioning this quirk of history I’d never heard of. Finally, I realized there must be something there, so I researched and it led to some interesting possibilities. Could it be, that despite all we had been told, all that had been written on the subject, all that had been documented, debated and deciphered about it, that some of the first inklings of punk music actually began in South America?
It seemed people in Latin America knew something that had hardly been acknowledged (at least to me) by the English speaking, dominant messengers and historians of punk which had always pointed to bands in the U.S. and Europe as the closest approximations to the Fathers of the punk music spawn. But for Lima, Peru, there’s no debate.
A band called Los Saicos (as in The Psychos) was such a band. The band’s story begins like many others. They were four childhood friends and amateur musicians who grew up together in the Lince neighborhood of Lima. They sprung up on Lima’s music scene in 1964 and while they only put out 6 singles before they broke up in 1966, they are arguably the most influential rock band ever to come out of Latin America (trust me that may rankle some feathers in rock meccas like Argentina and Brazil).
I wanted to learn more about Los Saicos so this past August while traveling in Latin America I made the pilgrimage to Lima, in the dead of the Peruvian winter (which means chilly, damp weather without a hint of sunshine), with a barely adequate grasp of the Spanish language and high hopes of meeting and interviewing Los Saicos which had recently reunited in 2006.
Over a period of a week I was able to get a snapshot of the punk scene in Lima which really consisted of 3 stages, 1) Los Saicos in the 1960’s 2) the early 1980s with bands like Narcosis and Lusemia and 3) the current stage with punk bands like El Terrible y Los Mongoloides, Lemmings and others. Initially it seemed my timing was bad. Soon after I landed in Lima, I heard that Los Saicos was holed up in a studio in Mexico City laying down some new music. Determined to make the most of my trip, I got busy interviewing afore mentioned bands from the 2nd and current waves and that kept me plenty busy.
It was about time to head home and I had pretty much given up on getting an interview with Los Saicos when my contact and local punk resident Victor called to tell me that Los Saicos’ drummer, Pancho Guevara, was back in town and would agree to meet with me. Pancho didn’t speak English so I had to rely on my tarzan Spanish, which counter intuitively seemed to be getting worse each passing day!
We met Pancho and a pal at a diner near Lince. Pancho wanted to feel me out and see what my purpose of the interview was. I know they’ve given countless interviews but mostly to Latin press. Pancho was wearing a V neck sweater and sipping hot tea. I felt we hit it off immediately as I told them about my projects and Pancho filled me in about the band. From the diner, we headed over to the plaque on the street corner, which proclaims Lince the birthplace of Los Saicos and punk music.
Pancho pointed out to me the nearby street corner where the guys from Los Saicos would meet up and hang out. When I asked Pancho if he held any resentment to not being recognized for being a major player in the founding of punk music, he didn’t seem to really understand the relevance of the question and I think I understand why.
Before, during, and after the interview, numerous people on the street recognized Pancho and came up to him, not for an autograph, but to chat. Like old neighbors from the neighborhood recognizing an old lost friend. Pancho is the only member to still live full time in Lima. Guitarist Rolando Carpio died in early 2005 and singer Erwin Flores and singer/bass player César “Papi” Castrillón live near Washington, DC.
The surviving members of Los Saicos have played gigs again in Peru and Spain. A documentary Saicomania was released this year and Pancho said he has conducted many, many interviews recently about the band. They have plans to tour the U.S including a stop in California next spring which I hope to catch. I think, at least as far as Pancho is concerned, there is plenty of recognition, albeit a bit late.
Pancho’s positive outlook notwithstanding the recognition of Los Saicos as punk is lacking. I don’t think it’s a conspiracy by North Americans or Europeans to not give Los Saicos their due. But I do think it points to a larger issue of punk music being viewed erroneously as a largely working class, white music, largely a stereotype perpetrated by mainstream media that has no idea what punk is.
That is one of the points of my documentary Punktology. We’ve interviewed punks the world including punks in Latin America (who are a rainbow of colors), as well as African punks, Asian punks and even Muslim punks. Punk is the most tolerant music subculture I know of. But history has a way of being written from slanted perspectives, and in punk music’s case, it was written from a largely North American and European perspective (sound familiar?). Ironically, this is exactly the type of ignorance, misinformation and subtle racism that punk music often rails against.
And I know I said that history doesn’t matter, but it does. We need to give credit where credit is due. Reunions notwithstanding, Los Saicos had a short life span but so did the Sex Pistols, MC5 and numerous other bands widely credited with contributing to punk’s earliest beginnings. We need to recognize Los Saicos for what they are; an influential, unique and original band that was one of the most influential ever in Latin America and possibly the world. Check ‘em out and next time you’re in a debate about the beginnings of punk music, you’re gonna come across as the smartest (or craziest) guy or girl in the room!