The 10 Best Bands From East L.A.
Chicano musicians have made a formidable mark on pop culture, and no matter what form they trade in — whether Question Mark & the Mysterians, Freddy Fender, The Zeros, Kid Congo & the Pink Monkey Birds, Johnny Rodriguez, Chris Montez or Alice Bag — the results are often spectacular.
One of the most frantically fertile regional hotbeds for Chicano music on Earth, East Los Angeles, always bears re-examination. While it may be insane to designate only 10 ELA acts as the finest of the district’s stellar and innumerable contributors, here is a rundown of some of the Eastside’s most critical and, in some cases, unappreciated musical forces.
10. The Shag Rats
Cocky, scrappy, punk-infected, big-hearted R&B trash sensations The Shag Rats represent contemporary ELA big-beat malfeasance at its best. Formed by Rex Rock and Lew Skywalker as means to explore an unhealthy fixation on '77 punk, the group soon developed their own slashing sound, tagged "swamp stompin' primitive punk," an unusual approach that displays the genre-jumping proclivities shared by almost every ELA band past, present and future. It’s a taut, vivid, hard-hitting style that has won them fans across the city and respect from their forebears — Rock and Skywalker serve to augment the current lineup of The Premiers, a testament to these Rats’ own indomitable skill.
9. The Stains
Criminally underappreciated these days, ELA's The Stains were influential hardcore spearheads whose deliciously brutal sound anticipated Black Flag and the whole buzzcut, bandanna-wrapped, engineer-boot HB set with stunning originality. One of Boyle Heights’ first punk bands, they warped a heavy metal background into a magnificently overstimulated form of the genre that was subsequently matched only by The Bad Brains. Volatile, defiant and always out to shock, any Stains show was an unpredictable thrill-fest. They put out one classic slab of wax on SST, which delivers more than enough wallop to knock the fillings out of your teeth.
8. Cannibal and the Headhunters
With a gloriously lurid moniker that won them an eternal foothold in pop history, soul-rockers Cannibal and the Headhunters came together at Boyle Heights’ Ramona Gardens housing project. After their version of “Land of 1000 Dances” stormed the pop chart in the spring of 1965, they wound up touring with Motown and later, from Shea Stadium to the Hollywood Bowl with The Beatles — incurring no small amount of displeasure from Fab Four manager Brian Epstein, as Cannibal and company nearly stole the show nightly. “Land of 1000 Dances” was an obscure New Orleans dance number written by Chris Kenner and a fixture in Thee Midniters' set list, but when Cannibal forgot the lyrics one night and filled in with his now-famous “na na na na,” history was made. When Wilson Pickett cut the song the following year, he used the Headhunters version. Their notoriety was short-lived, but the record remains immortal.
7. Los Illegals
The most hands-on influential of the Eastside’s punk bands, Los Illegals didn’t just make great music — they also kickstarted the entire Boyle Heights punk scene when they opened up the original incarnation of the famed Vex club in 1980, providing a home for a tight-knit crew of punks, both Chicano and gringo. Spearheaded by multitalented stink stirrer Willie Herron, the band cultivated a prideful, confrontational cultural attitude and described their music as pachuco punk and psycho cha-cha. The notoriety of the Vex allowed them to crash into the Westside and become the only ELA punk group to sign with a major (A&M released their Internal Exile album in 1983). Herron and company continue to uphold the ELA punk standard with their singular, stinging brand of defiance.
6. The Brat
Led by ineffably cool vocalist Teresa Covarrubias, an arresting performer who effortlessly went from fire-breathing punk (“High School”) to artful romantic statements ("Starry Eyes”) to penetrating sociocultural observations (“The Wolf”), The Brat were one of the finest late-’70s punk bands anywhere. In the era of such formidable competition as Debbie Harry and Poly Styrene, Covarrubias easily held her own, and The Brat churned out some exceptionally high-quality songs, five of which were captured on their excellent 1980 Attitudes EP. They routinely gave arresting performances but evaporated all too soon, calling it quits in 1985 without ever recording a proper album.
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