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.
5. The Ambertones
While they released fewer than a dozen 45s between 1963 and ’69, The Ambertones were perhaps the ultimate Eastside band. Kings of good-time garage rock, slow-burning soul and jumped-up R&B, these rockin’ kids had a zest and all around ka-pow that made everything they did distinctive and irresistible. They covered everyone from Wilson Pickett to The MC5, threw in a few strong originals along the way, and generally rampaged through the social halls, school dances and parties where the ELA sound lived. Get a load of “Clap Your Hands,” written for them by producer Leonard Mamola, for a roaring, stomping dose of Ambertones razzle-dazzle. Long inactive, they only rarely perform these days, but when they do, it’s a must-see event.
4. The Premiers
The Premiers began life in ELA-adjacent San Gabriel, then went from churlish teenage cholos to dapper rock & roll chart-toppers, becoming one of the scene’s earliest success stories and a band that remains ineluctably linked to the Eastside sound. Brothers John and Lawrence Perez joined musical forces with neighborhood pals George Delgado and Frank Zuniga and, with their mother’s encouragement, started rocking and rolling in their backyard every weekend. In short order they graduated to the recording studio, and when their 1964 version of Don and Dewey’s “Farmer John” crashed into the Top 20, they woke up one morning as rock stars and remain vintage Eastside royalty to this day. Despite Zuniga’s 2011 death, the contemporary Perez brothers–fronted Premiers are still definitely stomping rump on the bandstand.
3. Thee Midniters
A magnificent collection of mid-1960s teenage upstarts, Thee Midniters transformed themselves from a mere jam-happy rockin’ rabble to a musical ensemble of stunning ability. Driven by the two-headed songwriting monster of Little Willie G, a vocalist of gale-force lung power, and bassist-shouter Jimmy Espinoza, one of rock & roll’s all-time great wild men, Thee Midniters cranked out a flabbergasting stack of incomparable records. Whether smoldering balladry (“The Town I Live In”), classic instrumental jams (“Whittier Boulevard”), mad-dog garage ravers (“Jump Jive and Harmonize”) or flat-out, freaked-out psych-rock (“I Found a Peanut’), Thee Midniters excelled at every-damn-thing. While Willie G only occasionally rejoins today’s working Midniters unit, when he and Espinoza share a bandstand, it’s as fantastic a rock & soul summit as one could dream of.
2. Lalo Guerrero
Singer-guitarist-bandleader Lalo Guerrero was the man who started it all. Born in Arizona in 1916, he arrived in East Los Angeles in the 1940s and quickly established himself as a gifted, soulful and prescient maverick. His extraordinary career spanned the full spectrum of Chicano music, from traditional folk to his sizzling post-war pachuco boogie to a handful of wild novelty discs (check out “Elvis Perez”) to, most importantly, a penetrating trove of topical corridos. Guerrero was the first to not only embody Chicano identity but to introduce it as a new mainstream cultural force. As such, he directly paved the way for everyone from Ritchie Valens to Pitbull, and he did it all with powerful combination of low-key, elegant grace and high impact, intoxicating music that mixed up trad Mexican and American pop into an intoxicating earful. (It must be noted that his son’s group, Mark & the Escorts, made some marvelous noise as part of the mid-’60s ELA rock posse.)
1. Los Lobos
No one better represents the model originally established by Lalo Guerrero than these veteran Eastside superstars. Los Lobos’ combination of peerless technical facility, boundless creativity, fearless willingness to experiment and, above all, an unerring drive to express soul-deep truths about themselves and the world around them has made them the single most successful force ever to spring from that fabled neighborhood. From their classic ELA rock & roll start jamming at parties and dances to their sweet, contrary shift to strictly traditional acoustic sound and their early-’80s, punk-inspired Hollywood breakout as high-velocity bilingual rockers, Los Lobos have always gone their own way and consistently distinguished themselves as pure musicians who refuse to acknowledge any limitation.