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Los Illegals:  Pachuco Punk Rockers of the 80s

by Mark Guerrero

     Los Illegals sprang out of East L.A. in 1980 as part of the L.A. punk rock scene, Chicano-style.  They had an album entitled “Intenal Exile” on A&M Records in 1981, produced by Mick Ronson of David Bowie fame, and played the punk/new wave circuit in Hollywood.  This all became possible when they co-founded a venue on the Eastside called Club Vex.  They were able to create a scene that amazingly even drew Westside bands such as The Blasters and X to the barrio.  Although Los Illegals were most active and visible in the 80s, they are not to be confined to that decade.  They’re an ongoing concept that continues to evolve and have a social and cultural impact.  In 1997, Los Illegals recorded an album with Concrete Blonde on Miles Copeland’s Ark 21 label.  In 1999, they participated on a CD and documentary called “Searching for Jimi Hendrix,” which also featured tracks by such diverse artists as Los Lobos, Laurie Anderson, Rosanne Cash and Chuck D.

     Los
Illegals formed in 1979 with the following original lineup:  Willie Herrón, keyboard, Jesus Velo, bass, Richard Vogel, drums, Eddie Ayala, lead vocals, and the Valdez brothers, Manuel and Tony, on lead and rhythm guitar, respectively.  Richard and Eddie soon parted ways with Los Illegals due to creative differences and formed their own band, Odd Squad.  Los Illegals added Bill Reyes on drums and Willie took over as lead vocalist to bring Los Illegals to their desired combination.  Willie, being an edgy and passionate vocalist backed by his keyboard; Bill, a solid drummer and percussionist; Jesus, a strong bass player, who’s highly intelligent and a contributor of good musical and lyrical ideas; Manuel, a phenomenal lead guitarist with great power and technique; and Tony, a solid rhythm guitarist rounding out the band.  To understand Los Illegals' vision and political stance, one must first know something about lead vocalist and chief songwriter, Willie Herrón.  Willie happens to be a world-class visual artist, whose murals in East L.A. are among the most powerful and important.  His paintings have appeared in major galleries and museums, as well as on public and commercial buildings.  He was also a member of a guerilla artists group called ASCO that created quite a stir on the streets of East L.A. in the 70s.  Aside from his artistic endeavors, Willie has been in rock bands since his early teens.  He was first influenced by some of the harder-edged British Invasion bands of the 60s, such as The Animals and The Kinks.  In the early 70s, he was very much inspired by David Bowie, which got Willie interested in taking a more theatrical approach to music and to experiment with hair color and glam rock looks.  Willie grew up in a very tough neighborhood in East L.A., where his brother was almost mortally wounded by a street gang.  Herrón’s art and music reflect the intensity of the surroundings in which he grew up.  When the punk movement arrived, it provided a perfect social and musical framework for that intensity and vision.  He liked to use the moniker of pachuco punk to describe Los Illegals’ music and it did fit, even though they weren’t literally pachucos.  The Mexican-American pachucos who originated in the 1930s were the original punks.  They had an “in your face” attitude, were tough, and had a confidence and pride in who they were.  So in that sense the term pachuco punk was perfect for Los Illegals.  They liked to use other buzz words to describe their music such as mariachi punk, heavy mambo, psycho cha cha, techno-flamenco, and flamenco metal.  They were also once described as "Tito Puente on acid."   

     In 1980, with nothing to lose and nowhere to go, Los
Illegals and Radical Nuns opened Club Vex in East L.A.  Los Illegals had suffered rejection, not only from the Hollywood establishment, but from Latinos, who according to Jesus Velo, “didn’t want to be reminded who they are.”  It all started with a fateful meeting between Willie Herrón and Sister Karen Bocalero, of the liberation theology minded division of the Catholic Church.  Club Vex was located in what was the Catholic Youth Organization Hall (C.Y.O. Hall) on Brooklyn Ave. (now Cesar Chavez Blvd.) in East L.A.  In the 60s, many dances featuring top East L.A. bands played there, including my band, Mark & the Escorts.  In fact, we played our first gig there in 1963, when I was 13 years old.  At the Club Vex, new East L.A. bands like Los Illegals, The Brat, and The Undertakers played there at first.  (Vex nights were two Thursdays a month). Los Illegals began to invite Westside bands and music industry people.  A major article appeared in the Calendar section of the L.A. Times about Los Illegals and the Vex and things started happening.  In addition to the aforementioned X and the Blasters, Bad Religion and other bands also came east.  Los Illegals began to play on the west side at venues like the Whiskey, the Roxy, Madam Wong’s, and the Palladium.  They were on the bill with bands such as Oingo Boingo, Bauhaus, the Go Gos, and the Motels, and hung out with R.E.M.  A deal with A&M Records resulted from the positive exposure.  The next step was to pick a producer.  They had quite a group from which to choose.  Ray Manzarek of the Doors, Brian May of Queen, and Mick Ronson, former guitarist for David Bowie.  After meeting with all three candidates, they chose Mick Ronson.  Their first single was a song written by Willie Herrón and his artist friend and former ASCO member, Gronk.  It’s a powerful and energetic punk anthem about the trials and tribulations of a Mexican illegal alien in L.A.  This was followed by their album, “Internal Exile,” released in 1983.

     “Internal Exile” is a high energy Chicano punk album with songs dealing with issues such as immigration, poverty, street gangs, violence, and alienation.  Some highlights of the album are; the Spanish version of “El Lay,” “The Mall,” a song about hating shopping malls, and the self-explanatory “We Don’t Need a Tan.”  Aside from “El Lay,” my favorite cut is a pachuco punk song called “Wake up John.”  It’s got the spirit of Don Tosti’s Pachuco Boogie Boys’ pachuco swing recordings of the late 40s and early 50s.  Jesus Velo also acknowledges the influence of Lalo Guerrero's pachuco songs of the era.  After the release of “Internal Exile,” Los
Illegals went out on the road to promote it.  They toured Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and Northern California.  Once in Texas, they were stopped by a state trooper.  When Los Illegals emerged from their vehicle clad in red leather and sporting punky hair cuts, the officer was sure they were aliens.  He just wasn’t sure if they were from the other side of the border or some distant galaxy.  In San Francisco, while opening for a heavy metal band, they were cursed at and pelted with debris.  Los Illegals held their ground and did their entire show.  After the show, they were hugged and congratulated by proud and emotional Mexican bus boys and waiters.  After the tour, Los Illegals began recording tracks for their second album entitled “Burning Youth.”  It was never released and the band and A&M parted ways.

     In 1985, Willie Herrón called me on the phone and asked me to join Los
Illegals for a show they were doing in collaboration with a Chicano performance art group called The Alienz.  Members of the Alienz included Olga Perez, Armando Norte, Consuelo Norte, Marisa Leal, and Mario Flores.  It was a major show called “Piecemeal Too,” put on by New York’s Mabou Mines performance art troupe.  Tony Valdez had left Los Illegals in 1983, so they needed someone to play acoustic guitar and keyboards and provide some vocals.  Jesus Velo was also unavailable because he was attending law school, so guitarist Mike Tovar was recruited to play bass.  It proved to be an intense project which took a lot more time and energy than most of us bargained for.  Our piece involved scaffolding, a multi-media presentation (slides, film, sound effects, and backdrops), Aztec dancing, a fight scene, complex lighting, costume changes, and last but not least, rock music.  I was involved in the Aztec dance and the fight scene, aside from my musical duties.  The Aztec dance was a simple one because, believe me when I tell you, I'm not a dancer.  The event had performances by Black, Asian, White, and Latino performance artists groups.  It took place on a Friday and Saturday night in a huge multi-room warehouse in downtown Los Angeles.  On Sunday it was repeated outdoors at MacArthur Park, also downtown.  After the initial planning meetings, we constructed the set and rehearsed at the warehouse all week.  The elaborate set had the drummer, Bill Reyes, elevated at the highest level, lead guitarist, Manuel Valdez and bassist Mike Tovar were also elevated, but lower than Bill.  Willie and I were on platforms up front, where we traded verses singing “Echos of the Fallen” for the finale.  After the Saturday night show, we had to disassemble the whole set, load it onto trucks and set it up at MacArthur park, which took until 9 or 10 in the morning.  I went home and got maybe two hours sleep and had to be back at the park in the early afternoon.  The highlight of the experience for me was playing outdoors at MacArthur Park.  When we got to our finale, all the other artists came on stage, dancing and clapping, while the song must have gone on for at least 15 minutes.  The audience was not only composed of art and music aficionados, but winos, hookers and other assorted street people.  I believe some of them wound up on stage too.  I went on to do some other gigs with Los Illegals that year, including a memorable anniversary party for High Performance Magazine.  We also did some 12 track recording sessions on which I played acoustic guitar.  It was all a very interesting and worthwhile experience and we had a lot of laughs in the process.

     In 1988, Bill Reyes played drums and percussion on my “On the Boulevard” four song E.P., and played on four tracks of my self-produced “Radio Aztlán” album in 1992.  He was also a member of my original group at the time, also called Radio Aztlán.  I first met Bill when he was ten or twelve years old.  He lived down the street from my band’s drummer Ernie Hernandez, where my late 60s band, Nineteen Eighty Four, rehearsed in Monterey Park, California.  He would come by and watch us play.  Little did we know he would become a drummer, let alone such a good one with whom I would eventually work.  Willie Herrón, when he was a high school student, also used to drop by Ernie’s house because he was going out with Ernie’s cousin Pattsi Valdez, who went on to become a renowned artist in her own right.  Also in the small world department, I had Jesus Velo in a Chicano studies class at Cal State L.A. in 1977.  We would talk before class, not knowing we were both musicians.  I didn’t know until Jesus told me very recently that he and Louie Perez, later a member of Los Lobos, had my 1973 album, Tango, and were inspired by it.  According to Velo, they appreciated “the fact that Chicanos from East L.A. could do a album that had rock and country rock, alongside bilingual songs."  They also saw my band, Mark Guerrero & the Mudd Brothers, perform at Cal State L.A. in 1972 for the "Feria de La Raza" concert, which also featured El Chicano, Tierra, Carmen Moreno, and Elijah.

     In the early 90s, Los
Illegals toured seven Mexican border towns, including Tijuana and Mexicali.  They played on the bill with popular Mexican rock bands, including “El Tri.”  Los Illegals met with some hostility from the Mexican audiences, who didn’t appreciate Mexican-Americans (pochos) invading their territory, particularly with their brand of punk music, attitude, and look.  After a concert at a Mexicali bullring, an ice box was intentionally dropped from a couple of stories up and barely missed its intended target, Los Illegals.  In true punk tradition, I think Willie thrived on the emotions his band generated, even if they were negative at times.  In 1997, Los Illegals recorded an album with Concrete Blonde called “Concrete Blonde y Los Illegals.”  It was released on the Ark 21 label, owned by Miles Copeland, who’s best known as the manager of the legendary 70s band, the Police.  The participants on the album were Willie Herrón, Jesus Velo, and Bill Reyes from Los Illegals, and Johnette Napolitano, lead vocalist, and James Mankey, the extraordinary guitarist from Concrete Blonde.  It was an ambitious recording fusing Chicano and Anglo cultural elements.  Some highlights of the album include, a rap song about O.J. Simpson trial witness Rosa Lopez, called “Ode to Rosa Lopez,” performed by author Ruben Martinez, a version of Woody Guthrie’s “Deportee,” and a song with the wicked title of “Xich vs. the Migra Zombies.”  The cover featured a photo of perhaps Willie Herrón’s most powerful mural.  It was painted the same night his brother was stabbed in 1972.  In 1999, the mural was restored with funding from L.A. County and was declared a "Landmark of Historical Interest" in 2000.  It can still be seen on an alley wall in City Terrace, a district in East L.A.  The CD got some good press and Los Illegals won the 1997 California Music Award for Rock En Espańol Group of the Year.  To promote the album, Concrete Blonde and Los Illegals performed together at the House of Blues and at the John Anson Ford Amphitheater, both venues in Hollywood, California.

     In 1998, Los Illegals’ song “El Lay” was included on a compilation CD on the Zyanya/Rhino label entitled “Ay Califas! Raza Rock of the 70s and 80s,” which also had songs by Tierra, Malo, The Plugz, El Chicano, Ruben & the Jets, Yaqui, and others.  In 1999, Willie Herrón and Jesus Velo teamed up with James Mankey of Concrete Blonde to record a version of the Jimi Hendrix song “Little Wing” for an album and documentary called “Searching for Jimi Hendrix.”  The CD was released on the Capitol/The Right Stuff label.  The documentary, which aired on the Bravo network, was made by the legendary D.A. Pennebaker, who directed Bob Dylan’s seminal 1965 tour documentary, “Don’t Look Back,” as well as the film of David Bowie's "The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders from Mars."  Willie and Jesus appeared in the "Searching for Jimi Hendrix" documentary as well.  In October of 2002, the original five members of Los Illegals reunited to play at an event called “The Eastside Revue, a Musical Homage to Boyle Heights,” which was held at the Japanese-American Museum in downtown Los Angeles.  The concert, which I attended, also featured Tierra, Cannibal & the Headhunters, the Brat, Las Tres, Lysa Flores, the East L.A. Revue All Stars, and my dad, Lalo Guerrero with the Skip Heller Band, among others.  Los Illegals played “El Lay” and “Wake Up John,” with a tenor and baritone sax added for the latter song, and sounded as good or better than ever.  In January of 2007, I interviewed Willie Herrón, Jesus "Xuiy" Velo, and Bill Reyes for my radio show, "Chicano Music Chronicles."  Click here to go to the page on my website to hear the 2 hour interview, which includes many of their best recordings.

This article is based on an audio taped interview by Mark Guerrero with Willie Herrón on April 16, 2002 in Irvine, California, and an audio taped telephone interview with Jesus “Xuiy” Velo later in the same month.

mp3 Sound Byte

El Lay

Los Illegals 1983

 

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