LA Chicano Punk
It lasted for eight incandescent months. From March to November of 1980, in an unassuming upstairs hall of a community arts center in East Los Angeles, a unique convergence of art, music and youthful energy formed the flashpoint for L.A.’s Chicano Punk scene. Redubbed a club called The Vex, the hall was a place where local Latino kids in bands like The Plugz, Los Illegals and Thee Undertakers crafted a distinct take on punk rock and new wave, imbuing their sounds and styles with a distinct twist on East L.A. identity.
Music has always pumped through the working class, predominantly Latino neighborhoods east of the L.A. River. Unamplified mariachi bands led to breakout 1960s rock’n’rollers like Cannibal & The Headhunters (“Land of a Thousand Dances”) and Thee Midnighters (“Whittier Boulevard”), evolving further with the supercharged ‘70s soul sounds of El Chicano and Tierra. When Cannibal & The Headhunters were the opening act on The Beatles legendary 1965 U.S. tour, the connection between the British Invasion and American rock’n’roll reached an early apex.
As the 1970s hurtled towards it conclusion, intoxicating new sounds from England infiltrated Los Angeles. If kids could neither find nor afford records by bands like The Clash, The Slits, and The Damned, they could hear them late at night on Rodney Bingenheimer’s KROQ radio show. Mixed alongside New York bands like The Ramones and Blondie, this rebellious outside music held particular appeal to the young offspring of immigrants living in East L.A., themselves in search of a vehicle for self-expression.
In cramped garages and staid living rooms, hacking and dying their hair into punk coifs that contained mutated elements of slick pachuco styles, bands like The Gears, The Stains and The Brat were born. They played local parties, occasionally landing hard-to-find club shows, often sharing bills with tepid cover bands. What transformed a groundswell into an actual scene was a punk rock club of their very own.
A Franciscan nun named Sister Karen Boccalero ran Self-Help Graphics in a three-story building on Brooklyn Avenue in Boyle Heights. The upstairs hall was often rented out for weddings and birthday parties. A local muralist named Willie Herron and a beer distributor Joe Suquette decided it would be the perfect place for the upstart neighborhood bands to play. Sister Karen agreed they could rent the hall for that purpose, and on March 22, 1980, The Vex —its name derived from the word “vexation”—hosted its first show.
Bands like The Adolescents, Christian Death, and Wasted Youth soon came to play at the Vex. They may not have ventured into East L.A. under other circumstances. The pinnacle of this crossover was a celebratory occasion on May 11th, 1980 called The Punk Prom. Headlined by Hollywood punk legends X, the event featured musical support from the lounge act Hal Negro & The Satintones as well as what had been cheekily promoted as a “Vicious Dance Contest”.
A geographic and social divide had been bridged. It would lead to The Vex’s undoing.
In October, legions of burly interlopers descended on the venue to see a show by hardcore pioneers Black Flag. The resulting riot left the club shattered and shuttered. The Vex had lasted only eight months.
This exhibit presents a slice of the scene that found its locus at The Vex. Vintage club flyers, work by photographers including Ann Summa and Gary Leonard, as well as new video interviews with key players combine to reveal a vital story that still intrigues and inspires today.
Click link above to watch all the videos.