Who invented punk? The short answer is: who cares? Let’s listen to a song about blowing up a train station.
In 1964, Los Saicos shot into fame like a fireball. They were young, just out of High School, they could barely play their instruments, and they were frustrated — a familiar launching point for most bands. After a quick listen, you’ll find yourself saying, “Yeah, these dudes are definitely punk,” and you would be right. I mean, they are. So what if they had no idea that the music they were playing sounded punk, a genre that wouldn’t exist for another 10 years. If these dudes walked into CBGB’s in 1980 and started playing “El Entierro De Los Gatos,” they could have been the biggest punk band in NYC.
“El Entierro De Los Gatos (Burial of Cats)” has a special place in my heart. The last class I needed to pass in order to finish college was Spanish. I knew no Spanish, and the class was Advanced Spanish. So when my professor would inevitably ask me to formulate a question or simply say something in Spanish, I always followed the same theme: Mi gato es muerto. “Gato” meaning “cat” was one of three or four words I knew in Spanish, and one that I had learned from Los Saicos. I wound up spending the entire semester talking about my dead cat. At one point after class, another student caught up to me in the hallway to worriedly ask if I really killed my cat. I just kinda smiled — I didn’t even have one.
The truth is, frontman Erwin Flores was not trying to sound like what we would think of as a punk frontman. He just couldn’t sing, so he said started screaming. The result was an impressively unique and powerful sound. The first time I heard it, I was sitting in a friend’s small bedroom at 2 a.m. Everyone was drunk or stoned or both, all tired, all sitting around uncomfortably in this tiny, windowless, smoke-filled bedroom, and all, I imagine, very unhappy. Then something beautiful happened: “Camisa De Fuerza (Straitjacket)” came on my friends shuffle, and I suddenly felt like I had never listened to music before. It felt excitingly foreign. I asked myself: “Is that Spanish? Are these dudes speaking Spanish? What band is this? Wait — these dudes are from the ’60s?” It was one of those rare moments of discovery where every synapse worth firing is lighting up your brain like you’re stuck inside an ambulance’s siren.
They were, for the most part, just out of high school. They all lived within a few blocks of each other in Lince, a district in Lima, the capital of Peru. Los Saicos had four members: Erwin Flores (lead vocals, rhythm guitar), Rolando Carpio (lead guitar), César “Papi” Castrillón (bass guitar, vocals), and Pancho Guevara (drums). Between 1964 and 1966, they were the biggest band in Peru. They had a record deal, they were on television, and then suddenly they stopped playing. According to the surviving members, they just got sick of seeing each other and all decided to go on their way. As unthinkable as that sounds, it’s not a bad way to go.
The song “Ana” has a Ramones-esque “The KKK took my baby away” backstory. Frontman Erwin Flores wrote “Ana” for bass player Papi Castrillón to sing. The thing was, Ana was a real girl and she wasn’t Papi or Erwin’s Girlfriend — she was dating drummer Pancho Guevara. Papi, according to Pancho, had been trying to steal her for some time, and then Erwin wrote the song about it. It must have sucked drumming to a song about a guy trying to steal your girlfriend, which is being sung by the guy who is trying to steal your girlfriend. As terrible as that must have felt, Ana turned out to be a hauntingly beautiful song.
They never released a full album, they only lasted a few years, and most people still haven’t heard of them, but they never burned out and they still sound relevant. What they have left for us to rediscover after 40 years is a treasure trove of classic proto-punk: songs about fighting, blowing shit up, bandmates’ girlfriends, fighting, and dead cats. Los Saicos are dark, fun, loud, angry, and totally rad — and for me, not understanding a lick of it just makes it even better.
Review by Timothy White. Follow him on Twitter @TipToTheHip.