Just joking. Don't
As far as I can piece the story together, Los Saicos appeared in my life five or six years ago. Somehow, an anodyne discussion about punk between friends changed into the heated debate that almost made us enemies. The topic was an origin of punk. Some of us claimed furiously that it was UK; others considered the US a punk motherland. Before starting a fight we reasonably decided to check out what the ‘Internets’ thought about it. Even though web didn`t make the question any clearer, we discovered another opinion. It sounded so new and intriguing for us that we gave up our argument at once. It was said that punk together with llamas and Incas originated in Peru. Peru? Peru?! To be honest back then I could slightly point where Peru was on the world map (I know, shame on me). It seemed as real as Jupiter: in a sense that you are certain it exists, but being such a distant spot, geographically and culturally, it feels like another dimension.
Punk, on the contrary, would never be able to exist in isolation from reality. It appeared as the counter-reaction to the global political, social and economic processes happening in the world. If there were no blind governmental machinery with its inhuman bureaucracy, no pale clerks in crystal white shirts, which tight collars strangle their thin necks, there would be no young rebels drunk with their wild free idealistic manifestations of life and art. I could clearly see what paved the way for this kind of music ideology in Europe or the States. But dear god, Peru?
What does come to your mind when you hear ‘peru’? An old tan Indian with a face of a prophet sits in a wooden canoe that smoothly floats down the river. An orange giant ball of the sun is slowly sinking in the purple water. Getting inspired by chaotic bird singing, the Indian takes out his Pan flute and dissolves in harmony with nature.
But actually Peruvian music reality is much better than any fantasy. If you ever heard of Wendy Sulca, you know what I mean. If not, please make yourself comfortable and be ready to discover the whole new world:
Despite of all the bizarreness of this grotesque masterpiece, it fits perfectly my vision of potential Peruvian music scene. Whereas Los Saicos do not. Punk from Peru. 1964. Sid Vicious was 7 years old. Johnny Ramone didn`t smoke his first cigarette yet. Interesting, eh?
7 (8-9?) years later I find myself in a Colombian bar with one Cleveland dog who knows about music more than I ever will in my life. We talk about Los Saicos. They are from Peru, aren’t they? All of a sudden I realized that I found a reason to travel to Peru. I was so damn close! Machu Picchu, llamas and ceviche didn`t fascinate me as much as Peruvian punk did.
I came to Lima in the end of September. I didn`t have any precise plan and was ready to improvise keeping in mind the magnificent story of ‘Sugar Man’ Rodriguez . It wasn`t hard at all to find out the information about the members from the web, but I didn`t bother to do any researches before I went to Lima to keep myself hyped up with my expectations.
First several days in the city, I spent wandering gloomy streets and trying to figure out what could bring to Lima this rebellious spirit. The sky was impenetrably grey: nothing but post-rock could be inspired by the climate like this. Nobody destroys railway stations. In reply to my question about Los Saicos local taxi drivers only scratch their heads. Legendary punk spirit seemed to get effaced from the memory of Peruvians. Lima remained colorless and silent. Nobody knows anything like the phenomenon Los Saicos was just a myth. But, dammit, it did happen.
June 1965. Lima. City radio stations are seized with fever called Demolición: people seem to get hypnotized by the sprightly growl appealing to shatter train stations. It`s played from the cars, stores, playgrounds, clubs. Demolición is called the anthem of Peruvian rock whereas reckless psychos become national heroes. Love to the young punk rockers unites reach and poor, old and young, bohemians and workers. Los Saicos are invited to TV shows and radio programs; they are romanticized, demonized; they are wanted.
At the same time Saicos themselves didn`t seem to have any intentions to bring a cultural revolution to the table of Peruvian society. In the rare pictures on the web, instead of brutal Latin American Ramones we see four exemplary high school students in white t-shirts and ironed trousers with creases. Where are the psychos? Who is growling?
The Peruvian Legendary Four story is far from being original: school students once came up with the idea to start a band. But, wait, there is an official version of the story told by Papi, the bass player of Los Saicos (I managed to ask him a couple of questions by email):
Erwin came back from studying Agronomy in Brazil and brought a guitar with him. He got together with Pancho the drummer and decided to start a band. One day I was standing in the corner of Julio C. Tello with General Miller, we found ourselves and they asked “Papi we are starting a band, you want to join?” What could I say to them if they were my best friends… I said of course, without knowing that day my luck would change totally.
The portrayed story happened in 1960. At first the lead singer (Irwin Flores) wanted to call the band Sadicos, which means ‘sadists’, but for other members it sounded way too provocative (indeed, imagine these 18 years old charming nerds from the picture calling themselves ‘sadists’. What a juicy occasion!). As a compromise, they just got rid of ‘d’ letter and became psychos – Saicos. Then the guitar player (Rolando Carpio) joined the band and thus how Los Saicos were born.
It took four long years to give a birth to the band that was destined to exist only 2 years. Los Saicos split up when they were tremendously famous in Peru and started to gain popularity in other Latin American countries. They were offered the contract in Argentina: that basically meant that the band was about to reach an absolutely new level of recognition. What was the reaction of the psychos? They split up.
I knew no rest since I heard this story. How is that? What is this mysterious circumstance that forces young ambitious musicians to quit the band being on the top of their career?
What the Internet gave me was dry biographical facts that didn`t make me any happy. Thus, the guitar player was dead, the singer together with bass player long ago moved to the States. The only member who stayed in Peru was drummer, Pancho Guevara, but there was no more information about him. They also had reunion and played in the biggest Spanish speaking countries such as Spain, Mexico and Argentina. That was pretty much it.
However, I was lucky to find out that the owner of the apartment I rented had a friend who could share contacts of the bass player with me. Done. It didn`t take too much time to persuade him into an interview. He seemed to be totally down with any of my ideas. It also appeared that he has been in Lima just two weeks before I came there. Bad news. But there was a guy who might share the pictures of Papi from the recent photo shoot with me. Good news. I sent interview questions to Papi and emailed this dude asking if he could help me with that.
Diego, that was the guy`s name, replied to me right away: he would be happy to help me providing pictures, information, contacts, whatever I needed for my article. He turned out to be the band`s ardent admirer: he had all their rare demos, he knew some hidden facts and remembered the dates important for the band as if it was his mother`s birthday. He used to hang out a lot with Los Saicos after the band`s reunion when they came back to Peru to perform. Diego told me it was too early to bury them. Nowadays the new generation is in the process of rediscovering and reanalyzing of what Los Saicos truly mean for Peruvian and world music heritage. Today`s Lima experiences a new wave of ‘psychotic’ madness: their shows gather thousands of people of all ages; Peruvian musicians are inspired and encouraged by unbelievable case of Los Saicos. Music is in focus again.
Diego took me to Lince district where he showed grey buildings of private dental clinics that used to be the venues where Los Saicos played their first shows. Soon we reached the famous corner and even found the granite plate, which commemorated the moment when the punk was born.
Talking about counter-culture movements Diego mentioned a book called «Demoler: Un viaje personal por la primera escena del rock en el Perú». Being written as a novel, it documented all the significant events that took place in Peruvian music scene from 1957 to 1975. It`s author, Carlor Torres Rotondo, turned out to be the main (if not the only one) historian of alternative music culture in Peru. It was a direct hit.
In a couple of days I find myself in Carlos` living room: there are photo archives and vinyl records all around; Carlos is playing ‘Meshkalina’ by Traffic Sound, another marvelous Peruvian band and his personal favorites. He asks me to pay attention to the lyrics, but I can only hear ‘We were having fun even though we were dying’, which is more than enough to convince me in their rare genius. Damn, these guys could be my best friends! It`s obvious that I was born way too late.
Carlos seems to know everything or nearly everything about the golden era of Peruvian music. He also introduces me to the history of the country highlighting the most important political occasions that influenced the alternative culture processes in Peru. He talks about the local rock`n`roll legend Eulogio Molina and Manuel Odria`s dictatorship, about the first Los Saicos shows that were played on matinales (morning parties) and nationalization of the land, which was put into practice by Juan Velasco. Thanks to Carlos I discovered other brilliant Peruvian bands like Los Yorks, Mads, Los Shains, Jean Paul El Troglodita, Traffic Sound. Peru, what a country!
Soon the discussion touches upon Los Saicos:
I consider them brilliant amateurs, Carlos starts. However, they focused their attention mostly on a matter of sound neglecting the message of the counter-culture. Whereas all the avant-garde movements along with their music used to have a strong ideological base. Especially punk. Los Saicos members themselves admitted that they cared only about the music. At the same time bands like Los Yorks or Jean Paul Troglodita had very aggressive punk performances
Answering my question about the expectations they had starting the band and main inspiration, Papi writes:
My motive was for all the ladies in the barrio to fall in love with me. My life changed when I first heard Elvis Presley. I started growing my hair and wearing tight jeans, t-shirts, black leather jacket and boots. I also used to like The Beatles, but I felt them to be too delicate.
If they wanted to be famous why did they split up achieving the goal? Again both Carlos and Papi don`t contradict each other:
Being Los Saicos was exhausting 24 hours job whereas they were young school students, Carlos says. They simply started getting tired of each other. Receiving the offer to tour in Argentina was a key turn. By that time, the guitar player who was older than other members has just graduated from the university as an engineer. He didn`t see the point of hanging out with teens: he wanted to work, because people of that generation didn`t see music as a career.
We split up because we got bored of seeing each other for 24 hours a day and we had a contract for a world tour and I think the thought that we would be seeing each other even more scared us.
So they simply burnt out. Is it the main reason why Los Saicos didn`t become world famous band? – I asked Carlos.
I can say so, but Los Saicos case is not an exception to the rule. Right on the contrary, it seems to be a rule for all Peruvian rock musicians. For instance, Los Mad`s almost managed to play at the Isle of Wight festival in England in 1970. Almost. However, it didn`t happen. This is the story. In 1969 after Brian Johnson`s death, Rolling Stones came to Lima and went to the only psychedelic club in the city called ‘The Galaxy’, where Los Mad`s played that evening. British rock icons were very impressed by the Mad`s performance so they booked them for the show at the festival. There are three versions of what happened next. I will tell you all of them so you can choose yourself what to believe. The drummer said that they made it to the festival, but when they were invited to the stage, all members were in different places: somebody was flirting with chicks, others were smoking pot. So they simply didn`t hear the announcement. The guitarist version is different: he claimed that when they arrived it was told that the show was overbooked. According to the third version, they even didn`t get to the Isle of Wight because the date of their arrival to London coincided with the date when the festival ran. The only thing they did in England was recording demos in Mick Jagger`s castle. They split right after that. Nobody knows why.
Another exemplary story related to the musician Zulu. He made one successful record, but after that converted into Evangelist and abandoned music. This situation is typically Peruvian, actually not only music but in every area. Like in football: we play well but never make a goal.
Now I can see why nobody knows about Los Saicos outside the country. But how did it happen that even compatriots don`t remember them well, as if these two years of punk madness never took place?
Think of it: the worst president Alan Garcia who perpetrated genocide in 80s was reelected for second time 16 years later. Peruvians tend to forget about their history. Our education is pretty bad, people don`t read and don`t want to know anything. I consider it a state politics to make people ignorant cause because dummies are easy to manipulate.
What concerns to Los Saicos, there was nearly no documentation remained, neither radio nor TV programs. Their records were released in small record-studios that don`t exist anymore. Indeed, there were few collectors: for instance, the lead singer of a punk band, Eutanazia, had a tape of Los Saicos, but he didn`t give it to anyone. We have a word in Spanish for this ‘caleta’, which it means ‘only for me’.
The explosion of punk in Peru happened in 1985. When I entered the scene being 14 years old boy in 1987 I never heard of Los Saicos. Never. Los Saicos were more like a legend. It`s amusing that Los Saicos didn`t influence the punk movement in Peru directly, they didn`t start it. The influence was British, North American, Spanish punk.
I found out about Los Saicos only in 1999 when one friend of mine handed me two tapes. That was the moment. Listening to them, I got completely freaked out: I discovered that bands of my generation had no slightest idea how to play. The music I discovered on those tapes was incredible. However, what was more important it originated in Peru. I was listening to it over and over again, I played it to all my friends. I could not simply believe it. We were gathering up and imagining, sort of daydreaming how that time felt, what it was like. After what I discovered I couldn`t keep silence anymore. I was certain that I needed to write a book. It took seven years.
What is happening with Peruvian music now?
What happens now I can call a process of rediscovering of the cultural heritage. I takes place not only in Peru, but also all over the world, especially in the parts that are considered a cultural periphery (like Turkish old-school underground scene is getting widely recognized). It incites other positive processes to happen. Nowadays Andres Tapia, a rock collector who has about 97% of Peruvian rock, started a company that reedits old records. My book was issued, then several bands had reunions. So I can see that we are in the process of recognition that didn`t finish yet. But for sure it started in Peru with rediscovering Los Saicos.
That`s the story how I discovered Machu Picchu of punk rock. I came to Peru feeling more like a ghost hunter, however was lucky to find gold mines of incredible music culture. Though it still remains a mystery to me why it all happened there, I`m fine with the fact that some riddles are just not supposed to be solved.
I`m very grateful to Carlos Torres Rotondo for fabulous music expedition, Papi for quick response and time, Diego Miranda for photos, information, contacts and friendship. Love you all, guys!
Pancho, the drummer, I wish you lots of health and strengths!
Ps. I didn`t have enough money to visit the main Peruvian sight. But at least I saw llamas!
ah, no, wait, it`s dogs