“The Sky is Black and the Asphalt Blue”: Placing El Monte in the Early LA Punk Scene


The suburban sprawl 30 minutes east of Hollywood called El Monte doesn’t usually get included in the genesis story of the Los Angeles punk scene. During the 1970s, El Monte was still transforming from a semi-agrarian citrus town to a concrete-washed suburb so typical of the San Gabriel Valley. Recently, punk culture has seen a revival of the mythical “East LA Renaissance” scene that took off in 1980 when Willie Herron (ASCO, Los Illegals) and Sister Karen, a radical Chicana nun involved with Self-Help Graphics and Catholic Youth Organization, founded East LA’s first punk venue, The Vex. This revival, specifically among LA’s Chicano and Latino working-class punk youth, has begun pushing the geographical and cultural influences of punk further east in the mainstream narrative.

The east of LA scene did not develop in a centrifuge that spiraled between West LA’s Hollywood and East LA’s The Vex. Instead, the LA punk scene had origins and networks that branched further east. Of course, East LA and Hollywood became centers of punk rock where people gravitated by the early eighties, but LA’s punk rock origins are much more decentralized and sporadic than the orthodox narrative suggests. The East LA punk scene began a relationship with spaces and people in El Monte before the 1980 opening of The Vex. In 1979, Los Illegals and The Brat frequently played in El Monte for car show gatherings. Herron, Los Illegals front man, recalls not having places to play music free of police harassment in East Los Angeles, so it was necessary to go to areas more “rural” or “industrial” – at the time, El Monte fit both descriptions. The car show crowd preferred Los Illegals to play covers of older Chicano rock songs, as punk rock was unheard of in the area at the time, but the band was able to incorporate an original song once in a while and people seemed receptive. Although the audience appreciated appearances by Los Illegals, most likely as a result of ethnic and regional solidarity, Herron acknowledges the audiences’ general lack of interest in punk culture, which was a motivating factor for starting The Vex. After operating for nine months in the same space as the famous Self-Help Graphics, The Vex eventually closed when a riot broke out during a Black Flag show. A group of Huntington Beach punks threw chairs out of the venue windows, broke copy machines and art equipment, and vandalized paintings by local artists (Kun 2003).

But the narrative can be pushed further east. El Monte and the greater San Gabriel Valley also had some homegrown punk talent that eventually became very influential in punk culture internationally. Jeffrey Lee Pierce, lead singer and guitarist of The Gun Club, grew up in El Monte and went to Valle Lindo Middle School before moving to the San Fernando Valley. He eventually connected with Kid Congo Powers, La Puente native and Basset High School alum, to start the band. The two met at a show in 1979 Hollywood where Lee Pierce proposed the idea of starting a band to Kid Congo, although Kid Congo did not play an instrument and refused to sing. Lee Pierce offered to teach Kid Congo how to play guitar and the two began writing some tracks that were eventually released on the classic debut LP, Fire of Love (1981). Before the band released any music, Kid Congo left the group to play in The Cramps but he maintained a close relationship with Lee Pierce and eventually returned to The Gun Club to release The Las Vegas Story (1984).

Jeffrey Lee Pierce and Kid Congo Powers
Jeffrey Lee Pierce and Kid Congo Powers (1981), The Gun Club Pt. 1: “Preachin’ the Blues” Creeping Ritual and the Genesis of The Gun Club (1979-1980) from New York Night Train

The two maintained an especially close relationship that was strongly influenced by their shared experience as Chicanos of mixed background in the San Gabriel Valley. Kid Congo recalls:

We bonded a lot on common areas, things like El Monte Legion Stadium or the Tumbleweed Theatre. You know, Things we grew up with and memories we had of there…We would like say things like, “We have this guitar riff that sounds like it is coming out of a garage in La Puente, or the San Gabriel Valley.” You know this kind of solely, psychedelic, like WAR or something like that. We would often reference that. We would often talk about how we felt very Mexican but we didn’t speak Spanish. Like, how you could feel the culture within you and what a strange thing that was. Our music, we definitely reference the SGV and Chicano culture a lot, and it does not always come out in an obvious way. It was some kind of otherness that we had always felt. And, we would talk about our high school experience and how that shaped us. How funny that we were these weird people in this community that we felt very apart from it, like how we always knew we were going to leave. But we always found a lot of love for the area, and worth. The older we got, we would go backwards into that music. We would talk about how we felt like beatniks, like rock n’ roll kids and weirdos, and you know, I was gay. I always felt like we had to leave from here and we could never be ourselves here, for whatever reason. You know, I was young so I don’t know. But, the more I think about it, the more I see a more open culture. Does this make any sense? I see a more open culture than I thought there. These limits were probably my own (Interview 13 February 2014).

After releasing The Las Vegas Story, they ventured together to Yucatan to fulfill an everlasting interest in Mexico. Although Kid Congo and Lee Pierce identified with the Hollywood scene after moving west from the San Gabriel Valley, they both acknowledge the influences of Chicano identity in their experiences with punk rock. Below, Kid Congo describes his perspective on minorities and punk rock culture in Los Angeles:

The idea in punk was really no labels. So for me I was a very tenacious kid, so I was like, well no labels. That was what I immediately could see. Also that being minority was very punk, I thought. You still had a feeling of not belonging. You know, it is like, America is white culture and Anglo culture. No matter how I do not even speak Spanish. I was raised as anyone would be in LA. But you still felt like an outsider. So punk was actually the perfect place for us, quite a bridge you know. It was somewhere I did not feel the need to be Chicano, and it didn’t matter that I was not white. It was actually a good thing, you know sexually – a good thing to feel this otherness and to say, “Okay, this is a community of misfits, or people who want to buck this system.” You know, that was the requirement. Labels were taboo, but bucking the system was required. So playing into Chicano culture, it was like, I have this built-in otherness and built-in bucking the system. So this is somewhere I can shine and belong, to others (Interview 13 February 2014).

Similarly, Lee Pierce describes the role of Chicano identity in releasing the first Gun Club EP, The Ghost on the Highway/Sex Beat, in his autobiography Go Tell the Mountain:

Little did Bob Biggs [Slash Records owner, who had expressed vague interest in recording the Gun Club] know that my fellow Latino, Tito Larriva, had already arrived on the scene. Recording for the Plugz’ Fatima label, we already had six tracks for our debut EP. IRS Records had been doing good business with EP’s and Fatima followed suit. I also enjoyed the comfort of an all Mexican label, since I was raised by a Mexican mother in El Monte and had spent my entire life in her family environment. I was even briefly in a gang at Valle Lindo Junior High School. I understood Spanish and spoke a little. Tito’s label consisted of The Plugz, The Brat and The Gun Club. Indeed, even now, I still find Anglo-Americans strange and foreign. I have a penchant for black haired girls and can deliver a fearsome street rap. It’s all part of my Mexican upbringing…I even experienced some militancy when my family moved to the San Fernando Valley, being unable to get along with the wealthy Anglo kids. I was always reading Eldridge Cleaver or Huey Newton, supporting the Viet Cong, who were then my idols. Needless to say, I didn’t have many friends (Lee Pierce 1998: 27-28).

Gun Club kept the Larriva recording, but they were eventually forced to release with Slash Records because Fatima was not able to fund the project (Lee Pierce 1998: 28). This was at a time when clear racial distinctions were being made in the Los Angeles punk rock scene. According to Willie Herron, nearly all bands with Chicano members were being labeled as “East LA” bands; The Plugz were being referred to as “Los Plugz” and Los Illegals as “Lost I.” These nicknames show a clear way of distinguishing Chicano/Latino bands, especially on the Westside where bands like Los Illegals truly must have seemed “lost” due to their geographical and ethnic origins. On the contrary, Kid Congo denies feeling any racism in the Los Angeles punk community. Below, he explains that the first wave punk scene in which he grew up was more focused on creative self-expression and experimenting with identity; whereas the early eighties hardcore punk scenes in the suburbs may have been more prone to racial tension, but he had moved out of Los Angeles to begin playing with The Cramps in New York by then.

Although Kid Congo and Lee Pierce both grew up in the San Gabriel Valley area, The Gun Club never played a show in the community. El Monte did not develop a local punk culture until the late 1980s, which will be explored in the next part of this series. Kid Congo moved away from the Los Angeles area after beginning his career with The Cramps. He recently returned to La Puente to sell his family home after the passing of his mother. He describes his current relationship with the San Gabriel Valley below:

I have always kept a foot there [in La Puente] because my parents lived in the house I grew up in until like three years ago. My sister had lived there. I have nieces and nephews living in the SGV area. But, now we just sold my mom’s house so we kind of cut the tie that would be any reason for me to go there – other than a couple of friends that live in San Gabriel proper. That was a strange feeling. I really have no reason to go. No family ties there. It is a little sad, but you know it is in my memory and I am talking to you about it (Interview 13 February 2014).

Kid Congo still makes music and just recently toured the United States with his new band, Kid Congo Powers and the Pink Monkey Birds. Although he has lived and toured all over the world, he has recently realized the importance of the area in shaping his identity, claiming, “LA and Chicano culture, especially San Gabriel Valley culture, plays a big part… Growing up and leaving I always thought I wanted to get so far away from here. But the more far away I have been, you know Europe and the East Coast, the more I recognize that the San Gabriel Valley part of my life is so much a big part and still shapes and influences what I know and how I think” (Interview 13 February 2014).

It is important for music enthusiasts and scholars to continue exploring peripheral areas, especially communities of color, for their contributions to punk rock culture. Both scholarly and popular opinions have labeled punk rock as a white alternative youth subculture. For example, Dick Hebdige’s monumental book, Subculture: The Meaning of Style, views the UK punk aesthetic as a “white translation” of black urban youth culture, such as the West Indian rude boys. Moreover, Penelope Spheeris’ Decline of Western Civilization, a famous documentary of Los Angeles punk, does not include any footage from the East LA scene. Recently, there have been efforts to enter Los Saicos, a mid-sixties Peruvian band, and Death, an early seventies all African American band from Detroit, into the conversation about the origins of punk. These efforts strongly challenge the white-dominated narrative of punk rock. I hope this essay further complicates the spatial and cultural origins of the early Los Angeles punk scene.

My sincerest gratitude to all who participated in the production of this piece. I could not have written this without the guidance and support of my wonderful cousin, Margaux Herron. Thank you Willie Herron and Kid Congo Powers for taking time to chat.

The Author

Troy Andreas Araiza Kokinis is a doctoral student in Latin American History at University of California San Diego. He researches transnational armed struggle networks between Uruguay, Argentina, Italy and Spain, with a specific focus on the role of anarchist fighters and their ideas. He grew up in the Pomona Valley and played club baseball for teams out of the El Monte area. He has been active in the Inland Empire and San Gabriel Valley punk communities since 2003. From 2007-2011 he hosted Taboo with Troytalkshow – a radio show on 88.7 KSPC Claremont. 

Building an Archive of Punk

If you were part of the El Monte, South El Monte, La Puente, or SGV Punk scene and would like to contribute to the building of an archive dedicated to punk join us May 3rd, from 2 to 6pm, at Bridgetown DIY, 1421 N. Valinda Ave, La Puente. Bring old fliers, photos, anything smaller than 8 x 11, we will scan and create a digital copy. We keep the digital for the archive, you keep the original.

East of East Series

1. SEMAP, “Making Place: Mapping South El Monte and El Monte”

2. Yesenia Barragan and Mark Bray, “Ricardo Flores Magón & the Anarchist Movement in El Monte, California”

3. Nick Juravich, “‘City of Achievement’: The Making of the City of South El Monte, 1955-1976″

4. Vickie Vertiz, “El Monte Forever: A Brief History of Michael Jaime-Becerra”

5. Michael Jaime-Becerra, “1181 Durfee Avenue: 1983 to 1986″

6. Jude Webre, “I’d Know Where to Find You: Art Laboe’s Charmed Life On Air”

7. Maria John, “Toypurina: A Legend Etched in the Landscape”

8. Jennifer Renteria, “The Starlite Swap Meet”

9. Wendy Cheng, “A Brief History (and Geography) of the San Gabriel Valley”

10. Eric Frith, “The Rebellion against the Mission of the Saintly Prince the Archangel, San Gabriel of the Temblors, 1785”

11. Alexandra M. Landeros, “Toni Margarita Plummer: Writing Her Way Home in  The Bolero of Andi Rowe”

12. Carribean Fragoza, “Rush”

13. Troy Andreas Araiza Kokinis, “‘The Sky is Black and the Asphalt Blue’: Placing El Monte in the Early LA Punk Scene”

Further Reading

Kun, Josh. (March 2003). “Vex Populi: at an unprepossessing eastside punk rock landmark, Utopia was in the air. Until the day it wasn’t,” Los Angeles Magazine.

Lee Pierce, Jeffrey. (1998). Go Tell the Mountain: The Lyrics and Writings of Jeffrey Lee Pierce. New York: 2.13.61 Publications.