The Zeros


(A Che Underground exclusive: Tell-Tale Heart/Town Crier Ray Brandes traces the trajectory of San Diego’s first punk band.)

Detail: The Zeros (collection Ray Brandes)Javier Escovedo: vocals, guitar
Hector Penalosa: bass, vocals
Robert Lopez: guitar, vocals
Baba Chenelle: drums

The Zeros, often referred to affectionately as the “Mexican Ramones,” cannot only justifiably lay claim to being San Diego’s first “punk” rock group but also can brag about being one of the first punk groups in the United States.

In a brief but brilliant career highlighted by some classic recordings as well as shows with the Clash and Devo, the Zeros played the first big punk shows in both Los Angeles and in San Diego as early as 1977, when they were still high-school students. It is a testament to the drive and spirit of these pointy-toed revolutionaries that such a group was able to spring from the sleepy suburbs of National City and Chula Vista at a time when greater San Diego was both indifferent to and unimpressed by counterculture movements of any kind.

To say that Zeros guitarist and lead vocalist Javier Escovedo hails from a musical family would be to make a grand understatement. His parents immigrated to Texas from Mexico in the 1930s. His father, who played in mariachi bands, passed his passion for music on to every one of his 13 children. Javier’s older brothers, Pete and Thomas “Coke” Escovedo, played with both Santana and Malo (who had the hit “Suavecito,” sometimes called “The Chicano National Anthem”), and niece Sheila E. played with Prince and had hits with “The Glamorous Life” and “A Love Bizarre” in the 1980s. His brother Alejandro founded San Francisco punk band the Nuns, whose pinnacle was opening for the Sex Pistols in their legendary final concert in 1978 at the Winterland, and had further success in Rank and File, the True Believers and as a solo artist. Alejandro, closest in age to Javier, was the family member with the most influence upon his musical tastes.

Zeros guitarist Robert Lopez and his cousin, Zeros drummer Baba Chenelle (Robert’s dad is the brother of Baba’s mom) grew up together listening to music and learning to play the guitar and drums, respectively. Robert’s two older sisters, Rhoda and Shane, kept him up to date with the latest music, and Robert shared their tastes with Baba.

Hector’s musical journey also began an early age. “When I was five and living in San Pedro, I used to watch Beatles cartoons. I kind of forgot about them, but they were in my subconscious. Years later, when I was 13 and living in Tijuana, I used to ride the bus home from school and listen to a program on the radio that played an hour of Beatles music each day. I started playing guitar after that.” Hector, who is left-handed, picked up a right-handed guitar and taught himself to play it upside-down, without reversing the strings.

Baba and Hector met in PE class at Chula Vista Junior High School on April 4, 1975, the Monday after KISS made its first appearance on Burt Sugarman’s “Midnight Special.”

“I told this kid I had seen this band on TV with a bunch of makeup and platforms,” Hector remembers. “Baba said, ‘Yeah, man, they’re cool. I have three of their records, so I’ll bring ‘em tomorrow, and you can check ‘em out.’ Baba turned me on to a lot of cool music like Aerosmith, the Modern Lovers and the Velvets, and we became friends,” says Hector.

Locked in the garage at Baba’s parents’ house in National City every weekend, the two new friends played guitar and drums for hours at a time throughout the entire summer before they entered Sweetwater High School. Towards the end of that summer, Baba and Hector cooked up a plan to show up at a Chula Vista park, set up amplifiers and drums, and start playing. “We grabbed a shopping cart from a store down the street; loaded it up with drums, guitars and amplifiers; and wheeled it six blocks to the park,” remembers Hector. “When we got there, a few other friends showed up, so we had three wannabe Jimmy Pages and a drummer.” It was at this point Hector decided to switch to bass so that he could eliminate his competition. He began teaching himself to play bass using three albums as guides: “The New York Dolls”; the Dolls’ “Too Much, Too Soon”; and John Lennon’s “Rock and Roll.”

During this time, Javier and Robert, who were students at Chula Vista High School, were playing in a band called the Main Street Brats, covering Standells, Seeds, and Velvet Underground songs, alongside Javier’s originals like “Main Street Brat,” “Siamese Tease,” “Wimp” and “Don’t Push Me Around.” They recruited Baba to be the group’s drummer, and later that year, when they needed a bass player, Hector was invited to audition at Javier’s house in Chula Vista.

“I didn’t hear from them for a long time afterwards,” Hector remembers. “I finally asked Baba about it, and he told me that they weren’t sure because they thought if I joined there would be too many Mexicans in the band! They were looking for a blonde guy.” After a string of disastrous auditions, Baba was finally able to talk the rest of the band into hiring Hector. “Out of the blue, Baba suddenly called me and said they had a gig and that they wanted me to play,” says Hector.

The Zeros perform “Main Street Brat,” one of Javier Escovedo’s first compositions: Listen now!

The band had now become the Zeros, a nod to a line by Lester Bangs Javier had read in Creem magazine: “I don’t wanna be a hero, I just wanna be a zero.” The newly named Zeros’ first gig made for a very unimpressive debut: a quinceañera in Rosarito, Mexico, for someone in Javier’s family. The band drove to Rosarito to find that the family had already hired a Tijuana cover band, which was in the process of setting up giant, door-sized Peavey amplifiers and a drum kit with about 10 mounted tom-toms. They were told they could play a few songs on the group’s equipment, but Hector remembers that “you could feel the tension in the air. We got there and people thought we were from outer space because we were wearing tight pants, pointy shoes, ‘60s coats and skinny ties.” The band played only five songs: a couple of Javier’s originals, the Velvet Underground’s “Waiting for the Man,” and hyper-fast versions of the Chantays’ Pipeline and the Shirelles’ “Boys.” The audience response was enough to encourage the band to continue.

While the band’s early repertoire reflected their love of ‘60s groups like the Beatles, the Animals, the Standells and the Seeds, as well as ‘70s groups like KISS and the New York Dolls, it is important to note that they were both fans of and contemporaries of many bands who have been credited with the invention of punk rock in the mid-’70s. According to Hector, “The New York scene was the big gauge to compare ourselves with. We were always waiting for the magazine ‘Rock Scene’ to come out at the newsstand on Third Avenue in Chula Vista because that was our Bible.” Up-and-coming new bands who would appear in the magazine before they became famous were featured next to photographs of Lou Reed, Iggy Pop and David Bowie on stage, back stage and at after-parties. “We listened to and were influenced by a lot of those bands,” says Hector.

When word failed to spread after the Rosarito quinceanera gig, the band holed itself up in a practice studio on E Street in Chula Vista. For nearly a year, the band did not play at all in San Diego. According to Javier, “We all agreed to devote more time and energy to the music. At that time, our kind of music was just not heard or played in San Diego, so we set our sights on Los Angeles.”

Watch the Zeros perform “Don’t Push Me Around” and “Wimp” on “Sun Up San Diego” with host Clark Anthony in 1977:

Their first big show, earned through persistence and a tape that finally made its way to the Nerves, took place in early 1977 at Hollywood’s Orpheum Theater (known as the Punk Palace) on the Sunset Strip across from Tower Records. The Zeros opened the show for the Germs and the Weirdos. Also attending the show were the Damned, the first British punk band to tour the United States. The Weirdos played last, got an encore and called the Damned up to the stage to play. Captain Sensible proceeded to urinate all over the first row and the show abruptly ended! For self-proclaimed “country bumpkin from Chula Vista” Hector, the show was unlike anything he had ever seen in his life. “At rehearsals I’d heard Robert talking about the Sex Pistols and safety pins,” he remembers, “but I couldn’t even imagine what he was talking about. I thought he was talking about people in diapers!”

Also in attendance at that first show was Bomp Magazine’s Greg Shaw, who invited them to join the Nerves and Weirdos, Germs and Devo in recording for his new Bomp! label. The result was the band’s classic singles “Wimp”/”Don’t Push Me Around” and “Beat Your Heart Out”/”Wild Weekend.”

The Zeros perform “Wild Weekend”: Listen now!

The Zeros perform “Beat Your Heart Out”: Listen now!

The Zeros became the darlings of the LA punk scene, playing shows at the Whisky, the Masque and the Starwood, driven back to San Diego late at night so that they could attend school the next day by Javier, the only group member old enough to have a driver’s license. At venues like the Larchmont Hall, the owners had a difficult time understanding the interaction between bands and audiences. According to Javier, “When we went on, the crowd started to pogo dance. The older people running the lights told us to stop playing. Of course we wouldn’t, and the crowd went wild. Our friend Jett Compton kicked in the door to the office and made them turn the lights back on. As we packed up after the show, the old farts were still yelling at us. We thought it was pretty funny.”

Detail: Screamers/Zeros flyerDetail: Zeros/Flesheaters flyerDetail: Nerves/Zeros/Avengers/Shock/F-Word flyerDetail: Zeros/Dils/Eyes/Screamers/Germs/Controllers flyer

They opened for Devo on four straight sellout nights at the Starwood on Santa Monica, met the Ramones, and attended parties at Tom Waits’ rented bungalow at the Tropicana Motor Inn. Waits used to refer to them as “those Mexican kids with pointy shoes.” Javier’s Ford Maverick made trips to Los Angeles and San Francisco dozens of times, pulling a U-Haul laden with the group’s gear.

The allure of the Los Angeles scene proved too much for young Hector, who dropped out of Sweetwater High School and took the GED exam. “I was having a lot of fun in LA, San Diego was dead, and I guess I just wanted to be in LA more than I wanted to be in the band,” he says. Hector left the Zeros and temporarily joined the F-Word so that they would move him to Los Angeles. After a few shows with the F-Word, he played several gigs with Black Randy and the Metrosquad and turned down an offer to join the Plugz. After several months, however, he found himself living with his father in Long Beach, unhappy and longing to play again.

In the meantime, the Zeros had recruited Robert’s brother Guy Lopez to play bass for a few months. The highlight of the Guy Lopez period was when Patti Smith joined them onstage at the Mabuhay Gardens to sing the Velvet Underground’s “Waiting for the Man.” Guy himself then quit the band to move to Los Angeles. Robert had been having some difficulty getting along with Javier, and the band broke up.

In 1978 an offer for a West Coast tour surfaced, and Baba called Hector to extend an invitation to rejoin the Zeros. Hector agreed, but without Robert in the band, the Zeros had to soldier on as a trio. Their West Coast tour, which took them from San Diego, Los Angeles and San Francisco to Portland and Seattle, ended in September of 1978 with a sold-out show with the Avengers and the Dils. In part because the city was now home to a number of expatriate San Diegans like the Dils and the Hitmakers, the band decided it would stay in San Francisco.

Detail: The Clash play the Temple Beautiful on February 8, 1979 (photo courtesy of February 1979, the band was being managed by Dils manager Peter Urban and was part of a growing scene at the Temple Beautiful, a former synagogue wedged between the Fillmore and the Jim Jones Temple. At the time, Urban was trying to set up an all-ages club through an organization known as the New Youth Movement. Detail: A poster for the February 8, 1979, show at the Temple BeautifulSomeone in the organization knew one of the members of the Clash, but the thought of getting the Clash to assist with a benefit was the furthest thing from anyone’s mind. Hector recalls: “We thought these guys wouldn’t be available to play this gig in a million years, but (Joe) Strummer and (Mick) Jones showed up at the meeting to plan the gig! Basically, they said, ‘We want to play the show, but we can’t use the name because we’re under contract with Bill Graham.’ “ The problem was solved by billing the band as “The Best Band Ever — Direct from England,” and the day after the Clash played with Bo Diddley at the Berkeley Community Theater, the Clash played the New Youth Movement Benefit, supported by the Zeros and Negative Trend.

Shows with John Cale and tours of Texas and New York followed, but by 1980 the band was finished. Hector and Baba stayed in San Francisco, where Hector played in the Wolverines, Flying Color, and MCM and the Monster, and Baba played with Ministry of Truth and MCM and the Monster. Hector currently leads Squiddo and plays in the Baja Bugs, a Beatles tribute band that was just nominated for a San Diego Music Award. Robert remained in Los Angeles, where he played in the Johnnys and became better known as “El Vez.” Javier played in the True Believers and Rank and File with his brother Alejandro; toured with Will (Sexton) and the Kill as well as the Lost; and has just released his second album, “City Lights.” Guy Lopez passed away in October 2007.

Zeros: “Wimp” coverZeros: “Wild Weekend” cover

Wimp” b/w “Don’t Push Me Around” – 1977 Bomp
“Beat Your Heart Out” b/w “Wild Weekend” – 1978 Bomp
“Getting Nowhere Fast” b/w “They Say That (Everything’s Alright)” – 1980 Test Tube
“Don’t Push Me Around – 1980 Bomp!
“Right Now!” – 1992 Bomp!
“Knocking Me Dead – 1994 Bomp!
“I Don’t Wanna” b/w “Li’l Latin Lupe Lu” Sympathy for the Record Industry
“You, Me, Us” b/w “Talkin'” – 1998 Penniman

— Ray Brandes