It’s a question which has been long the subject of intense and often bitter debate: where exactly did punk rock begin? Was it conceived in the smoke-filled back rooms of London pubs, or did it leap fully formed from the dive bars of New York City?
Few would imagine that the answer is that the genre which revolutionised music was actually born at a cinema matinee in the Peruvian capital of Lima.
Almost a decade before the Ramones, the New York Dolls or the Sex Pistols struck a chord in anger, the Peruvian band Los Saicos (the Pyschos) were screaming, speeding and drinking their way to local notoriety. Now, thanks to an upsurge of interest and a recent documentary, the band – all in their sixties – have reformed and found a bigger following than at any time in the past half century.
Their signature tune, Demolición (Demolition) has been revived as an anthem for political protesters and, reportedly, for drug barons. In the Lima district of Lince, a marble plaque has been erected with the provocative claim etched in marble: “The global punk movement was born here. Demolish!!!”
Los Saicos burned brightly and briefly in the mid-60s, performing together for a few years and recording no more than a dozen songs. They were inspired by Elvis and the Beatles to play rock ‘n’ roll but thanks to a frenetic effort to make up for a lack of training and equipment (Roland Carpio made his own guitar), with energy and attitude they ended up with a sound that was 10 years ahead of it’s time.
Demolición starts slowly with a typical 60s guitar and drum intro, then jolts a decade into the future as lead man, Erwin Flores, screeches “tatatatayayayaya”, followed by an anarchic exhortation to “Smash down the train station!”
Los Saicos’s claim to a place in history was bolstered in December when they were listed as the world’s first punk band in the Spanish Dictionary of Punk and Hardcore published by Zona de Obras.
“They are the first to play what later became punk. There was no name for that at the time, but the riffs are definitely punk,” said José Beramendi, the producer of Saicomania, a documentary about the band. “You expect this sound from North America or Europe, but it’s not something you expect to hear in the 1960s in Latin America.”
It is a controversial claim. There were no safety pins, no mohicans and, according to the band, no drugs beyond cigarettes and alcohol. But they were undoubtedly mould breakers.
Los Saicos were raised on a musical diet of Harry Belafonte, Peruvian criolla and classical waltzes in the conservative and hierarchical society characterised in the early novels of Mario Vargas. Elvis and the Beatles changed their lives.
Their early shows were at cinema matinees, where bands were hired as an extra draw for the screenings. Most groups performed covers of syrupy pop songs, but Los Saicos revved up the energy by mixing original love ballads with hoarse, souped-up tracks about prison breaks, funerals and destruction.
“Compared to other bands of the time, we had a bad-boy image. They turned up with their aunts, we had girls on each arm,” recalls the drummer Pancho Guevara.
They were detained several times by the police, mostly for speeding but also for taking a sledgehammer, axe and fake TNT to the railway station for a record cover photo shoot.
After a few frenetic years of celebrity that saw them host a daily TV show, the band moved on. Flores relocated to the US and became a Nasa scientist. Papi switched from bass to retail sales, Rolando Carpio died and Guevara started a construction company.
But their music built up a cult following and is now moving into the mainstream. The band reformed in 2010 after a 45-year gap, their records were re-released in Spain and they performed overseas for the first time– in Spain, Mexico and Argentina. They are in discussions to play in the US next year.
Demolición has become a rebel anthem and not just for the politically disaffected. “I heard a report from Mexico that the bosses of drug cartels drive into town in trucks with speakers playing it at full volume. That’s cool,” said Guevara, though he insisted the band were more naive than anarchic.
Perhaps because he is now a pillar of the Lima business community, Guevara claims the song was originally a joke about trainspotting.
“Leftwing groups use it as a protest song, but we were never interested in politics. There was just nothing much to do in those days so I used to go to the station and watch the trains coming and going. I talked about it endlessly, which really irritated Erwin. That’s why he wrote Smash the Train Station. It was his way of telling me to shut up about the trains.”
It will take more than a plaque and a box-set to convince rock historians that Los Saicos were the first punks. In the early 60s, bands like the Trashmen and the Sonics were thrashing out similarly furious tracks and Iggy Pop had formed his first group.
But Guevara said the label was unimportant.
“I don’t know what ‘punk’ is,” he said. “We wanted to play rock’n'roll, but this is the sound that came out. I don’t know where it came from. It was just something that emerged when we started playing.”