The Zeros - Biography
By Jonny Whiteside
Chicano rockers the Zeros were one of the finest bands to emerge from Southern California during the mid-1970s punk revolution. With a tough, well crafted song list, best characterized by their classic, powerhouse 1977 single "Wimp," the Zeros proposed a sound that encompassed both punk's hard-charging rebel snarl even as it acknowledged such illustrious forebears as the Seeds, the Standells and the Sonics; it was very similar to the comprehensive rock & roll methodology of Johnny, Joey, Dee Dee and Tommy, and, tellingly, the Zeros were almost immediately tagged the "Mexican Ramones." But where the Ramones dealt in broad, almost cartoony metaphor and imagery, the Zeros worked with an intensely self-analytical and personalized sensibility, resulting in some of the most sharply etched and affecting studies of teenage frustration, longing and confusion produced during that tumultuous period. Although the Zeros were active for less then six years, their legacy and appeal has stretched well past the bands 1981 break up: many of their songs assumed a life of their own and have been recorded numerous times over the years, by Hollywood's The Muffs ("Beat Your Heart Out), Australia's Hoodoo Gurus ("Wimp"), Spain's La Secta ("Wild Weekend"), and Sweden's Nomads ("Wimp") and Sator, whose version of the Zero's "Black and White" went to number two on the Swedish pop chart in the mid-nineties. That kind of on-going relevance, to groups from around the world, was a rare commodity in the mostly disposable catalog of 1970's punk, and underscores the high quality of what the Zeros almost inadvertently achieved.
The band's origins lay with guitarist-singer-writer Javier Escovedo, who developed a rock & roll fixation as a child biking along his paper route with a transistor radio pumping out the Seeds, Strawberry Alarm Clock and the Animals; at home, his older brother Alejandro (soon to become an esteemed musician in his own right, with the Nuns, Rank & File and a subsequent critically acclaimed solo career) had a high stack of seminal rock albums (Lou Reed, New York Dolls, Stooges--the usual suspects) which he constantly played at top volume. After Alejandro moved out and started punk provocateurs the Nuns, sixteen year old Javier was literally compelled to form a band (it is worth noting that the entire Escovedo family, which included Latin jazz kingpin Pete and former Prince protege Sheila E, shared drastically fertile musical DNA). By 1976, the teenager, with pal Baba Chenille on drums and guitarist Robert Lopez, brother of Javier’s future wife Rhoda, formed a glitter rock-inspired unit, the Main Street Brats. Together they roughed out a set in an old trailer behind the Escovedo’s Chula Vista, California home, and by the time they added another local kid, Hector Penalosa, on bass and changed their name to the Zeros, the fledgling group had worked up a trove of future classics, and made their debut performance in Rosarito Beach Mexico in early 1977.
The Zeros inception coincided with the first stirrings of Los Angeles’ punk scene and after a demo tape landed in the hands of Peter Case, whose Nerves were the first band to begin independently promoting their own shows, he invited the Zeros to play, along with the Nerves, Weirdos and Germs (in their notorious first ever ‘performance’ ) at a small theater Case had rented on the Sunset Strip in the spring of ‘77; London’s visiting punk pioneers the Damned came down, and history was made. In short order, the kids from Chula Vista were sharing bills with X, the Plugz, the Dils and the Wipers. Word of mouth on the band was tremendous: Tom Waits’ mumbled their merits to interviewers (calling them “these Mexican kids with pointy shoes”), and at San Francisco’s Mabuhay Gardens, Patti Smith joined them onstage. And they were still just kids; Javier, the only one old enough to have a license, did all the driving, while the others slept; they all had to attend high school the next morning. The trailblazing indie Bomp released their first 45, “Wimp” b/w “Don’t Push Me Around” later that year, followed shortly by another Bomp seven inch, “Beat Your Heart Out,” b/w “Wild Weekend.”
But the Zeros teenaged restlessness took a toll. In 1978, Penalosa left the band and joined Los Angeles’ F-Word, and for a time Lopez’ brother Guy filled in on bass. After he dropped out, the remaining guys kept playing as a trio. After a memorable night at the Temple Beautiful with Avengers and Dils, they decided to re-locate to San Francisco, where they regularly gigged (and opened for the Clash in early 1979) and finally began touring in earnest, making it as far as New York (“three of our guitars got ripped off,’ Escovedo later wrote, “and we smashed our van.”). By 1980, though, punk rock was on the skids, as detailed in Escovedo’s brilliant “Getting Nowhere Fast” and the following year they called it quits. Penalosa stayed in San Francisco and formed the Wolverines and later Flying Colour; Chenelle also remained there, playing in a series of short-lived bands; Escovedo moved to Austin and started the True Believers with brother Alejandro; in Los Angeles, Lopez played with Catholic Discipline and eventually gained international notoriety as El Vez.
But the fans never forgot them, and after the Zeroes reunited to perform a 1991 benefit for AIDS-stricken Los Angeles musician-journalist Craig Lee (the Bags) and the release of stunning retrospective CD Don’t Push Me Around (Rare and Unreleased Classics from ‘77) (Bomp, 1991), they would, various schedules permitting, occasionally play shows--all of them uniformly superb. After they put out the newly recorded, first-rate Knockin’ Me Dead album (Rockville Records, 1994), the Zeros even toured a bit, and a trip to Spain resulted in the live CD Over the Sun (Impossible Records, 1995), a fine collection of Zeros classics and choice covers (“Chatter Box,” “Little Latin Lupe Lu,” “Pushin’ Too Hard,” even a version of “No Fun“ with vocals by Mudhoney‘s Mark Arm) illustrative of the groups diverse influences. They did a killer-diller 1998 Hollywood performance in honor of Bomp’s twenty fifth anniversary, but had to use Penalosa’s little brother Victor on bass, and in the years since, despite occasional European tours (one of which produced the 1998 recorded-in-Sweden, released by Barcelona’s Penniman Records 45 of “You, Me, Us“ b/w “Talkin‘” ), the band scattered, with Lopez moving to Seattle, and the other three drifting back and forth from Los Angeles to San Diego. After some minor financial hassles and the need to explore their own various musical paths, by the 21st century, it seemed as if the Zeros were finally split up for good. However, the band have been back to playing shows again- this time with all original members, these shows proving the band still has the thunder.