Class, please pay attention. Uh, young man in the back there-that's right, baldy, you with the Doc Martens. Take those headphones off!
Sorry for the interruption. As I was saying, no one really knows when punk rock began. Some think it's been around forever, but they have no real, solid, theoretical proof of this-only faith. One thing we do know is that when it reared its ugly, Mohawked head in England around 1976-77, it was played and embraced by poor, working-class youths.
Fastforward to the year 2000. Punx not dead, oi-oi, but it's morphed into a many-headed shiny beast. Some of this shit has little or nothing to do with the social or musical roots of punk, but it looks good with baggy shorts on a skateboard so it gets green-lighted by the arbiters of culture. Looks wild, but it's really safe for the kiddies.
Enter Union 13. Born in the East Los housing project/barrio of Boyle Heights about 8 years ago (when the band members barely had pubic hair), this gang of screaming delinquents possesses all the elements that real, classic punk should-wicked sarcasm, righteous anger against the status quo, deep-dark cynicism and just the right amount of damaged and heartbroken idealism, owing to the generally messed-up state of things. And here they are now, somewhere in their mid-20s and getting ready to release their third outing for Epitaph Records: Youth, Betrayal and the Awakening. With a little more experience gleaned from the Punk-O-Rama and Watcha tours, a little more knowledge about getting their shit together so they could say what they had to say when they got the big shot, and maybe a little more time and sophistication in the studio, Union, along with producer Donnell Cameron, have come up with a snarling bouquet of crispy-clean dirt, grit and soul.
"The sound of the street ain't always pretty," says guitarist JosŽ Mercado-which is truly the case here, as vocal cords fray and strain over bilingual tales of hardship, loss and survival. "Where we grew up, our parents taught us to be honest," he says. "You had to be honest, and you had to be hard." Which is also the case with the music here-no concessions have been made to prettiness or poppiness for the sake of "accessibility."
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This also holds true for the band's status in the murky waters of the musical community: they're maybe just a little (or a lot) too brown and Chicano for all the white-bread suburban punkers out there and maybe not rock en espa–ol enough for the hardcore raza 'cause they sing in both English and espa–ol. Like all real outcasts and rebels, they occupy a space they had to create for themselves-and thus a marketing person's nightmare becomes a gift for those not looking for the same old easy things.
And that is really the case here. Sure, Union 13 cut their early musical teeth on 7 Seconds, Bad Religion, Crass and other punk luminaries, and you can surely still hear all that in the music. But what other punk band would list Mozart, b-ball, smoking herb and hip-hop as their main influences? Hell, Edward Escoto, the lead vocalist, still works at a skate shop in Cypress Park when the band comes off the road. What could be more punk rock, blue-collar or kill-all-rock-stars than that?
The sad thing is that a million bands with half the talent and even less integrity have, unfortunately, sold tons more records and are far better known than Union 13. Hopefully, that's all about to change. In the meantime, welcome to the world that Union 13 know so well and that Charles Mingus so aptly called "Beneath the Underdog." Or, to paraphrase Frank Zappa-as well as another group of heroes from the Eastside, Los Lobos-Union 13 are just a little punk rock band from East L.A.
UNION 13 PERFORMS WITH 7 SECONDS, DEATH BY STEREO AND THE KNOCKOFFS AT CHAIN REACTION, 1652 W. LINCOLN AVE., ANAHEIM, (714) 635-6067. SUN., 7:30 P.M. $10. ALL AGES.