As a founding member of the Zeros, San Diego’s punk rock pioneers, Hector Penalosa got an early taste of success while still in high school. Zeros members Robert Lopez, Baba Chenelle, Javier Escovedo, and Penalosa had a short, but spectacular run in the late ’70s where they obtained a recording contract and shared prominent stages like Hollywood’s Whiskey A Go Go with some of the biggest names in the punk movement. The band disbanded and reformed multiple times over the years. Most notably, they reunited for several months in 2009-2010 when they were presented with a SDMA Lifetime Achievement Award and toured parts of the United States and Europe. The music, most of which they wrote themselves, was raw, energetic, and in your face. None of them in their wildest dreams thought back in the ’70s that they would still be performing it more than 30 years later.
While Penalosa has revisited his roots with the Zeros on some of their reunion tours, he has also been involved with various other bands and projects over the years. The longest lasting and most notable of these is his early Beatles tribute band, the Baja Bugs.
The seeds of the Baja Bugs were planted in 1995 by the then three remaining Beatles who had back-to-back successes with the release of Beatles Anthology and Beatles at the BBC. It reinvigorated their already enormous fan base and inspired a new generation of fans to climb aboard the Beatles bandwagon.
“I had always been a fan of theirs, but there was a period from the mid-’80s until 1995 when I was doing my own thing and listening to a lot of other music,” Penalosa recalled. “When Anthology was broadcast on T.V. everybody went crazy once again over the Beatles. I had forgotten how great their music was, but after that I started getting back into it. Two years later my brother talked me into going to a Beatles convention in Mission Valley.”
Musicians tend to critique other musicians and what Penalosa observed about the bands playing at the Come Together Beatles Fair was that they were pretty much all playing the same songs. Songs like “I Want to Hold Your Hand,” “Help,” and “Twist and Shout” were played over and over again.
“I also noticed that they weren’t playing with any fire or energy,” Penalosa said. “There was no kick to the performances. It was almost a lounge act approach. A light went off in my head. What happened to the rock ‘n’ roll Beatles? The Beatles songs that were inspired by Chuck Berry, Eddie Cochrane, Little Richard, Elvis, and Carl Perkins? It occurred to me that nobody was playing the songs from Beatles at the BBC like ‘A Shot of Rhythm and Blues’ and ‘Some Other Guy.’ Wouldn’t it be great to focus on those (early) songs with some rock ‘n’ roll fire thrown in there. That is where the whole idea started.”
Two years later, in the summer of 1999, a friend of Penalosa’s was getting married and was hoping to have a Beatles cover band perform at his wedding. After discovering the astronomical prices that notable bands such as the Mop Tops where commanding, the groom realized that he needed to come up with a new plan. Hearing of his plight and always up for a challenge Penalosa decided to help his friend by creating his own Beatles cover band minus the matching velvet-lapeled suits and the wigs. His idea was to put together a no-frills early Beatles cover band performing for a fraction of what the established bands were charging.
Penalosa, a rock solid left-handed bass player enlisted his younger brother, Victor, to handle the drums, Xavier Anaya (Trebles, Hoods, Mach 5) to play lead guitar, and Frank Barajas to play rhythm guitar. They weren’t the Beatles or even the Mop Tops. They weren’t dressed like the Beatles in their Ed Sullivan-era suits or speak in Liverpudlian scouse accents. What they did do was credibly perform many of the pre-1966 Beatles songs. Most important, the bride and groom and their guests loved it. It was a start.
The success of that initial wedding gig spawned several more engagements before drummer Victor Penalosa (Masons) departed to pursue his musical dream in L.A. His replacement turned out to be the eclectic and gifted Ricky Serrano (Sound Doctors).
“I met Ricky playing in a bossa nova group,” Penalosa recalled. “He’s an amazing drummer and somebody who can play anything from jazz to rock to salsa. He played drums for us for seven years.”
Now, with the band having settled on the name Baja Bugs (a play on their Mexican heritage and the Beatles (beetles), they were eager to return to the Come Together Beatles Fair but as performers rather than observers. In front this congregation of true Beatles fans they were a hit.
“The people there saw us and liked us,” Penalosa recalled. “We figured that these were hardcore Beatles fans who had every record and new every song. We did songs like ‘I Wanna Be Your Man’ and ‘Dizzy Miss Lizzy,’ songs familiar to this crowd that nobody else was performing. These songs and many of the others on our set list had that youthful energy. [The songs] were tight and had a little bit of edge. The Beatles took Little Richard’s manic sound but controlled it. There was a conscious effort on the part of the Beatles to take Little Richard’s rock ‘n’ roll energy and to harness it. They took these simple three-chord songs, put them in the blender, and created their own unique sound. The Beatles took rock ‘n’ roll to another level and the result was very appealing.”
Always involved in multiple projects simultaneously, Serrano ultimately realized that he just had too many irons in the fire. So after seven solid years behind the drum kit he and the Baja Bugs parted company.
While drummer Ricky Serrano’s tenure with the Baja Bugs was a long one, the same cannot be said of the musicians who filled the role of rhythm guitarist. Taking an inadvertent page from the movie This Is Spinal Tap, (where they had to keep replacing one of the band members) the rhythm guitarist’s role was filled for years by what seemed like a new person at each gig. Among the most notable passing through this revolving door were Dylan Martinez (currently with Rookie Card) and German import Maren Parusel who has become somewhat of a sensation fronting her own band. Over the years others included Josh Namm, Fernando Alarcon, Aldo Bustos (Beaters, Northern Tigers), and Joe Sweeper (Los Sweepers). One additional occasional contributor was drummer Anita Avila.
The Baja Bugs were designed for hardcore Beatles fanatics rather than casual fans content to hear “Twist And Shout” played for the 12 billionth time. They take pride in mastering the often overlooked B-sides, album cuts, and obscure hidden gems written long before the Beatles were known anywhere outside of Liverpool and Hamburg. Much of what they play never appeared on any of the classic Beatles albums released in America between 1964 and 1970. Their repertoire has grown in the last year to include more and more of the album cuts off the Fab’s first six American LPs. To spice things up, they have added a handful of their later songs as well, but they mostly steer clear of the mega-hits and that is a good thing.
Of the current quartet only Hector Penalosa and Xavier Anaya have been with the Baja Bugs since its 1999 inception. Penalosa has high praise for Anaya, his lead guitarist.
“If Xavier wasn’t part of this, there would be no Baja Bugs,” Penalosa said. “He is an amazing guitar player. He’s the guy that can nail those George Harrison parts, which are very intricate and take a long time to learn. One of the things I have always admired about Xavier is that when he learns a part, he learns it well. He captures the feeling, not just the notes.”
While he considers himself more of a guitarist than a singer, Anaya handles the lead vocals on about a dozen of the band’s 100-song repertoire and sings back-ups on many others.
The two most recent additions to the current Baja Bugs lineup are drummer Nick “Nico” Peters and rhythm guitar player, Jeremiah Silva. While they have only been with the band for a little more than a year, their impact has been strongly felt.
Aside from being a brilliant technical drummer Peters sings well and covers all of the songs that Ringo once sang from behind his Ludwig drum kit. He also bears a definite physical resemblance to Ringo Starr and is said to be a walking encyclopedia of Beatles’ trivia. Peters’ warm and outgoing personality draws the audience in and allows the band to easily connect with them. His positive energy and enthusiasm are critical. Like Anaya, Peters is a student of the Beatles.
“Nico eats, drinks, and sleeps Beatles all day every day,” Penalosa said. “He is the extreme and ultimate Beatles fan. That is the kind of drummer you want if you have a Beatles cover band. When Ricky was our drummer he played really well, but he never sang. From the beginning Nico was ready to go on singing all of the Ringo songs. I could just tell when we were auditioning him that he was going to work out. Two songs into the try-out it was obvious he was the guy. He had been in a Beatles band once before years ago and but had more recently been touring with a female singer.”
Rhythm guitarist Jeremiah Siva is by decades the youngest of the four Baja Bugs. Despite the age differential he fits right in with his easy going nature and his dedication to recreating an authentic sound.
“Jeremiah is a great singer who can harmonize really well,” Penalosa said. “He is also a great guitar player and one that can handle the difficult parts. In actuality, the Baja Bugs have two lead guitar players, but Javier is the main one [playing essentially what George Harrison played while Silva strums the Lennon parts].”
Any added benefit with Silva is that he knows how to repair guitars. From time to time that skill comes in handy.
In addition to being the band’s driving force and main organizer Penalosa sings most of the leads and demonstrates his considerable chops on his replica Hofner left-handed bass. His years of playing punk rock are put to good use on many of the Hamburg-era Beatles tunes that they regularly cover.
Keeping any band focused and on the same page for 10 years is no easy task. Penalosa’s easy-going personality and infectious love for the Beatles have inspired both his audiences and those working around him. With the band’s lineup finally stabilized with four highly capable, dependable musicians, the Baja Bugs have improved immeasurably. They recently added matching Cavern Club era vests to enhance the allusion they are trying to create. It also lends a bit of professionalism to the operation.
Driven to shape the Baja Bugs into as good a band as they can become, Penalosa knows there are no shortcuts. He also knows their limitations.
“Just like with anything else you do, you have to commit. You have to commit to rehearsing, practicing, training and preparing yourself. You can’t get around that.”
It has been a labor of love.
“You have to hurdle some obstacles if you want to keep something like this together. You don’t want to burn out so we have taken occasional breaks to let the dust settle. It is important to keep things on an even keel. Through this experience we have grown together, become friends and put our own personal insanities aside. We have learned it is the audience that matters most and the songs have to be played well.”
The Baja Bugs play monthly at La Mesa’s Riviera Supper Club but also do many private events. They have performed at schools, festivals, weddings, block parties, benefits, openings, and all sorts of other special events. They have also been enthusiastically received across the border. Their fees are far below what other bands are charging, averaging about $500 per gig. Their reputation as a band that skillfully plays long sets with lots of energy and enthusiasm is winning over a growing number of fans. www.facebook.com/pages/the-bajabugs
The Beatles: They Used to Be a Rock Band
A friend of mine tells an interesting story: When he and his brother were young kids in the early ’70s, they received two random albums from a distant relative. One was the Beatles’ Sgt Pepper, the other a collection of Johnny Cash’s greatest hits. Without knowing what they really had (they were only five or six), they instinctively gravitated to the Johnny Cash because, as my friend recounts, it was “more rockin’.”
Soon, Pepper, via natural selection, was buried beneath other “more rockin’” albums by the likes of the Monkees and the Partridge Family…and, later, the Stones, Zeppelin, and the usual later ’70s ensemble.
It was only years later that my friend, now grown and sifting through his old, dusty vinyl, found Sgt Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band crushed at the bottom of the evolutionary rock pile.
This anecdote, of course, runs counter to the wisdom of most rock critics who place Pepper as the number one rock album of all time. It’s ironic that the world’s greatest rock album, in the innocent minds of five-year-old boys, would be deemed “less rockin’” than a bargain-bin assemblage of Johnny Cash’s greatest hits. (And, this is no smite against Cash.)
So, what truth did these five-year-old boys instinctively sense? Which “Emperor’s News Clothes” scenario do rock critics refuse to acknowledge?
The truth is that Pepper is not a rock album. And, by 1967, the Beatles, the greatest rock band ever, were not really a rock band anymore. Rock ‘n’ roll is most brilliant at its most guttural level. And, these five-year-olds could sense (pass me some more of them Osmond Brothers) that Pepper ain’t rock ‘n’ roll.
This is too bad because the Beatles used to be a darn good rock band.
It is my opinion that the Beatles early years were their “more rockin’” years, with the combo slam of Rubber Soul, then Revolver representing their apex. Pepper represents the beginning of the anti-climax, which typically is the time when glommers usually discover most things anyway.
This all runs in the face of official Beatle-think, of course. And, I relish the thought of loads of hate mail arriving from the Troubadour readership.
But, let’s face it: “I Want to Hold Your Hand” was more important than “A Day in the Life.” “I Feel Fine” sent more girls into orgasmic frenzy than “Being for the Benefit of Mr Kite.” World culture was more permanently changed by “She Loves You” than “She’s Leaving Home.” It was the early Beatles that shook the Establishment. It was the early Beatles that caused young people to riot. It was the early Beatles that propelled the band into orbit. From Pepper onward, the Beatles were simply coming in for a landing.
But, Pepper is more serious, you say, more mature. Well, rock ‘n’ roll is neither serious nor mature. In fact, it’s a musical genre that rebels against both. Pepper comes off sounding more like a soundtrack, a soundtrack to a movie that hasn’t been written yet. (Ironically, the Beatles would actually start delving into making their own films soon after.) But, a serious, mature sound track still ain’t rock ‘n’ roll.
So, give me a heapin’ helpin’ of “Roll Over Beethoven.” Hold the “Rocky Racoon.” In my opinion, the Beatles as a rock band only existed from 1957 to 1966. After that, they’re just a coterie of MBEs futilely puffing forth the archaically tattered British Empire.
The Pepper sessions signaled a number of changes that occurred within the band. One was the transfer of leadership. Before Pepper, the Beatles was John Lennon’s band. Starting with Pepper, Paul McCartney becomes increasingly the one to hold the band together and often solely decide its musical direction.
Another change was a de-emphasis of “the beat,” which was crucial, since the Beatles actually evolved out of the so-called “beat music” movement in early-’60s Britain. The original connection to “beat music” was so strong, in fact, that John Lennon decided to pun off of it when naming the band.
When asked what he did on Pepper, Ringo Starr, a longtime checkers player, responded that he finally learned how to play chess. Obviously, the beat in Beatles was not prioritized during the Pepper sessions.
That’s why it’s so refreshing to see a band like the Baja Bugs surface in this day and age because the Beatles are in grave danger of slipping into the genre of “oldies but goodies.” The truth, however, is that a whole world of B-sides awaits the cursory Beatles listener. And once the world moves beyond the Red and Blue albums, there’s still an amazing collection of Beatles music that many don’t even know exists.
The Baja Bugs have got it just right. They’re searching for the real Beatles when the Beatles really were a rock band, when they were young, hungry and filled with raw energy. I’ll even venture to say that the early Beatles B-Sides prove that it was the Beatles (not the Kinks) who were the world’s first punk band. So, roll over Johnny Rotten and Johnny Cash. Give me another shot of that rhythm and blues.
— Raul Sandelin