Rocking out south-of-the-border-style with Danny Amis, Los Straitjackets and Lost Acapulco
Some of the worst music ever made can be heard on the NPR radio network. Their programmers make a habit of showcasing some of the lamest alternative Rock bands working today (who, for the purposes of this essay, will remain unnamed). Every once in a while, though, they feature musicians who are well worth sitting up and taking notice of.
Such was the case recently on an edition of NPR's interview show "Fresh Air". Host Terry Gross spotlighted the latest album by Los Straitjackets, an instrumental group fond of surf and hot rod music and cheezy Mexican lucha libre movies. Their leader, guitarist Danny Amis, also loves Spanish-language cover versions of vintage Rock songs. He conceived a tribute album to those covers, and to the Mexican wannabe Beatles bands who recorded them in the '60s: Los Teen Tops, Los Freddys, Rebeldes De Rock and others. Acoustic versions of the album tracks were performed on "Fresh Air", and they sounded interesting enough for me to spring for the album itself. I did so about two weeks later. Now that I've discovered Rock En Español, let me share my enthusiasm for it with you. I'm pleased to announce that Habanera Rock is back, and it sounds better than ever!
Titles like "El Microscopico Bikini", "Lágrimas Solitarias", "Dame Una Seña" and "Magia Blanca" may be unfamiliar to gringos, but the songs themselves have long been in heavy rotation on North American oldies radio. Working under the direction of producer César Rosas, Los Straitjackets invites us to hear these classics performed in a faithful yet fresh and exciting way. The participation of Los Lobos' lead guitarist ensured that the band's voyage into Spanish cover version territory would hold forth with a south-of-the-border twist. That's important, because with no Latin music foundation, Rock en Español often sounds sterile and derivative. Since Los Straitjackets is a strictly instrumental outfit, their new album's Spanish vocals are provided by an esteemed trio of guest vocalists: Big Sandy, former frontman for a retro Western swing band called The Fly-Rite Boys; Li'l Willie Gee, lead singer of East LA's Rock 'n' Roll institution Thee Midnighters; and el maestro Rosas.
Big Sandy is unquestionably the star of this show. While ballads are the forté of this honey-toned singer (and Rock balladry certainly gets its due with his Spanish retoolings of Barbara Lynn's "You'll Lose A Good Thing" and Jackie Wilson's "Lonely Teardrops"), he rocks out with the best of them on Los Straitjackets' culo-kicking version of the Beatles hit "Slow Down", as well as on their incendiary update of The Kinks' "All Day And All Of The Night". Don't dare start dancing to that latter cut, or the rug in your rec room is liable to catch fire!
The boogaloo figures prominently on Li'l Willie Gee's inspired performance of The McCoys' "Hang On Sloopy", while the habanera anchors his soulful reading of Arthur Alexander's R & B ballad "Anna." Rock-a-Tango sensibility also reverberates through César Rosas' rendition of "Bony Maronie" and through Big Sandy's tuneful takes on Brenton Wood's "Gimme Little Sign" and "Devil Woman", one of Marty Robbins' bordertown-flavored follow-ups to his immortal 1959 hit "El Paso".
Danny Amis, Eddie Angel, Pete Curry and Jason Smay (the members of Los Straitjackets) let some Punk Rock sensibility bleed into their covers of The Troggs' "Wild Thing" and The Coasters' "Poison Ivy." This approach works well on the former tune, which always did have a grungy feel to it (and Li'l Willie Gee's sneering vocal doesn't compromise that feel one bit). However, it doesn't work so well for the latter song; the grinding guitars rob this double entendre classic of the charm that writer/producers Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller gave the original version. Younger listeners who aren't familiar with the original probably won't object, though. Thirteen of the album's fourteen songs are given over to vocals, but the boys show off their considerable instrumental prowess with a dynamite remake of Thee Midnighters' lowrider theme "Whittier Boulevard". They damn near steal the show doing it!
To solidify this collection's fusion of North and South American music styles, el maestro Rosas steps up to the mike and sings "Déjame Llorar," a bolero ranchera popularized by Los Freddys. It's the prettiest tune on the disc, and its authentic Tejano flavor is sure to make you hungry for a big ol' basket of barbecued chicharrones with pico de gallo. Truth be told, the whole album is tasty; it's a novel and welcome throwback to the kind of roots Rock 'n' Roll we all love. So if you don't mind hearing new versions of your favorite oldies rendered in another language (who wrote the Spanish lyrics to these songs, by the way?), try Rock En Español; it will surely number among your favorite music purchases this year. Sí señor, that's a hint that you need to go out and buy the thing! It's available on virgin vinyl, which is the format I chose for my personal listening pleasure. If its subtitle, Volume One is accurate, this LP will be only the first in a series of bilingual experiments Los Straitjackets undertakes with vintage Pop, Rock and Country material.
As I was researching Los Straitjackets' back catalogue, I stumbled across a sister album of sorts: Daddy-O Grande In México, a side project produced by Danny Amis in 2006. Even though it's totally instrumental, I enjoyed this set even more than Rock En Español, Volume One. Collaborating with a México City band called Lost Acapulco (who share his penchant for sporting bizarre lucha libre wrestling masks), Amis places you smack! dab in the middle of a trendy 1960s discothèque. His original Dance Rock compositions boast shades of classic TV themes like "Peter Gunn", "The Munsters" and "Batman", as well as old Ventures' records. The production values really do make this record sound like it was cut forty years ago! Only the occasional synthesizer chord betrays its 21st century vintage.
There are so many great cuts to choose from: "Zicatela" is a groovy Rock-a-Rhumba surf number that would fit right into a Frankie Avalon/Annette Funicello beach party film. "Quebrada" sounds like a cross between The Ventures' hit recording of the "Hawaii-5-0" theme and a Trío Los Panchos bolero. Amis's acoustic guitar work on this track is just as impressive as his electric leads. His "Chicken Twist" (which really should've been titled "Chicken Cha-Cha-Chá") gleefully hops around on a novelty "cackle" riff that he coaxes out of his fuzzbox.
With "Incognito" and "Camino Grande", Amis steps into James Bond territory; these are bongo-infested surf 'n' spy themes are terrific. The Bond franchise might do well to consider hiring him to score their next 007 film! "Twistin' Frenzy", "Chocolate Shake" and "Azteca A'Go-Go" are souped-up Rock 'n' Roll dragsters, roaring down the race track on high-octane rhumba fuel. If there's a standout track on this outstanding set, it's probably "Miradas De Amor", an expertly crafted Rock-A-Tango with a piquant Tex Mex flavor. Guitarist siblings Santo and Johnny Farina would've felt right at home with this tune.
In this era dominated by faux Country music, Hip Hop trashiness, forced "Pop Punk" and insipid Alt Rock, who'd have thought new music could ever sound this good? ¡Viva Danny Amis! Here's hoping that Daddy-O Grande makes a return trip to México City soon and hooks up again with the talented masked musicians of Lost Acapulco. Next, let's take a fond look back at the classic Habanera Rock era, and scrutinize some essential genre recordings by Cliff Richard, Bobby Rydell, Eddie Rambeau, Ben E. King and The Drifters.
"The Return Of Habanera Rock" continues with Part Two.