I’m not quite sure why surf guitar seems to inspire such devotion in some musicians. Don’t get me wrong, I like it too—my collection contains discs by the Ventures, and Duane Eddy, among others. But bands like Los Straightjackets and Man or Astroman? take their love of surf music to the next level—much like the Cramps, who, inspired by a fierce love of old rockabilly, transformed it into something new, twisted, and weird. While Los Straightjackets’ take on surf music is a bit hard to take seriously, what with the colorful wrestling masks and all, the band has some serious chops, refined over long years of touring, and they rock pretty convincingly.
Mixing the familiar guitar twang of Southern California surf music with the over-the-top camp of lucha libre (Mexican wrestling), Nashville-based combo Los Straitjackets first donned their trademark wrestling masks in the mid-‘90s. Composed of Eddie Angel (guitar), L.J. “Jimmy” Lester (drums), Danny Amis (guitar) and E. Scott Esbeck (bass), the band signed with Upstart Records in 1994, and released their debut long-player, The Utterly Fantastic and Totally Unbelievable Sound of Los Straitjackets, in March 1995. After an extensive U.S. tour in support of their debut, the band returned to the studio, and released ¡Viva! Los Straitjackets in 1996. The relentless touring and recording paid off with a series of well-received performances on Late Night with Conan O’Brien, numerous television and movie soundtrack appearances (including Malcolm in the Middle, Melrose Place, Meet the Parents, Enron: The Smartest Guys in the Room, and Psycho Beach Party), as well as a string of immensely entertaining albums, including The Velvet Touch of Los Straitjackets, ¡Damas y Caballeros!, Sing Along with Los Straitjackets, Supersonic Guitars in 3D, and Twist Party (with the World Famous Pontani Sisters and Kaiser George), not to mention their Christmas album, entitled ‘Tis the Season for Los Straitjackets.
For Rock en Español, Vol. 1, however, the masked musicians changed gears, opting to record a set of tunes with vocals—in Spanish. Enlisting the help of Cesar Rosas of Los Lobos (who also produced the disc), Big Sandy of Big Sandy & His Fly-Rite Boys, and Little Willie G. of Thee Midnighters, Los Straitjackets recorded an entertaining set of classic rock & roll tunes, proving once again that music is a universal language. Most of the songs on Rock en Español, Vol. 1 were originally massive chart hits for rockers like the Kinks (“All Day and All of the Night”), the McCoys (“Hang on Sloopy”), and the Troggs (“Wild Thing”, covered as “Loco Te Patina el Coco”), and for R&B stars like Jackie Wilson (“Lonely Teardrops”) and Arthur Alexander (“Anna”), or for ‘50s rockers like the Coasters (“Poison Ivy”).
Kicking off with “De Dia y De Noche”, a boisterous cover of the Kinks classic “All Day and All of the Night”, the disc maintains its raucous energy all the way through the closing notes of “Tu te Vas”, a cover of Barbara Lynn’s “You’ll Lose a Good Thing” with vocals by Big Sandy. Other highlights include “La Hiedra Venenosa”, a fabulous cover of the Coasters’ “Poison Ivy”, also featuring Big Sandy on vocals, and “Hey Lupe”, a version of the McCoys’ “Hang on Sloopy”, transformed into an ode to a girl named Lupe. Through it all, Los Straitjackets play it straight, cranking out these covers with boundless energy and enthusiasm. Those new to the band may want to start with one of their earlier albums, like ¡Damas y Caballeros!, but those already familiar with the band’s many charms will likely enjoy this album as much as I did.