Surf Wrestlers Attack AM Standards!
To be truthful, it’s hard to listen to anything these days. There’s so much instability in the world and the streets that it’s normal to look over your shoulder, have a decreased attention span, or feel nervous for probably no immediate reason at all. “This ain’t no party”, David Byrne once shrieked in the Talking Heads staple, “Life During Wartime”, and I’m nodding my head in agreement as I’m writing this.
But, in some cases, nostalgia can soothe this different type of savage beast, and the latest disc that can make a strange world turn familiar again comes straight from the Nashville instrumentalists Los Straitjackets themselves, whose fifth release, Sing Along with Los Straitjackets, brings a star-studded list of vocalists and musicians to cover some of the greatest pop Americana ever put down on wax. You might not recognize some of the titles of these ‘50s and ‘60s AM radio standards, but your muscle memory will kick in when you hear them. And if a smile doesn’t come to your face, well, maybe it just wasn’t meant to happen, my friends.
Los Straitjackets, for those who might not know, are a group of surf music afficionados who show up onstage wearing Mexican wrestling masks and brandish fierce instrumentals with enough hook and bite that the X-Games tabbed them for a theme tune. And although that bite may be softer on this release, it’s only because they back up far enough to let their talented vocalists share some of the spotlight, a move that pays off on the majority of the tracks.
Especially on the tracks sung is Spanish—a language in which the band members prefer to communicate during most of their live shows—such as Mavericks’ frontman Raul Malo’s emotional cover of Los Bravos’ “Black is Black”. Or the two tracks featuring the Straitjackets’ current touring counterpart, Big Sandy—a rousing paraphrase of Freddy Cannon’s “Tallahassee Lassie” (“Chica Alborotada”) and a swaying translation of Ernie Doe’s “Mother In Law” (“La Suegra”). Sandy’s vocal acrobatics fit nicely with the Straitjackets’ jamming guitars and frantic drumming in “Chica Alborotada”, a song that’ll stick in your head for a while. But it is El Vez’s Latino distillation of the King that kicks the Straitjackets’ instrumentalism up a notch in Elvis Presley’s pounding, “King Creole” (“Rey Criollo”).
Los Straitjackets’ Latino revisionist spins on these standards is just one of many twists and turns that the band has to offer, which is part and parcel of their appeal. Aside from the stellar musical ability of guitarist Danny Amis—from legendary New York outfit, the Raybeats—guitarist Eddie Angel, bassist Pete Curry—from Cali surf heroes, the Halibuts—and drummer Jimmy Lester, the Straitjackets have an engaging sense of humor and performative energy that drives their songs into the pleasure centers of your brain. When you close your eyes and imagine these tunes being played by a rollicking quartet of masked sparkplugs who banter back and forth in Spanish—especially when they’re fronted by Elvis Presley’s talented, Mexican doppelganger—well, it’s hard not to grin and feel the love they bring.
This is true even on the beautiful melancholy of Skeeter Davis’ “The End of the World”, capably delivered by Sixpence None the Richer’s Leigh Nash. A sad tune to begin with, it tugs a bit harder at the heartstrings if you turn down the volume on CNN, croon along, and watch as the contexts change before your eyes and ears. Nash’s rendition is backed with an emotional string arrangement recalling Katherine Whalen’s gorgeously sad “Low Down Man” from the Squirrel Nut Zippers’ Perennial Favorites—try putting them back to back on your next compilation tape or disc.
But ultimately, it is the pounding guitar work of Amis and Lester that keeps the joint jumping on “Sing Along With Los Straitjackets”. Tracks like “A Heuvo”—featuring surf vets, the Trashmen—and “Treat Her Right—featuring Mark Lindsay of Paul Revere and the Raiders—will have you stomping your foot and in the mood to head out to the pounding surf and submit to its will. And both tracks will stick out in your musical memory, as well, especially if you are familiar with the Straitjackets’ work—“A Huevo” is a dead ringer for LSJ’s “Caveman”, featuring howls instead of grunts, and “Treat Her Right” has an intro riff that sounds like it was lifted straight off of The Kinks’ “You Really Got Me”.
But it’s all fun in the sun, to paraphrase ex-Blasters and ex-X(!) guitarist Dave Alvin, who feels the surf vibe on a cover of the Rivieras’ “Caifornia Sun”. Just take a look at the deranged face of one Straitjacket as he places the mike for two of his contributors on pictures featured in the disc sleeve, or another as he takes to the P.A. with a hammer. These guys aren’t interested in breaking radically new ground or turning in a cynical posture with their covers a la Limp Bizkit’s lame rendition of George Michael’s “Faith”. They just want to have a good time. And they want you to have one, too.
Considering all that America has been through and is going through right now, some old-fashioned but updated Americana from a group of Mexican wrestlers/surf music fiends from the heart of Nashville might just put a little bounce in your step if your foot feels like lead these days. You just gotta let it.
“I’m Not a Fan of Boring or Ugly”: An Interview With Eddie Angel of Los Straitjackets
PopMatters: How did this collaboration come together?
Eddie Angel: We just try to do different things each time we make a record. We had recorded a 45 with Big Sandy singing a couple of rock ‘n’ roll songs in Spanish about four or five years ago and we knew we wanted to do something like that. And we had a couple of friends and knew people in the music business that thought it would be a good idea so we ran with it. It was pretty cool—no one really said, “No.” We had some people that we tried to get on it—like Nancy Sinatra and Brian Wilson—who didn’t say no, but were just worked out. Joey Ramone was going to do something on it, but he was too sick, you know?
We had met Mike Campbell (of Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers) touring around six or seven years ago. We were both in Atlanta—he was playing with Tom Petty—and he came down to our gigs and really dug the band. We became friends and kept in touch with him. In fact, we recorded the 45 with Big Sandy at his house, and we also opened shows at the Fillmore and Irvine for Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers. Dave Alvin we already knew, since we share the same booking agent. So it just really came together over the period of about year. It was really a lot of fun.
PM: How did the choice of songs come about?
Eddie Angel: Every case was kind of separate. Sometimes, someone came to us with a song they wanted and sometimes we had the idea for the song. Sometimes the producer had the idea and sometimes we’d boil it down to three songs and pick one of those. It was a case-by-case thing. Mike Campbell wanted to do “Bumble Bee”; that was his idea. We felt that the “End of the World” was a good song for a girl to sing and Leigh Nash turned out to be perfect. In another universe, that would probably be a hit song.
We all liked the record. Usually, when you get done making one, you’re sick of it and you can’t stand to listen to it anymore. But this one we still really like listening to, and playing it, too. We’ve been touring with Big Sandy, so we come and play a set and then we do a set backing him up, which has been a lot of fun. It makes for a good show.
PM: You’ve played with Big Sandy a lot. Are you guys thinking about putting together a supergroup?
Eddie Angel: (Laughs) Oh yeah, he’s pretty cool! I think we really stumbled onto something playing with him and I hope we can do more of it in the future. We’d really like to go to Europe with him; I think we would floor them over there.
PM: During certain stops on your tour, are any of the guest vocalists going to sit in?
Eddie Angel: Yeah. Mike Campbell is definitely sitting in, Dave Alvin is coming by—he might sit in—and Exene’s coming by.
PM: Are they going to wear masks?
Eddie Angel: (Laughs) That would be pretty funny! It can get hot if there are lights on you. It can get pretty uncomfortable.
PM: Is there a track that stands out not necessarily as a band favorite, but maybe something that you really had fun putting together?
Eddie Angel: It was pretty fun doing “A Huevo” with the Trashmen. We recorded that song in a garage in Minneapolis, which is very appropriate if you’re familiar with the Trashmen. We did it in one four-hour session in a studio inside a guy’s garage; it was pretty low-tech, but it was a lot of fun. The song we did with Mark Lindsay, “Treat Her Right”, was fun, too. He sang it the same time as we played it and I kept having to pinch myself, thinking, “Wow, that voice. That’s the voice I used to hear on the radio and here he is. We’re playing in the studio with him.”
PM: Did you ever get star-struck while you were recording?
Eddie Angel:That didn’t really happen too much because we already had some kind of connection with all of them. But we were totally flattered that they even wanted to be a part of it. I think that everyone on it has a unique kind of charisma that really comes across.
PM: Four of the songs are sung in Spanish. Combining that with the fact that you guys are big El Santo fans and wear the wrestling masks, were you trying to put together a twist on these standards or was it more of a spontaneous thing?
Eddie Angel: We didn’t put as much thought into it as you think we might have. We really like Mexican rock ‘n’ roll and some of these songs are much cooler sung in Spanish nowadays. If Big Sandy had sung “Tallahassee Lassie” in English, it wouldn’t have had the same cache going for it, you know? But in Spanish it’s much more unique and timeless; it doesn’t sound like just another song on oldies radio. We’d like to do a whole record like that, cool rock ‘n’ roll songs in Spanish.
I think the thinking is that people like rock ‘n’ roll—and when I say rock ‘n’ roll I’m talking about early rock ‘n’ roll as opposed to rock music, which I define as music before Sgt. Pepper’s—but they’re told somehow that it’s not really hip to like it, that it’s too Fonzi and Happy Days. Instead, they go for more serious stuff. So here it’s been somewhat more disguised to the point that it’s maybe more appealing to them; it’s still got the good energy and the good beat, but they’re not hearing the lyrics to “Tallahassee Lassie”, which they might find corny. I personally don’t—my favorite record in the world is “Surfin’ Bird”. I’m not a fan of serious lyrics in songs, so the way to get around that is to sing them in Spanish. (He laughs). I guess that’s it in a nutshell! It’s fun to see the languages that rock ‘n’ roll works in.
PM: There’s so much interesting instrumental music going around. Do you think there is something in lyrics that, like you said, is too serious? To the point where you miss kicking back and just enjoying the groove?
Eddie Angel: Well, I definitely think that rock music is way too serious. It bores me to death. It does. I can’t really think of anything I hear that I like anymore; it’s either boring or ugly, and I’m not a fan of boring or ugly. That’s seems to be what’s out there, in general. But we’re just trying to do stuff we like. We have an underlying philosophy: rock ‘n’ roll is supposed to be about fun. And I think other bands had that in the past—the Ramones had it—but it always kind of gets lost, buried beneath the pretentiousness.
I think that people are fed a line in most rock journalism that says music is supposed to be serious stuff. And I’m not saying it shouldn’t be—in one sense, rock ‘n’ roll is totally serious to me. I’ve dedicated my life to it. But it’s not meant to be taken so seriously—it’s supposed to be fun and light-hearted. It’s supposed to be an anecdote to the serious stuff. It’s like going to watch a science fiction movie as opposed to a Fellini movie. We want to be fun and entertaining and that’s the long and short of it.
Good rock ‘n’ roll shares an element with punk music. I think Link Wray and early Elvis were punk rock, you know? Elvis coming out and doing “Hound Dog”. It shares a certain kind of anarchic attitude, I guess. But the thing I don’t like about punk music is when it gets political. Then it becomes a bore. I like punk music like the Ramones. You always have to keep that sensibility that this is supposed to be about fun. As soon as you lose that, I’m personally uninterested. Because I don’t think anyone in a rock ‘n’ roll band has anything to say to me. I want them to sing about “Surfin’ Bird” to me.
PM: OK, I have to ask it. Which one of you is the best wrestler?
Eddie Angel: (Laughs) I would probably guess our drummer, Jimmy. He’s the one with the worst temper.
PM: Dirtiest fighter?
Eddie Angel: That would be him again, I think.
PM: Do you guys have any ring names?
Eddie Angel: Pete is Pedro Del Mar. Our drummer, Jimmy, calls himself Lord Chevron. Danny is Daddy O’Grande. Eddie Angel is all they call me!