May 122023

One Great Cover looks at the greatest cover songs ever, and how they got to be that way.

Los Lobos‘ version of Ritchie Valens’ “La Bamba” could well be the most faithful cover ever. Which could be the key to its greatness. There’s no reimagining going on here. No reinterpreting, reinventing, or re-anything! Nearly 30 years after it was first a hit, the band performed it just like the original artist performed it. Right down to the cowbells.

Los Lobos were clearly less concerned with making the Valens track their own as making an “authentic” cover, as unusual a thing to do in 1987 as it is in 2023. This, after all, was the year Kim Wilde scored a US #1 with an electronically revamped version of the Supremes’ “You Keep Me Hanging On.” It was also the year Tiffany and Billy Idol invaded the singles charts with idiosyncratic versions of Tommy James hits, the former with a bubblegum-pop rendition of “I Think We’re Alone Now” and the latter with a live and bombastic take on “Mony Mony” (“well, aaaawlriiiiight!”). Fortunately for Los Lobos, “authentic” didn’t mean uninspired or unimaginative. Rather, it meant capturing the dance-crazed spirit of the iconic 1958 record in glorious 1980s Technicolor. The youth. The abandon. The intoxicating Mexican exuberance.

The Valens family were largely to thank for what transpired. It was they who asked Los Lobos to record “La Bamba” for the 1987 biopic of the same name, which told the story of Ritchie Valens’ rapid rise to success before his tragic death, at age 17, in the same fabled plane crash that killed Buddy Holly and the Big Bopper. They knew that Los Lobos fit the bill, being a Los Angeles act of Hispanic heritage with a reputation for playing thrilling rock ‘n’ roll live shows. They knew, too, that Los Lobos could fuse rock ‘n’ roll with traditional Mexican music to startling effect, as had Valens (real name Richard Steven Valenzuela) on his signature song. The Californian five-piece, fronted by David Hidalgo, was therefore given the task of paying respectful tribute to Valens in 1987. No funny business. But that was okay because, having started out as an all-covers wedding band, they were enthused to replicate a single they had grown up with in East LA.

Los Lobos were glad, essentially, to play a version of “La Bamba” that was in their blood, while simultaneously being on very good terms with the folk version of the song that dated back to 1930s Veracruz. Hidalgo was able to simulate the iconic Valens vocal as if he’d made a deal with God, and Cesar Rosas was able to master the explosive guitar licks, as well as deliver on the buzzing guitar solo. Together with Berlin, Louie Pérez Jr. and Conrad Lozano, they seemingly also reproduced its Latin rhythm and surf-rock dynamics with effortless ease. They did depart from the Valens record in one particular, though, by adding a breath-taking acoustic coda that harked back to the song’s folk roots, and harked forward (is that possible?) to the high-octane guitar playing of Rodrigo y Gabriela.

Los Lobos put so much passion and musical virtuosity into “La Bamba,” in fact, that they couldn’t help but make the accompanying low-budget movie seem like the most exciting ever made. Especially with the video that featured clips from the film and went into ubiquitous TV overdrive during the summer of 1987. The track radiated through images of party people dancing wildly to Los Lobos at a neon-lit fairground, leather-clad dudes on motorbikes, and a charismatic Lou Diamond Phillips as Ritchie, throwing some punches and driving along sun-drenched streets in a convertible, with one arm wrapped around his girl. The single certainly helped make the movie into the unlikely summer blockbuster of the year, even though it was, in reality, the only great thing about it. That and the other Valens tracks Los Lobos recorded for the soundtrack, of course.

So while elevating a movie riddled with ’50s clichés, sentimentality, and a sledgehammer way with dramatic irony (yes, airplanes, we get it!), Los Lobos ushered “La Bamba” to #1 in both the UK and the US that summer of Steffi Graf and Pat Cash and Madonna’s ‘Who’s That Girl’ world tour. Their first bite of mainstream success was a big one. Suddenly, no wedding or party was complete without Los Lobos’ “La Bamba,” even if few people knew the moves. And from now on, folks were generally more alert to Los Lobos. More alert, for instance, to their partnership with John Lee Hooker on The Healer track “Think Twice Before You Go” in 1989. Now that was something!

In truth, though, Los Lobos’s working method on “La Bamba” was simply modus operandi for the band. As it continued to be on 2021’s (mainly) covers album Native Sons, where they paid tribute to the LA sound on tracks penned by the Beach Boys, Jackson Browne, Thee Midniters, and War. “We try to play it just like it sounded on the original records,” said Pérez at the time. “It doesn’t make it about us. It makes it a real tribute.”

While resolute in their egoless musicianship, however, there can be no doubt of the Mexican-American group’s enormous influence on their most celebrated hit record. Just go see UK Tex-Mex band Los Pacaminos at a village hall near you soon, and you’ll see how singer Paul Young, of “Wherever I Lay My Hat (That’s My Home)” fame, gives the “Tex-Mex National Anthem” his all. Particularly the acoustic coda.

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