Mar 10

LOS LOBOS – “La Bamba”

Popular38 comments • 3,906 views

#595, 1st August 1987, video

I’m beginning to realise quite how bad I was at hearing music when I was 14. My reaction to “La Bamba” back in 1987 was to sulk, roll my eyes and dismiss it as mere necrophilia. Obviously this was missing the point that not all covers need be faithful – and even ones that seem faithful can be subtle restorations, for example by reclaiming a dead rock-and-roller for Latin pop. “La Bamba”‘s relationship to Los Lobos’ career, Valens’ original and the Latin charts has been well covered by Jonathan Bogart here and you should read that as soon as you’ve read this.

My reaction then was also missing the rather bigger point that “La Bamba” is one of the most absolutely joyful number ones of the late 80s – and one of the most generous, squeezing three different layers of delightful guitar work into as many minutes. First is the plump jangle of the verses and that biting riff riding low underneath. Then the solo – a burst of notes resolving into a gleeful skip about the rhythm – and finally the sly drift of the Spanish guitar to fade. There were, it’s interesting to note, a lot of jangling three-minute guitar pop records around in 1987, tracks which also had one eye firmly on the past: I ended up liking some of them a great deal but I’d say now that none of them are as easily playful as this.



  1. 1
    wichita lineman on 29 Mar 2010 #

    More than most copycat covers, I find it hard to hear this without wishing it was the original. I miss the way Valens’ vocal fades in and out as if he is partying so hard he just can’t stand still for the two-and-a-bit minutes. Too much hod carrying by Los Lobos, who I tried hard to like when they were NME favourites circa ’85.

    Nik Cohn reckons Valens had already cut ‘some of the direst records in rock’ when he died. Pffft!

  2. 2
    MikeMCSG on 29 Mar 2010 #

    This was a bigger hit than the movie wasn’t it ? That seemed to come and go in the blink of an eye (like Lou Diamond Phillips’ film career in fact).
    #1 Yeah I remember Andy Kershaw getting them on Whistle Test around that time and thinking if these are the future of rock and roll we’re in trouble.

  3. 3
    lonepilgrim on 29 Mar 2010 #

    I don’t find this that playful – if anything it’s too reverential. That may reflect it’s role within the film but I suspect is also the fruit of Los Lobos’ muso approach.
    I like the song and I don’t mind it as much as some above but nor can I match Tom’s enthusiasm

  4. 4
    Tom on 29 Mar 2010 #

    I think it starts reverential and then their ‘chops’ (I guess) let them go somewhere a lot more playful.

    (I should point out that I don’t know the original well, or anything other by Los Lobos.)

  5. 5
    wichita lineman on 29 Mar 2010 #

    Not so sure about ‘chops’ as Los Lobos do little more than extend Valens’ thrilling guitar solo by a few bars, add some accordion, and the admittedly pretty coda (but they lose the woodblock, damn them!). The original was intended as a b-side, to the rock-a-ballad Donna (a hit here for Marty Wilde). It ended up as a double A-side in the States, a rare state of affairs as Lena has mentioned on her blog.

    Ricky Valance of Tell Laura I Love Her fame (Popular entry 107) half-inched his name from the unfortunate Richie V. I wonder if we’ll ever see a number one by Liz Lubos?

    I remember Smash Hits printing a literal translation of the lyric which seemed quite hilarious at the time, but I’m afraid I don’t have it to hand.

  6. 6
    Steve Mannion on 29 Mar 2010 #

    for a v different Los Lobos check out ‘Kiko And The Lavender Moon’ from 1992. I really like it (weird and wonderful video too). http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Qmr_uQv_YRw

  7. 7
    swanstep on 30 Mar 2010 #

    Is there anything particularly Spanish about the guitar fade-out? It sounds more like standard classical guitar virtuosi stuff to me (e.g., like this). At any rate, I like that bit and the extended solo. The slightly boomy ’80s drums and the less croony vocal than the original, however, mean that the rest doesn’t do much for me. I’m somewhat shocked to discover that, overall, I’d rather hear La Isla Bonita than this. (Maybe some Tarantino gangsters should debate the point.) For me, a highish 5 or a lowish:

  8. 8
    TomLane on 30 Mar 2010 #

    A very good remake that also hit #1 in the U.S. Los Lobos were already a favorite among critics by this point, but still looking for a breakout moment. The followup, “Come On, Let’s Go” also went Top 40. But Los Lobos never charted another single in the U.S. Yet, they remain a crit-fave to this day.

  9. 9
    Jonathan Bogart at the wrong computer on 30 Mar 2010 #

    @7: But surely classical guitar is almost entirely Spanish (well, Moorish Spanish) in origin.

    At any rate I’m told that the rhythm on the fadeout is a charanga, a Cuban folk dance derived from African and Spanish sources.

    Los Lobos are one of my favorite bands, and I’ve often thought of them as being to rock & roll what Los Bros Hernandez are to comics: immensely accessible and thoughtful, with a focus on craftsmanship and describing the contours of lived experience that has ended up relegating them to a dedicated fanbase instead of transforming the field as critics in the 80s predicted.

    As I said in my piece, this is my third-favorite “La Bamba,” after Valens’ “original” and Lila Downs’ mystic-folkloric version from her 2004 album Una Sangre (One Blood). But it’s still great, because it’s still “La Bamba,” which wherever I’ve lived has always meant a party.

  10. 10
    swanstep on 30 Mar 2010 #

    @9,JB. Good point – after posting at #7 I continued listening to a guitar quartet cd and was rather embarrassingly feeling myself minute by minute being pushed towards your idea as I realized what all the really good pieces were. I hereby retract my original remark/query!

  11. 11
    taDOW on 30 Mar 2010 #

    loved the los lobos take on la bamba at the time but even at the time i was much more likely to want to hear the original (considering we’re still in the midst of ‘stand by me’, ‘unchained melody’, and other oldies popping up in the top 40 i’m curious if the original recharted). have always been curious about los lobos though, more from kiko and the lavendar moon (remember that being all over mtv) than this though.

    i remember reading dylan somewhere claiming that ‘la bamba’ was a big inspiration for ‘like a rolling stone’ but i’ve never been able to hear it. however i DEFINITELY can hear the ‘la bamba’ in ‘twist and shout’.

    7 for me.

  12. 12
    taDOW on 30 Mar 2010 #

    also very very weird that in the midst of this (relative) latin explosion atop the uk charts we’re not gonna see any freestyle apparently – is this an anomoly (obv a certain charttopping duo dabbled w/ it) or did it just not hit over there?

  13. 13
    weej on 30 Mar 2010 #

    My main memory of this is my Spanish teacher putting it on and dancing around the class. This is probably one of the reasons that I only remember about 5 words of Spanish now.
    The song is a fairly average cover on the whole, but the two instrumental breaks are nothing short of spectacular.

  14. 14
    Martin on 30 Mar 2010 #

    I don’t think enough credit has been given here to the remarkable vocal track in the beginning part. It takes a moment to realize that the singer is supplying most of the melody, which (it seems to me is rare). If Valens did the same thing (I don’t know), credit to him too.

  15. 15
    punctum on 30 Mar 2010 #

    Here’s a chicken and egg conundrum; what came first – “La Bamba” or “Louie Louie”? The latter chronologically came first – Richard Berry’s original version came out in 1957? – but the former seemed to influence the most famous version, as well as things like “Twist And Shout.”

    Otherwise not much to say about this; a fine, vivid cover of a fine song from a not-actually-that-bad biopic by an extremely underrated band who happily continued to score in the Pazz & Jop polls for many years with many inventive albums, long after their brief honeymoon with the 1985 British music press.

  16. 16

    Didn’t Dave Marsh write a whole book on Louie Louie?

    *Checks* Yes he did and I own it (!)

    *Looks up* Um, it only mentions “La Bamba” once, as somehow coeval with “LL”. So no real help either way in other words. Damn you Dave Marsh.

  17. 17

    I actually really like this version, there’s a kind of dense shimmer at the edge of the guitars and vocals which take it well beyond ordinary cover territory, even though the Wolves barely seem to be breaking a sweat. They were also going to be in my long-lost piece on “Anglo Ears for the Latin Thing”, as were Los Bros Hernandez. I’m kinda glad I never wrote it, I think it would have been callow rubbish. Good idea though.

  18. 18
    Billy Smart on 30 Mar 2010 #

    Like others, I remember being baffled by Los Lobos’ enthusiastic music paper coverage of 1985. “This is the type of thing that grown-ups with extensive historical music knowledge, like that Gavin Martin in the NME, must like” I thought, then went back to listening to The Smiths and Marillion. Two years later, it struck me that La Bamba was a much more memorable song than the likes of ‘How Will The Wolf Survive?’

    La Bamba the film was part of a mini-vogue of rock ‘n’ roll biopics at the time, along with Great Balls of Fire and a BBC2 film about Buddy Holly taken from a Philip Norman screenplay which I enjoyed at the time, though not so much as Peggy Sue Got Married.

    This must be the only paisley underground number one!

  19. 19
    thefatgit on 30 Mar 2010 #

    Nothing much to add, other than this is the first of 3 forays into movie soundtracks. The other 2 being “Mariachi Suite” for Robert Rodriguez’ Desperado and a cover of “Billy 1” for the Dylan film I’m Not There.

  20. 20
    Erithian on 30 Mar 2010 #

    As the video implies, this is perfect waltzer music – the kind of thing that soundtracks summer evenings at the fairground, and no doubt that’s where many people’s memories of this song from summer ’87 are located. I remember thinking Lou Diamond Phillips was an infuriatingly good-looking bloke (and I’m straight) and was going to be a big star – so much for my judgment.

    There was a saying at the time that if you were married in or around East LA at any time since the late 70s, it’s quite possible Los Lobos played at your wedding. That’s not to denigrate them, but such a hard-working band who obviously loved the music they played deserved to surf the zeitgeist when their style of music was suddenly the next big thing.

  21. 21
    Rory on 30 Mar 2010 #

    In the second half of 1987 the Australian charts were almost wholly dominated by just three number ones, the last of which we’ll encounter soon enough at Popular and the first of which we won’t (but whose artist we will next year). In between was this, number one for seven weeks, and certainly my memory of “La Bamba” was that you couldn’t go anywhere for months without hearing it. There have been worse monster hits, though; I didn’t buy the song, but didn’t mind it at all, and it’s stood the test of time very well. I wouldn’t quite go to 8, but it’s a comfortable 7. Never heard the Valens version, but it sounds as if I should. [Edit: Just did. Not bad, but I prefer this one.]

  22. 22
    Tom on 30 Mar 2010 #

    re freestyle – almost totally passed the UK by, Gloria Estefan had a string of hits but that’s as close as we come. I don’t think I was even AWARE of it until I got online and Mike Daddino sent me xeroxes of old Eddy and Kogan pieces about it.

  23. 23
    logged-out Tracer Hand on 30 Mar 2010 #

    my spanish class were adamant that our teacher tell us what “la bamba” meant, refusing to accept his explanation that it’s just the name of a dance, that there is no translation – “it just means ‘la bamba!!'” he practically cried in frustration, and we did too, in return: “but what does ‘la bamba’ mean???!?!?”

  24. 24
    swanstep on 30 Mar 2010 #

    I must say that, perhaps because I’m not much invested in the pop world cup project, I’m *really* looking forward to some of the next few #1s. I’m imagining that there could be some fireworks. Tee hee. But who knows?

  25. 25
    punctum on 30 Mar 2010 #

    Not wanting to provoke the bunny, but the next number one may qualify as the “Baby Jump” of the eighties (did someone say that about “My Camera Never Lies”? Tshaw! Must go back and look that up…).

  26. 26
    Tom on 30 Mar 2010 #

    I think last year’s events have slightly weakened its Baby Jumpiness but we’ll see – I’ll be intrigued to see what kind of googler action we get.

    Anyway – fingers Xed – we’re back to 3 posts a week now: last week’s hiatus was purely a work bottleneck, now the Pop World Cup is being co-hosted by Steve and Tim it’s not impinging on my time at all really.

  27. 27
    xyzzzz__ on 30 Mar 2010 #

    Yeah @ that link — this version fleshes out the orig.

    Although I quite like the film, not that I’d ever have high expectations but I always have it as retread of that biopic of Buddy Holly. In the BH pic there is a FANTASTIC scene of his first major gig with the unifying the room thing.

  28. 28
    anto on 30 Mar 2010 #

    Good point about gutiars. It certainly seems like ages since we discussed a song where it was the main instrument.
    I can’t get excited about La Bamba though. It’s only a few steps from this to Steve flippin’ Wright hurling The Mavericks at us.

  29. 29
    Mark G on 31 Mar 2010 #

    I heard Steve Wright’s radio show yesterday, it was almost exactly the same as his old Radio 210 show (1976 or thereabouts), same records etc.

  30. 30
    Jimmy the Swede on 2 Apr 2010 #

    Wrighty has really come over all precious these days. The mug punter knows for a fact that in order to get anything read out in the form of a request, one has to include “love the show” or “great show” in the blurb otherwise you’re in trouble. This either indicates either insecurity or narcissism, neither lovable traits really.

    He’s still a basically good lad, though.

  31. 31
    Snif on 4 Apr 2010 #

    Two ace pieces of casting in the film were Marshall Crenshaw and Brian Setzer as Buddy Holly and Eddie Cochran respectively.

  32. 32
    seekenee on 5 Sep 2012 #

    I liked this well enough at the time and I knew the Valens version from the Birdy film which i’d seen on video not long before this hit. The video of this brings to mind other 1987 fairground/summertime/big 50’s electric guitars videos by The La’s, the Bodines and, er, the Cure

  33. 33
    Cumbrian on 19 Jun 2013 #

    La Bamba was the sum total of my knowledge on Los Lobos until this last Monday when I saw them in support of Neil Young & Crazy Horse at the O2. As a consequence, I was expecting some light, fun, latin inflected pop-rock.

    What I got was an obviously technically accomplished but nevertheless lumpen bar band, bashing out a load of pretty straightforward tunes. I can’t name any of them, due to my lack of knowledge of their catalogue, but there was one tune where they did the muso-showcasing of each band members particular talents and it was all sadly predictable. I was hoping I would get something to inspire a search into their career. But I didn’t. What latin pop-rock should I be seeking out then, given I have little to no knowledge of the genre?

    They did do La Bamba though, at the end of their set. It was a different arrangement and it reminded me of nothing so much as The Stones’ tackling “Like A Rolling Stone” rather than the track that got to #1, which I still reckon is a decent, lightweight, enjoyable thrash through the original, with a nice bit of Spanish guitar at the end. I was a bit disappointed.

  34. 34
    Mark M on 11 Aug 2014 #

    Not sure anyone has mentioned this/grasped it, but the ‘bit at the end’ is the original original tune, i.e. the folk song from Vera Cruz, which I knew some time before I heard the Richie Valens song.


  35. 35
    hectorthebat on 9 Feb 2015 #

    Critic watch:

    Life (USA) – 40 Years of Rock & Roll, 5 Songs for Each Year 1952-91 (Updated 1995)
    Theater van het Sentiment, Radio 2 (NL) – Top 40 Songs by Year 1969-2000 (2013) 40
    Al Borde (USA) – The 500 Most Important Songs of Ibero-American Rock (2006) 301
    VH1 Latin America (“North”) – The 100 Greatest Songs of the 1980s (2007) 23
    Grammy Awards (USA) – Record of the Year Nominee
    Village Voice (USA) – Singles of the Year 3
    Rock de Lux (Spain) – Songs of the Year 32

  36. 36
    Mark M on 19 Apr 2015 #

    Heard this on the radio this evening*, and it sounded terrific. Los Lobos are incredibly variable, to say the least, but I think at their best, they’re pretty good. You normally get some lovely guitar playing, at least (I love David Hidalgo’s work as one of Tom Waits’ all-star sidemen, too).

    But I also was thinking about the similarities bet ween the swarm of trebly strings (guitars and harps) you get in son jarocho and that in Zimbabwean guitar pop of the ’80s. Anyone else hear it? Lord Sukrat – yay or nay?

    *6 Music’s request show, doing a ‘first record you bought’ show. Lots of good stuff, esp Doug E Fresh’s The Show.

  37. 37
    sbahnhof on 4 Sep 2015 #

    Re 35 – is this song *not* listed as one of the 10,001 tracks I must download?! Did the author mention why not?

  38. 38
    Gareth Parker on 1 Jun 2021 #

    #29 Yep, too true Steve Wright is an utter c**t! I’ll go with a 4/10 for Los Lobos.

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