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.