4.2.10

LOS LOBOS, “LA BAMBA”

19th September, 1987


This record, on this list, is a first in a number of ways. In fact let's try to catalogue them all:

It's the first time an act from the United States has topped the Billboard Hot Latin Chart. This might be surprising, considering that the Billboard Hot Latin Chart is after all compiled by counting sales and airplay statistics within the United States; surely locals would do better than otherwise. But the competing demographics, loyalties, and audiences measured (probably pretty poorly and incompletely) by the Hot Latin Chart makes that suggestion a massive oversimplification of a reality that I'm in no position to describe in any detail. I'll confine myself to the observation that after this it is not unusual, though I'm not sure it ever becomes unremarkable, for estadounidense-born acts to top the chart.

It's the first time a rock & roll record has topped the Billboard Hot Latin Chart. There may be some cavilling at this: Luis Miguel, Emmanuel, and Franco have all had hits that derive (some of them fairly loosely) from rock music. I can only claim popular usage: it's the first guitar-driven uptempo song with a strong backbeat and audible connections to the music of the 1950s. This is only an important point in the sense that anyone following this blog hoping for much more guitar-oriented rock music will not be very much in luck. Enjoy it while you got it, in other words.

It's the first time a Hot Latin #1 has also (not quite simultaneously) topped the Billboard Hot 100. In fact, it dropped off the top spot of the national pop chart the week before it ascended to #1 on the Latin chart; which suggests several possibilities, most of which are probably true: that records on the Latin chart, which is driven far more by airplay than by sales, tend to take longer to get up a head of steam; that the movie-driven success of the single (see below) in the wider arena was a factor in driving the record up the Latin chart; and that the dreamy Luis Miguel was hard to beat. (This last is reinforced by the fact that the record that replaced "La Bamba" at the top of the chart was also the record that preceded it.) But not only the US pop chart, but at least seven (according to Wikipedia) other international pop charts featured "La Bamba" at the top spot throughout the latter half of 1987. What's notable is that they were all European or Anglophone countries; perhaps Latin America had little use for rock & roll nostalgia in 1987. (Fun fact: as of this writing the Wikipedia Español page for "La Bamba" doesn't mention Los Lobos at all.)

It's the first time a Hot Latin #1 has been released as a commercial single. This is undoubtedly closely related to the above paragraph: the single was for the broader pop market (it was released by the venerable L.A. punk 'n' roots record label Slash, Los Lobos' home at the time), and it would remain rare for Hot Latin #1s to be available as singles until the 2000s. I note this only for the record; even in 1987, we are no longer living in a singles world.

It's the first time a Hot Latin #1 has come in off the back of a movie. It will not be the last. The movie in question, a biopic of Ritchie Valens starring Lou Diamond Phillips, is a blank to me. I haven't seen it and probably never will; I generally dislike biopics and am unreasonably irritated by the movies' colonization of pop. Unreasonably because I love this song and I wouldn't get to talk about it (I will eventually I swear) if a movie hadn't given it the publicity that sent it to #1, irritated because too often conversation about music ends with how it's been used in movies or TV. (I of course reserve the right to talk about music only through the lens of cinema or television if that's how I came to it.)

And it's the first time I knew the record before listening to it for this project. In fact I knew the record before I knew Valens' original; in those heady premillenial days of Napster the first mislabeled mp3 I downloaded was a 96kbps version of this, attributed to "Richie Valen." (Well, either that or "I Melt With You" by "the Cure.") Out of vestigial resentment at the error, I've never listened very much to Los Lobos' version of the song, and it is still my third-favorite, after Ritchie's original and Lila Downs' magnificently haunted 2004 recording.

But Los Lobos have long been one of my go-to bands when I don't know what else to listen to; their musicianship and attention to detail is always welcome, and their ability to blend as many different traditions as possible into one heady rock & roll stew is frequently inspiring. Typically, I like their early work best, from How Will The Wolf Survive? to Kiko — in recent years they've become something of a token Latino band for classic-rock boomers like my dad (like Los Lonely Boys, except not so goddamn jammy), and they've nearly always been more popular with white rocker-types than with the broader Latino audience. But then I am a white rocker-type.

Their "La Bamba" doesn't treat Valens' original as a sacrosanct document (and rightly so, or it never would have been a hit), fleshing out its sound with their ornate full-band orchestration. Instead of Valens' one, they have three guitars dueling for rhythm, ornamentation, and solo space, and Louie Pérez' drum line, shuffling just a little behind the beat, is sexier and funkier than Earl Palmer's straight-up R&B snap in 1958. In fact Los Lobos play up the folklórico roots of the song by adding in elements of traditional Latin music: flamenco flourishes, banda accordion, and into a charanga breakdown in the outro. David Hidalgo's sweet croon of a voice isn't as punchy as Valens' raver (but Valens could also be sweet when he tried, viz. "Donna").

Hmm? The lyrics? "To dance the bamba, you need a little grace." "For me, for you, go man go." "For you I will live, for you I will live." "I'm not a sailor, I'm a captain." Shouldn't you have learned this stuff in second grade?

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