. . .
There’s this great podcast that I just discovered during the lockdown called A History of Rock Music in 500 Songs by a droll Englishman named Andrew Hickey. He’s already done 100 episodes, so I’ve been grazing to catch up, but one of the things that I learned recently was that “La Bamba” might have been around for centuries as a Mexican folk song.
Which makes sense, because it’s one of those songs that feels like it was written in our DNA, that was always out there hanging around, waiting patiently until the technology to actually record it existed.
But, of course, what Ritchie Valens did was what kids have been doing ever since: taking something ancient and recreating it with the latest beats and styles. He also had some help: the great Earl Palmer utterly kills it on the drums, driving it with a double snare beats and infinite stop times, and future Wall of Sound builder Carol Kaye kept things together with an acoustic guitar.
But beyond that it’s all Ritchie Valens. His utter enthusiasm comes through with every single note he sings, as well as all of his little trills, shouts, screams and asides. He’s so thrilled to be doing this song! It’s impossible to listen to this song without a big-ass smile on your face, even if you don’t understand a single word.
Yo no soy marinero
Yo no soy marinero, soy capitán
Soy capitán, soy capitán
Bamba, bamba, bam
The peak might be Valens’ guitar solo, which sidles in from another dimension and keeps going and going and going and going, like he was getting off more playing the guitar than he was singing. Which is really saying something, given how much fun he was having singing. It’s seriously one of the most joyful songs ever recorded.
“La Bamba” was originally the b-side to the much much much more subdued “Donna,” which must have made sense to the record company. Honestly, I can’t even imagine buying the single because you heard “Donna” on the radio and thought it was pretty and stuff — no argument here! — and then when you flip it over, there’s this manic amazing song.
In any event, that single only made it to #23, and before Valens could enjoy his success and maybe even try to top it, he had the misfortune to be on the Day The Music Died plane, his talent snuffed before he could fully explore it.
Luckily, we still have “La Bamba,” which — to my ears — still sounds pretty fucking fresh, like the kind of thing garage rockers have been kicking out ever since. Obviously the most notable cover was by Los Lobos, who took it to #1 in the wake of the film of the same name — good job for all involved, even if they polished up the rough edges — but my favorite cover is the 1981 future Certain Song by Tonio K, who kept the music, changed the title to “La Bomba,” and made it a dark satire about nuclear war. As you did.
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