The Luchadores of surf guitar celebrate 25 years in modern music
I first met Danny Amis – better known, perhaps, as “Daddy-O Grande” – sometime in the late 1980s.
Amis was the manager of the newly-opened Phonoluxe Records store in Nashville, but I was already familiar with him thanks to my buddy Andy, who had hipped me to the Raybeats, a neo-surf rock band from NYC that Amis had played with earlier in the decade (appearing on that band’s 1981 album Guitar Beat). Moving to Nashville in the mid-‘80s, Amis opened Phonoluxe with British record collector Mike Smyth, leaving soon thereafter to work as stage manager for local celebrity Ralph Emery’s long-running Nashville Now TV show on the cable network TNN.
Even then, Amis was making plans to form a new band to pursue “the lost art of the guitar instrumental.” Inspired by the groundbreaking sounds of artists like Link Wray, Dick Dale, the Shadows, and the Ventures, Amis enlisted the talents of fellow guitarist Eddie Angel and drummer L.K. “Jimmy” Lester to form the Straitjackets. The band broke up nearly as soon as it was formed, with Angel subsequently forming rockabilly revivalists the Planet Rockers.
In my 2012 book The Other Side of Nashville, I wrote of the guitarist’s work with the Planet Rockers, “Angel’s Link Wray-inspired, sci-fi-meets-spaghetti-western and-surf-n-turf-at-the-SoCal-swap-meet guitar grunge is never less than inspired.”
After releasing a pair of independent albums in the early ‘90s, the Planet Rockers broke up, but the band provided Angel with valuable experience and a plan for the future. Amis, Angel, and Lester reunited in 1994 as Los Straitjackets, adding Nashville rock veteran E. Scott Esbeck on bass. The foursome donned Mexican wrestling masks and, with the enormous popularity of filmmaker Quentin Tarantino’s Pulp Fiction – which notably included instrumental surf-rock gems by the Tornadoes, the Revels, the Lively Ones, and Dick Dale as part of the movie’s soundtrack – it provided a perfect launching point for Los Straitjacket’s unique blend of guitar-driven surf-rock, 1960s-era garage-rock, rockabilly, and 1970s-styled punk rock. The band released its debut album, The Utterly Fantastic and Totally Unbelievable Sound of Los Straitjackets, in 1995 on the independent Upstart Records label.
The timing couldn’t have been better. In the wake of the commercial domination of “grunge” and the ascendance of Seattle to the top of the rock ‘n’ roll food chain, an entire generation’s ears were opened to new (and different) sounds. Indie labels flourished throughout the decade and, if some mustered up only a handful of releases, a nationwide network of (pre-Internet) music zines afforded coverage to even the most cash-strapped of D.I.Y. bands and labels. A few indie imprints specialized in something approximating the Los Straitjackets’ sonic blueprint – Estrus Records and Dionysus Records come to mind – but a lot of their releases were more garage-y than the Straitjackets. Bands like the Mummies and Man or Astro-man? were kissing cousins, but even they were more punkish in nature than Los Straitjackets.
In an email interview with Rock & Roll Globe, Straitjackets guitarist Eddie Angel explains the Lucha Libre wrestling masks. “We were big fans of ‘60s Mexican rock ‘n’ roll,” he writes, “bands like Los Teen Tops and Los Rockin Devils. We liked the way they sounded primitive but really cool and fun, and the names made us giggle.” Continuing, he says “Danny was the one who had the masks. He was a big fan of Mexican culture and was going there every chance he got, and he was buying the masks every time he went to the Lucha Libre matches. One day at rehearsal, we saw the box of masks and thought ‘wow, they look cool!’ Because we were all instrumental, I knew we had to do something to hold an audience’s attention, so we put on the masks and matching suits, matching guitars, and silly choreography!”
The Utterly Fantastic and Totally Unbelievable Sound of Los Straitjackets was a stunning debut album, crackling with malevolent energy and laser-like musical focus. The sound of an explosion that opens the album-opening romp “Fury!” quickly falls away beneath a flurry of percussion, and then the razor-sharp guitars burst off the grooves and lobotomize your expectations. The 14 tracks are largely original instrumentals crafted by Amis or Angel, and the album was produced by singer/songwriter Ben Vaughn, himself no stranger to retro sounds. The album offers the listener a veritable smorgasbord of rad sounds, from the band’s strutting theme song “Straitjacket” (more than a little inspired by “Peter Gunn,” but without the sax riffs) or the early ‘60s exploitation flick sound of “Caveman” (complete with grunts) to the high-gloss, Link Wray-textured oceanfront property of “Calhoun Street” (the album’s lone cover, of a Raybeats tune) or the rumbling “Tailspin.”
“Danny Amis and I had a pretty good backlog of songs we had written over the years,” writes Angel. “Danny had been in the popular guitar instrumental band the Raybeats and I had released an instrumental 45 in 1981, ‘Rampage’ backed/with ‘Lynxtail’. We didn’t have a plan to speak of – we just did what came organically. We knew we wanted it to be like the bands we loved like the Ventures, the Shadows, and Link Wray. We also were big fans of the Beatles. I think the one thing that set us apart from a lot of other instrumental bands was our songwriting; we were more into having a good song than pyrotechnic guitar playing. Our philosophy was we wanted to be fun and entertaining and have good songs.”
The band’s sophomore effort, ¡Viva! LosStraitjackets, appeared the following year and it stayed relatively true to the musical blueprint the band had mapped out with its debut, displaying but a slight expansion upon the surf-rock and rockabilly roots of its predecessor. Opening with the spry “Cavalcade,” the song features some rhythmic exotica worthy of Lex Baxter or Martin Denny. “Casbah” takes its inspiration from the other side of the globe, vaguely Middle Eastern rhythm patterns embroidered upon by the stinging fretwork of Amis and Angel, which sounds like a heady mix of Wray, Dick Dale, and Duane Eddy. The brilliant “Pacifica” is romantic mood music heavy with trembling guitars and emotional tremolo while the crazed sound of “Espionage” is pure 1960s-era film soundtrack with plenty of time changes and colorful instrumental passages. “Nightmare In Monte Cristo” is a more somber affair, the band painting a dark and disturbing tale with nothing more than the lonesome sound of their instruments.
What are Angel’s favorite memories of making these first two Los Straitjackets albums? “We had a bunch of songs from years past that this band was a perfect outlet for, plus we had been rehearsing for months before the first record. Ben Vaughn was in town and was staying at Danny’s house – we asked him to produce the record. We were funding this record on our own…we cut it live in two days at Brad Jones’ studio in Nashville. Ben basically left us to do our thing on this first record.”
Continuing, Angel remembers, “(for) the second album, Ben Vaughn recommended we record at Mark Linett’s studio, ‘Your Place or Mine’, in Glendale, California. Ben had more involvement on this record; he brought many ideas to this album. One of my fondest memories was that Mark Linett had possession of some Beach Boys master tapes – he played us some individual tracks (isolated vocals, etc.) – that’s something I’ll never forget! Another memory…Mark had a pool with a cabana and a jukebox…we played Marlena (Frankie Valli & the Four Seasons) over and over. I also had my first introduction to Trader Joe’s in Glendale!”
Although street-level DIY music zines provided both of these albums with lots of love, mainstream rags like Spin and Rolling Stone completely ignored them. Only Ira Robbins, in The Trouser Press Guide to ‘90s Rock, took notice of the Los Straitjackets’ brilliance. Writing about the band’s debut, Robbins says “On a scale of one to kowabunga, Los Straitjackets are mighty nifty, playing salty reverb-drenched originals…if Los Straitjackets add nothing new to the genre (though Angel’s memorable “University Blvd.” has the makings of a twang repertoire standard), they uphold its great traditions in jubilantly timeless fashion.”
Los Straitjackets’ first two albums were recently reissued by Yep Roc Records on both CD and, for the first time, on vinyl, in celebration of the band’s 25th anniversary. Both albums have been long out-of-print and hard to come by, demanding collectors’ prices (when you can find them). Over the course of a career that has now spanned three decades, Los Straitjackets has released 14 studio and eight live albums, as well as a handful of collaborations with talents like Nick Lowe, blues legend Eddy “The Chief” Clearwater, Big Sandy (of Big Sandy and His Fly-Rite Boys), and rockabilly giant Deke Dickerson.
Almost ten years ago, Danny Amis discovered a blood clot after a trip to Spain and was subsequently diagnosed with Multiple Myeloma, a treatable but generally incurable form of blood cancer. Amis underwent treatment, but his recovery was difficult and made it so that he was unable to tour. Living in Mexico City, Amis still records with the band, most recently on Los Straitjackets’ 2017 Nick Lowe tribute, What’s So Funny About Peace, Love and Los Straitjackets. The band brought in guitarist Greg “Gregorio El Grande” Townson to fill in on guitar as well. Los Straitjackets has since toured extensively with friend and influence Nick Lowe as his backing band, as well as touring on their own.
In an interview with Rolling Stone magazine from earlier this year, Lowe praises Los Straitjackets. “Apart from being a fantastic rock ‘n’ roll band, they know how to play tons of different styles really well,” says Lowe. “They can knock you out a version of Bacharach & David’s ‘The Look of Love’ with no trouble at all. Plus, we get on with each other really well. And that makes the music work. This is a collaboration. They’re in no way my backing band.”
For his part, Angel says of their touring partner, “We first met Nick at Yep Roc’s 15-year anniversary party in Chapel Hill when we backed him on a few songs that night.”
Angel continues, “We’ve both been on Yep Roc and we’re both managed by Jake Guralnick. It was Jake’s idea for us to try to do something together. The first tour we did with Nick was to promote his The Quality Holiday Revue Live record five years ago. It worked out so well that we continued to tour with him. The best part of touring with Nick is getting to know him, hearing his stories in a colorful way – he’s one of music’s best storytellers. We have a shared sensibility – he brings out the best in LSJ in a very organic way. The icing on the cake is we get to stay at nicer hotels and play at nicer venues.”
Earlier this fall, Danny Amis suffered from a life-threatening bout of meningitis. The guitarist is currently undergoing rehabilitation where he is relearning to walk and speak, and working to improve his short-term memory loss. Sweet Relief has established a fund to help pay for Amis’s medical bills and occupational therapy at and, with the band’s blessing, a portion of the proceeds from these reissued albums will be donated to Amis’s Sweet Relief fund in honor of their fallen comrade.
In the meantime, the enigmatic foursome continues to tour, bringing their familiar, yet unique sound to appreciative audiences around the world.
VIDEO: Los Straitjackets live at Daryl’s House
VIDEO: Nick Lowe and Los Straitjackets in Tarrytown, NY, April 12, 2019