Guitarist Eddie Angel, who brings Los Straitjackets to San Francisco next week opening for X’s annual X-Mas run, remembers the band’s first Nashville gig, thinking friends in the audience would laugh at the group’s cheesy headgear.
“We almost chickened out,” he says. “But we wore them anyway and knew right away we had a winner.”
Though he had high hopes when he moved his girl-fronted rockabilly band Jeannie and the Hurricanes from low-key Albany, N.Y. to bustling Nashville in 1986, he experienced culture shock: “You couldn’t find a good slice of pizza or a bagel anywhere, and I quickly went from being a big fish in a small pond to being a nothing in a big pond,” he says.
The Hurricanes, initially signed to CBS Records, lost the deal and broke up, leaving him struggling to fit his booming Link Wray style into twangy sessions. At wit’s end, he conceived Los Straitjackets, an instrumental surf and rockabilly band that would perform in matching black suits, gold Aztec medallions and elaborate Mexican wrestling masks.
What did he have to lose?
At an early Hurricanes gig opening for Webb Wilder, Angel made two simpatico contacts: Wilder’s drummer Jimmy Lester, who would later join his group, and Raybeats axman Danny Amis, who complimented him on his inclusion of two obscure Link Wray covers in the set.
“So when everything fell apart, my first instinct was to call Danny and start an instrumental band, which made zero sense in Nashville,” he says. It was Amis — a huge fan of Mexican luchador culture — who suggested the members wear masks he had purchased outside wrestling events on frequent trips to Mexico City.
Amis eventually left Los Straitjackets for a permanent move to Acapulco, but not before defining the group’s unusual, rollicking style in its 1995 debut “The Utterly Fantastic and Totally Unbelievable Sound of Los Straitjackets” and 1996’s “Viva! Los Straitjackets.” (Both have recently been reissued on high-quality vinyl.)
Seasonal releases are also available: “Complete Christmas Songbook,” “The Quality Holiday Revue” (a concert recording with Nick Lowe), and an array of Christmas ornaments
Angel was worried that certain crowds might not take kindly to such cultural appropriation. “But the first time we played Mexico City, around 2000, the people were great to us,” he says. “They liked lucha libre, but they didn’t associate it with rock and roll — it was something from their parents’ culture.”
In fact, Los Straitjackets costumes only rarely raise a ruckus. “A couple of times when we’ve given radio interviews and the station is in some federal office, security kind of freaks out,” Angel says. “But those masks have given us a career!”
IF YOU GO
X, Los Straitjackets
Where: Independent, 628 Divisadero St., S.F.
When: 8 p.m. Monday-Wednesday
Tickets: $35 to $100