Austin’s Joe “King” Carrasco (né Teutsch) grew up in the Lone Star state under the spell of Tex-Mex border music. El Molino, his first band, straddled this tradition (with horns and marimba) and rock (with Doug Sahm’s keyboard player, Augie Meyers, and songs like “Rock Esta Noche”). El Molino’s only album (reissued a decade later on cassette as Tex-Mex Rock-Roll) is pleasant enough, but sounds pale compared to what followed.
Whether influenced by new wave or reverting to more adolescent taste, Carrasco traded in El Molino for the Crowns. This no-nonsense backing trio, dominated by Kris Cummings’ cheesy organ, is built for speed. The Crowns’ debut album touches on rockabilly (“One More Time”), polka (“Federales”) and border influences (“Buena,” “Caca de Vaca”). Their forte, though, is performing “96 Tears” under a variety of thin guises, all of them delightful (“Let’s Get Pretty,” “Betty’s World,” you name it). The tempos are revved-up punk, the feeling, Southwestern mestizo. (The Stiff LP has two numbers not on the American album, but Hannibal’s release has three songs not on the English version, and a funnier cover as well.)
Party Safari is a four-song EP further displaying Carrasco’s cultural dementia; the Crowns’ next album, Synapse Gap, finds them only slightly more subdued. Besides re-recording two of Party Safari‘s songs, Carrasco dabbles in reggae rhythms and somehow got Michael Jackson (!) to sing along on “Don’t Let a Woman (Make a Fool Out of You).”
In a last-ditch effort to sell out (well, to sell a few records at least), Carrasco made Party Weekend, a non-stop heap o’ fun. Richard Gottehrer produced it, and tunes like “Let’s Go” and “Burnin’ It Down” (not to mention a spiffy remake of “Buena”) perfectly crystallize all of the group’s strengths. Murderously infectious and upbeat — attitudinally the Southwest’s answer to the Ramones — Party Weekend seemed perfectly designed to introduce the world to Carrasco’s abundant talent and charm. But it didn’t take off, and so Carrasco unceremoniously returned from his safari in the majors.
Joe’s next release was the tape-only Tales from the Crypt, a marvelous set of demos from 1979 with embryonic (read: raw and exciting) versions of many of Carrasco’s best tunes, from “Let’s Get Pretty” to “Caca de Vaca” to “Federales.” Although not intended as such, it’s an ideal introduction to a world of boundless spirit and infectious fun.
By Bordertown, Carrasco’s act is getting kind of, er, familiar: too many of the songs employ not only the same chords and melody, but a lot of ’em stick to the same Spanglicized rhyming patterns. Adding to the fatigue is a new-found political sensibility, yielding well-intentioned bores like “Who Buys the Guns” and “Current Events (Are Making Sense).” Bordertown is as good as any of his prior records; those with a large collection of Carrasco platters can probably survive without it.
Bandido Rock finds the increasingly politicized Carrasco (note retitled band) mouthing sentiments like “Juarez and Zapata / Stood for love of the people.” Just a glance at the album’s song list — including “Fuera Yanqui” and “Hey Gringo ‘No Pasaran'” — confirms suspicions of monomania. Too bad, because the band, now mostly accordion-led, still sounds fine. But with only three out of ten songs in a yanqui 4/4, Bandido Rock is strictly for the musically converted and/or anyone ready to follow Joe into Nicaragua.
Enjoyment of Royal, Loyal & Live — recorded with a loud, tight quartet in early ’89 — has no such prerequisites. The seriously sweaty rock’n’roll show begins weakly with “Hey Joe” and that unofficial Texas anthem, “96 Tears,” but then shifts into high gear as Carrasco — surging with contagious enthusiasm — delivers an impressive program of mostly new material. (The handful of JKC oldies are, thankfully, items like “Mañana” and “Parti [sic] Weekend” rather than more obvious and overplayed numbers.) Amid greater stylistic and rhythmic diversity than Carrasco’s records usually muster, Bandido Rock alumnus Marcelo Gauna (accordion/keyboards) and Tom Cruz, a piercingly good lead guitarist, provide ample instrumental flavor. Joe King does the rest.