Joe King Carrasco

by Greg Prato

It seemed like every time we tuned into MTV from 1981-1983, there was a new artist to discover, often one offering up a video that eschewed a multi-million dollar budget in favor of something cheap but charming. Case in point, singer/guitarist/songwriter Joe King Carrasco, who earned spins on the channel with the new wave/spring break anthem "Party Weekend" (and it's spin-off holiday tune, "It's A Party Christmas").

Carrasco has the distinction of being part of the stable of Stiff Records artists (Elvis Costello, Ian Dury, Madness) that went on to also record for a major label. And while he did offer up quite a few tunes that fit in well with other similarly styled hits of the era ("Buena," "Party Weekend"), Carrasco's major label union with MCA was fleeting - lasting only two albums: 1982's Synapse Gap and 1983's Party Weekend.

Originally from Texas, Carrasco is currently based in the Love Boat terminus Puerto Vallarta, Mexico, and continues to issue such albums as Tlaquepaque and Rucca via his own indie record company, Anaconda. He has a soft spot for holiday ditties as well, as we see with the recent video for his song, "Tamale Christmas."

Carrasco (real name: Joe Teutsch) told us about songwriting, his time with Michael Jackson, and one of the most energetic and unpredictable performances Saturday Night Live has ever seen.
Greg Prato (Songfacts): I remember seeing a lot of Joe King Carrasco videos being played back in the early days of MTV. What do you remember about those early days of the channel, looking back?

Joe King Carrasco: Well, I knew everybody. I knew all the DJs, and it was fun. I did their "Party Christmas" - I don't know if you've seen that. I guess they don't do that anymore. They don't show videos on MTV anymore, do they?

Songfacts: It's mostly reality TV and they'll play maybe a one hour block a day of videos.

Joe: It's funny, here in Mexico, I watch this - I'm watching it right now - it's called Bandamax, and it's just nothing but videos and Mexican bands playing. It's cheap videos, kind of like they don't have the technology yet. They just film the group out in the middle of the desert playing somewhere. That's kind of the way we approached it with Stiff Records; we rented a double decker bus and drove all around London singing "Buena," and then I got arrested in front of Buckingham Palace playing "Buena" during the changing of the guards. That was pretty wild.

So it's just basically going to location, location, location, lip-synching the song and trying to have fun doing it. But it seemed like it really got away from that with special effects.

You still see video channels down here in Latin America. It's amazing. They have the Telehit and Bandamax and about three or four other video channels that show nothing but videos of actual bands playing.

Songfacts: I thought that videos like "Party Weekend" were definitely charming. As you were just explaining, it wasn't a multi million production - it was like people picking up a camera and just shooting things. I thought that was kind of the golden era of the channel when they played videos like that.

Joe: Yeah. It was a lot of independent people doing the videos. All of a sudden, record companies came in with big production, and that blew it back. But I think today with YouTube and all that, people are having to do their own videos. Our manager Kim, we just drove back to Mexico and everywhere we went, she picked up the camera. We lip-synched songs all the way from Laredo, Texas, to here in Jalisco.

That's what I've been doing for the last 20 years: every time I travel to Mexico, I have really good cameras and we start shooting. The whole key is like writing a song: you've got all this footage, now you've got to edit it.

Songfacts: What are some memories of the writing of the song "Party Weekend"?

Joe: We were sitting on Guadalupe in Austin on the Drag [the Drag is part of Guadalupe Street that is located along the western portion of the University of Texas campus in Austin]. It was a Friday night and I said, "Brad [bass player Brad Kizer], it looks like a party weekend." I went, "Wow, that's a good song title."

It's sort of a fragmented, Stones kind of thing, and it kind of speeded up. I was trying to do "A Double Shot (Of My Baby's Love)" [an organ-heavy party tune by The Swingin' Medallions from 1966] kind of thing. "Hey, little girl, what do you do? I've been waiting all week for something like you. It's Friday." I was really into "A Double Shot (Of My Baby's Love)" back then. Still am.

Speedy, my bass player, just got through playing Chris Montez, "Let's Dance." Remember that song?

Songfacts: Yes.

Joe: So anyway, that's still where I'm at, basically.

Songfacts: You mentioned that the song was based on The Stones. For some reason, that riff and the way it came out reminded me of Devo.

Joe: Yeah, kind of could have been Devo. You play guitar, right?

Songfacts: Yes. I do play guitar.
[Joe pulls out his guitar at this point - play the clip to hear this part]
Joe: If you go [playing guitar], can you hear that?

Songfacts: Yes, I can hear that.

Joe: [Playing guitar] Then you go down to D. It kind of came from those two little riffs. And it probably had I'm sure a little Devo rubbed off on it at the time. But basically it was just being real sloppy and something real sloppy turned into something that stayed around.

Songfacts: Was the filming of the "Party Weekend" video as fun as how the final video looked?

Joe: Oh, yeah. Yeah! We shot that all in one day. We were playing Padre Island for spring break. It was a lot of work. Joe Nick Patoski - he was my manager - his sister directed the video and had really scheduled out what we were doing. There's a scene, if you watch it, where I'm in the pool with a bunch of girls.

Songfacts: I remember that scene.

Joe: The girl I was living with was from France, and she came out to the pool and she said, "Here's your engagement ring!" She took off our engagement ring, threw it in the pool and said, "We're over." I was going, "Whoa, we're" just shooting a video. It was drama - that would have been good for the video, right? Your girlfriend catches you in a pool with girls and throws the engagement ring into the pool. We never did get married.

Wow. I remember that part. There was a little drama there, but it was fun. I had a good time. I was diving into the audience, too, there.

Songfacts: That was something I was going to ask: I think that's the first time I ever saw crowd surfing in a music video.

Joe: Yeah. It's true. I didn't even think about that. I started doing it at Club Foot and I just sort of carried on into that Padre Island thing.

Songfacts: As far as songwriting goes, how do you find that you write your best songs?

Johnny Perez was probably best known as the drummer for the Sir Douglas Quintet, a band that merged roots rock, country, psychedelia, Tex-Mex, and good old fashioned rock n' roll all together. Perez would also go on to pen songs with Carrasco, including what is largely considered his finest album: 1980's Joe "King" Carrasco and the Crowns. Perez would also go on to own his own recording studio, Topanga Skyline Studio. Sadly, he passed away in 2012 at the age of 69, from complications of cirrhosis of the liver.
Joe: I mostly write them in a car when I'm driving. But the songs I wrote with Johnny Perez, we'd just mostly smoke a joint and drink a cup of coffee and start writing. We traveled all over Mexico writing together. He's pretty crazy. It's like, out of a thousand lines, we can only use, like, one. So it's pretty hard, but it was fun.

I drive back and forth between Texas and Mexico a lot, so when I'm riding in the car, I'm thinking of lyrics.

Because I'm down here, what I do is I go down to little beach towns or go up to the mountains and I get a cheap hotel with my dogs and spend a couple of days here working on music with nobody around. But it's really weird - I put everything on cassette. And I have cassettes from 1980, so I'm still going back to them all the time. God, that's a pretty old technology.

I go to a gym every day here in Mexico and all these kids are in the gym, they're looking at me with these cassettes when I'm on the treadmill. They're saying, "What's this guy doing?" They've never seen cassettes.

Songfacts: So I guess that you haven't made the jump to doing things digitally, using computers to help with recording.

Joe: Well, I keep dipping back into the last 30 years, and I carried cassettes with me for the last 30 years. So I guess I could convert them over, but I have two or three hundred of them, so it's not that easy to convert. And I find that when you hit the delete button on a digital thing, it's gone forever. With a cassette, you really have to work at messing it up. I was doing it this morning in the gym, man, listening to cassettes.

So I'll do fragments of a song; I'll write a verse one year and maybe three or four years later come back and finish the next verse or the chorus or the bridge or the lead parts. Some songs take me 15 years to write. I don't think you should force the song, so I do it in fragments. It's all fragmented.

When I sing the song or when I listen to it, I usually think about the places where I came up with the line. We had a song called "Nacho Daddy," and there's a certain place in the road south of Vallarta here where I'm always driving and I looked at that place and that's where I came up with that line.

Songfacts: You said some songs have taken 15 years to write. What are some songs that took a long time to finish?

Joe: "Tamale Christmas," have you heard that one yet?

Songfacts: Yeah. I watched the video today.

Joe: I think it was 1987 when Johnny was talking about "Tamale Christmas" and we kind of kicked it around a little bit. And then in 2004 I was working on it between Monterrey and Laredo on the highway. And what is this, 2013, and we recorded it last year. So it kind of evolved from '87 to 2004 to now. That's a good example. The words, putting it all together, I had to go to all these different cassettes to find all the lyrics.

It's like you have all the lyrics there, but you have to piece them all together like a puzzle. Actually, writing the song is the fun part. Going back trying to fit the puzzle is the hard part - the discipline of trying to finish it. But the ideas are always there.
You never know when your brain's going to disintegrate, so I've got over 200 90-minute cassettes full, and every five minutes there's a new song or idea.

Songfacts: That's obviously a lot of songs that you've accumulated over the years right there!

Joe: Yeah. And I log them, I make copies of them. I copy and back everything up, and I log them in these notebooks. There's this lady here in Vallarta and I have them print up my notebooks. I'm sure they're just wondering what all this stuff is they're copying all the time. I'm taking a trip today.

I take the cassettes with me, listen to them, and start trying to see what comes first. And if something is really good, if I can finish one, that's the one that goes out. They're all on the runway.

It seemed like every new wave band of the late '70s had a lead singer and a separately-titled backing band: Elvis Costello and the Attractions, Ian Dury and the Blockheads, and... Joe King Carrasco and the Crowns. Comprised of Carrasco, organist/accordionist Kris Cummings, bassist Brad Kizer, and drummer Mike Navarro, it was during the early '80s that this line-up split up, but they did reunite in 2011 for live work and a brand new album, Que Wow.
Songfacts: Would you say that your songwriting approach is different than how you would write back in the early days with the Crowns?

Joe: At one point, if your song didn't fit with the Crowns, you had to toss it aside. But I've learned now that if you have any idea for any song that comes to you, it's kind of a gift, so you ought to put it down and finish it no matter what. We have a country record out, too [Rancho No Tengo]. I really don't play country, but it's a good country record. I used to toss the ideas aside, now I try to keep everything I get.

But when I write I have this bracket. I say, "This is for the Crowns and this is for something else." I kind of do it that way, too.

Songfacts: And as you mentioned, there's the new holiday song/video, "Tamale Christmas."

Joe: Johnny Perez, who I wrote the songs with, he was an original drummer for the Sir Douglas Quintet, and he died last September. It's funny, he kept saying, "We've got to finish 'Tamale Christmas.'" I finally finished it and I called him up and he died. He never got to hear it.

Songfacts: I'm actually friendly with Shandon Sahm who's the son of the Sir Douglas Quartet's Doug Sahm, and is the drummer for the Meat Puppets.

Joe: Yeah. Shandon's a great guy, man. Yeah. Doug was a real inspiration. Doug did one of my songs with the Texas Tornadoes, "Tell Me," and that was a real honor to have Freddy Fender sing your songs, man, can't get any better than that.

Songfacts: Yeah. Doug is someone that I don't think really gets the credit for his songwriting.

Joe: Doug's my biggest inspiration, definitely.

I want to finish all the stuff I've started, but what happens is that in all these hotel rooms, you just sit and you smoke a joint or something and you start playing guitar at three in the morning, and all of a sudden you're putting down tape and pretty soon you have a lot more songs than you started out with. It's just a matter of trying to finish them.

I think that lyrically that's the hard part. But I'm really into old rock & roll, like Little Richard and Chuck Berry and stuff like that. And I get a lot of ideas being here in Mexico. I've been here for almost eight years, and it's a whole 'nother rock & roll scene in Latin America, in Argentina and everything. So I'll follow that more.

For a while I was trying to write only in Spanish. But then I thought I was limiting myself. So now I'm going both ways to English and Spanish, and if people don't understand it, that's too bad. They need to look at it in the dictionary.

But I find slang on the street here. I feel like a miner.

Songfacts: It would be interesting if you would want to talk about where you're currently based and how that affects your songwriting and music.

Joe: Oh, yeah. There are big pop records in Europe that you never hear in the States, right? Or there are international songs. You'll hear that here in Mexico - you'll be walking down the street and you'll hear the same songs blasting from taxis to markets and stuff. A lot of them come from Italy - that's more of an international thing here.

You don't hear that in the States so much, where a little pop song pops out of the water, but every once in a while a little hit springs up and you go, "Wow." So it's pretty interesting to hear all that. And I know it rubs off on my songwriting, because I have to play those songs sometimes. But these little groups out of the mountains come down and you go, "Where did they find that song?"

It's weird in Latin America - they've always loved the Beatles and they've always loved Creedence. And they always like old rock & roll.

Songfacts: In the late '70s and early '80s, I noticed that you recorded for both indie labels and also a major label. How did that affect the way you approach songwriting for both indies and major labels?

Joe: Well, I think when you're trying to do a major label, you're trying to be more commercial, but I've learned that it's better to be more raw. In the long run you're happier being more raw.

But, of course, I try to go to a good engineer. He's more on top of it than me. So the new CD, the engineer we had from New York he did really good, man. It's got good, crystal clear sonics on it.

I'm driving around with a little 3-inch speaker in my car. I grew up listening to AM radio, so I didn't really pay attention to the production.

Songfacts: Before you mentioned the song "Buena." What do you remember about the writing and recording of that song?

Joe: In "Buena," when I was living with JP - Johnny Perez - Doug [Sahm] was staying with us a lot, too. It was out in Pico and Crenshaw, which is a pretty rough area of LA back in 1979. It was pretty cold.

When people answer their phone in Spanish, they go, "Bueno," but we changed it to "Buena," and thought "Wow, that's a really good idea for a song." I had that melody, so we started working from that point. When he says, "Buena," we always answer the phone "Bueno," and that's where it came from, answering the phone.

Songfacts: There's also been a lot said about the song "Don't Let A Woman Make a Fool Out of You," and the whole Michael Jackson connection. How did you get Michael to sing on that song?

Joe: There was a restaurant next to the Roxy in LA - it was a grill or something. A nice place. And that's where the song came from, when JP and I were in that restaurant. I had that song in my head: "If you want to be happy for the rest of your life, never make a pretty woman your wife..." [Jimmy Soul's "If You Want to be Happy"] It came from that kind of vibe. So we came up with that, "Don't Let A Woman Make a Fool Out of You," and we had it.

We were at Studio 55, which is on the Paramount lot. And, in fact, it was the same studio where Bing Crosby sang "White Christmas." We were in there recording, and all of a sudden, the Jackson 5 show up to mix their The Jacksons Live! record.

So we were in one side of the studio and they were in the other. My guys in the band were watching the World Series, and everybody started watching the World Series on the TV in the lounge. Michael was always in the office and I was always in the office trying to figure out stuff, too, for what I was doing.

He was a really nice guy. We used to stay in this hotel in LA called The Tropicana, and he said when he first came to LA he lived in the Tropicana - and that's where we were.

He'd hung out with Bob Marley, so I kept asking him a lot of questions about Bob Marley. I had a Walkman, and I had Off the Wall [Jackson's 1979 solo album] on it. And I said, "Have you ever heard your Off the Wall?" And he hadn't, so I gave him my Walkman. He was listening to it for several days, listening to Off the Wall.

We just kept talking, and one day I said, "Hey, Michael, nobody's getting this harmony in my band, can you do it?" And he said, "Sure." So he came in and sang the harmony. He sang a five-part harmony. I've got the tape of him singing a five-part harmony on the master tape. And then his dad walked in, and his dad freaked out when he saw him singing with us. But the guy was a real nice guy and he sang really good, man. He had perfect pitch.

Songfacts: Do you remember when this happened?

Joe: It was October of '81. I was playing him a lot of African music, too. I was really into African music and listening to that and some Reggae, and I said, "You should do some reggae or African kind of stuff." If he'd listened to me, he probably wouldn't have made it as rich.

But he had a really good voice, and it was interesting talking to him. He took me with him to check out mixes. It's really interesting, because there'd be all these guys in suits in a control room. They're all watching him to see his reaction to each mix. And then he had a white Rolls Royce and all these girls out in the parking lot were always hanging out. I don't know how many people he's collaborated with. I don't think that many in his career, did he?

Songfacts: I know he did a song with Mick Jagger and there was a song or two he did with Freddie Mercury that hasn't been officially released yet.

Joe: And then Paul McCartney.

Songfacts: Yes. And also Paul McCartney twice.

Joe: It seemed like he was sort of aloof from his brothers. I noticed that.

Songfacts: Before, we talked a bit about "Tamale Christmas," and it looks like you're still having fun making videos. So if you just want to talk a little bit about that video, that would be cool.

Joe: Which one? We have two.

Songfacts: I saw the one where you're walking down the street saying, "Tamales, tamales," and there are images of someone cooking corn and things like that.

Joe: Oh, yeah, yeah. There's one before it, too. The one before that was shot in H-E-B, which is like the grocery store of Texas. Every person in Texas goes to H-E-B, and it's a pretty cool store. They have an organic part of it too, so it's not like they're totally redneck.

So I was out in front of H-E-B back and forth with my shopping cart and I had a sombrero on with my dogs in the shopping cart. We're lucky we didn't get arrested.

And then the other scene is with my dog Anna, and she's feeding her tamales. We shot it really fast - we did it in one night.

And then the other one we shot here in Vallarta. The veterinarian for my dogs has a family that makes really killer tamales, so they let us come in their house and hang out with them and make tamales with them. We actually did a whole video of just showing how to make tamales, too.

A bunch of the money that I make goes to dog rescue. My manager's really into dogs, too, so we got the dogs to do that. That's me behind the dogs doing the hands, eating tamales.

And then the other part where I'm going, "Tamales, tamales, tamales," that was shot in Saltillo, in Coahuila, in the desert, by trolley. It's pretty exotic locations, actually. If you were to take a real production crew and go shoot those places, it would cost you tons of money, but with a good camera, you can make it happen guerrilla-style.

Songfacts: What are some memories of your Saturday Night Live appearance of 1981?

Joe: Well, I heard later that the lady who worked on the show said there were three artists that will never go on Saturday Night Live: Miles Davis, Captain Beefheart, and Joe King Carrasco! I jumped off and ran to the cameras. They didn't know I was going to go in the audience, and it freaked her out.

But that's pretty good company to be in, I think. I like Captain Beefheart and Miles Davis. But we were supposed to do two songs, and we did one. It was really strange. I don't know why that happened, but it was a good show.

We did "Don't Bug Me, Baby," which is a great song, but I probably should have done "Buena." I was just really into chasing around then, being really crazy and wild... and I still am. I thought we were going to do two songs, but taken the choice now, I should have done "Buena."

Songfacts: Did you get a chance to meet or hang out with Eddie Murphy on SNL?

Joe: I did. He was really nice and I think he was like 17 or 18. He was really cool. The interesting thing about that Saturday Night Live thing is they said they'll give you a ticket anywhere to go in North America after the show. I said, "Really? Does that include Cozumel?" And they said, "Yeah." I said, "Okay." So I did the show and then at 6:00 the next morning I was on a plane to Cozumel. 7:00 the next morning, I was on the Mexican beach. And a day after that, I was in Palenque in Chiapas, in the pyramids.

December 20, 2013.
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Comments: 1

  • Janx from Houston, TexasLove Joe King. Saw him twice in Lafayette, LA in the early Nineties. Great showman and a lot of really great, really catchy songs. Wish he would put out a box set.
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