TORNADOS STORM MIDDLE AMERICAIN AN UNLIKELY MARKETING MOVE, TEX-MEX TOUCHES DOWN AT THE DRIVE-THROUGH

It's prime time in some generic 'burb in the eastern United States. Tired from the commute home, white-collar Joe plops down in front of the TV in time for the evening news. There, between reports of another bank failure and the ballooning deficit, are those ultraexpensive news-hour commercials: Depends, Preparation H, Chevrolet. Suddenly, the sound of a Tex-Mex accordion squeezes in. On the screen are four graying, paunchy guys who look like leftovers from Pancho Villa's gang. Snapping their fingers and shuffling their cowboy boots in a mock cha-cha-cha, they're obviously having the time of their lives. A familiar vibrato begins to sing in Spanish. This south-of-the-border scene catches our bleary-eyed office drone off guard. Questions begin to flash across his mind: "Has a satellite gone haywire? Is the cable bill paid?" Fortunately, the answer is simple. There on the tube in the wilds of white-bread suburbia, where the only Spanish words anyone knows are "Dorito" and "Corona," the Texas Tornados are blissfully hamming it up for McDonald's breakfast burritos.

"Esta un green chile," Freddy Fender croons. "That's a pepper, man," someone growls over Freddy's shoulder in a conspiratorial tone. With Flaco Jimenez flashing his gold tooth, Augie Meyers spinning in his best mock flamenco and Doug Sahm grinning away behind his ever-present shades, it's obvious that this quartet of crazies didn't need acting lessons for this shoot. But everyone knows commercials mean sellout, right? Ever since Neil Young let his "This Note's for You" arrow fly, bands with principles don't do TV ads, let alone shill for the world's foremost purveyor of fat- and sodium-laden gut bombs. Even worse, when musical acts appear in commercials, it usually signals a withering of the creative juices, a get-it-while-they-can attitude. Look at the Del Fuegos: A hungry rock band does a Miller Beer commercial and wham!--bad records, bad tours, lights out. But the Tornados are a special case. All four members are veterans who have spent years playing solo for peanuts and making records that didn't sell. There's Freddy Fender, of the years-ago ballad "Before the Next Teardrop Falls." There's Flaco Jimenez, the world greatest nortena accordion player, unknown north of Texas. Doug Sahm and Augie Meyers were with the Sir Douglas Quintet. In the Sixties.

All four are far too street-smart to turn down a tidy sum for playing their own goofy selves. Besides, the Tornados' breakfast-burrito spot is the perfect blend of the two m's that drive the group--music and marketing. Musically, the Tornados play Tex-Mex, conjunto and the other variations of la musica nortena, the sound that thrives along the U.S.-Mexico border in Texas, Arizona and New Mexico. Heavily influenced by German popular-music forms like the schottische and the mazurka, this accordion-based border music tends to fall into a few common forms. There are upbeat polkas, tunes with Latin beats called cumbias and slow ballads called rancheras.

Tex-Mex is a relatively young music. Created in Texas before the turn of the century, it was not recorded until the mid-Thirties. Still practically unknown outside the Southwestern U.S., this joyous regional music has long been one of America's most underrated cultural treasures. Few have ever played this music with more authority or affection than the Tornados. As native Texans who grew up in or near San Antonio--the spiritual heart of Tex-Mex--all four were born to this music. For Doug Sahm and Freddy Fender, who have had the most solo success but have also ranged the furthest afield musically, the band has marked a return to musical roots--and to old friends. The camaraderie among these fiftysomething characters is what gives the group its undeniable magic. Another important factor in the group's musical success is its repertoire of ready-made hits. Between them, these four have written or own the rights to many of the classics of Tex-Mex music. Consequently, the group's career so far has consisted of deciding which old tunes to do.

But what a selection! From Meyers' "(Hey Baby) Que Paso" and Sahm's "Adios Mexico" to Fender's radio hits and Jimenez's musical inheritance, the Tornados' music has the comfortable feel of your favorite well-worn boots. Admittedly, they'll never please hard-core Tex-Mex traditionalists. Flecked with the pop, rock and country sensibilities of its members, the Tornados' music is a boiled-down, Tex-Mex-for-the-masses tour of la frontera.

But this is a band you can't help but love. Its happy music, low-down sense of humor and ragged-but-real stage presence make it irresistible. Going to a Tornados show or listening to the group's records is like hearing the best of the last 40 years of south Texas roadhouse jukeboxes. At a Tornados show, the only people having more fun than the audience are the four bandleaders. How many bands would dare to open the first song of their first record with the lines, "Who were you thinkin' of/When we were makin' love last night?"

While the music is happy-go-lucky, the marketing is buttoned-down Harvard Business school. This group is the kind of carefully constructed, eminently bankable creation that makes label execs twitch and babble about "crossing over" and utter that most potent of recording terms, "penetration." Consider it: two Hispanics, two Anglos. All songwriters, multi-instrumentalists and successful solo artists who can do anything from Buddy Holly to corridos and can sing in both Spanish and English. To get real Nineties about it, the Tornados are "cultural diversity." Despite their amiable exteriors, the Tornados are more than aware of these considerations. They've been around enough to know an angle worth working when they see one. It's kind of the same principle as the breakfast burrito: The Tornados have become experts at wrapping their multiculturalism around a capitalist urge, introducing the world to Tex-Mex music so they can sell more records.

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