The wolves survive

I have to admit I was a little peeved at Los Lobos for a time. Downright angry, even. See, the quintet is responsible for a permanent ringing in the right ear of my best friend, Suzie.

Make no mistake, folks. Los Lobos is loud live — ironic for a group of guys who started out almost 25 years ago strumming acoustic guitars and singing quiet, traditional Mexican tunes (learned from listening to their parents’ old records) in an East L.A. backyard.

David Hidalgo, Conrad Lozano, Louie Perez and Cesar Rosas were friends at East L.A.’s Garfield High School long before they ever thought of becoming a band. But those casual backyard jams eventually turned into wedding gigs around the neighborhood; the wedding gigs led to appearances at Mexican folk festivals in the area; then, in 1978, the group — now calling themselves Los Lobos Del Este de Los Angeles (the wolves of East L.A.) — scored the ultimate gig: They became the house band at a local Mexican restaurant.

And their folksy, acoustic sound became more clamorous — by degrees.

“We were playing only acoustic guitars at first, until David got an accordion,” Perez recently explained to a journalist. “He brought it over to the restaurant, and we learned a few … Tex-Mex tunes. … Then we got involved in trying to get a truer sound, so we brought out a small drum kit. Then Conrad brought in a small bass amp and his electric bass. We began to electrify so we could be closer to the actual Tex-Mex kind of sound. But when we began doing that, we realized how close that was to a rock ‘n’ roll format and songs. So we brought our bigger amps, and we started playing real loud.”

Soon after that, Los Lobos Del Este de Los Angeles was fired.

But unemployment turned out to be the best thing that could have happened to them. The musical experimentation that cost the band its steady job also placed it on the road to fame and sealed Los Lobos’ fate in popular-music history: By mixing acoustic and electric, traditional Mexican music and rock ‘n’ roll — and bringing blues, rollicking Tex-Mex, R&B, country and an edgy something bordering on punk into the equation — the group developed its distinct, raucously heartfelt and technically brilliant sound, driven by Hidalgo’s sonorous lead vocals, that most of today’s young “hybrid” bands (that is, the ever-enlarging pool of groups who bill their sound as “rock/blues/R&B,” for example) can only feebly approximate.

Perez says of that time, “We didn’t so much want to recycle the music we’d grown up with, as much as find the common links between it and all other styles and sounds that were around us. It became a mission, almost a crusade … bringing music together to bring people together.” In 1979, the band released its first recording, a self-produced EP appropriately called Los Lobos Del Este Los Angeles, featuring traditional Mexican music.

Not long after the EP’s release, the group (mainly Hidalgo and Perez) began to write original tunes and, within a year, were playing gigs in landmark Hollywood clubs like the Whiskey A Go Go, where groups like The Blasters were also busy creating brash new hybrids of roots music. It was within the ranks of The Blasters, in fact, that Los Lobos found its fifth member: Sax player Steve Berlin was so impressed with the band that he asked to jam with them; after a few sessions, he was a Blaster no more. Berlin was added to the Los Lobos line-up and made, as Hidalgo once put it, “an honorary Chicano.”

Signed to Slash Records (a division of Warner Brothers) in the early ’80s, the band’s first EP on that label, … And a Time to Dance (1983) — a mix of roots rock ‘n’ roll and traditional Mexican sounds — produced the Grammy-winning single “Anselma.”

How Will the Wolf Survive? (Slash, 1994), their first full-length CD, followed on its heels. “We spent a year doing heavy road work [after Time to Dance],” Berlin told a reporter, “which the band hadn’t really done before. So we got a little attention, and when it came time to do an LP, we had a lot more time and money, and the band had really coalesced into a more distinctive vision.”

And then some. With its bittersweet title track celebrating the importance of hanging onto traditional values in a changing world, Wolf is an eclectic, emotionally direct, tight-knit collection of all-original tunes, ranging from the country-influenced “Our Last Night” to the full-out Tex-Mex rocker “Corrido #1” to the R&B swing of “I Got Loaded.” The disc put Los Lobos solidly on the American musical map. The following year, Los Lobos was voted Band of the Year in Rolling Stone’s year-end readers’ poll.

Los Lobos has gone on to release a string of critically acclaimed CDs. By the Light of the Moon (Slash, 1985) is perhaps even more musically prismatic than Wolf, highlighted by the jazzy/bluesy “Is This All There Is?” and the near-perfect “One Time, One Night,” a country-tinged anthem filled with ripped-from-the-headlines vignettes about the fickleness of the American dream.

Kiko (Slash, 1992), a highly experimental, in-your-face rock effort, garnered two Grammy nominations and was named Album of the Year by a host of newspapers, including the Los Angeles Times, the Chicago Tribune, the Chicago Sun-Times and the Nashville Banner. This watershed CD, with its quirky vocals and kinky percussion, has been called “Los Lobos’ Sgt. Pepper,” and was easily the most original commercial release of that year.

In between, lest the Chicano community think Los Lobos was so high on mainstream music accolades that it had forgotten its roots, the band released the Grammy-winning La Pistola y el Corazon (Slash) in 1988, composed exclusively of traditional Mexican tunes and original compositions in the same style — harking back to the band’s backyard jam sessions.

Los Lobos’ latest CD, Colossal Head (Slash, 1996), their first studio release since Kiko, is a roller-coaster ride through funk, rock, roots and even rap. Given flight by Rosas’ searing guitar and Berlin’s rowdy sax, the disc is reflective of the breakneck pace in which it was recorded: Colossal Head was completed, start-to-finish, in less than six weeks, due to the band’s burgeoning obligations: near-constant touring, recording the soundtracks to two films (Desperado and Feeling Minnesota), and putting together a collection of children’s music.

“We were working really fast,” Perez understatedly told a reporter. “We couldn’t second-guess ourselves. I would be writing something in the studio lounge, and it was like, ‘Are you ready to record that yet?'”

Despite the rapid-fire pace of both the CD’s production and most of its music, the songs themselves are a little more sparse than standard Lobos fare. “I’ve been reading a lot of Chinese literature lately,” says Perez. “It’s so spare. And in some way, that’s a logical transition [for] our music.” Berlin agrees: “We had to boil everything down to its essence, and that [made] everything more experimental. That’s what keeps it exciting.”

Ironically, despite Los Lobos’ status as one of America’s most original, experimental and ground-breaking bands, they’re probably still most famous for a cover tune. The band’s 1987 version of Richie Valens’ “La Bamba” (the title track for the film of the same name) won a Grammy and an MTV-video-music award, and it stayed at number one on the Billboard charts for what seemed like forever (and I won’t even mention the incessant, spontaneous humming, to this day, of the almost frighteningly catchy tune by everyone, from toddlers to teenyboppers to the geriatric set).

The truth is, though, Los Lobos brought something inherently inimitable, even to that rock ‘n’ roll standard, in much the same way that they still color traditional Mexican sounds with a sweetly hot buzz all their own. And more than one diehard Grateful Dead fan has been heard to swear that Los Lobos’ live version of the Dead’s popular “Bertha” is a million tie-dyed T-shirts better than the original — all of which should come as no surprise. As Berlin once put it, “I think we’re the sole purveyors of what we do. I don’t think there’s anyone else out there who sounds like us. I’m very proud of that.”

Oh, and one more thing. If you should choose to stand up front near a speaker at Los Lobos’ upcoming Be Here Now show — as my friend Suzie and I did at a Salt Lake City show some eight years ago — by all means, heed these two little words of advice: Wear earplugs.

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