By Chris M. Junior
For a band as diverse, talented and accomplished as Los Lobos, it’s rather laughable to recall that the group’s first album was titled “Del Este de Los Angeles (Just Another Band from East L.A.).”
Then again, when that album was released in 1978, times were different, and Los Lobos was a much different band — one that had been playing traditional, acoustic Mexican folk music at restaurants, weddings and community functions for about five years in and around the band’s neighborhood.
Los Lobos’ reach — and its sound — eventually expanded, leading to critically acclaimed albums, Grammy Awards, a No. 1 Billboard pop hit, worldwide tours and jamming onstage with such rock legends as Jerry Garcia and Neil Young.
Those accomplishments and more are proof that Los Lobos, which is celebrating its 40th anniversary in 2013, might be the best band to ever emerge from East L.A.
Rockers honor their heritage
Growing up in East Los Angeles, which has a vibrant Mexican-American community, Mexican music “was always part of the soundscape,” says Los Lobos member Louie Perez.
“But we were kids — rock ’n’ roll kids — so we listened to the radio, and there was always this thing of finding out [what else was out there],” he adds.
Around that time, Perez formed a solid musical bond with David Hidalgo.
“We started doing this right out of high school,” says Perez, who attended Garfield High School with Hidalgo. “I went over to his house; for about a year, we just hung out listening to records and playing guitars. We would come up with some songs, and I think it was a reflection of what we were listening to at the time. I think Stevie Wonder’s ‘Music of My Mind’ had just come out, and that with Marvin Gaye’s ‘What’s Going On’ kind of exploded the whole notion of what soul music was. Listening to Fairport Convention and Randy Newman and Ry Cooder — all these cool records.”
Meanwhile, Cesar Rosas and Conrad Lozano, both of whom also graced the classrooms of Garfield High, had similar rock and roll backgrounds. Rosas, who grew up liking Jimi Hendrix and The Rolling Stones, was a guitarist in an R&B band; Lozano, who credits Yardbirds bassist Paul Samwell-Smith as a musical hero, had played in a power trio that was modeled after Blue Cheer, Perez recalls.
But together as Los Lobos, singer-guitarist Rosas, bassist Lozano, guitarist-percussionist Perez and singer-guitarist Hidalgo, along with Vera Cruz harpist Frank Gonzales (who lasted a few years with the band), the musicians went in a different direction.
“We decided to explore music of our own heritage — but not in any clinical way,” says Perez. “It just attracted us, and we spent 10 years just doing that.”
He adds, “We weren’t in a vacuum. There was all this other cool music going on that we enjoyed, but this was what our thing was. When we went back to our roots and put away our Fender Strats and played Mexican music. We were like kids in a candy store, just so excited by this discovery of stuff that was always there. I think we took all of that information with us when we went back to rock and roll. I don’t use the word fusion; I use infusion — it was injected with all of the information we had in our heads playing Mexican music.”
A musical manifestation and a lineup addition
On May 4, 1980, Los Lobos filled a spot on a bill headlined by Public Image Ltd., punk icon John Lydon’s post-Sex Pistols band, at the Olympic Auditorium in Los Angeles.
“The band had not made its full manifestation into a rock ’n’ roll band; we were still playing traditional Mexican music,” Perez says. “So we go into our first song, which was a traditional Mexican song. And man, I swear, I think we all felt our hair blow back from the wind from 3,000 middle fingers going up in the air. Then they started throwing [objects] at us, and we just kept playing.
“Most bands would have run back to their safe place, but we wanted to come back for more,” Perez continues. “It was exciting. Somehow the only way we could convey it to our family was we told them, ‘That’s what they do when they really like you.’”
Los Lobos soon became friendly with The Blasters, who were part of the punk and roots-rock scene in Los Angeles. Perez remembers a gig opening for The Blasters at the legendary Whisky a Go Go in West Hollywood, after which he says the general audience reaction to Los Lobos was: “They’re strange, but we like it.”
“They accepted us into the music community then,” adds Perez.
Eventually, Los Lobos accepted Blasters saxophonist Steve Berlin as a full-time member.
“I was in both bands for quite a while,” recalls Berlin. “Then one day, one band was going in one direction, and the other band was going in another direction, and I just got on the Los Lobos bus, and that was that.
“Musically, I was just amazed we shared so many [favorites] — weird English bands like Blodwyn Pig, a lot of bizarre stuff,” adds Berlin, who grew up in Philadelphia. “I was kind of surprised these guys from East L.A. were hip to it, so it was more or less instantaneous that we dug each other’s groove.”
In 1983, Los Lobos released “ ... And a Time to Dance” on the Slash label, which was distributed by Warner Bros. Records. The seven-song EP covered a lot of music territory (rock and folk, sung in English and Spanish), and it featured “Anselma,” a Grammy winner in the Best Mexican-American Performance category.
With “How Will the Wolf Survive?” (1984) and “By the Light of the Moon” (1987), Los Lobos reached another level of national success when two songs from each album reached Billboard magazine’s mainstream-rock chart.
The ‘La Bamba’ phenomenon
Then came an even bigger Billboard chart achievement: “La Bamba,” which Los Lobos performed in a style similar to the Ritchie Valens rendition for the 1987 biopic about the late 1950s rocker. Recording that song for the “La Bamba” movie soundtrack, as well as other signature Valens tunes “Come On, Let’s Go” and “Donna,” was “less than a no-brainer” for the band, according to Berlin.
“Ritchie’s family, who we had known for years, lived in Watsonville [California], outside of Santa Cruz, and we used to play Santa Cruz every other week, it seemed like,” he says. “We would run into them all the time; they’d always cook for us. They told us that they’d sold the rights to Ritchie’s story with the proviso that we would do the music. They didn’t ask us [beforehand], but, of course, we wouldn’t have said anything but yes.”
Nevertheless, Berlin really wasn’t expecting much in terms of box-office success.
“I remember seeing a rough cut at one point, pretty close to the end,” Berlin says, “and thinking to myself, ‘Wow, this is actually a really good movie. It’s a shame nobody’s going to see it.’ No matter what, it didn’t seem plausible that it was a hit movie.”
But the film was a huge hit, and so was Los Lobos’ version of the title song: It reached No. 1 on the Billboard Hot 100 and stayed in the top spot for three weeks.
Perez says, “We took considerable pride for that period ‘La Bamba’ was No. 1, knowing that it was a traditional Mexican song, played by a band with the name Los Lobos, whose members include four Chicanos from East L.A. On a lot of levels, that’s huge.”
Making a masterpiece: 1992’s ‘Kiko’
Despite chart success with “La Bamba” (as well as “Come On, Let’s Go,” also a Billboard pop Top 40 hit), Los Lobos didn’t find itself “further up the food chain” like other bands do when they’ve had a few hits, according to Berlin.
“We just didn’t have that effect,” Berlin says. “The success that we had experienced was really much more tied to the movie. What ended up happening was, when the hubbub was all over, basically all of the people who had climbed onto the bandwagon had left.”
Moving forward, Los Lobos explored Mexican folk music on 1988’s “La Pistola y el Corazon” (the title track of which nabbed the band its second Best Mexican-American Performance Grammy), then rock, blues and R&B on 1990’s “The Neighborhood” (which contains “Angel Dance,” later covered by Robert Plant).
Berlin has mixed feelings about the latter album.
“It’s a record I like, and I’m proud of it, but it took a year to make, which is ridiculous,” he says. “We made a lot of compromises in the making of it in terms of how it was done and what the finished product was going to sound like.”
So when the time came to record 1992’s “Kiko,” Berlin says, “we were really angry at ourselves for listening to anybody else and for the whole rock myth thing that we bought into. We can’t listen to or take advice from people who don’t know us. So going into it, we had this really strong sense of, ‘We have nothing to lose ... might as well have fun.’”
Produced by Mitchell Froom and the band, the experimental, mysterious and sonically rich “Kiko” contains some of the best songs in the Los Lobos canon, among them “Reva’s House” and “Short Side of Nothing.” (An expanded, remastered 20th-anniversary edition of “Kiko” was released in summer 2012 by Shout! Factory.)
“It’s a document of whatever that experience was,” Perez says. “Whatever happened back then is on that record, every nuance, every false start that you hear on it — David going into the studio and running down the track and getting sounds on his guitar, then having [Froom and engineer Tchad Blake] call him back into the control room, saying, ‘We think you’re done.’ Sometimes the best stuff happens when you least expect it or you have one hand tied behind your back.”
A star-studded ‘Ride’ and future plans
From the mid-1990s on, Los Lobos has maintained a steady output of material. In addition to the band’s own regular studio albums, Los Lobos released collections of children’s music (“Papa’s Dream” and “Los Lobos Goes Disney”) and had songs included on tribute albums and movie soundtracks.
Among the notable Los Lobos projects was the star-studded “The Ride,” released in 2004. Berlin says it all started with the members of the band making a wish list of people they wanted to collaborate with on an album.
“And once we took out the dead people,” he says with a laugh, “we had 15 or so people that we’d really like to be on it. We just started asking, and the batting average was ridiculously high.”
The band managed to land Bobby Womack, Elvis Costello, Richard Thompson and Mavis Staples, among others, for the project.
Perez hasn’t ruled out making a new record “with a bunch of friends” to mark Los Lobos’ 40th anniversary this year, or perhaps launching a tour with featured guests.
Both Berlin and Perez agree that the milestone should be commemorated in some fashion.
“One thing I can promise you is that there will definitely be a 40th anniversary Los Lobos beer koozie,” Perez says, with a laugh. “Beyond that, it remains to be seen. Really, that’s the way we’ve always worked, and it drives the suits crazy. We just do everything by feel, and we always have.”