Saturday, June 7, 2014

Los Lobos 1980-1984: An Essay in Discography

The Wolves' story from this point on is better documented - but, surprisingly, there are some holes.  Some pretty big holes.

The story goes that, after having spent the '70s thoroughly exploring acoustic Mexican-American (and elsewhere) folk, they started to get interested again in the louder, rowdier, more physical music of their youth.  They started to play electric occasionally, and to hang out in the Hollywood clubs to see what was happening in rock in L.A. these days.  (As X reminded everyone, it wasn't getting played on the radio:  you had to go to the clubs to find the scene.)  And eventually they started playing those clubs, making converts out of everybody who heard them, no matter how skeptical they were at first.  And then they get signed to a major-minor, Slash, a Warners-distributed punk label, and that's how they get introduced to the world:  as somehow having emerged from the L.A. punk scene of the turn of the decade.  And that's why they get considered an '80s band...

And of course the last disc installment of this essay showed how silly that notion is.  But then again it's not totally wrong.  When they returned to electric music, Los Lobos made the conscious decision to work their way up through an authentic scene.  Maybe they perceived that as their only option, who knows, but the fact remains that, having already put in seven years of apprenticeship at one trade, they started from scratch in another.  And their first label was a New Wave label, and hell, you can even find photos of the band rocking the skinny-tie look.  It just didn't affect their sound in any noticeable way.  But that, too, is something that the L.A. punk scene allowed them that maybe no other would have:  X and the Blasters and Rank & File were also/already conscious of roots in a way that their New York and London counterparts were not.  And meanwhile some little part of the punk aesthetic does seem to have rubbed off on the boys - their early records especially were always short and punchy, no matter what idiom they were in.

And one more thing.  Before they signed to Slash, they put out two D.I.Y. singles, both in 1981. What could be more punk than that?  These were "Farmer John" backed with "Anselma" and "Volver, Volver" backed with "Under The Boardwalk."  And here's where our first big heartbreak comes, as Los Lobos collectors.  They've never been reissued.  Not on CD, not digitally.  And, except for that single youtube of "Farmer John," they don't even seem to circulate.  One assumes that "Anselma" sounds much like it would when they re-recorded it for the ep, and that "Volver, Volver" sounds much like it did when they played it live (and we have a live recording from 1983, as well as one from 1987 that was officially released on the 1993 comp Just Another Band From East L.A.: A Collection).  But what does "Under The Boardwalk" sound like when Loboized?  I would love to know.

The labels were reproduced in the 2000 box set El Cancionero: Mas Y Mas - we even get photos of the sessions.  But not the music.  It kills me.  Thank God the one side circulates, because it's revelatory.  Not least because the arrangement differs so drastically from the arrangements they'd use in live renditions in 1987 (when they played it at a gallop) and 1997 (when they turned it into the heaviest stomper you've ever heard) (neither of these versions have been released either). 

Let's note a couple more things.  First, on the "Farmer John" single they're still crediting themselves
as "Los Lobos Del Este De Los Angeles (Just Another Band From East L.A.)."  Did they actually consider that whole thing their name?  May be.  But on the second single (by the photographic evidence) they're just "Los Lobos."  So 1981 was when that change happened.  Second, both singles paired an R&B cover with a traditional Spanish-language number:  they were determined at this point to present both sides of their musical heritage as a single package.  A determination that has never wavered, although on their albums the English-language material usually predominates.  The point is, from 1981 on they knew what they wanted to do, and they did it.  Eventually the world would catch up with them.

Before we get to the e.p. there are two other early Lobos tracks that have to be taken into account.  In 1982 they recorded one song for a soundtrack that has never been issued on CD, Eating Raoul.  The first of a truly prodigious body of material recorded for soundtracks, tribute albums, and samplers over the course of their career, their contribution was "Diablo Con Vestido Azul," a Spanish-language version of "Devil With A Blue Dress On" first formulated by Mexican garage band Los Yaki.  Los Lobos' version, in true punk fashion, is taken at breakneck speed.  As a gesture it's almost too perfect - it's notable that they've never done Spanish versions of any other English-language tracks.  (The soundtrack also included a version of "How Much Can I Do," which one assumes is distinct from the e.p. version.  But how distinct?  Who knows?)


The other track is easily found because it was included on El Cancionero.  It's an original, "We're Gonna Rock," that was released (according to the box set's liner notes) in early 1983 (discogs.org says 1982) on a sampler called L.A. Rockabilly.  Maybe the fastest anybody's ever played anything. 

Note:  it's produced by Steve Berlin, saxophone player for the Blasters at that point.  He'd also co-produce (with T-Bone Burnett) their debut e.p. on Slash, released in autumn 1983:  ...And A Time To Dance.  He'd also play on it, but he wasn't an official member until after it came out.  And:  why debut with an e.p.?  Because they were on a New Wave label that was part of the doomed effort all through the '80s to get Americans to cotton to the e.p. format.  Again:  they're being marketed as New Wave.  (But then again, the title is a Bible quote.  Not very punk.)

This has never been released on CD, but it is available on iTunes and Amazon as a legal download.  Seven tracks, of which four are originals and three are covers, two are in Spanish and five are in English, and all are brilliant.  I never get tired, in particular, of "Let's Say Goodnight" (and how cool is it that an accordion is the first sound you hear on this record?), "Walking Song," "Why Do You Do" and "How Much Can I Do."  "Walking Song" in particular should be sought out - it never shows up on anthologies, but it's an addictive little two-step. 

The e.p. gained them a surprising amount of notoriety, not just because it was awesome, but because
in one of those flukes that Los Lobos' hard work would position them to capitalize on, that year the Grammies had a new category, Mexican/American, and "Anselma" won it.  They spent the rest of the year touring on the e.p., and doing TV when the opportunity presented.

It presented at least twice.  Once was an appearance on late-night upstart Alan Thicke's show, where they performed "Let's Say Goodnight" and "Come On Let's Go."  They sound pretty close to the e.p. versions (and they're gone from youtube now, so you'll never know), but Steve Berlin is with them onstage.  I think we can date fall '83 as when he becomes a full-time Lobo (although it's unclear when they made it official).  A momentous decision, in retrospect, to make him a member rather than just a collaborator like they would go on to do with drummers.  At first it was obvious, because saxophone fit in so well with their material, but as they evolved away from two-steps and '50s style r&b, Berlin was forced to find new ways to contribute.  He did, and the band was better for it.  To this day in interviews Los Lobos talk as if all of them have this shared East L.A. heritage, and Steve very deferentially never disagrees, but ever since 1983 he's been a member, and a huge part of their distinctive sound.

The other TV thing is another L.A. local PBS documentary that has washed up on youtube.  It's named after the e.p., but the striking thing is how many songs they play that aren't on the e.p.  The meat of the program is a live performance from 11/3/83 at L.A.'s Club Lingerie (Steve's onstage, although the anchor introducing the program still says the band's a quartet).  My favorite moments are a galvanizing take on "Why Do You Do," and three non-album tracks:  "Volver, Volver," "I'm Gonna Be A Wheel Someday" (a studio version of this would be recorded in 1985), and "Sleepwalk."  Amazing stuff. 

This period - post-e.p., pre-first l.p. - is the first time we can get a handle on what electric Los Lobos are like.  The documentary is priceless in that regard, because no live album has been released from this period.  That statement immediately needs to be modified, as the second heartbreak of the Los Lobos collector.  In 2006 the band made an abortive start on an official bootleg series, to be called Chuy's Tape Box, and Vol. 1 was a show from 1/14/84 at La Casa De La Raza in Santa Barbara.  If this ever actually was released it was immediately withdrawn, because I missed it in 2006 and have never located a copy.  It's not on the youtube, not on the usual bootleg sites, and not on Amazon at all.  Two key tracks had already been released on El Cancionero, and those are essential.  "I'm Sorry," about as greasy a slab of soul as you could ask for, and "Las Ojos De Pancha," a ranchera that really cooks.

Of course it all culminates with their first full-length (as Los Lobos del nothing) album, How Will The Wolf Survive? In commercial terms it kind of started everything for them, but in musical terms it's a good conclusion to an era, because it sounds very close to the e.p., and the next time they entered a studio they'd be heading off in new directions.  I feel like I don't even need to discuss this record.  It's perfect, every bit as good as every bit of praise that has been heaped on it.  I still feel it's their definitive record.  Not that they wouldn't continue to do interesting work for the next three decades (and counting)...

It came out in October 1984 and was followed by essentially two solid years of hard-core touring to promote it.  That's a story for the next installment.

P.S.  Here's your perfect disc for this period, but if the singles every become available, make room.

From a 1981 single:  Farmer John.

From the Eating Raoul soundtrack, 1982:  Diablo Con Vestido Azul.

From the L.A. Rockabilly sampler, 1983:  We're Gonna Rock.

From the ....And A Time To Dance e.p., 1983:  Let's Say Goodnight, Walking Song, Anselma, Why Do You Do, How Much Can I Do, Ay Te Dejo En San Antonio.

From Thicke of the Night, late 1983:  Come On Let's Go.

From And A Time To Dance documentary, late 1983:  Why Do You Do, Volver Volver, I'm Gonna Be A Wheel Someday, Sleepwalk.

From 1/14/84 show:  I'm Sorry, Los Ojos De Pancha.

How Will The Wolf Survive album:  entire.

From BBC's Old Grey Whistle Test, late 1984:  Don't Worry Baby.


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