With their fusing of rootsy, bluesy rock and roll with the traditional music of their ancestral land, Los Lobos has created a sound all their own over the course of their near 50-year career. That signature sound became the soundtrack of their East Los Angeles home, only to spread throughout the nation and into the hearts of music lovers everywhere.
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Since the band’s inception in 1973, members David Hidalgo, Louie Pérez, Cesar Rosas, Conrad Lozano, and (later addition) Steve Berlin, have stayed true to their Mexican American heritage, carrying Chicano music into the mainstream. In integrating the traditional sounds of cumbia, boleros, and norteños into the blues, rock, and R&B music that also influenced them, Los Lobos crafts song stories of the barrios to the streets of East L.A., capturing perfectly the Chicano experience in much of their music.
In half a century, Los Lobos has gifted us so many classics to cherish. Let’s celebrate them with these 10 essential songs.
1. “Come On, Let’s Go”
“Come On, Let’s Go” was written and recorded by Ritchie Valens in 1958. Only Los Lobos could do Valens’ musical legacy justice, complimenting the song’s raucous groove and romantic swing and creating the perfect rendition to soundtrack the 1987 biopic of Valens’ life and career. Their version topped worldwide charts.
2. “Will the Wolf Survive?”
The song “Will the Wolf Survive?,” and the 1984 album of the same name, were reportedly inspired by a National Geographic article titled “Where Can the Wolf Survive.” “It was like our group, our story: What is this beast, this animal that the record companies can’t figure out? Will we be given the opportunity to make it or not?” Pérez pondered over the article and the story of the wolves. The band members could relate. Their own struggle to succeed while also maintaining their Mexican roots mirrored the wolves’ struggle to survive.
The guitar-driven track, punctuated by hardy drum hits, follows the “wolf” throughout, eventually closing with Sounds across the nation / Coming from your hearts and minds / Battered drums and old guitars / Singing songs of passion / It’s the truth that they all look for / Something they must keep alive / Will the wolf survive?
3. “Luz De Mi Vida”
Half in English, half in Spanish, “Luz De Mi Vida” is a classic example of code-switching, or the fluid transition from one language to another to complete a thought.
Cuando you and me / We were just chiquillos / We would always run / Through the tall nopal / We would often say / Say to each other / There could be no fin / Siempre los dos the band sings against the heat of a Spanish beat, guttural horns, and bright strings.
4. “The Road To Gila Bend”
The Town and The City album encapsulates the immigrant experience, exploring themes of longing and loneliness. “The Road to Gila Bend,” especially, illustrates all those feelings in one track.
Made Nogales overnight / Through the desert in the yellow light / Missing everything I left behind / Will they see me coming? / Do they know I’m running? the song asks in desperation.
It’s a long, long way to Gila Bend, the chorus goes, One silver dollar in my hand / Road twists and turns is there no end / When I get there I can lay my head / In Gila Bend.
5. “Gates Of Gold”
A bittersweet ballad, “Gates of Gold” offers a dive into the band’s roots rock side, delivering a tune with a deep South bluesy-ness and a slow gospel lilt.
Mama, come gently rock my soul / And tell me please, what we’ll find behind those gates of gold.
6. “Mas Y Mas”
Dark horns meet rollicking rhythms in another code-switching tune. Its ominous jazz and lively rock melt into an electric feeling that translates in any language.
7. “Chains of Love”
Ain’t no hammer, ain’t no rock / Can break the lock on these chains / These chains of love, sings the chorus.
A melding of rock, blues, gospel, and soul, “Chains of Love” is smooth and sweet, but at the same time, gritty and passionate. The tune showcases Los Lobos’ versatility beautifully.
8. “Kiko and the Lavender Moon”
The uniquely textured “Kiko and the Lavender Moon,” has a creeping rhythm, producing a peculiar uneasiness. A song about dreams, it plays as such—a half-sleep, half-awake waltz into a dreamscape of sounds.
9. “La Pistola Y El Corazon”
An album of Mexican folk music, “La Pistola Y El Corazon” brings the drama and emotion, especially, when it comes to the title track. La luna me dice una cosa / Las estrellas me dicen otra / Y la luz del día me canta / Esta triste canción, the song goes.
Those lyrics translate to The moon tells me one thing / The stars tell me another / And the light of day sings me / This sad song, but you can hear the anguish and melancholy hanging on every word. A translation isn’t necessary.
10. “Native Son”
Los Lobos pay tribute to Los Angeles with their 17th and most recent release, Native Sons. A celebration of the city’s musical community, the album features a dozen songs originally written and recorded by L.A. artists. The only original on the album is the title track.
Capturing the spirit of their city, “Native Son” brings it all back home in a slow dance led by desperate horns and carried by a steady beat.
No matter where I lay my head / No matter how far I’ve run / I dream about the day you’ll take me back / I’m your native son
Photo by Piero F. Giunti