Listen to this track by East L.A rock ‘n’ roll and Tex-Mex paragons Los Lobos. It’s “Don’t Worry Baby”, a blues-steeped workout that is featured on their 1984 album How Will The Wolf Survive?
Given that their name has a definite lupine association, that question was certainly pertinent to a group of otherwise regular guys playing music during the height of the MTV era. In the meantime, they had just scraped enough together after their EP … And A Time To Dance to buy a van and do a proper tour of the United States on their own steam after opening for Public Image, Ltd in the early eighties. The gambit seemed to pay off, with the band gaining traction and industry attention to record this, their first major label full-length record in the summer of 1984, with the help of the meticulous production ear of T-Bone Burnett, who also co-wrote this song.
This tune is infused with several musical streams the band were exposed to before forming in East L.A in the early 1970s as high school kids. The overall effect is a sort of bluesy rockabilly feel that not many in the mainstream were putting forward on top forty radio by 1984. Even the title of the song seems to be self-reflexive of their situation, being a singular group with no proven template for success to follow outside of their own identity as a band. So, how indeed would the wolf survive?
Los Lobos had a lot to protect during a time in the eighties when the ugly head homogeneity where pop music was concerned was beginning to emerge. Because, stylistically homogeneous they were not. Rock ‘n’ roll, blues, folk-rock, soul, country, and even traditional Mexican folk music that they grew up with and played together at weddings and local dances for money in their early days all played into their sound when it came time to record. They had their work cut out for them when it came to gaining a foothold in the charts.
At least some of this stress on the band to make their way into the mainstream must have been poured into this song, which seems to evoke a sort of John Lee Hookeresque sense of ominous portent, matched with a sense of optimism expressed in the refrain. To that question of survival while hanging onto the integrity it took to be the kind of band they wanted to be, the answer started with some pretty good reviews.
High profile rock critic Robert Christgau probably said it best about Los Lobos at the time, talking about the style to be found on the record, but also about lyrical and thematic content, too:
Where their EP was a straightforward account of a world-class bar band in command of what we’ll call Chicano R&B, a relatively specialized indigenous style with unexploited mass potential, their début LP makes it sound as if they invented the style. Who did the original of that one, you wonder, only to discover that you’re listening to the original. Listen a little more and you figure out that these slices of dance music have lyrics, lyrics rooted in an oppression the artists really know about–the love songs return incessantly to the separation that defines migrant laborers’ lives.[Read more]
Christigau’s comments about oppression overtly refer to “A Matter Of Time“, another song featured on How Will The Wolf Survive about the plight of Mexican immigrants and their ambitions around starting a new life, wanting to fit into a new situation, but also wanting to retain their culture. This is an issue that is pertinent today, too of course when immigration reform as it pertains to Mexican immigrants specifically remains to be a hotly politicized issue.
“Don’t Worry Baby” can speak to the plight of the band looking to cut an artistic path for themselves in an arena that was becoming culturally polarized. They do such a superlative job of taking their disparate influences and weaving them together into something unique, the point of where they fit on the cultural or stylistic spectrum becomes secondary to how much they outright rock. The sentiments of “Don’t Worry Baby” can apply back to that community of immigrants mentioned in Christgau’s review too, full of that worry that comes with starting a new life in a new place, and full of hope too that everything will work out fine.
When people have something valuable to contribute, it really shouldn’t matter much where they come from. But, sometimes cultural origins are notable for other reasons. Los Lobos were aligned immediately with a certain cultural stream in rock history stretching back to its earliest period when cultures of many kinds were brought together to make it what is was. They recorded a selection of Ritchie Valens tunes that included a cover of Valens’ version of “La Bamba” for the celebrated 1987 rock biography of the same name starring Lou Diamond Phillips in the lead role. The song was the perfect fit for them; an early rock ‘n’ roll song from a Mexican-American artist that marries Mexican folk music to rock ‘n’ roll arrangement and feel, just as they’d done with their own music. This project would raise their profile considerably, making sure that the wolf could both survive, and thrive up until the present day.
Los Lobos continue to record and tour today. Check out their latest news at loslobos.org.