"The Wolf record was very pivotal for us," says Louie Perez, one of the four East L.A. high-school buddies who started Los Lobos in 1973. "We decided to take a responsible look at what we represented and where we came from as Mexican Americans. Was this band going to be a fun, sock-hop party band or actually show they're of reasonable intelligence and concern?"
The answer turned out to be both. On How Will the Wolf Survive?, Los Lobos — Perez on drums, guitar and requinto; David Hidalgo on vocals, accordion and guitar; Cesar Rosas on vocals, guitar and mandolin; and Conrad Lozano on bass and guitarron — played with crisp exuberance. They adroitly mixed blues rave-ups like "Don't Worry Baby" with traditional numbers such as "Serenata Nortena" and personal songs by Perez and Hidalgo about the band's quest to retain its Mexican American heritage while working within a glossy pop-star industry.
Los Lobos (Spanish for "the wolves") had quit various local cover bands, bought traditional Mexican instruments at pawnshops and learned the norteño music of their forefathers. They eventually incorporated electric instruments and in 1983 with the Blasters' saxophonist, Steve Berlin (who soon joined the band), recorded an EP called ... And a Time to Dance. It sold only 50,000 copies but won many critics' awards and enabled the band members to buy a beat-up Dodge van in which they toured America for the first time.
Hidalgo and Perez worked on songs for their first full-length album at the home of Perez's brother-in-law. "We'd sit down with a guitar, a tape recorder and a jar of Tasters Choice, and we were coffee achievers all afternoon," says Perez. One result of these sessions was "A Matter of Time," a touching ballad about a Mexican crossing the border, looking for a better world.
They entered the studio early in the summer of 1984 with T-Bone Burnett, who had coproduced the previous EP with Berlin. Basic tracks were recorded at the Capitol studio in L.A., with overdubs and vocals done at a garage studio belonging to a friend of Burnett's. Additional tracks were cut at the Warner Bros. studios, because "every time it looked like we were done, something else would come up," says Perez.
When the record was nearly finished, Los Lobos hit on its tide track. Perez found inspiration in an old issue of National Geographic with a story entitled "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?" says Perez. "Will we be given the opportunity to make it or not?"
On the way home from the studio late one night, Perez and Hidalgo began writing the song, which was speedily recorded with Weather Report's Alex Acuna sitting in on percussion. In it, Hidalgo sings, "It's the truth that they all look for/Something they must keep alive/Will the wolf survive?"
The grace note that pulled the album together was an instrumental of Hidalgo's performed on Mexican instruments. Perez named it "Lil' King of Everything," he says, because "it sounded to me like this hobo who wakes up in the morning, sees the world and feels good about himself. He doesn't own anything, but he's the 'Lil' King of Everything.'" The seventy-nine-second song was spliced into the intro of "How Will the Wolf Survive?" — linking Los Lobos's Mexican roots, their rocking present and their stellar future.