The world has finally caught up to San Antonio power-pop band the Krayolas

A true San Antonio hybrid, the Krayolas initially drew attention for filtering the sounds of the British Invasion through a Mexican American lens.

click to enlarge San Antonio band the Krayolas is sometimes called the "Tex-Mex Beatles." - Courtesy Photo / The Krayolas
Courtesy Photo / The Krayolas
San Antonio band the Krayolas is sometimes called the "Tex-Mex Beatles."

Rock 'n' roll doesn't give many second chances.

The music industry is notoriously youth-obsessed and fickle. It's always ready to trade in old rockers for the newest model. Which makes the redemptive trajectory of San Antonio band the Krayolas — sometimes called the "Tex-Mex Beatles" — remarkable. 

Formed in 1975 by brothers Hector and David Saldaña, the group became a regional draw in the '70s but ultimately faltered on its initial promise, disbanding in 1988. The band reformed in 2007 after a two-decade hiatus, and since then has garnered some of the wider success that eluded it the first time around.

Bruce Springsteen guitarist Little Steven has championed the Krayolas on his satellite radio show Underground Garage. The band's songs appeared in Like A Rolling Stone: The Life & Times of Ben Fong-Torres, the acclaimed documentary about the iconic Rolling Stone writer. And, perhaps most compellingly, the Saldañas have begun playing with singer Hector's two sons, Jason and Nicky, passing the Krayolas torch to the next generation and infusing their music with new energy and drive.  

A true San Antonio hybrid, the Krayolas initially drew attention for filtering the sounds of the British Invasion through a Mexican American lens. It was an approach decades ahead of its time, but maybe the world has finally caught up.

"I've been flabbergasted for the last 12 years," said drummer David Saldaña, the 63-year-old younger brother. "Because nobody hands you shit. You have to do it for yourself. There's a renewed spirit. Hector's boys are really good musicians, and the music just gets better and better."

Happy Go Lucky

Despite missing a youthful shot at the big time, the Krayolas' music doesn't just endure — it rocks. In testament to that enduring appeal, the band updated and reissued its 1982 debut album Kolored Music last month with a new, less problematic title: Happy Go Lucky

"Happy Go Lucky was actually the original title of the album," said singer-guitarist Hector Saldaña, 65. "We've brought the album into the 20th century. It's the original Krayolas in color for the first time."

To that end, the album cover features color photos, an upgrade from 1982's grainy black and white, as well as a new track listing remixed from the unearthed original two-inch analog tape. The album captures the Krayolas' sound in all its 1982 technicolor glory.   

Hector Saldaña's contributions to San Antonio's music scene extend beyond the Krayolas. After spending 28 years as a music writer at the San Antonio Express-News, he was hired by Texas State University as music curator for its Wittliff Collections. That job inspired his decision to reissue material from the band's heyday.

"When I became an archivist at the Wittliff, I saw what was possible for archiving and reissue," he said. "Happy Go Lucky is the second archival preservation project undertaken by the Krayolas since original bassist Barry Smith's 2019 death. He was also my brother-in-law, married to one of my sisters. So, it's very personal." 

click to enlarge The original lineup of the Krayolas brings the energy during a Houston performance. - Courtesy Photo / The Krayolas
Courtesy Photo / The Krayolas
The original lineup of the Krayolas brings the energy during a Houston performance.

Early years

The Krayolas began as San Antonio's foremost purveyors of power pop — a propulsive sound that sought to shake listeners from a stoned mid-'70s stupor, not unlike punk but with more melody and less nihilism.  

In addition to the Saldañas and Smith, the brother of legendary Hickoids frontman Jeff Smith, the first album's lineup included multi-instrumentalist John Harris.  

"We were out of step with the times," Hector Saldaña said. "As much as I love it now, the Krayolas were a complete rejection of the redneck rock thing. What we really loved was Badfinger, the Raspberries, Big Star, David Bowie."  

But, for some, the idea of Mexican American brothers playing British Invasion-style rock proved a hard sell. It was a less-enlightened time. 

"You don't know how many times people would see us and say, 'How come you're not doing Tejano?' Even Doug Sahm was out of fashion. We'd play [Sahm's hit] 'Mendocino,' and people would say, 'Why aren't you playing disco? Why aren't you playing Bad Company?'" Hector Saldaña said. "We didn't feel connected. When the Ramones came out and Blondie, we sort of related to that, but we were over here ... the San Antonio version. Nobody else was doing what we were doing."

Even though its look and sound confounded some audience members, the group built a quick following thanks to its raucous performances that owed a lot to another British Invasion stalwart, The Who. But the aggression wasn't limited to the way the band members went after their instruments. 

"You didn't want to come up on stage while we were playing. ... We'd beat your ass and kick you off," David Saldaña said, laughing. "A couple of times Hector and I got into it. I would get into it more with Barry. I wouldn't say I punched him out, but I had to have him in a headlock a few times. We approached the music that way. You have to be in that zone."

The Krayolas first performed in 1975 at San Antonio's Warehouse Club, where an underage David Saldaña had to sneak in the back door. After winning a Battle of the Bands sponsored by longtime local radio station KTSA, a representative from PolyGram Records approached the group. It was the first in a series of near misses that marked the first half of the band's career. 

"[PolyGram] gave us their card, said they loved it," David Saldaña recalled. "But we never pursued it further than that. We just didn't have it together."

Even so, winning the battle earned the Krayolas a show at Six Flags Dallas with rock legend Chuck Berry. KTSA's program director took the fledgling act under his wing and helped book a string of gigs aimed at broadening its audience. 

Discos, animal houses, women's prisons

Those shows included a surreal stint as the late-night band at two San Antonio discos, Hallelujah Hollywood and Déjà Vu. The Krayolas played three sets nightly between the two clubs. 

"They got us a coked-out roadie named 'Cajun' to move the amps and drive us," Hector Saldaña said. "We were dressed in the black suits and Beatle boots. The crowds loved it. Because we were a sideshow freak act." 

The venues also weren't properly equipped for live music. Members of the Krayolas suffered through onstage electrocutions. 

"Barry got blown off the stage twice," Hector Saldaña said. "When he grabbed an ungrounded mic stand, he was writhing on the floor stuck to the stand and the audience was cheering it on. ... They thought it was part of the show."

Around that time, the band landed another memorable gig: a women's prison in Huntsville.  

"For our second set, we played in cavemen outfits — mine was just a loincloth," David Saldaña said. "Women were rushing the stage, so they turned the power off. Nearly caused a riot."

In 1978, the movie Animal House became a runaway hit, inspiring a new generation of frat party animals. The Krayolas rode that wave, playing what seemed like every out-of-control college blowout in Texas, Oklahoma and Louisiana.

It was a time before multi-band bills, so the band was often contracted to play its high-octane power-pop for four hours. The band's endurance during those grueling sets won it an expanding audience in San Antonio and beyond. 

click to enlarge The band donned headgear for this promotional shot. - Courtesy Photo / The Krayolas
Courtesy Photo / The Krayolas
The band donned headgear for this promotional shot.

Go west

Inspired by their burgeoning regional fame, Hector Saldaña and Smith flew to Los Angeles to break into the wider pop market. They visited legendary venue the Palomino Club and sought out pop star Dwight Twilley, who then employed a young Tom Petty as his bass player. 

"We went to Twilley's office three times, but the door was always locked," Hector Saldaña said. "We thought he might understand us."

At the time, the Krayolas' calling card was "All of the Time," a catchy song that caught the attention of notorious LA scenester Kim Fowley. The colorful songwriter, manager and Svengali had worked with innumerable stars, from Frank Zappa to Kiss.  

"[Fowley] thought 'All of the Time' was the greatest song ever ... but we sucked," Hector Saldaña said with a laugh. "He essentially wanted to write or co-write nine more songs like 'All of the Time,' and to mold the Krayolas." 

Fowley clearly had a successful track record, having recently propelled the Runaways, featuring a young Joan Jett, to some degree of success, but his controlling approach turned off the Krayolas.

On the same trip, Hector Saldaña connected with another LA scenester enamored with "All of the Time." Bomp! Records founder Greg Shaw, who masterminded the seminal '60s garage-rock collection Pebbles, loved the Krayolas' retro aspect.

But the band didn't see itself as looking to the past. Unwilling to relinquish control to Fowley or Shaw, the band skipped over those opportunities.

"I was barely 21, and at that age you don't like people telling you what to do," Hector Saldaña said. "We weren't hip or savvy enough to make it. We were unmanageable."

West Side fusion

Even though they failed to land a deal, Smith and Hector Saldaña returned home inspired by the thriving LA scene. They continued delivering raucous shows around the Lone Star State, eventually becoming fixtures at Houston club Rockefeller's.

"It was a decadent time in Houston," David Saldaña said. "We were just a regional act, but that time in Houston made us into headliners. We started playing these wild parties and packing folks in." 

Houston jukebox salesman Bill Summersett caught the band at that point and was impressed enough to arrange the recording session for the Krayolas' first proper album. His down payment for the band's recording session was a 1940s Wurlitzer jukebox. 

Smith suggested the Krayolas incorporate San Antonio's West Side Horns into the recording session. The storied group's work backing artists including Doug Sahm, Randy Garibay and The Band's Rick Danko had already made them legendary.  

That combination of power-pop energy with San Antonio's Chicano Soul sound lent a fresh, unpretentious energy to the album. "All of the Time," which attracted the interest of Fowley and Shaw, remains a standout from the session. Even decades later, its garage-rock intensity jumps from the speakers, shakes the walls and demands attention.

"We did take the West Side Sound to a different place," Hector Saldaña said. "By adding it with power-pop and garage rock. If we have any kind of legacy, it's that we were either bold enough or stupid enough to do that."

Kolored Music landed national distribution, college radio airplay and glowing reviews. Some San Antonio publications even called it the best local debut since that of the Sir Douglas Quintet.  

Influential New York fanzine Trouser Press praised the band's "joyous, unpretentious quality and noted the West Side Horns' appearance on seven of the 10 tracks as a standout feature. "The horns never get in the way, but instead add a soulful edge," the reviewer opined.

But despite the rush of positive feedback, the Krayolas' initial burst of fame was almost over. 

On the road

"What I've learned, as a musician, journalist and curator is these great moments come around, but they only come around once," Hector Saldaña said. "Little did I know in 1982, we were about to be has-beens, real quick. And you don't realize that. How could you? Because, by then — from '78 to '82, we'd had just an incredible run, playing with huge artists, playing great gigs."

Hector Saldaña blames the loss of momentum on the splintering of multi-instrumentalist Harris from the original lineup and the band's reluctance to tour with the West Side Horns.

"That was a mistake," he said. "We didn't think it through. It was never as fully realized on stage as it should have been."

At the time, though, the group was blissfully ignorant and pressed on with its road dates, recruiting another multifaceted musician, Walter Lucas, to take over for Harris.  

"It was a trip because here was this skinny little Black kid with an Afro who always wore a knit cap like Mike Nesmith of the Monkees," Hector Saldaña recalled. "And he's into surf music and power-pop."

The revamped Krayolas toured the East Coast, making its New York debut at The Bitter End, the city's oldest rock club. While staying at the Chelsea Hotel, they realized their upstairs neighbor was Elvis Costello, whose concise songwriting was a direct influence on the band. 

"We yelled at him from the balcony," Walter Lucas recalled. "Said, 'Hey, we're the Krayolas.' And Costello said, 'Yeah, I know your band! Sorry I can't hang out, but I'm doing a show at Madison Square Garden.'" 

It wasn't the only time the members of the Krayolas would rub elbows with heroes. The band opened a string of dates for Rockpile, the famed UK supergroup consisting of Dave Edmunds and Nick Lowe, both luminaries of the pub rock sound that evolved into punk and power-pop. 

"We performed in our caveman outfits, and Dave Edmunds showed me how to play 'Yesterday' the way Paul McCartney taught him to play it," Hector Saldaña said. "They also gave us the phrase 'best riffs only,' which we later used as an album title."

click to enlarge The Krayolas’ current lineup includes Hector Saldaña’s sons Nicky (second from left) and Jason (right). - Marco Villarreal
Marco Villarreal
The Krayolas’ current lineup includes Hector Saldaña’s sons Nicky (second from left) and Jason (right).

LA slide

As the Krayolas slogged on, still grasping for the big time, bassist Smith was next to bow out. In 1986, the band relocated to LA, hoping to recapture the energy of earlier visits. It played LA hotspots like the Roxy and Club Lingerie.

At one LA gig, the Krayolas caught the ear of producer Jack Douglas, renowned for his work with John Lennon and Aerosmith. After promising the group a spot on his boutique record label, Douglas took a pass and focused on recording a solo album by Cheap Trick frontman Robin Zander. 

During that time, the band connected with another power-pop originator and high-powered producer, Todd Rundgren. Even though Rundgren's production credits included Badfinger, one of the Krayolas' inspirations, things didn't gel. 

"He was like Kim Fowley — tells you that you suck, and you need him to be great," Hector Saldaña remembered. "He said, 'Sure, I can produce the record. It'll be $100,000, and I'm gonna write all the songs.'"  

"Probably thought we were Texas oil millionaires," David Saldaña said of the asking price. "I remember in New York, everyone thought Texans had oil wells and rode horses.

After passing on the offer, the Krayolas limped on for a little longer. Finally, things fell apart in 1988. Tired of battling an unreceptive music business, and with adult responsibilities beckoning, the group disbanded.  

"In this business you can rise high and fast and then fall quick," David Saldaña said. "We were struggling to make sense of it."

Augie's invitation 

The Krayolas remained dormant until 2007, when local Sir Douglas Quintet member Augie Meyers nudged them from retirement. Having heard Best Riffs Only, a retrospective compilation of the band's best material, he offered them a song he'd written for Sir Douglas but never recorded.

The Krayolas' rearrangement of that song, "Little Fox," gave the band new life, culminating in a performance at Austin's Paramount Theatre on the closing night of that year's South by Southwest Festival. 

"The show was in tribute to Doug Sahm, so we played one of Doug's favorite Kinks songs, 'Who'll Be the Next in Line,'" Hector Saldaña said. "The K in our name comes from The Kinks, so it felt like coming full circle."

With that gig, the Krayolas were truly reborn, recording again and playing select live performances with veteran local musicians filling out the lineup around the Saldaña brothers. This time, the members incorporated a wider set of influences, including the Tejano they'd formerly avoided.  

"The Krayolas have always been about shedding skins, reinvention," Hector Saldaña said. "That's the way we always were. Easily bored, total contrarians, didn't take ourselves that seriously."

The newer material particularly resonated with David Saldaña: "A lot of great songs, important songs, came out of these years — '1070 (Not Your Dirty Mexican),' 'Corrido Twelve Heads in a Bag.'"

After the unfulfilled promise of its early years, the world had finally caught up to the Krayolas. The band found a champion in Springsteen sideman Little Steven, who has played the band regularly on his Sirius XM station. The exposure and positive reviews continued to build from there.

What had changed since the '70s and '80s?

First off, a resurgence of interest in garage rock created a niche market for homespun bands more interested in delivering timeless rock than jumping on the latest trend.

Secondly, rock critics, DJs and listeners had finally awakened to a more diverse range of voices. British Invasion rock as played by Mexican Americans suddenly didn't seem so strange. In fact, it felt like a missing chapter of the rock 'n' roll story was finally allowed to be told — the compelling and essential contributions of San Antonio, South Texas and Latinos in particular.

Full circle

After the resurgence, Hector Saldaña looked back to the group's early years, spurred on by the 2019 death of original Krayolas bassist Smith. The band's Box Records imprint released Savage Young Krayolas, a collection of early singles, that same year. From there, Hector Saldaña turned his eye to the 1982 debut.

"I was always very ambivalent about that record," he said. "I was a young father at the time... with a marriage that was falling apart. So, I was absentee in a lot of ways."  

The album's master tapes, once deemed lost in a 1993 flood of the Houston studio, were miraculously discovered by the studio's new owner. A remix by San Antonio's Harter Music revealed previously submerged parts and brought the rhythm section into sharper focus.  

"It's the album's first time in color, and not just the photos," Hector Saldaña said. "Sonically, you don't want it to sound like there's a blanket on top of it. It's preserved at a pretty high level."    

But not everything is worth preserving. And that's not lost on the Saldaña brothers.  

"Had we not created a good vibe and a good name for ourselves back then, there'd be no reason to re-release this stuff," Hector Saldaña said.  

The reissues aren't the only way the Krayolas have come full circle. With the addition of Hector Saldaña's sons, Jason and Nicky — 43 and 41, respectively — to fill out the band, it's reacquired a youthful energy.

The lineup change has shifted its sound back toward the terse power-pop of its early years.

Looking back on four decades of music, struggle and innumerable what-ifs, Hector Saldaña said he's gained new perspective on the meaning of musical success. 

"The Krayolas never fit into any trend that was going on," he said. "I was always super disappointed. Why can't we be as good as The Beatles? But then you realize you could only sound like the Krayolas.

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