By Eleni P. Austin
Have you heard the good news? X has risen!
That’s right, boys and girls, Los Angeles’ premier Punk band has just released their first new album with the original line-up since 1985. Time to rejoice in the streets (socially distantly, with masks)!
As much as the Beach Boys and the Doors defined Los Angeles music in the 1960s, as much as the Eagles and Fleetwood Mac epitomized the laid back, L.A. sound in the 1970s, X lead the Punk Rock revolution that enveloped the smoggy metropolis at the dawn of 1980s.
Punk Rock snarled, scratched, spit and elbowed its way into the cultural zeitgeist in the late ‘70s. Proto-Punks like Iggy & The Stooges and the MC5 planted the seeds a decade before, offering a gritty alternative to the Hippy-Dippiness that followed the Summer Of Love. A few years later, four guys from Queens donned leather jackets and ripped jeans, collectively changed their surnames and became the Ramones. Their songs detailed scuzzy pursuits like sniffing glue and turning tricks, but these decadent scenarios were wrapped in impossibly hooky two-minute melodies that owed as much to Girl Groups, Phil Spector and Bubblegum as it did to Iggy Pop. When they toured Great Britain in 1976, they influenced aspiring bands like the Sex Pistols and the Clash to adopt the same primal approach. By the end of the year, Punk Rock had exploded in England.
Just as Johnny Rotten and Joe Strummer began taking their cues from Johnny, Joey, Dee Dee and Tommy Ramone, Los Angeles was beginning to experience its own Punk Rock renaissance. Although L.A. was still viewed as a make believe dream factory, filled with sun, sand, surf and mellow vibes, that was mostly good P.R. In reality, the sprawling demimonde was mostly a melting pot of disenchanted, dissatisfied denizens not living the California dream. Pioneering bands like the Germs, the Plugz, the Weirdos, Fear and X drew attention to that dichotomy.
X came together when John Doe (ne’ John Nommensen Duchec) relocated from Baltimore. He met Christine Lee Cervenka (soon to be rechristened Exene), a fledgling poet and native of Florida, at a poetry workshop in Venice. Immediately, the pair bonded over shared tastes in literature.
John had cycled through a series of Baltimore bands and was looking to make music in L.A. Through a classified ad, he connected with Billy Zoom (born Stuart Tyson Kindell). An Illinois transplant, whose dad played clarinet and saxophone during the Big Band era, Billy was an accomplished multi-instrumentalist. After moving to the City Of Angels, he earned his keep as a session musician and played with heavy-hitters like Gene Vincent, Big Joe Turner and Etta James.
John had recently been inspired by Patti Smith’s debut, Horses. Likewise, Billy was equally influenced by the stripped-down style of the Ramones. Exene had begun accompanying John to band practice, when he asked permission to turn one of her poems into a song she agreed, but only if she could sing it. Thus, their trademark vocal blend was born and Exene officially joined the band. The line-up was made complete with the addition of drummer, D.J. Bonebrake. The only member of the band to hail from Los Angeles, Donald James Bonebrake grew up in the San Fernando Valley and studied Classical music and traditional Jazz, before diving headfirst into the underground music scene. He made his reputation pounding his kit in the Eyes, which also included future Go-Go’s guitarist, Charlotte Caffrey.
X quickly vaulted to the top of the nascent Punk scene, playing in outlier clubs like the Masque, Madame Wong’s and the Whisky. It was there they met Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek. Although he was there to see another band, he quickly became enamored with X’s signature sound which married a Punky instrumental attack with traces of more melodic Country, Folk and Blues.
X was one of the first bands to sign with Slash, which began life as a fanzine before becoming a record label. Their seminal debut, Los Angeles, arrived in the Spring of 1980, John and Exene married that same year. In early 1981 they released their second album, Wild Gift. Both albums were critically acclaimed, garnering rave reviews in Punk publications and the mainstream press. Los Angeles sold a phenomenal 50,000 copies, and relentless touring gave them a nationwide audience. X became the first band to headline L.A.’s Greek Theater, soon major labels came calling and the band signed with Elektra.
Two more albums, Under The Big Black Sun and More Fun In The New World arrived in 1982 and 1983, respectively. All four were deftly produced by Ray Manzarek. Receiving his imprimatur, it felt as though he was passing the L.A. music torch to the next generation.
X’s music redefined the parameters of Punk, expanding the cutting, concise, somewhat nihilistic attack that characterized Los Angeles and Wild Gift. Both …Big Black Sun and …New World embraced Roots-ier elements. By incorporating hints of Rockabilly, Country and Folk, they presaged the Americana/alt.country movement by at least a decade.
John and Exene’s lyrics tackled day-to-day struggles like poverty, addiction, politics and death. Onstage, the couple’s charismatic vocal interplay exhibited the same frisson pioneered by musical soul-mates like Johnny and June, George and Tammy, as well as Gram Parsons and Emmylou Harris.
Despite the consistent critical hosanas, commercial success continued to elude the band. By 1985, John and Exene had divorced, but continued their working relationship. X switched it up on their fifth album, swapping out Ray Manzarek for Metal producer, Michael Wagener. Ain’t Love Grand rocked a little harder, but their fortunes remained unchanged. Frustrated, Billy Zoom quit the band.
His shoes were temporarily filled by Blasters guitarist, Dave Alvin. Dave had recently collaborated with John, Exene, D.J. and Johnny Ray Bartel on their Country/Folk side project, The Knitters. X’s sixth effort, 1987’s See How We Are featured both Dave and Billy Zoom’s replacement, ex-Lone Justice guitarist, Tony Gilkyson. A scorching live set, Live At The Whisky A Go-Go On The Fabulous Sunset Strip arrived a year later. Both John and Exene had remarried and started families, the time seemed right for X to take an extended hiatus.
They returned in the early ‘90s with a seventh studio album, Hey Zeus and a live acoustic collection entitled Unclogged. In the meantime, each member added to their resumes via solo albums, new musical collaborations and acting gigs. By the end of the 20th century, Billy had rejoined the band. When Pearl Jam asked X to tour as their opening act, a new generation discovered L.A.’s trailblazing Punks.
In the ensuing years, X has spent most summers on tour. They still exhibit the same urgent energy onstage. These days, their audience is a healthy mix of original fans and millennials. In 2015, they took a brief break when Billy was diagnosed with bladder cancer, but once he completed treatment they were back on the road.
Two years later, the Grammy Museum commemorated a milestone anniversary by curating an exhibit entitled X: 40 Years Of Punk Rock In Los Angeles. 2019 found them taking tentative steps toward recording a new album. They hooked up with respected indie label, Fat Possum and connected with producer Rob Schnapf (Beck, Elliott Smith, The Whigs, Booker T. Jones). Alphabetland was scheduled to arrive in the Fall, in the midst of another tour. But COVID 19 derailed touring plans, so the band decided to make it available now as a download, with physical copies arriving at the end of Summer.
The album gets off to a rollicking start with the raucous title track. Slashing guitar riffs and prowling bass lines collide with a walloping, Punky beat. John and Exene’s signature dissonant harmonies intertwine as lyrics advocate shredding yesterday to make room for the now; ”Tearing up the sidewalks, pouring wet cement, erasing your initials, alphabet wrecked/I watched you pour white gasoline to cover your scent, burned your name to cinders, alphabet wrecked.” The momentum accelerates on the instrumental break, D.J. rides the hi-hat as Billy unleashes a scorching solo. The arrangement reaches a fever pitch at the end, paring down to a lone note of feedback just before the power chord is ripped from the amp.
From the beginning, the political has been personal for X. Songs like “The World’s A Mess, It’s In My Kiss,” “In This House That I Call Home,” “The Have-Nots” “The New World” and “See How We Are” spoke to life’s inequities, alienation, class warfare and corruption. That tradition continues on both and “Water Into Wine” and “Goodbye Year Goodbye.”
The former is anchored by a ramshackle beat, tensile bass and rapid-fire gunslinger guitar. Exene is out front here, and she gets right to the point, railing against the 1%; “The divine that defines us, the evil that divides us, there’s a heaven and a hell and there’s an ‘oh well’/Who gets passed to the head of the line, who gets water & who gets wine, there’s a heaven and there’s a never, there’s no tomorrow only forever.” Billy executes a spiraling Rockabilly-tinged solo on the break, underscored by Boogie-Woogie piano and a honking saxophone that punctuates each verse.
The latter is powered by a pile-driving rhythm, roiling bass and brawny guitar. John’s roughhewn tenor wraps around lyrics that unspool a New Year’s Eve narrative that offers a curdled assessment of 2019; “The party started at noon o’ clock, might go on the break of dawn, brother & sister pretend to be lovers, everyone’s so careful not to let on/It’s been good, it’s been bad, oh-so-happy, awful sad, chocked so full for less than empty, my bank account down & out and over drawn… I could go on and on and on.”
A couple of songs find X dipping into their back catalog, and they are both inspired by literary touchstones. “Delta 88 Nightmare” is a track that dates back to their earliest days. Originally known as “Delta 88,” it never made it past the demo stage in 1978. The 21st century version is just slightly less frenetic than it’s manic precursor. Whiplash guitar riffs ride roughshod over blistering bass lines and a breakneck beat. John and Exene’s vocal delivery hug each hairpin turn of the song’s aural switchbacks. Fever dream lyrics chronicle an Oldsmobile road trip to Monterey, site of John Steinbeck’s comical novel, “Cannery Row.” Determined to walk in the footsteps of “Doc” and “Mac,” they search for bums and beer milkshakes, disappointingly, they find “a cute resort with dads and mom” instead.
The earliest incarnation of “Cyrano de Berger’s Back,” one of John’s first compositions, was a garage recording in 1977. The band took another pass at it a decade later on the “See How We Are” record, but they were never truly satisfied with the finished product. This new rendition splits the difference between the primitive ’77 blueprint and the Roots Rockin’ ’87 rendition. Twangy guitar connects with a swinging bass line and snapback rhythm. John takes a page from the classic play by Edmond Rostand. He slips into the skin of Cyrano, a loquacious warrior from the 17th century, who is willing to render his services to any tongue-tied Romeo who has the cash; “I gotta a couple of words to say for all you strong and silent types, who don’t talk to the girls they want to love…I’ll talk for you underneath a balcony of blue, I’ll talk for you, ‘cause Cyrano deBerger’s back.” Billy’s swoony baritone sax notes add to the song’s playful patina.
The best songs here display the same coiled urgency that characterizes X’s live sets. On “Star Chambered,” stripped-down rippling guitar riffs sideswipe ricocheting bass fills and a rattletrap rhythm. John and Exene trade verses, spitting lyrics that reflect on what might have been had they not both “took a chance, a million years ago.” The final verse offers a sideways homage to the Tennessee Ernie Ford/Merle Travis classic, “Sixteen Tons; “I played sixteen bars and what did I get, another town over and covered in sweat/Almost run over, with another hangover & drunker in debt.” As the velocity ratchets on the break, Billy’s solo walks the line between Spaghetti Western grandeur and whammy-fied Surf Guitar vibrato.
A bludgeoning beat, along with blitzkrieg bass and reverb-drenched guitar fuels “Angel On The Road.” Exene is front and center on the verses, as John shadows her on the chorus. Cinematic yet Pulp-y lyrics manage to channel Jack Kerouac, Jim Thompson and Roger Corman; “Small town stars are bright, hi-beams bright, my sad old car has died, I’ll have to hitch a ride/He downshifts his beautiful rig, the door steams open & I climb in… ‘I’m Duane, nice to meet you,’ ‘nice to meet you too,’ I say, he asks me where I’m going, I point to the sky/’Lead the way angel,’ Duane says as the radio sings, they scraped me off that two-lane my arms spread as wide as wings.” Billy’s guitar shapeshifts throughout the song, flanging on the chorus, strafing on the verse and ripping a splayed solo on the break.
Finally, “Free” matches staccato guitar chords with fluid bass lines and a jack rabbit rhythm. John’s vocals are as incendiary as his questions are cryptic; “I got a question you can’t answer, you hurt my sister with a doctor’s hand, with boiling water and blowing sand.” Once again, Billy nearly succeeds in pulling focus making his guitar growl, yowl and caterwaul.
Other interesting tracks include the pyretic action of “I’ve Got A Fever” and the menacing “Strange Life.” The album closes with “All The Time In The World,” a bit of Noir-ish spoken word primarily from Exene. Accompanied by jagged, Jazzy piano chords and searing guitar notes, Exene is by turns reflective, arch and mordant. Hopeful, yet deeply cynical, she recalls the twists and turns of a life well lived and ponders the fate of future generations. In the end, she concludes “We are dust, it’s true, and dust we shall return, me and you, but it was fun while it lasted/All the time in the world, turns out not to be that much.” It’s a restless finish to a dazzling record.
The members of X provided all the instrumentation here, except the closing track, which features guitar from Doors guitarist, Robby Krieger, bringing the band full circle from their earlier collaboration with the late Ray Manzarek.
Back when the Grammy Museum celebrated the legacy of X, John Doe had this to say; “We don’t have any gold records, we’re not in the Rock & Roll Hall Of Fame, but we have a history. Los Angeles puts a stake in the ground saying Punk Rock isn’t (just) New York and London.”
40 years on, Alphabetland has us falling in love with X all over again. From John and Exene’s symbiotic disharmony, D.J.’s impeccably shambolic time-keeping and Billy’s broad grin, wide-legged stance and indelible guitar pyrotechnics, their sound remains lean and edgy; their electric chemistry is still intact. All hail X.