Postpunk Chuck Berry lovin' L.A. sleaze....We're An American Band!

Strongest album: Wild Gift
Must to avoid: Ain't Love Grand

Punk rock began in New York's C.B.G.B. and crossed over to London, where it sprinted to a media sensation(alism). All over the Western world kids who had been playing mediocre heavy metal cut their hair and got charged by the energy and anybody-can-do-it mentality of punk. It provided a much-needed shot of adrenaline to the sagging refuse of mid-70s rock and the inspiration for the most important white rock music for the next 15 or so years - until grunge and "alternative" demolished all that the original punks had fought for. Los Angeles was one of those cities overrun by kids inspired by punk; unfortunately, L.A. style punk never proved a serious competition to the much more inspired British and East Coast bands. Suffering an inferiority complex because most L.A. kids were pretty privileged upper-middle class brats and therefore didn't possess the authenticity of dole-queu Brits or the arty intelligence of Greenwich Village New Yorkers, L.A. punk responded the only way it felt it could - by taking punk rock to the extreme, being louder, faster, more outrageous and nihilistic. It was pure pose, of course, and most L.A. punks' complaints were hardly compelling or believable. Compare the very specific rage of the Clash to the vague, muddled whining of the Germs and you'll understand what I'm talking about: being privileged white kids, most California punks didn't have much to complain about, so they adopted a suburban rebellion for rebellion's sake excuse to throw temper tantrums about, you know, the "system" and "Reagan" when they were really pissed off 'cause Daddy wouldn't let them borrow the Ferrari Saturday night. In the process they ruined punk rock. The form of punk they developed, "hardcore", was a straightjacketed, conformist, doctrinaire style that insisted that every band play a certain formula within certain limits, thereby totally going against the eclectic do-anything-you-wanna-do spirit of the original punks. The same thing that had happened to the blues several decades earlier happened to punk: as the style strived more for "authenticity" than pleasure, as it Stalinistically purged all outside influences to achieve "purity", it grew more insular and musty, sounding ever-more like tired going-through-the-motions than exciting or interesting music with a point or purpose. As they say, punk's not dead! - it just got boring. Again, the inferiority complex of L.A. punk factors in here. They were so afraid of being thought of as inauthentic posers that they took punk to the extreme in order to cover their inadaquencies up. The Hollywood version of punk - grit as flash, an emphasis on "keeping it real" over "wimpy sell-out pop" not quite covering up its essential hollowness.

That's the background neccessary to understand the milieu X found themselves in. They stood apart from most L.A. punk because a)they were older - in their 20s when they started out, and I think guitarist Billy Zoom was over 30!; b)they were white trash from such declasse places as Florida trailer parks; and, this is the most important, c)they were a great band. Yes, California punk produced 1, count'em 1, GREAT band. X was like a bottle of imported Chablis amidst a stack of stale Old Milwaukees. They were so good that eventually they got tagged as "post-punk", not "punk" proper, which meant that their real peers were the Replacements and Husker Du, not the Circle Jerks and Suicidal Tendencies - you know, greatness ('80s postpunk) vs. mediocrity ('80s punk). Okay, California produced a few other good punk bands, namely Black Flag, the Dead Kennedys, and the Descendents - if there's any others I haven't heard'em (Bad Religion don't make the cut 'cause every song sounds exactly the fucking same, and don't even get me started about Rancid/Offspring/Green Day). But X stand head and shoulders above every one of them, not in the least because they were punks who listened to and incorporated heavy metal, rockabilly, country, and old blues'n'folk (think Leadbelly) elements into their sound.

Tragically, there exists only one homepage for X. C'mon, can't anybody put up anymore for this great band?

Los Angeles (1980) ****1/2

Ex-Doors keyboardist Ray Manzanerak produced, provoking misleading comparisons to the Doors by critics who obviously weren't paying attention, because aside from Manzanerak's cheesy organ fills - which are intrusive, anyway - this has no connection with he of Lizard Land, unless coming from L.A. and singing pretentious poetry counts. Oh, and a cover of "Soul Kitchen" that blows the silly original to smithereens. Actually the poetry's kept down to such a minimum that you barely notice it's there, but you can tell Exene Cervenka's one of those deranged coffeehouse dropout bohemians who could stand a few semesters of college workshopping to give her "self-expression" a little discipline, which her voice needs even more - her complete inability to sing on pitch, in key, or the least bit melodically would threaten these tunes if X played anything but highway star crankin' noise. Well, not noise, really - the melodies are simple but stick, and the hooks are killer. But yeah, NOISE in that it's loud and slams your spine against your ribs - in other words, rock and roll. Exene and husband John Doe, who looks and sings like your clean-cut redneck cousin Earl who can fix your transmission in nothing flat, write biting, cynical songs fixating on the excesses and decadence of L.A. - better and smarter than the Eagles for sure, not as smart as Steely Dan but louder and more you know rock'n'roll about it. Of course like those bands, X revel in the very things they complain about - Jesus it's so hard to be a Puritan 'cause everybody likes to drink and have sex, which isn't to say too much causes problems. The wild and crazy couple are sharp, compellingly intense songwriters, but it's Billy Zoom that dominates this band with his chunky, junky Chuck Berry bastardizes the Ramones guitar - it's the first sound you hear on the album, and what you'll remember the most after it's over. And let's not forget D.J. Bonebrake's drums, which sound exactly like his name - if John Doe could've played bass well (maybe he does, I hardly hear it in the mix), X would have had a hell of a rythm section. Well, I mean better than the rythm section they have. All of these songs are good - no, make that great, except for the two dirges that stop the momentum on each side. You can tell X are influenced by country music because like a good country singer their song titles are as good as the songs themselves: "You're Phone's Off The Hook, But You're Not"; "Sex And Dying In High Society" (pre-AIDS, though obviously hitting closer to home these days); and the best for last, "The World's A Mess, It's In My Kiss". And what do you know, the songs actually live up to their titles! The title track gets away with a narrator whining about Mexicans, niggers, homosexuals, and the idle rich, which no band could do today. X aren't being bigots, they're doing a character study of a person who lives in L.A., and as we all know from riots and such they've got a lot of'em down in them parts (please remind Neil Young to update "Southern Man" to "California Man" to accomodate Rodney King and anti-immigrant bashing. It doesn't make much sense anymore since we've got integrated schools here in the South, which means there's less bigotry here now than in the North, the irony - but I digress. Besides, that's a Move song). "Johnny Hit And Run Pauline" has the sickest scenario - this guy gets injected with a drug that makes him have sex every hour, so he winds up raping and killing this girl. I'm not sure if it has much of a point, but I like the "Johnny B. Goode" quote that kicks things into gear. Raw and exciting, it could benefit from better production and stand a bit of variety, but those are minor nitpickings.

Wild Gift (1981) *****

Their first four albums all sound pretty much the same and are of such consistent quality that choosing one as the definitive X album can provide a slight difficulty. This one's the album all the critics love, it's a step forward from the debut, and it has more good songs than the others. And while it's only marginally better than several other X efforts, as a great American band X deserve their great five-star rock landmark, so this will do. The sound replaces Los Angeles thick blur for a more open, nuanced approach, which isn't to say X aren't still spare and minimalistic. There's more variety here and Exene/Doe's songwriting makes some grand leaps, particularly on the scary interracial ballad "White Girl". "When Our Love Passed Out On The Couch" is another great title. "Adult Books" strolls, something the debut couldn't do, which makes up for the rare gaffe like "In This House That I Call Home" and the tuneless Exene screech, "I'm Coming Over". Exene and Doe sing about personal relationships as much as general social conditions, which makes this album an evolutionary step in punk rock, proving that you could sing about love as well as anarchy. Which makes X light years more advanced emotionally than the mindless hardcore that was current at the time, and that makes all the difference by making their passion credible enough to put the music over. While most punk albums from the early '80s sound like quaint artifacts, of and for their time, this album ranks among rock's finest and doesn't sound the least bit dated. The only quibbles I have is that the sound doesn't have the punch of some their other albums, and as I mentioned earlier there are a handful of throwaways. But quibbles are quibbles; otherwise, an indisputable classic.

Los Angeles and Wild Gift have been paired together on one CD. Which makes that CD the essential X purchase for anyone interested in X or any '80s American punk for that matter.

Under The Big Black Sun (1982) ****

Their major label debut sounds pretty much exactly like the first two records, only with better sound that packs a more streamlined, metallic punch and slightly less compelling songs. Oh, there are little differences like branching out into ballads, one of which is a cover, "Dancing With Tears In My Eyes", and the other, "Come Back To Me", a song Exene wrote about her dead twin sister, who also shows up in "Riding With Mary". Exene seems to dominate the album, singing lead all but four of the songs, and they're some of her best. Doe fans might feel a bit let down - I'm more partial to him myself, if I had to pick a favorite X-person since he sings way better, but really that's almost as arbitrary as choosing your favorite brand of hard liquor. Which shows up in "The Have Nots", sung by Doe and probably the album's best song, with a sociopolitical chorus about the working class and verses about drinking in sleazy bars. What it adds up to I don't quite grasp, but I'm sure enough about the song's meaning to want to graphically mutilate like an American Psycho Mr. Bret Easton Ellis for ludicrously quoting X out of context in his stupid novel Less Than Zero about rich cokehead brats in L.A., which turned into an even worse movie and a bad overrated soundtrack, too. But back to X: if I had to pick faves, I'd go for "The Have Nots", Doe's "Blue Spark", Exene's "Motel Room In My Bed" and the title track, and "Riding With Mary", which Doe sings for some reason even though it's obviously Exene's song because of the subject matter. But really Doe and Exene's songwriting styles are so similar that the only way you know who's song is who's is by whoever's singing it. And you know I could pick Exene as my fave X-person tomorrow just as easy. I mean, does anyone really have a favorite member of X?

More Fun In The New World (1983) ****

Their fourth and final album in classic X style, it contains more harmony singing between Doe and Exene, even some duets on a couple of numbers, which improves things since Doe's a bit bland and Exene shrieks too much. Otherwise, the same as usual, with a few more songwriting advances and some untrod turns but that's about all the difference. For me, the style hasn't worn thin yet because it's a good style; this is as good a place for beginners to start as any. The title track's a State of the Union address about Reagan-era Motor City layoffs and how "all we need are the necessities and more", and possesses an instantly memorable anthemic guitar hook. The ballad, "I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts" gripes about American guns sold to murdering fascist 'allies', and the "new British Invasion" of new-wave synthesizer bands causing good ol' American bands like the Minutemen and Black Flag being ignored. Not getting played on the radio's a familiar X gripe - they were genuinely puzzled that they weren't the big rock stars that they clearly deserved to be. As were a lot of postpunks; the best music of the '80s got practically ignored, with only R.E.M. emerging victorious from the fertile American underground. Here X carry on the struggle valiantly with their "Unheard Music", crafting an excellent in nearly every respect all-American rock'n'roll album that the public never even got a chance to hear. Hey, you dickhead radio programmers and corporate label heads, the public might have even liked X! Nearly everybody I know who's heard'em likes'em. Ah, well....X grew frustrated, naturally, and decided to sell out and release a cover of "Wild Thing" as a single the next year. Things were never the same....

Ain't Love Grand (1985) **1/2

And this is the sellout. X hired the guy who produced Stryper, and while this ain't that dire - hey, I didn't give it one star - it ain't something I really want to hear, either. Selling out only succeeded in giving X a minor MTV hit with "Burning House Of Love", which sounds like the Fabulous T-Birds overdosed on synths. And that, my friend, is not a good thing. Side One pretty much sucks all the way through; I used to like "Around Your Heart", which Doe sings about his and Exene's divorce around this time, until I realized just how much like a Heart power ballad it sounded. Side Two's much better, with a rocker that sounds mighty forced but has some funny Exene/Doe sassy dialogue starting things off. X cover the Small Faces' "All Or Nothing" that embarrassingly beats most of the surrounding material, but as far as covers go it's overproduced and doesn't exactly make you forget the late Marriot or Lane. After that you get a couple of pretty ballads about life on the road and standing by your mate, a rockabilly number Doe penned with Blaster Dave Alvin, and a stupid car song by Exene - what, did she think it'd become some big cruisin' down the freeway sing-along? Bearing no sonic resemblance to the X we know and love, it's not nearly as bad as I've made it sound, because the Doe/Exene songwriting is still the Doe/Exene songwriting, and the album does have it moments. But please, if you want to listen to X, this is the last place to find them.

See How We Are (1987) ***1/2

After the debacle of Ain't Love Grand, X lost a lot of their hard-fought credibility and some people completely wrote them off, barely even listening to this album. Which isn't very fair, since this is a considerable comeback. It's not up to the level of the first four albums, mainly because Billy Zoom had quit the band, presumably out of disgust with the last album, and his guitar is sorely missed. New guitarist Tony Gilkeson has a cleaner, more commercial style that's servicable but nowhere near as compelling as Zoom. Most of the rockers pale in comparison to earlier X for this very reason, and except for "Left And Right" I never listen to any of them. The ballads, however, are much better, and their quality is surprising since X never almost never wrote any good ballads in the past. Ex-Blaster and collegue Dave Alvin graciously contributes the brilliant "Fourth Of July", a cinematic portrait of a couple's strained relationship against the backdrop of jubiliant holiday celebration outside. The title track's a better state of the union address than "The New World", and Exene's "You" is an old-fashioned pleading love song that has Staten Island and flies on rotting trash in it. You also get apt tributes to Billy Holiday and Cyrano de Bergerac, both turned into corny puns. The '80s production is here, of course, but it's subdued enough to make this album good, solid mainstream rock instead of slick product. Who would have thought X would turn out as heartland rockers, and be pretty good about it? Kind of like prime John Mellencamp, but more consistent (except for Scarecrow, the one Mellencamp album that's more than singles-and-filler). Unless you've got something against good, solid mainstream rock - which a lot of people do - what's not to like?

Live At The Whiskey A Go-Go (1988) ***1/2

A live album made before X's first breakup in 1988. Tony Gilkeyson's on guitar instead of Billy Zoom, which makes a difference. He performs the old songs admirably, but he just ain't Zoom, sorry. Otherwise, a really hot, exciting performance that rocks all the way through with a high energy level and clear sound. Doe and Exene's songwriting is so consistent that the early X and later X material, both presented in this stripped down four-piece format, sound the same in terms of quality - almost made me dig back for Ain't Love Grand to check my judgement again. Nah, that one still sucks. Since I'm not a big fan of live albums, I could live without it. But for newcomers, this is as close as it gets to an X greatest hits, and so you might as well start here. Not many bands I'd recommend a live album as an introduction, but X are basic enough to sound the same live as in the studio without any major differences.

Hey Zeus! (1993) **1/2

X reconvened in 1993 after Doe and Exene did their solo album thing, both of which sucked even worse than Ain't Love Grand. This album's better than that, though, since they return to the old X style of meaty guitars, stripped-down arrangements, and unfancy production. The problem's that a)Zoom is missing (last I heard he became a born-again Christian who makes a living repairing guitars), and Gilkeyson, fine feller though he may be, ain't ol' Billy; and b)X are older, which might make them smarter but also makes them slower. And let me tell you, speed was part of what made early X so great; thick, loud noise isn't nearly as interesting when it lumbers along than when it zooms by (pardon pun). There's some good songwriting, as usual, especially Doe's "New Life"; Exene's "Clean Like Tomorrow" is a close second, and "Country At War" a closer third. But you also get the embarrassing "Lettuce and Vodka" and some other not-so-hot songs, which coupled with the band's relative sluggishness really drags things down. Kind of okay, with some good moments, but mainly just dull. After this X split up again, this time for good it looks like, and released an "unplugged" album of their old standards, Unclogged, which I'm not going to buy or review since unplugged albums are 99.9% of the time just a useless way for washed-up has-beens to shift product. But hey, I can't be too hard on X since we all get old and lose our creativity, just watch out it'll happen to you Mr. Up-and-Coming. What matters is their prime, and once long ago X made music of the kind that's part of what makes this country great. It sounds corny, but they made you damn proud to be an American. X were white trash and barbecues, the blues without cliches and country without sappiness, punk rock with real roots and rockabilly with a future. They ought to name a trailer park after them.

Beyond & Back: the X Anthology (1997) *****

I hadn't put on my X albums in some time and even started thinking that maybe I'd been overrating them somewhat on my webpage, when I slipped on this 46-track best-of...and DAMN, I found myself reminded of what a smokin', tight, hard-rocking, great band they were in their prime. With the majority of the cuts consisting of alternate takes, demos, and live recordings (with a smattering of rockin', but throwaway-ish, outtakes, the best of which, "Delta 88," finds John & Exene headed to Cannery Row in search of those beer milkshakes John Steinbeck wrote about), this is essential for fans (more essential than the last three X studio albums, certainly) and works brilliantly as an introduction to neophytes. In fact, I'd be hard pressed to say whether this or the Los Angeles/Wild Gift CD is the crucial X purchase. Since X's style is pretty raw and stripped-down even in studio, the live versions and rougher demos not only more than hold up against the final studio versions, but in some cases -- notably a "Nausea" petulantly dedicated to Debbie Harry after she snubbed Exene backstage -- blow away them away. There aren't any new revelations of hidden corners of the X ouvre, since it's obvious why the unreleased material (fun as it is) didn't graduate to albums, and the alternate versions are still pretty close to the released versions (albeit sometimes more kickass), just piles of great songs delivered with raw, hard-sweatin', all-American full-bore punk-country gusto. Nearly all of the good X songs from the first four albums are here in some form or the other; as the mediocre later material that creeps up on the second disc, thankfully only two songs show up from the band's nadir Ain't This Album Crappy (and both thankfully rougher alternate takes), 4 from the only worthwhile album they released after 1983, and only two from their depressing comeback attempt. In other words, these 2 discs avoid the trap of many compilations that weigh too heavily on subpar late-period material of certain bands, concentrating instead on the young, gloriously sleazy Decline of Western Civilization era of the band. Now that I think about...forget about the L.A./W.G. two-fer -- this is best X your consumer dollars can buy.

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Hey... loved the X reviews... although I was fearful reading the introduction (about L.A. punks). If you find "Unclogged" at a used record store... you should maybe try it out, although it's a lil acoustic-y for X, it gives their songs that are more country-ish a chance to really stand out. Also, they use vibraphones... now, who ISN'T a sucker for vibes? When you said something about John and Exene's solo albums, were you including their side project "The Knitters"?

No, I wasn't including The Knitters - I've been trying to find copy, in fact. - B. Burks


Hm...Your article is very interesting I wont even comment about punks not being real in cali, but I have to say you sound like a very harsh guy. Someone who can never be satisfied. First you say the first 3 records sound the same blah bah then you say the next one sucks it doesn't sound like X. And X sold out? That's news to me. I guess you can't sing a popular song without someone yelling "sell out". I'm also confused if you really even like X?

P.S. The knitters are great so are John Doe's solo stuff, and Exene's latest. Also are you going to "review" on X's newest album Beyond and Back.

Marco, SAMWICHBAGGY@prodigy.net

you should really do some research about the LA scene before you dismiss it as being made up of suburban white kids. Those only came in like late 1982. Most LA bands were not rich suburban white kids.

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