Despite being overshadowed by their London and New York counterparts, left-coast punksters X flourished in the late 70s and early 80s, grinding out dirty, blistering rock in dingy nightclubs. Combining snide, quirky lyrics with fiery rockabilly and country, X quickly established themselves as frontrunners of the burgeoning L.A. punk scene along with Black Flag and the Germs.
Bassist John Doe and veteran rockabilly guitarist Billy Zoom formed X in 1977, with Doe’s girlfriend and future wife, Exene Cervenka, on lead vocals. The addition of drummer D.J. Bonebrake completed the lineup in 1978. While touring the L.A. club circuit in 1979, the band was spotted by former Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek, who became the band’s producer and occasional organist. After three years of gigging in L.A., X finally entered the studio to record a full-length record.
Los Angeles, X’s first LP, was released in 1980 on the indie label Slash Records. Selling 60,000 copies, an impressive showing for an indie label at the time, and topping the Los Angeles Times’ best of 1980 list, Los Angeles was both a mainstream and a critical success.
While contemporaries like the Sex Pistols and the Germs took a confrontational, fuck-it-all approach to punk, X were more sophisticated on Los Angeles, mingling idiosyncratic lyrics with up-tempo rockabilly and country music. The result was a unique and engaging American punk record that put X on the level of the Ramones and made them kings and queen of L.A.
Punk was never very demanding of its musicians – gods like Steve Jones and Sid Vicious were competent posers at best – it only required musicians to play fast and loud. With Los Angeles, X went against the grain. It displayed first-rate musicianship. Billy Zoom, even before joining X, was an accomplished guitarist, backing blues legends Etta James and Johnny “Guitar” Watson, and later rockabilly king Gene Vincent. As singers, Cervenka and Doe showed superb range, from guttural punk yowls to sweet country harmonies. Under the surface, Doe’s bass and D.J. Bonebrake’s energetic, rapid-fire drumming laid down a solid foundation.
Lyrically, Los Angeles is one of punk’s greatest achievements. Cervenka and Doe avoided the typically angry, charged words of their cohorts and opted instead to write sly and poetic lyrics, covering topics from rape and drugs to gay culture to the age-old N.Y.C. vs. L.A. debate with utter frankness and humor. On “Johny Hit and Run Paulene,” Doe sings, “He bought a sterilized hypo / To shoot a sex machine drug / He got 24 hours to shoot all Paulenes between the legs.” Even more shocking are the images conjured on “Sex and Dying in High Society”: “There’s a masturbating getting underneath your bed / And now you tell the maid to burn you on your virgin back / With a curling iron hotter than hot.” Rock critic Richard Meltzer wrote that the images were haunting enough to “make all those excruciatingly detailed sexual treacheries in umpteen-million Stones songs seem like a grade-school catechism lesson.”
Guitarist Billy Zoom’s rockabilly past was equally as important as the lyrics in defining the band’s style. Backing the disturbing yet amusing lyrics, Zoom laid down some of the best guitar licks since Chuck Berry – he even borrowed Berry’s trademark riff on “Johny Hit and Run Paulene.” Despite the album’s brevity (only 28 minutes in all), Zoom did get a chance to do some scorching soloing, most notably during the band’s sped-up cover of the Doors’ “Soul Kitchen” and the whirlwind “Sugarlight.” Into less than 15 seconds of each song, Zoom packed a fiery solo that other punk guitarists could only dream of.
Rolling Stone recently featured a story on a recent Sex Pistols concert in San Bernardino, California. The Pistols, along with many of their early-punk brothers and sisters, X included, played to a crowd of more than 50,000. It’s sad to see punk’s founders growing old and trying to recapture their glory, but time has been kinder to X than most punk bands. All four founding members are alive and kicking, and two decades after its release, Los Angeles still stands up better than most other punk records because of its superb musicianship and funny, engaging lyrics. As much as I love the raw energy of Never Mind the Bollocks, it seems awfully dated. But Los Angeles, even today, is still exciting as ever.