From the opening riff of “Your Phone’s Off the Hook, But You’re Not,” to the final-choruses of “The World’s a Mess; It’s In My Kiss,” Los Angeles is a four-on-the-floor dream of what rock ’n’ roll should sound like in the presence of American decadence and decline.
Recorded in L.A. in 1980, Los Angeles was the first X album, followed quickly by Wild Gift and Under the Big Black Sun, all now being reissued by Rhino Records with extra live, rehearsal and demo track. On the album, the band (Exene Cervenka, John Doe, Billy Zoom and D.J. Bonebrake) tramples rather than surfs its way through rape, poverty and drugs, bouncing modern ghosts off each other as easily as guitar scrapes and snare cracks.
“Johnny Hit and Run Paulene,” Cervenka and Doe’s song of drug-animated rape in the City of Angels, brings guitarist Billy Zoom’s bubblegum and soda-shop guitar riffs to bear on British punk, quickly establishing X as the band of the new sound. Extra tracks include the beat-the-brat expediencies of “Delta 88,” as well as two tracks that would be featured on the band’s next record, Wild Gift.
Recorded in 1981, the album continues X’s plunder mode of attack, taking rock ’n’ roll’s first generation and dragging it over the coals of the modern world. Maturity keeps its distance on the album, though; vocals are neither clearer nor less vengeful. Fave themes — the cowardice and humor of human relations, cold-hearted kinkyness and, of course, landlords pepper the album. Though songs are full of metallic energy, Wild Gift’s gift is its play of poetic edges (from “Some Other Time”: “Let’s not talk about bombs or the brain impulses of severed limbs”) with classic pop moments such as, “In This House That I Call Home” and “White Girl.” Though not nearly as shocking as the fuck-and-run of Los Angeles, the riffs on Wild Gift are just as big and the cultural import just as powerful.
After all the rough edges and spontaneous crash of X’s first two releases, Under the Big Black Sun sounds overly stylized and sing-songy 20 years later. Perhaps a reaction to the band’s own frustrations at having its audiences mosh to songs about rape (see Penelope Spheeris’ early ’80s documentary, The Decline of Western Civilization), Under’s best tracks, such as “Come Back to Me” and the album’s title track follow Exene’s sister’s 1980 death, striking a near perfect balance between why-me-God? banality and lyrical transcendence.
But didacticism (regarding religion, class politics and even teen lust) seems to bog the record down. The timid fadeout on the final song, “The Have Nots,” a people’s song sautéed over the universal experience of alcoholic oblivion, caps a dour record that hints to X’s own future drop into the ’80s vacuum, an even more horrific sphere than even X could imagine.
Although the group would make great songs after ’82 and at least one more great record (1987’s See How We Are), X’s cultural impact lies in these first three treatises on rock. Like The Replacements, X represents a maligned punk-pop alternative that barely survived the decade, later to be superceded by bastard offspring (grunge) which had far less imagination and no interest in saving rock ’n’ roll. But if at times like these with flags waving constantly, the stereotypes of L.A. — sunshine surfaces with fake insides — sound more like the vision of your own country, then X is what you’ve been hearing in your heart.
Carleton S. Gholz writes about music for the Metro Times. E-Mail [email protected].