There is a girl in X, in case you were wondering why they’re always listed perpendicular to the Pistols/Clash/Ramones in a punk conversation.
In conjunction with the cool cats at MVD Visual, we've been reissuing a series of music documentaries that we really love. Stream X: Unheard Music below, and below that you can read the awesome essay by Dan Weiss on the band and their legacy.
There is a girl in X, in case you were wondering why they're always listed perpendicular to the Pistols/Clash/Ramones in a punk conversation. They're also musically trained, which probably shorts them out to real punks further, what with Billy Zoom's endless-for-a-while-there bank of Chuck Berry licks and dual singers(!) John Doe and Exene Cervenka's odd, probably incorrect harmonizing. And let's face it, being discovered by a member of the Doors, and then covering them on your first album isn't really the way to impress the Mohawked. But X are questionably the greatest L.A. punk band who ever lived. As the documentary X: The Unheard Music goes, these four misfits (described by accurately Robert Christgau as "sexy thrift-shopping [bohemians]") met through an ad placed "to play music that's not bullshit" and fit together because no one else would. Cervenka was a poet and Zoom was a rockabilly weirdo. Drummer D.J. Bonebrake and Exene's husband-to-be Doe were missing puzzle pieces for a ragtag quartet that expounded humorously on nihilism ("Our whole fucking life is a wreck," lamented John and Exene on "We're Desperate") over bizarre riffs (same song is kind of a chunky cha-cha, followed by real one, the sexy "Adult Books"). But one lyric perfectly sums up their greatest contribution to rock and roll: "What kind of fool am I/I am the married kind."
X's songs were punk as Seinfeld episodes, with a hint of bumper sticker. Titles like "Your Phone's Off The Hook, But You're Not" and "When Our Love Passed Out On The Couch" shamelessly chronicled the danger in marriage, a kind of pointed introspection that's still rarely seen by the likes of punk to this day, and that wasn't three or four albums in, that was the debut. Los Angeles ended with the organ-soaked "The World's a Mess, It's in My Kiss." You could call Cervenka the punk Stevie Nicks if you'd like for that one, they certainly shared an affinity for the same soft-handed look onstage.
The actual third and fourth albums grew so fast musically, particularly on Zoom's part, from the C4 blast of "Blue Spark" into the Hawaiian guitar flecks of "Dancing With Tears in My Eyes" (yes, the old one), the dude was just fearless. Not that he didn't deliver the goods for Germs fans down the road either; check the uncoiled battering ram of "Devil Doll" on More Fun In The New World. John and Exene never stooped to hardcore because they were so in love with melody even when they weren't with each other. Those skills, their dual vibrato on "I See Red," even Doe's bleaty chops on the chorus of "Hot House" pulling off a goddamn melisma, are what set them apart musically from everything else happening in L.A. (or punk itself—this was concurrent with Husker Dü and Black Flag and Minor Threat altogether), while the hyperromanticism did the rest. There's a reason they were sharing a label with Los Lobos and the Blasters rather than say, Richard Hell.
But yeah, what an understated legacy. Maybe because they had no addicts, murder-suicides or even a fantastically publicized split-up—John and Exene divorced in 1985, about the same time X records started to flounder, X gets lost in both the erratic-legend shuffle and the musical one. Which is outrageous since they beat My Morning Jacket to the oddball disco reprise with "True Love. Pt. 2," which quotes "Skip to My Lou" and "Land of a Thousand Dances."
The Unheard Music captures the foursome slightly past their peak in 1986 and is loaded with more performance than insights, unless you're curious about the torn-down Ex-Lax building John nicked the giant burning X logo for Los Angeles from, or want to hear them diddling the "Mission Impossible" theme on marimba, but seeing how they looked seething through "We're Desperate" and "White Girl" and "Beyond & Back" is essential. As for the rise and fall of the world's greatest punk romance, listen to the lyrics.
Dan Weiss went for Halloween as the cover of Los Angeles and was treated for second-degree burns. He's on Twitter - @kissoutthejams