Punk Purists: X Revisits First Four Albums

Concert Preview

The Doors Ray Manzarek produced the first four albums by the Los Angeles punk band X. But when he first saw the punk band play at the Whiskey a Go Go in Los Angeles, he didn’t even realize the group was covering a Doors’ song.

“His wife Dorothy had to tell him that we were playing ‘Soul Kitchen,’” says X singer-bassist John Doe in a phone interview. “It was too fast and too loud, compared to the Doors. [X singer] Exene [Cervenka] says we talked right after that show. I don’t remember that. I do remember a rehearsal we did with Ray that was pretty surreal and other worldly.”

Manzarek’s death last year inspired X to revisit those first four albums. Earlier this year in Los Angeles, the group, which also features original members guitarist Billy Zoom and drummer DJ Bonebrake, played each one over the course of a four-night stand. Now, the band is taking the show on the road playing those albums in their entirety in New York, Chicago and Cleveland. In Cleveland, the band will give a free talk at the Rock Hall at 7 p.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 9, and then play its first four albums over a three-night stand at the Music Box Supper Club.

“I think it was Cheap Trick that first played records from front to back,” says Doe. “I think it was the first two or three albums. That was five or six years ago. I thought that was pretty cool. All these records were produced by Ray. He was an important in our lives. Exene and I were the bigger Doors fans in the band. These four records were the ones that put us on the map.”

Los Angeles, the first of those albums, commences with the boisterous title track, a song that chronicles Cervenka’s initial experiences in the city and features Doe and Cervenka trading vocals as they scream, “She had to get out of Los Angeles.” A dramatic drum thump is inserted in the middle of the chorus. It’s become one of the band’s signature tracks and is a classic punk tune. So what made Doe think that he and Cervenka could trade vocals?

“I don’t know,” he admits. “I have no idea. To my mind, any band that’s worth it just has chemistry that develops as they write songs and as they figure out what their strengths are. They have four very separate personalities that somehow gel. I guess because nobody said we couldn’t, that’s why. That’s the spirit in which all good things are created. Exene wasn’t a singer though she had all the qualities of being a lead singer. She had ferocious talent and the ability to attract and communicate to people when she wanted to, but she had a lot of demons. I wanted to be part of what she was doing. It was pretty smart in retrospect.”

Los Angeles would sell some 10,000 copies, a modest success. More importantly, it achieved such critical acclaim that the title track still gets airplay on L.A. radio to this day.

“By industry standards that was more proof to the naysayers that it was a flash in the pan,” says Doe. “It was shit compared to Fleetwood Mac. Among some people it was a hit. It was like a blur. It was recorded and mixed in two or three weeks. Maybe ten days for recording and maybe seven days for mixing. We had been playing those songs for or two three years. We knew exactly how they sounded. [Manzarek] knew from this experience with the Doors that if it’s working, don’t mess with it. It was exhilarating.”

Released in 1981, Wild Gift has been called the band’s “most punk rock” album, and songs such as “We’re Desperate” and “Universal Corner” have a real harsh sound and are played extremely fast. The band would spend a little more time sharpening its sound for 1982’s Under the Big Black Sun.

We had an opportunity to use a better studio and we had a little more time,” Doe says of Big Black Sun. “We thought we could have DJ playing vibes and Billy playing sax and still call it punk rock.”

Doe says band members were a bit disappointed that the group’s cult following didn’t become a mainstream following.

“You want to be successful so that you can get the message out to more people, not so you can lord over servants and have fancy swimming pools, although maybe we started believing we were the next big thing,” he says. “After four records with Ray, we switched and worked with a heavy metal producer work with us and that was unfortunate. Billy left after Ain’t Love Grand, the fifth album. A lot of it was frustration.”

Given that we live at a time when punk and indie bands readily endorse products and loan their tunes to TV commercials, X’s anti-establishment roots appear all the more impressive.

“Punk was everything that wasn’t corporate rock,” he says. “It was Talking Heads, Ramones, Siouxsie and the Banshees, jazz and whatever was coming into people’s minds. Tom Petty was even considered punk rock at the time because he wasn’t the Eagles. Punk rock is more codified at this point. I do respect Green Day because they finally got punk rock to the audience it was meant for, which is pissed off teenagers. The Ramones and us and the early people were playing to bohemian art people. We weren’t playing to kids who wanted to go to the mall and fuck shit up. There’s the really popular punk rock like Green Day and then there’s lesser bands trying to sound like them. The real punk rock is still in fucked up small clubs where it costs $10 to get in. It’s a true subculture like low riders or S&M clubs. That’s where it belongs.”

X, Sept. 10-12, Music Box Supper Club, 1148 Main Ave., 216-242-1250. Tickets: $35 ADV, $40 DOS, musicboxcle.com.

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Jeff Niesel

Jeff has been covering the Cleveland music scene for more than 20 years now. And on a regular basis, he tries to talk to whatever big acts are coming through town, too. If you're in a band that he needs to hear, email him at [email protected].
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