Punk was noise. It was social upheaval and a middle finger to authoritarian organizations. Pioneering punk bands such as X-Ray Spex and The Clash attempted to speak out on various issues of the time, while other musicians were simply addicted to elevated levels of adrenaline and a DIY fashion sense that focused more attention on their appearance than their music.
But in the late ’70s, this volatile and sometimes-violent aesthetic was a haven for social outcasts and those who saw music as the quickest way to give voice to a perspective that wasn’t necessarily being given a chance to be heard. In that way, punk wasn’t all that different from the folk protest songs of the ’60s.
Among those artists who swept through the tail end of the ’70s with a vicious momentum was Los Angeles punk band X, a band whose work was unpredictable and drew inspiration from some unlikely sources. Their early work had a rockabilly edge to it that played well with the more feral aspects of their punk grounding but allowed them to roam a bit more than their musical peers of the time. X was punk rock with direction, despite the cross-genre production-their songs weren’t simply loud and lyrically abrasive; they presented a cohesive musical ideology from which the band’s vast influence sprang.
Founded in Los Angeles in 1977 by bassist-singer John Doe and guitarist Billy Zoom, the band eventually added Doe’s girlfriend, Exene Cervenka, as a vocalist, with drummer D. J. Bonebrake joining the band a little later. Bonebrake had been spending time playing with local band the Eyes prior-he also filled in on drums for The Germs from time to time. After performing together for a little while, they signed their first record deal with independent label Dangerhouse, for whom they released one single: “Adult Books”/We’re Desperate.” This track was also released on a Los Angeles-centric 12-inch EP called “Yes L.A.,” which also featured music from The Bags, The Germs and other local punk acts.
Built around a wobbly punk swagger, their music is belligerent and serrated but possesses a fierce determination that highlights their ability to harness the wild nature of this music and use it to examine the dark underbelly of Los Angeles. Equipped with a sardonic smirk and the will to exert a clever rhythmic persuasion, the band tears through these ragged guitar riffs and lyrical tirades with a particularly vicious attitude. But beneath all the noise and fury, there lies a melodic heart that fuels their punk and skewed rock pulse. It bubbles to the surface on occasion, revealing a panicked pop influence ready to emerge when given the chance.
As their stature rose within the LA scene, larger labels became curious, and the band eventually signed to Slash Records for their debut record. Released in 1980 and produced by The Doors’ Ray Manzarek, “Los Angeles” is a psycho-rockabilly-punk classic that revels in its stream-of-conscious lyrics, rough-edged guitar riffs and warped harmonies, courtesy of Doe and Cervenka. The record was a statement of intent on a scene that desperately needed one. It is obtusely melodic and raw, a bundle of nerves peeled apart and exposed. But there’s also an immediate inclusivity that stood out among the punk vitriol.
Opening with the raucous jolt of “Your Phone’s Off the Hook, But You’re Not” and following that with the punk explosion of “Johnny Hit and Run Pauline,” the record never gives you the chance to catch your breath. It’s a whirlwind of electrifying vocals and wailing guitar noise, the kind of album that seems to shock the senses back into your body. Alive and feral, these songs inhabit a scorched landscape of punk venom and astringent rock that shakes and shudders under the weight of its creativity. The band was exploring sounds that were slightly familiar but had never been dissected quite like this before.
The memorable title track quickly became a live staple on ensuing tours, while their cover of The Doors’ “Soul Kitchen” is a glimpse into a wide-ranging set of inspirations (and with Manzarek at the helm, this seems like an obvious homage to their collective influences). The record was a critical success when it was released and heralded a new direction in the punk movement. No longer were punk bands-well, not all punk bands-entirely focused on volume and howling vocals to make their point. There could be a blustery, punk version of musical subtlety explored within this shifting genre, a roaring emphasis on the emotion and ideas behind this wall of chaos.
With “Los Angeles,” X set the stage for the punk and post-punk stage of the early ’80s. Through this time of musical transition, the band was always leading the charge in terms of creating music that spoke to an ever-widening audience but that never sacrificed its own inherent creativity. Punk never died-it simply shifted its perspective. And through the work of X, and “Los Angeles” in particular, the genre was reborn as something that feels tied to its past while carving out a new and refreshingly unique avenue of rhythmic experimentation. And with X just getting started, the ’80s had no clue what was coming.
Joshua Pickard covers local and national music, film and other aspects of pop culture. You can contact him on Facebook, Twitter or by email. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.