Music is filled with infinite possibilities but musicians use few of them. Hence, a whole lot of music sounds like a whole lot of other music. In some ways, this isn’t a bad thing; listeners take comfort in the familiar. On the other hand, BORING!
But not all composers and performers are boring. Thankfully. Witness if you will the Los Angeles band known only as X. Formed in 1977, one of the first wave of American punk bands, X has forged a unique sound that has yet to be imitated.
For me, the trademark X sound is defined by the harmonies between John Doe and Exene Cervenka. Punk rock generally does not use harmony, and pop/rock in general doesn’t use the semi-dissonant croonings that are part and parcel of X. Take for example the song The World’s a Mess, It’s In My Kiss off of the band’s brilliant debut, Los Angeles. Doe and Cervenka careen between expected and unexpected pitch combinations, creating an extra level of tension that fits the lyrics quite nicely:
No one is united
And all things are untied
Perhaps we’re boiling over inside
They’ve been telling lies
Who’s been telling lies?
There are no angels
There are devils in many ways
Take it like a man
Another piece of the puzzle that is X is found in Billy Zoom, guitarist extraordinaire. You can always find Billy standing on the stage with legs planted far apart, smiling at the audience whilst playing rockabilly-tinged leads effortlessly. Once again, not so much a punk thing. Zoom, whose father played woodwinds in big bands, was 29 when the band formed. He definitely had a different point of view than your average 16-year-old who’d never touched an instrument but wanted to start a punk band. If you want to hear a good example of Billy’s rockabilly roots in the music of X, check out the intro, verse and solo in Johnny Hit and Run Paulene.
Producer and keyboardist Ray Manzarek, formerly of the Doors (yes, those Doors), is also fundamental to X’s sound on Los Angeles. For those not familiar with the Doors, their music doesn’t share much in common with the punk world. Hippy organ fills and aggressive stripped-down rock just do not seem like a match made in rockstar heaven. But the result is fabulous, as can be heard on X’s hyperactive cover of the Door’s Soul Kitchen as well as the relentless punk anthem Nausea:
Today, you’re gonna be sick, so sick
You’ll prop your forehead on the sink,
Say, “Oh Christ, oh Jesus Christ,
My head’s gonna crack like a bank.”
And Nausea finds the organ playing an important role, creating primitive atonal flourishes as the lead-in to verses. Everyone else simply hammers away incessantly, as if to give a pounding headache to the purveyor of the lyrics.
40 years later X continues to tour. Billy is now 69, a cancer survivor, still smiling. John Doe and Exene, married when the group formed, are long since divorced. But the band’s high-octane energy and love for the music still comes through during performances. And if you can’t see them live, check out the documentary The Decline of Western Civilization for a thorough education in the late 70s Los Angeles punk lifestyle.
And be sure to say, “Hi!” to Billy.