X Marks the Complex

By Brett DelPorto

Of all the epochal rock bands staging anniversary tours, X has the distinction being “the band that most people have heard of but never heard.”

So says Exene Cervenka, X vocalist and songwriter, in a 2016 interview with the Los Angeles Observer.

If you’re among the unwashed (or, in this case, is it washed?) who have never heard X, here’s your chance. The seminal punk rock band brings its 40th anniversary tour to Salt Lake City this Friday at The Complex. The show features Cervenka and other original members John Doe, bass; D.J. Bonebrake, drums; and guitarist Billy Zoom, who is back with the band after several years of struggling with cancer.

Punk, which has become an enduring staple in music and pop culture, seemed like it could be a passing phase when X dominated the thriving Los Angeles music scene in the late 1970s and early 1980s. X was introduced to a wider audience in 1981 with the film “The Decline of Western Civilization,” a documentary the featured X along with other lesser lights like The Germs, Black Flag, Fear, and the Circle Jerks.

X, like all early punk rockers, rejected what they saw as the excesses of the music industry, which had created millionaire rock stars. The Sex Pistols were the first in a wave of new music that eschewed rock stardom by preaching anarchy and rebellion with music that was rudimentary, rude, and loud. (Recall that classic Sex Pistols refrain: “God save the Queen/She ain’t no human being.)

Across the Atlantic, a new generation of musicians heard the call and, for a time, Los Angeles was the cradle of American punk. But where some bands bragged about a lack of musical training—or even talent—X was distinguished by solid musicianship and well-rehearsed, tight live performances. They were punk, but also something more. After their first album, aptly titled Los Angeles, X grew and evolved musically. By the time X released its fourth album, More Fun In the New World, it was clear that the band had moved beyond their punk roots.

Part of the impetus for X’s changing music style grew out of their appreciation for folk and even country music. This shift in emphasis became explicit when band members began performing as The Knitters, an alter-ego troupe that played only folk, country, and a new musical style dubbed “rockabilly,” which recreated the beat and rhythms of ’50s icons like Buddy Holly, Bill Haley, and even Elvis. (The Stray Cats were the most successful rockabilly band with the memorable hit “We’re Gonna Rock This Town.”)

X was also hailed for its song-writing. The lyrics, written by Cervenka and Doe, evoked a dark Americana in which the fortunes of the middle class had sunk into poverty, homelessness, and despair. Some called it poetry; one LA critic even compared them to Charles Bukowski and Raymond Chandler.

Despite critical acclaim, band members chafed at their inability to break into the mainstream. Their fifth album, Ain’t Love Grand, was a clear bid for wider recognition with songs like “Love Shack,” which featured more hooks and melodies and higher production values.

When that album was only modestly successfully, Zoom quit the band and opened a guitar shop. During that interim, X recruited guitarist Tony Gylkyson and released See How We Are in 1987. It’s one of their better collections, even though it gets little play since the return of Zoom.

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