Julian Cope presents Head Heritage

'X' - Los Angeles

'X'
Los Angeles


Released 1980 on Slash Records
Reviewed by Jasonaparkes, 22/04/2007ce


Side 1:
1. Your Phone's off the Hook, But You're Not (2:26)
2. Johnny Hit and Run Paulene (2:50)
3. Soul Kitchen (2:25)
4. Nausea (3:40)
5. Sugarlight (2:28)

Side 2:
1. Los Angeles (2:25)
2. Sex and Dying in High Society (2:15)
3. The Unheard Music (4:49)
4. The World's a Mess; It's In My Kiss (4:43)

Produced by Ray Manzarek.

Reissued on Rhino in 2001 featuring bonus tracks 10. I'm Coming Over (Demo) 11. Adult Books (Dangerhouse Rough Mix) 12. Delta 88 (Demo)
13. Cyrano De Berger's Back (Rehearsal) 14. Los Angeles (Dangerhouse version).

X:

Exene Cervenka - Vocals
John Doe - Bass; Vocals
Billy Zoom - Guitar
DJ Bonebrake - Drums
with
Ray Manzarek - Organ

X - a band located at the end of the alphabet, so maybe not the band you would have reached if browsing shelves in a record shop "old school"-style! X - a band from Los Angeles who are/were probably more of a deal in the US, the kind of band raved over by Rolling Stone and American critics who have not much of a profile here...

WEIRDOS. I finally got round to X after reading Mark Spitz and Brendan Mullen's excellent book 'We Got the Neutron Bomb - The Untold Story of Punk', which takes a more focused approach to the LA punk scene than the over-view of Los Angeles in Barney Hoskyn's 'Waiting for the Sun' - though it does open with Jim Morrison and sidelining into Devo and the Sex Pistols as it covers the LA brand of punk from the 1970s into the 1980s: The Germs, The Runaways, The Weirdos, The Go Gos (with Margaret Olavera, kind of written out of history on their box set!), The Gun Club, Circle Jerks, The Adolescents, The Screamers, Black Flag and, of course, X. It's a very entertaining book, constructed from a collage of interviews (a style John Robb borrowed for his Punk Rock Reader last year) , taking a localised view of punk and probably worth buying for the chapter on Iggy Pop when he lived above Ray Manzarek's studio (...there was almost a version of the Doors with the Ig on vocals, sadly Densmore and Krieger weren't that enthuasistic and Manzarek, who was, ended up getting drowned out by Pop's accomplice James Williamson at a rehearsal!!!). The ghosts of proto punks Morrison and Pop haunted the scene that followed, the scene that produced X.

BUKOWSKI. Formed in 1977 as part of the developing LA punk scene, Doe originated from Baltimore and was as influenced by LA writers like Charles Bukowksi and James M Cain as he was by the first wave of US punk bands he'd seen in New York. The LA-themes of 'Los Angeles' apparent in the lyrics got many people reaching for comparisons to Bukowski and Cain, and maybe now nodding also to Raymond Chandler's dark LA or the world of Bunker Hill as captured by Bukowski-influence John Fante. Like many punk bands on both sides of the pond, the band were self-taught, Doe and Exene trading poetry (exhibiting the vast influence of Patti Smith), and eventually founding a four piece with primal drummer DJ Bonebrake and the most talented musician, Billy Zoom - who was into old time rock'n'roll, jazz & rockabilly (having been on the scene since the 60s) - his contribution to 'Los Angeles' might be understated due to the songwriting credits being Cervenka/Doe. The band gigged as part of the LA scene and eventually released a single 'Adult Books b/w We're Desperate' on Dangerhouse Records - a rough mix of the former is found as a bonus track here, while both would be re-recorded for their excellent second LP 'Wild Gift' (1981) - the original versions found on 'Make the Music Go Bang!' released in 2004.

X appeared to fall into a record contract with Slash Records (later home of The Blasters, Faith No More, Los Lobos & Violent Femmes) and bizarelly hooked up with Ray Manzarek as producer - a union that would last for their first four albums. I flip between loving and loathing the Doors, sometimes getting confused with the Oliver Stone/myth take on Morrison and co, and more often than not getting dulled out by Manzarek's interviews on the Doors which make him sound like Donald Sutherland in Animal House. & his sole production work, outside of the Doors, I was familiar with prior to this, were his contributions to the dire eponymous Echo & the Bunnymen LP in 1987. Strangely, his presence here gives something else to the primal punk act, Manzarek's organ contributions on tracks like 'Nausea' and 'The Unheard Music' making X sound like no one else, and pointing towards the way the band's sound would shift in the 1980s, and towards band members solo work and the side-project with Dave Alvin, The Knitters (one for alt-country/Americana types). The Los Angeles X sang about isn't far from Bukowksi/Fante, and isn't far from the "fantastic bloody LA" Morrison sang about on my favourite Doors song, 'Peace Frog'. Doe and Exene even went on a pilgramage to Morrison Hotel, so in many ways X were looking back to a certain past in order to move forward in their own way - not the year zero notion suggested around much punk. The song 'We're Desperate' is one of those at the arse-end of society, making them feel analogous to the urban romance of Suicide, as they captured the seedy side of LA. 'We're Desperate' was bizarrely left off 'Los Angeles', as X's intention of fusing the Ramones with Beefheart didn't work initially - the version on 'Wild Gift' is great, the first two X albums working quite well (there is debate on their back catalogue following third LP 'Under the Big Black Sun'). 'Wild Gift' is a lot more polished, the version of 'Adult Books' compared to the bonus version here is vast - the 'Wild Gift' one sounding quite Jonathan Richman, well, at least on the verses.

LA. 'Los Angeles' is one of those brief and to the point albums like 'Back in the USA' and 'Let It Be', about half an hour and hugely compulsive. Opener 'Your Phone's Off the Hook...' seems to tap into the same type of old time rock'n'roll the Ramones did, X differ though as they didn't stay in pretty much same style for the rest of their career! Exene sounds vocally akin to Siouxsie Sioux, or the earlier hollering of The Slits' Ari Up before the patois took over. 'Los Angeles' may seem quite trad and retro as the intro to second track 'Johnny Hit and Run Paulene' plays - being the same old Chuck Berry riff that Brian Wilson, The Kinks, Stones et al used during the 1960s. I initially wondered if X were analogous to the punk/rockabilly approach of the Cramps (slightly) or the rock'n'roll pastiche acts like The Stray Cats. There was a strange old time rock'n'roll/roots/jazz type thing going on - Joe Jackson's curious jazz/doo-wop thang, LA bands like The Blasters and Los Lobos, and that 50s retro scene that eventually got referenced in TV/movies like Friends, Pulp Fiction, and Swingers. X managed to take Berry's riff and move somewhere else, the song opening with that riff before a minimal punk riff comes in - Doe and Exene's vocals trading wonderfully here (both would take turns on lead vocals, sometimes both harmonising). The dark subject matter, using drugs to date-rape victims, was unusual and tied to the past sleaze of LA and the dark scene that surrounded the LA punks - "He bought a sterilized hypo to shoot a sex machine drug...he was spreading her legs & didn't understand dying/She was still awake...When he was waking up, beside the bed/He found clumps of hair - the last Paulene wouldn't co-operate/She wasn't what you'd call living, really..." These lyrics feel as dark as something like 'The Killer Inside Me'- the male/female take on lyrics is quite unusual, so a view of sex that isn't the usual in rock and roll. How did we end up with something like Guns'N'Roses' 'Used to Love Her' just a a few years later???? 'Johnny Hit and Run Paulene' would inititate two key rape-themed songs of the following years, Husker Du's 'Diane' and Nirvana's 'Polly' - it would also be covered twice, for the soundtrack to 'SuBurbia' (the play adapted by Richard Linklater, rather than the 80s LA punk film of the same name) by Pavement's Stephen Malkmus and Elastica-leader Justine Frischmann, and then for Gordon Gano's album released on Cooking Vinyl a few years ago, Gano and PJ Harvey covering there...

BLOODY RED SUN OF FANTASTIC LA. Amusingly X offer a cover version here of The Doors' 'Soul Kitchen', not sure what Manzarek thought of it - a friend didn't recongise it when he heard it, so maybe it's both an insult and an ode? One to put on a compilation with Magazine's 'I Love You Big Dummy', Dead Kennedys' 'Viva Las Vegas', Sex Pistols' 'My Way' & The Damned's 'Help.' The album then shifts gear completely with 'Nausea', Manzarek's organ prominetly used on a track that is suitably seasick - the organ even reminding me of 'Crazy Horses' by the Osmonds!! Imagine if the Banshees' had psyched out rather than gothed out - it makes perfect sonic sense played next to 'Peace Frog.'

CRUISING. The first side closes with 'Sugarlight', which is probably located in the ground between The Cramps and The Gun Club, Doe and Exene's lyrics reflecting the world of Santa Monica Boulevard and the gay cruising scene surrounding them. I think there's an interesting book (if not article) in the outsider scenes of New York and LA in the 70s and 80s, the homosexual and punk scenes in this instance crossing the same world. It makes complete sense that the Germs' recorded tracks for William Friedkin's dark 1980 film 'Cruising', or that the gay/punk subculture would be seen in Paul Schrader's 'American Gigolo' - eventually getting diluted into the pastiche of the Blue Oyster Bar in the 'Police Academy' films or Don Simpson's 'High Concept' movies of the 80s, where the gay aesthetic was transformed into the mainstream, e.g. 'Flashdance', 'Top Gun.' 'Sugarlight' appears to nod to drugs ("white sugar", "my arm is tied off waiting..."), but was about this cruising scene, a poetry reflecting the wild side in the same way Lou Reed did with the Velvets. The title track opens the second side, advancing 'Sugarlight's "city of electric light" with a love/loathe ode to LA - in many ways X were just reflecting their surroundings. How people gravitate to LA/have to get away - the good, the bad, and the ugly. The song is in character, a notion that does confuse some journalists (see Morrissey/'The National Front Disco'), lines like "She had started to hate every nigger & Jew/Every Mexican that gave her lotta shit/Every homoseuxal & the Idle Rich" (a line attributed to a scenester called Farrah) reflects the realities of people living on top of each other, the tensions found in 1989's 'Do the Right Thing' in a memorable scene where different groups slag each other off, or the paranoia of the flawed 'Falling Down.' The lyrics are probably proto-rap too, the "she" of the song being driven mad by LA and its occupants, having to "getout/getout", but then finding the attraction to the city, "'Cause the days change at night/Change in an instant." Strangely enough the title track sounds like a slightly sharper version of early B52's, not to say Doe does a Fred Schneider style vocal!

THE DIRT. 'Sex and Dying in High Society' takes it to the upper classes, the world of Los Angeles that Bret Easton Ellis would focus on in his debut novel 'Less Than Zero' - though I do wonder how you'd start here and end up with a lame dilution of this like Good Charlotte's 'Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous'! It strikes me that Guns'N'Roses and Motley Crue are the bad reflection of this type of LA scene, not able to offer poetry or subtlety - just schaudenfreude in books like 'The Dirt.' Manzarek's organ returns for the Doe/Exene harmony vocal of 'The Unheard Music', which like the closing track is much longer and points to other directions in X's music. 'The Unheard Music' reminds me of 'Nuggets'-bands, the tighter work of the Doors, and strangely enough, the Blue Orchids. The angular guitar and rhythms is interesting too, something apparent on the version of 'I'm Coming Over' found on the bonus tracks - kind of odd for a punk band to be playing angular psychedelia!!! 'The World's a Mess; It's In My Kiss' is another longer track, concluding and summing up the album with a sound that definitely nods to old school rock'n'roll, Manzarek sticking around with more organ, Exene taking the verses as Doe becomes more apparent on the chorus - an example of being reminded of Elvis in a good way, and that title, surely a lost title for a book by Jim Thompson?

SIN CITY. 'Los Angeles' remains one of the most interesting records founded on a version of punk rock, nodding back to rock'n'roll, rockabilly et al, but managing to remain true to the band's roots, and bizarrely going places some acts wouldn't go. How much longer you want to stay with X's career afterwards is open to debate, the fifth album often gets slated, though I'll work my way to them and see how accurate critical osmosis really is. Meanwhile, 'Los Angeles' is one of the great records produced by Sin City, a reflection on the band's environment and an album people don't go on about enough these days...

NOTE - the artist's name had to be between 2 and 128 characters long, hence the ' '


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