The NEW WORLD with X
April 10, 2020 by Harriet Kaplan
Since the late 70’s, the L.A.-based band X has defied categorization because of their eclectic mix of styles including punk, rock, country and rockabilly. The band features front-woman Exene Cervenka, rockabilly guitarist Billy Zoom, bassist John Doe and drummer D.J. Bonebreak. After all these years, it’s hard to believe, but the core lineup is still together.
This band is unlike any in recent memory. Lead singer Cervenka lacked traditional musical acumen. The unmistakable sound of X is fueled by the off-kilter combination of her and Doe’s sweet and bitter harmonizing vocals with their sonic assault provided by the stalwart Billy Zoom. Now Zoom is an impeccable rockabilly guitarist who over the years exuded a smooth, legendary cool onstage persona with his black wraparound shades and blonde pompadour. Let’s not forget that smile…. oh yes, that smile. On drums, DJ Bonebreak provides a walloping yet sophisticated groove for X.
Cervenka is a quirky and offbeat presence with her vintage and kitsch fashion sense. The bands musicality and Cervenka’s poetry-informed material set them apart from their peers like The Germs and other punk bands of the era… like Sex Pistols, Dead Kennedys and Social Distortion. Not to mention their astute and intelligent ability to articulate populist politics in song and write affecting and authentic numbers about matters of the heart.
As social stalwarts, they adroitly provided searing commentary on the L.A. community as well bringing notice to the socioeconomic disparity among people of color and diverse ethnic background of the time. They were also very good at calling out racism.
John and Exene
Where most groups wore their musical inability to play their own instruments and create songs from a truly DIY framework like a badge of honor, X stood because they managed to be raw and explosive. They were also very exciting, even within a structured framework of arrangements and craftsmanship. Despite that, it never detracted or took away that ability to convey that very personal and unique artistic self expression that’s at the core of its aesthetic. They garnered critical acclaim early on in their career, followed by steady touring and a following but were very popular in Los Angeles; even if they didn’t get to enjoy huge mainstream success back in those early days.
Despite the lack of notoriety in the beginning, their contribution, inclusion, unforgettable performances and interviews in “The Decline Of Western Civilization: The Punk Years” helped put them on the map. Their first album, one of seven studio albums, the seminal and landmark debut, “Los Angeles”, produced by The Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek, in 1980 which would go on to sell over 50,000 copies. The album was so well received, the lead single, “Los Angeles,” still gets airplay today.
1980 was the year Doe and Cervenka got married and both met initially at a poetry workshop in Venice, CA and got married. Their relationship informed the lyrics to many of their songs: “You’re Phone’s Off The Hook, But You’re Not,” “Sex and Dying High Society” and “The World’s A Mess, It’s In My Kiss.” They also did a great cover of The Doors’ classic, “Soul Kitchen,” and fan favorite…”Nausea.”
Over time, the band would show compositional growth and the performances got stronger from “Wild Gift” with shorter and faster songs the punk rock and rockabilly vein and create punk rock standards in “We’re Desperate,” “Adult Books,” “I’m Coming Over,” “In This House That I Call Home” and “White Girl.”
“Under The Big Black Sun” was considered a departure in sound but still had the trademark of loud, raw punk guitars with more predominant country leanings. Material was influenced by the death of Exene’s older sister, Mirielle, who died in a car accident in 1980. other songs that dealt with the grief were “Riding With Mary,” “Come Back To Me” and the aforementioned title track.
A milestone album was “More Fun In The New World.” This album showed a refined sound which was more polished and radio friendly. There was a move away from punk rock more toward rockabilly. Funk was present, too, a new musical element for X, on the track, “True Love Pt. II.”
Also Folk-influenced protest songs like “The New World” and “I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts” as well. Even though the first four albums had a positive critical response, X wanted wanted wider success.
Back in the day, it was widely reported that Billy Zoom would leave the band unless its next album was successful. The result was a change of producers to try to achieve a more accessible sound.
They brought in pop and metal producer Michael Wagener, who was responsible for a huge change in sound, with a very polished and layered production. The band’s punk roots were barely evident and the end product was a countrified version of version of hard rock.
This album garnered more radio airplay than their previous releases, but it wasn’t the mainstream breakthrough they ad hoped for. “Burning House Of Love,” chronicling the sad demise of Cervenka and Doe’s marriage was a minor hit on Billboard’s Top Rock Tracks chart peaking at number 26 in September 1985.
All good things come to and end, and the end of the road for Billy Zoom came in 1986 when he left the band. That happened after the release of the full-length comprehensive documentary offering a detailed look at the pioneering band, “X: The Unheard Music.”
As a result of Zoom’s departure, Dave Alvin left The Blasters and replaced Zoom on guitar; the band added a fifth member with Tony Gilkyson, formerly of Lone Justice. On “See How We Are,” Alvin who already left the band did play on the record with Gilkyson and wrote the great emotionally-charged 4th Of July.
This album was again removed from its punk rock roots and replaced with a forceful, high-energy harder rocking sound.
When the tour promoting that album ended, X released a live record of the tour, the well-received “Live At The Whisky” cementing it’s reputation as one of the greatest punk bands and live acts featuring ferocious playing. Then they went on an extended hiatus.
In the early 90’s, the band reformed and released “Hey Zeus!” This time out they moved away from the roots rock bent of its past few records and moved toward a more eclectic alternative rock sound that represented a stylistic shift more in line with musical inclination going on at that time.
Then the band release a compilation called Back and Beyond: The X Anthology,” which had a heavy focus on the early years of the band with unreleased versions of songs that had appeared on their previous albums. X also announced around the same time they were disbanding. But they did a farewell tour to promote that compilation with Billy Zoom back on guitar.
Luckily for us, the original lineup went back in studio with Ray Manzarek who was producer again to record a cover of The Doors’ Crystal Ship for the soundtrack for “The X-Files: Fight The Future.” Though X hadn’t released any new studio material, they still perform live with Billy Zoom. The band has toured regularly on national tours with other name acts in the alternative arena including Violent Femmes, Pearl Jam and festivals to new generations of music fans.
In 2009, Exene Cervenka announced she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. At the time, it was reported Cervenka would honor her touring and recording commitments but the focus would be maintaining her health. She’s still fighting, and doing well.
In more recent years, Zoom was diagnosed with prostate cancer and was treated with chemotherapy; for five years was declared cancer free until he learned he had bladder cancer. A GoFundMePage was set up for Zoom and his family. To date, it has reached $72,000, Zoom also continues to fight, and tours with the band. Although, he’s given way from his trademark bad-ass guitar stance to sitting in a chair these days. The truth is that Zoom was sidelined from touring during both bouts of cancer, but as mentioned, he’s since returned to the road.
The new Billy Zoom
The other renaissance angle of X is John Doe. He’s been involved with a multitude of successful side projects. He’s a very successful actor who’s appeared in televisions such as the original Roswell and feature films like Ring of Fire and Great Balls of Fire. Doe is also an accomplished writer. He enjoyed critical acclaim as an author in 2016 for his book, “Under the Big Black Sun; a Personal History of LA Punk:” and again last years “More Fun in the New World.” That book was a heartfelt project he did with Tom DeSavia and a few friends.
John Doe in Great Balls of Fire
In 2019, X re-issued and remastered one of their first four classic albums: “Los Angeles,” “Wild Gift,” “Under The Big Black Sun” and “More Fun In The New World” in collaboration with Fat Possum Records. The band also re-entered the studio for the first time since 1984. A collection of original songs was recorded and release plans are reported to be pending. This is exciting news for longtime X fans hungry for fresh new material to accentuate all the favorite songs they have come to love and know so well.
The band was set to tour for their 40th Anniversary Tour, but due to the Covid-19 pandemic, the tour has been cancelled for now. The thing about X, you just never know what they will do next. Sure, the term it’s a brand new world we live in is used so often it almost has no real meaning. April 2020 gave it meaning again.
As a result of all the heartache going on, X surprised everyone when they digitally released their album, Alphabetland which wasn’t due to be released until August. Needless to say, it’s put a smile on the faces of a lot of people.
ALPHABETLAND | Track listing
Water & Wine
I Gotta Fever
Delta 88 Nightmare
Angel on the Road
Cyrano DeBerger’s Back
Goodbye Year, Goodbye
All the Time in the World
ALPHABETLAND OUT NOW
This Must Be The New World | X
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