Veteran punk-rock band X marks 30 years with new set list

[16 June 2009]

By Walter Tunis

McClatchy Newspapers (MCT)

After nearly 30 years of taking its genre-defining punk, rock and pop to the world, X figured it was time to try something new.

Oh, don’t fret — the veteran West Coast band possesses the same elemental, accessible charge that fueled albums such as 1980’s “Los Angeles” and 1982’s “Under the Big Black Sun.” Also, X boasts the full original lineup: vocalist Exene Cervenka, vocalist/bassist John Doe, guitarist Billy Zoom and drummer D.J. Bonebrake.

So what could be new? The band is the same. The music remains blessedly unblemished. There hasn’t even been a new studio album from X since “Hey Zeus!” in 1993.

The difference is that X is delegating some of its set-list responsibilities. In an exercise that many veteran bands have experimented with in recent years, X is letting its fans vote on the songs they want the band to play.

“I’ve heard about other bands taking requests through their Web sites,” Doe said in a recent phone interview. “They would wind up pulling out all these really obscure songs out of their back catalog. We don’t have the time or interest to know all of our songs, so we just added about 15 songs to the set list we normally use and posted it. We take the top 28 songs or so that people vote for and play those.”

The candidates include the title tune to “Los Angeles,” “Johnny Hit and Run Pauline,” “White Girl,” “When Our Love Passed Out on the Couch” and “Sex and Dying in High Society.” All of those tunes come from X’s first two albums (“Los Angeles” and 1981’s “Wild Gift”). That’s just fine by Doe. In recent years, with members balancing band duties with projects of their own, X has drawn exclusively on music from its first four albums for concerts. Those are the recordings, Doe said, that continue to define the band.

“That’s the music where we made our stamp, where we made our brand,” he says. “Of all our records, the first four are the most original. Those are the ones where we really developed our style.”

Those records were also documents — postscripts might be a better term — of a vital, fruitful and ultimately brief scene that pervaded art and music in Los Angeles decades ago.

“I think everybody had a sense back then that something important was happening. But everyone was so busy being involved in it to really notice it. It was surprisingly short. I think any scene has a surprisingly short life — like, maybe, three or four years. Even by the end of 1980, it was like ‘Wow, this has really changed.’ But the scene was incredibly vital because of its social and cultural impact. Everybody involved made some sort of contribution to it, even if it was just through their personality.”

Doe selects the order in which the selections will be played on stage.

“If we did the songs in the order they were voted on, the set lists would be terrible. But it’s still difficult because sometimes people will choose a bunch of slow stuff. I don’t think that’s really a measure of the age or desire of an audience. It just sort of turns out that way.

“But when you’ve got songs voted on like ‘Burning House of Love’ (from X’s fifth album, 1985’s “Ain’t Love Grand”), ‘Blue Spark,’ ‘Adult Books’ and ‘White Girl’ and all these sorts of slower things that I sing, it gets to be like, ‘We’ve got to do all of those in the same set?’ So I’ll only put maybe three of those on at the most. Also, if I see ‘Soul Kitchen’ hasn’t been voted on, I might put it in because, well, I need it.”

“Soul Kitchen” is a vintage Doors tune refashioned for “Los Angeles” that wonderfully reflects X’s early collaborations with Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek.

Doe said he and Cervenka have been collaborating on what might become new X music. One of their new tunes, “It Just Dawned on Me,” made its way onto “Country Club,” Doe’s new country covers album with The Sadies.

“We’re still good,” Doe said of X. “Over time, you push a lot of your own pettiness aside. You start to realize what’s important and what kind of gift you have. I mean, a lot of the people coming to see us now weren’t even born when X started, so we’re grateful they get to see us.

“I know what that’s like. I wasn’t around when Chuck Berry was in his prime. But I saw him later, in ‘72 or ‘73. And he just blew my mind.”

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