X is still a great live band. A quarter century after that cracked onto the LA scene, essentially defining punk in that town, they still rock the old way — simple back beat, gut-kicking rockabilly guitar and vocals that ride the wave of music directly. This pair of releases — a CD and DVD of a no-frills, straight-up rock show in November of last year — delivers the X goods.
X poses a series of dilemmas for rock history buffs or historians. It is a band that both defied and defined an era, and the mystery is that they didn’t either (a) blow up the way Talking Heads did, transcending its origins, or (b) explode into nothingness so we could either forget about them or romanticize their absence. X was an original, authentic punk band in a glitzy, unpunky town. Their punk rock credibility was undeniable — strong, angry lyrics over a direct guitar attack that did not trade in bullshit. Then, when they went beyond punk, it was not to become more accessible in the manner of, say, Elvis Costello or David Byrne, but to embrace the older roots of their punk sound: rockabilly or folk. Though their fronts were John Doe and Exene, the once-married singers, the image of the group for many fans was the pompadoured guitarist, Billy Zoom — a guy who visually as well as musically bridged the musical divide of the band.
It’s in Billy’s guitar sound that X makes itself felt most profoundly. The guy can thrash it out, no doubt. But there is an undeniable twang in his sound. Just like The Ramones were always more than punk because they were essentially and self-consciously rooted in ’50s and ’60s garage rock (in a way that say, the Damned and the Pistols never were and probably never could have been), X seems knowingly to come out of the string-strangling style of Elvis guitarist Scotty Moore. All their tunes, whether they overtly reference rockabilly or not, seem like real rock ‘n’ roll rather than just “punk rock” — the act of defiance, the social statement, the music you might play when you’re 25 but hardly when you’re 50.
So here’s X, fully a quarter century after their emergence, aged 50 or better it seems, still playing “Los Angeles” and “Johny Hit and Run Paulene” and “We’re Desperate”. And they sound great. They sound punk even. They sound like people playing pop music with direct energy genuine conviction and blues wit, which is to say that they sound like rock ‘n’ rollers, still, whatever kind of rock you want to call it.
As good as they are on this CD and DVD, it’s worth noting that this is, essentially, a rock ‘n’ roll revival act. Not that there’s anything so shameful about it. All the songs here are the classic X tunes, the ones from Los Angeles and Under the Big Black Sun and other classic ’80s albums. Indeed, we should all thank X for not feeling, like the Stones for instance, that they have to release a new album of crap that no one is even remotely going to want to hear in concert. But on this CD and DVD, X is a revival act, playing the great old songs. Some may argue that the better record, therefore, is 1988’s Live at the Whiskey a Go Go, which contains mostly the same tunes but performed closer to time when this music was directly “relevant” or happening. That’s a hard case to make, though, given that the 1988 concert didn’t feature Billy Zoom. The 2004 version is arguably more authentic.
And so what that “X” aren’t writing any new songs? It’s not a matter of dried up talent, as John Doe’s March 2005 release Forever Hasn’t Happened Yet and several earlier solo outings have shown. X was never about just X any, as their side project — the more roots-rocky, countrified The Knitters — showed early on. Live in Los Angeles is not a record of a used-up band milking its past one more time — it’s a group of old friends having a great time together once again. And why not?
Whether you’re digging the audio or the video version, the concert seems like fun. The band cracks wise between songs, but not in some scripted or planned out way. No Springsteen anecdotes about children, just rock and laughs and fans yelling, dancing and digging it all. You’re invited right in, without artifice.
With the passage of time and the chance to really see these guys performs, what comes through is what superb singers Doe and Exene are, particularly together. On recent albums, Doe has duetted to fine effect with rock chicks like Juliana Hatfield and Neko Case, but the former couple of X seem to lock in naturally — Doe on the bottom, Exene riding the top, the vaguely bored punk phrasing belied by the urgency of the music and the bite of the lyrics. It is quite reminiscent of Talking Heads and Television rather than the shoutier punk of, say, The Clash, and you realize what artful music this always was, even when it was shocking LA kids during the Carter administration. It’s probably the most accessible and most grand thing about X — that you can not only understand the words but actually relate the singing as a human voice the same way you hear Leonard Cohen or Tom Waits or, shit, Sinatra. God forbid, X is a punk band that can not only play its instruments real well but even sing like an angel. And it turns out there’s nothing wrong with that.
On the DVD you can even dig JD and Exene doing acoustic duets on a couple of tunes, giving you a lick of their Knitters style and suggesting that punk was never really about volume and offense as much as about directness. And they are.