The Blasters vs. X: It's L.A. Circa '80 for the Yuletide Season
X [top] and The Blasters [bottom]
It's peculiarly fitting that these two punk trailblazers should arrive in town on the same night, because they've been inextricably bound together for more than 35 years since the beginnings of Los Angeles' punk underground.
For one thing, they've endured, even though (or perhaps because) their members have solo careers. Similarly, for much of their careers, both acts' laurels rested on music made in the early to mid-80s. (In 2005, The Blasters released 4-11-44, their first new album in 20 years, and followed that in July with Fun on Saturday Night; X hasn't released a new studio album since 1993's Hey Zeus!)
More importantly, both bands drew upon traditional roots and rockabilly in making their music helping imbue it with a timelessness that their noisier, snottier peers may have lacked. They certainly weren't solitary in that interest -- in the intervening years, many of their peers have also embraced roots music, such as Chuck Prophet (Green on Red), Mike Ness (Social Distortion), and Alejandro Escovedo (Nuns, Rank & File, True Believers).
Ness credits "bands like X, Johnny Thunders, and The Stray Cats" with opening his eyes to American roots music. "When you're 17, you don't really care about your roots, but as you get older, as you're trying to find your own identity, that's when the search begins," he says. "It led us. It led us to Americana music and the history of rock 'n' roll before the music of the '70s."
"Los Lobos, X, Dave and Phil Alvin, you're talking about people who had a broader palette to work individually to begin with, and I'm not sure why that is," Escovedo says. "I know that us, as kids who said we were punk rock or got grouped in punk rock, we were basically trying to play songs we could hear on the radio anywhere."
Of course, by nature, they weren't going to be played on the radio. On their 1980 debut, Los Angeles, X offered "The Unheard Music," protesting, "We're locked out of the public eye/Smooth chords on the chord radio . . . Friends warehouse pain, attack their own kind."
They reiterated the complaint as new wave took off on arguably their most poignant song, "I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts," off the last of their first four great albums, 1983's More Fun in the New World. "Glitter-disco-synthesizer night school. All this noble savage drum, drum, drum," they sing. "The facts we hate: You'll never hear us." "It was about feeling powerless," said X singer Exene Cervenka in an interview last year. "All the way down to no one's going to hear us on the radio because our music -- meaning us and everyone else like us, is banned. We can't get across what we're trying to say."
The band's subsequent albums allowed that frustration to undermine them as the next two (1985's Ain't Love Grand and 1987's See How We Are) chase a more produced, commercial, and ultimately less satisfying sound, while longtime guitarist Billy Zoom (whose name and playing style suggest onomatopoeia) left the band for a time. Who stepped in? Former Blasters guitarist Dave Alvin. (He also played with X's bassist John Doe, Cervenka, and drummer DJ Bonebrake in The Knitters, who released albums in '85 and again in '05.)
Though they started a couple of years later, in 1979, The Blasters followed a similar trajectory as X, finding a great deal of critical appreciation on their first couple of albums for their ability to play classic blues/country with a kind of punk rock intensity and fervor. After four well-received albums, Dave Alvin left the band and they folded up shop. His brother Phil released a solo album then went back to school, while Dave went on to a critically lauded Grammy-winning solo career.
Then after a half-dozen 2002 reunion shows, Phil rounded up some guys (including guitarist Keith Wyatt and original bassist John Bazz) for 2004's long-awaited comeback 4-11-44. They started touring and then added original drummer Bill Bateman for this summer's fine Fun on Saturday Night, blending rough-and-tumble R&B with gritty blues. The tracks include a cover of James Brown's "Please Please Please," and a duet with Cervenka on Jerry Lieber's classic "Jackson" (previously covered successfully by Lee Hazlewood and Nancy Sinatra, as well as June and Johnny Cash, who won a Grammy with it).
Meanwhile, we still await X's next studio album. To see them live -- where they rip through 25 incessantly catchy, surprisingly durable tunes in about 80 minutes -- it's hard to believe they haven't seized upon that energy and turned it toward an album. When we spoke to Cervenka, she couldn't either. (That was early last year, which is even more whomp-whomp-waah.)
"I want to make an X record. I want to make a punk rock record. I want to make it with Billy," she said at the time. "It's ridiculous, here I am with the best surviving punk band in the world, and not making a record, that's crazy. So that's what I'm going to focus on, trying to do that this year."
It didn't happen, but that's what New Year's resolutions are for, right?