In the nearly 50 years since punk music reared its pioneering head, there have been few – if any – of its original groups who have persevered as long as Los Angeles’ favorite punk quartet, X.
John Doe, Exene Cervenka, Billy Zoom, and DJ Bonebrake have survived the rise and fall of the punk genre, label changes, and middling album sales, all while flying just under the radar of world popularity. Rock critics and discerning punk rock loyalists have praised and enjoyed X’s brand, which has left a mark on fans across the land.
The band were preparing to embark on a national tour to celebrate the 40th anniversary of their critically acclaimed debut album, Los Angeles, when the pandemic hit and the tour was grounded. No one would have guessed that in the unprecedented COVID-19 climate we now face, a new album would emerge from X that shows why they're not just sticking around but remaining relevant as hell.
The band’s latest punk opus, Alphabetland is their eighth, and first with the original lineup in 36 years.
You know X music when you hear it, whether it's the hypnotic harmonizing of Doe and Cervenka, Zoom's rockabilly riffs, or Bonebrake's marching band metronome power drumming and snare.
Alphabetland doesn't disappoint and shows that when the band works with the strengths of each member, the results are going to be reminiscent of the early days, but wiser and tighter. Produced by the prolific Ray Schnaf, (Beck, Guided by Voices, and Elliott Smith), the 11-song album comes in at a Ramones-ish 27-minute length.
The album, which is promoted through online music distributor Bandcamp, came out at the end of April instead of its original August release date. In a generous move, X's new label, Fat Possum, agreed to let the band have all sales profits in the first 10 days; Alphabetland came away with 5,000 sales just in the first day.
“Free” is a roadhouse blues rocker. Doe takes the lead and shows he still has the muscular chops with his slight gnarl rasp and pitch-perfect melody singing. “Water & Wine” is a rambunctious rockabilly riff-laden toe-tapper that covers the age-old imbalance of wealth distribution. The welcomed addition of Zoom's sax gives it a retro feel of Joe Turner proportions.
The frantic, yet controlled “I Gotta Fever,” one of three cuts written in the past (1977, to be exact) is maybe the best song on the album. The band, the harmony, and the melody are spot on – it's X at their finest.
“Delta 88” is straight punk-throttle drive through a true Cannery Row Monterrey road-trip journey in verse. The catchiest number, “Cyrano de Berger’s Back”, written in 1987, was on See How We Are, but has a fresh, recycled polish that makes it a funky throwback doo-wop number. The new version is more jazz-infused, but still has that X delivery.
The final number, “All the Time in the World,” is a spoken-word piece written by Cervenka, who laments tongue-in-cheek how time and age pass so quickly. Legendary Doors guitarist Robby Krieger lends his strumming accompaniment to the finale, reconnecting the two pioneering bands from different rock eras. (The late Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek was a big X fan right out of the gate, and it was he who produced X’s first four critically-acclaimed first four albums, Los Angeles, Wild Gift, Under the Big Black Sun, and More Fun in the New World.)
Phoenix New Times caught up with Doe by phone from his home in Austin, Texas. Doe talked about the virus and latest racial strife, Alphabetland, and the point of punk rock even today.
Phoenix New Times: So how are you doing with the whole COVID virus and the racial inequality issue front and center, on top of that?
John Doe: Like everyone else, I am trying to maintain my sanity, trying to learn a new way to approach things. It’s a challenge, but it’s an opportunity. I am ready, willing, and able most of the time to take my lumps, and that’s what I gotta do – to shut up and listen – and that’s okay. And, if I am not willing to do that, then I’m part of the problem. The biggest difference is that having protested as a kid in the late '60s with my brother; I was there. And I have known this disparity and how fucked up people getting killed at the hand of police has been, and it’s been that way forever.
X has never been a band to crank out recycled catalog songs and revamp them disguised as new material. What was the main inspiration of Alphabetland?
I had no intention, I don’t think any of us did, of trying to reinvent X. I think our intention was to be the best X, or make the best X record, that was most representative of what people think of – not just give them what they want, but to play to our strengths.
One of the hallmarks of X has always been the harmonizing of you and Exene, the vintage rockabilly guitar of Zoom, and the metronome marching band engine of DJ Bonebrake. Any difference in your approach after all this time?
There are all those elements you talked about, of the four different people doing our thing. The biggest difference was I tried to get out of my ow way, and if some chord didn’t work, we changed them. And Billy and DJ showed up with their years of experience and attitude of song arrangements, and even some of the songwriting, and that’s why they’re given credit; not only for band unity, but for their contribution.
Still you have your beliefs like anyone else, and some of those beliefs show up in your songs.
I would say that “Water & Wine” is definitely about a hot-button issue – politics of the world. Because if there is something that is universal, it's the effects of power and access and money, and that’s something that’s infuriating. At least people are talking about it in the last few years. I want everybody to have a good life and access to health care; that should be a human right.
Fame and fortune have come in doses for the band over more than four decades, but many see never winning a Grammy or getting into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame as somewhat romantic and poetic. Is recognition important to you more now than in years past?
Hard to say. I think the one award we got is to put our hands in the cement in front of the flagship guitar center in Los Angeles. We also got a proclamation from Los Angeles city, the big fancy piece of paper that is hand-lettered that said we achieved something. And, as soon as that happens, you want to thank your grandmother and you want to thank your fifth-grade teacher and all this crap. So, it’s always great to be validated; it’s always nice to have someone stand up and say, "You did good." Anybody who says that’s not important is lying.
X has always flown just under the radar of popular fame, and yet it's that underdog status and loyal fan base across the globe that has sustained you. It’s a trade-off.
I think without the bona fide hit song, we maintained some kind of street cred. It’s not like at the show, people are just waiting for that one No. 5 on the Billboard chart song, and then they can go home.
As for the punk explosion of the mid- and late-'70s, many bands came in having to learn to play. X already had the components. It had to be a key to early popularity and now still, 43 years later, right?
I think one of the differences between us and other bands is that we wanted to have a career. I wanted to be a career musician. I wanted to build something that lasted and meant something to people. So, I guess I did that. I guess I win.