Editors’ Notes Some punk rock bands talk as though their music is entirely original, without influence or precedent in rock history, sprung solely from their brilliant brains. X, one of punk’s greatest, has always been blunt about the inspiration they take from 1950s and 1960s music, and on ALPHABETLAND, they make that connection clearer than ever. “To me, that was the whole point of punk rock,” singer and bassist John Doe tells Apple Music. “Rock ’n’ roll had gotten away from its roots, and from the freedom it represented. We wanted to bring it back. We wanted to remind people of Little Richard and Gene Vincent, and then, later, country singers like Loretta Lynn and Tammy Wynette.” ALPHABETLAND, the LA band’s first album in 35 years with the original lineup—Doe and singer Exene Cervenka (who were married from 1980 to 1985), pompadoured guitarist Billy Zoom, and drummer D.J. Bonebrake—similarly broadcasts its influences, from The Doors (whose keyboard player, Ray Manzarek, produced X’s 1980 debut, Los Angeles) to the 1960s girl group The Shangri-Las to the grimy, desperate LA of Raymond Chandler, Nathanael West, and Ross Macdonald novels. This new set of 11 songs (only one of which is longer than three minutes) follows up on earlier X songs both sonically and in its depiction of not just a city that’s falling down, but a generation, a country, even a world. “The more political songs, or just songs about the world being on an edge, that’s not a unique subject for us,” Doe says. Here he tells the story behind each track on X’s inspired, and inspiring, return.

ALPHABETLAND
“It’s probably the most adventurous song on the record, which is one reason we used it as the album title. It’s about the god Mercury, who either brings carnage or brings riches. The bridge goes, ‘Mercury, you will skate on silver blades/Figure eights on a frozen lake.’ Billy came up with the music for the bridge, which feels completely unexpected. Originally, the song was called ‘Mercury,’ but Billy kept referring to it as ‘Alphabetland,’ like it was some 1950s board game he remembered, even though the lyrics never use the word ‘Alphabetland’—only ‘alphabet wrecked’ and ‘alphabet mine.’ A relationship gets destroyed, so the alphabet gets wrecked and words are meaningless. We finally relented, because it’s like, okay, Billy’s going to call it ‘Alphabetland’ regardless of what the title is.”

Free
“I wrote ‘Free’ in the character of another person, a woman. It’s for all my female partners, sisters, and women I respect. At first, it was called ‘Promised Land,’ but the band gave me a bunch of shit: ‘You can’t use the name of a Chuck Berry song.‘ I also had three different types of music for the verse, different chords that didn’t seem to fit right. D.J. coming up with his drum part, the jungle drums, gave the song the right tension. I wish someone like Pussy Riot would cover this.”

Water & Wine
“It was inspired by seeing a band I love, Shannon & The Clams, who have kind of a surf-rock element. ‘Who gets water and who gets wine’ is about the financial divide in society: who has access, who’s double platinum. We shot some footage, and our friend Bill Morgan, who made The Unheard Music [a 1986 documentary about X], made a video from that and old footage of a movie called Ivan the Terrible from the ’20s. It’s a silent movie, and the characters pour gold coins over one another’s heads—just incredible excess. Billy loves playing the sax, so we say, ’OK, throw it on there.’ It’s nice to bring it in at the very end. We’re not one for high concept, but we do like having a little bit of fun with production.”

Strange Life
“Exene wrote most of the lyrics. We thought about The Doors a lot on this, and their song ‘Strange Days.’ It’s about driving down the road and seeing all the images, mile markers or wooden crosses, and that being a metaphor for going down the road of life, not to get too high-minded. After you’ve been on the road for a while, you take stock of the road, or your life, and you say, ‘Boy, this is strange. How did we get here?”

I Gotta Fever
“I wrote that in 1977, and it was called ‘Heater’: ‘I got a heater.’ It’s on an anthology we put out [in 1997], Beyond and Back. It was about an antihero breaking into someone’s apartment and falling in love, or in lust—a literary exercise for my love of film noir and the Los Angeles of that time. We wanted to rerecord it, but the words were stupid. The whole idea of calling a gun a heater, that didn’t ring true, so I rewrote it. It still has a cinematic quality—the diamond touch and molten lead, people being obsessed and lusting after each other.”

Delta 88 Nightmare
“The second of three old songs we rerecorded, it’s also on Beyond and Back. Around 1978, Exene and I and a few friends drove up to Monterey, California, because we’d been reading [the John Steinbeck novel] Cannery Row. We drove up there in my rattletrap car, an International Travelall, to look for hobos and bohemians. We got there and Monterey was the first time we’d seen a city that had been gentrified. It was full of rich people. We realized we were the bums, the rats crawling out from under the cracks. The music was just too much fun to not have a good version of it. It’s the fastest song of the record.”

Star Chambered
“Exene wrote this in the character of a railroad wife—a person who hangs out in honky-tonk bars. It seemed like a Bob Dylan song to me. And this is where the difference between writing a song in character and writing about ourselves gets blurry. Exene and I define ourselves as the characters we write about. It’s a playful song; I happened on some new chords in the verse, and didn’t expect it to sound so much like ‘Fortune Teller,’ the 1960s song by Benny Spellman. I hope people go back and listen to that. And there’s a reference to [Tennessee Ernie Ford’s] ‘Sixteen Tons,’ but it’s ‘I played 16 bars and what did I get?/Another hangover and drunker in debt.’ I think a lot of people can relate to the line ‘I bet on odd ’til I broke even, and then just had to go.’ You do bet on odd. You bet on the chance that you might get through, and you either get what you want, settle for what you got, or you move on. If there’s anything to be said about the band at this point, it’s that we’re grateful to be around.”

Angel on the Road
“Exene wrote this as a poem, and I said, ‘Please give me the words, because I know that’s a song.’ That was the first new song we wrote, back at the end of 2018. It’s about a woman who runs away and her car dies. She’s listening to the Allman Brothers, and then she gets picked up by Duane Allman, and that’s her version of heaven: to ride forever in a big rig with Duane Allman. I love Billy’s guitar solo. It sounds kind of like Robby Krieger of The Doors. There’s also a 1950s-style spoken chorus, like The Ink Spots or something, which I never thought we’d be able to do.”

Cyrano deBerger’s Back
“I never liked the version we recorded on [X’s 1987 album] See How We Are. This is more like the way it was originally written. The title—maybe I was inspired by that Television song about ‘the arms of Venus de Milo.’ There’s a funk guitar lick, or maybe it’s more like Ben E. King—funk or doo-wop, one or the other. Lou Reed was all about doo-wop, and so were the Ramones.”

Goodbye Year, Goodbye
“That was the last song we worked on. I took the lead, and Exene did some editing and additional lyrics. The music is just straight-up punk rock, because I thought the record needed a good old-fashioned punk rock song. Originally, it sounded too much like [1980’s] ‘Your Phone’s Off the Hook,’ so we added a few different things. I was inspired by reading the book Midnight Cowboy. Exene gave it to me for my birthday, and the lyric ‘Brother and sister pretend to be lovers’ is from a moment in the book where Joe Buck goes to an Andy Warhol-type party. The first verse, ‘Beats keep beating my brains in,’ means there’s just too much going on. Everybody is so overscheduled, and there’s so much noise.”

All the Time in the World
“Robby Krieger and I know each other and have gotten a little closer in the last five years. He left a long message on my phone, mistaking me for someone else, so I texted back and said, ‘I think you’ve got the wrong person.’ He called and said, ‘I’m so sorry. How are things?’ I said, ‘I’m finishing up making an X record.’ He said, ‘You should have me come down and jam on a song.’ It was perfect, because it ended up being similar to some of the stuff he played on [The Doors album] American Prayer—it’s very beatnik. Billy played the piano part; my bass part was bad, so we took it off, and it’s just Exene, Billy, and Robby on the song. As Exene says, ‘We have all the time in the world... Turns out not to be that much.’ We have whatever time we have, and goddamn, we better make use of it. What a way to end the record.”

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