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X were far from the first punk rock band in Los Angeles, and they weren't the first to achieve some level of nationwide recognition, but in a very real way, they were the ones who put the L.A. punk scene on the map. X were the first L.A. punk band to be taken seriously by the rock press on both coasts, and at a time when many wondered how punk could thrive in the land of all that was mellow, X played music that was as raw, passionate, and powerful as anything coming out of New York, London, or any other major city. X's melding of punk's speed and ferocity with the sounds of rockabilly, blues, country, and other roots music styles would prove to be wildly influential in the years that followed, as were the off-kilter harmonies of John Doe and Exene Cervenka. Their first two independently released albums were critical favorites and sold remarkably well by small label standards, helping establish Slash Records as a major independent label. And while they never enjoyed the commercial breakthrough that many believed was their due, X were massively popular in their home town and could successfully headline large outdoor venues like the Greek Theater, proving there was an audience for punk in the City of the Angels.
X was formed by bassist, vocalist, and songwriter John Doe (born John Nommensen Duchac), who moved to Los Angeles in 1976. Born and raised in Baltimore, where he'd played in a number of forgotten bar bands, Doe had discovered punk rock after hearing Patti Smith's Horses and was eager to form a band in his new home town. Through a newspaper ad, Doe met Billy Zoom (born Ty Kindell), a gifted guitarist originally from Savannah, IL who had been playing rockabilly, blues, and R&B in L.A. for years, and had backed Gene Vincent during the rockabilly icon's last shows. Like Doe, Zoom had discovered the Ramones and wanted to play music that was fast, loud, and honest, and they began jamming together. Shortly before meeting Zoom, Doe had met Exene Cervenka (aka Christine Cervenkova) who, like Doe, had recently arrived in Los Angeles (in her case from Tampa, FL) and was interested in poetry. Doe and Cervenka were attending the same poetry workshop, and bonded over their shared tastes in literature. Doe and Cervenka started dating, and when he read one of her pieces and thought it had the makings of a good song, he asked her permission to sing it in the band he was forming with Zoom. Cervenka said she'd prefer to sing it herself, and before long, she was rehearsing with Doe and Zoom, with her enthusiasm compensating for her lack of musical experience. Naming themselves X, the new band went through a handful of drummers after making their debut at a house party in 1977; their original drummer was a guy named Mick Basher, and reportedly, K.K. Barrett of the Screamers and Nicky Beat of the Weirdos sat in with them on occasion, but when Doe saw the Eyes performing at The Masque, L.A.'s first punk club, he saw their drummer was just what he and Zoom had been looking for: someone whose style was smart but simple, and who hit a big snare drum really hard. That drummer was D.J. Bonebrake, and he played his first gig with X in February 1978.
It didn't take long for X to make a name for themselves on the L.A. punk scene, and later the same year, the group recorded their first single, "Adult Books" b/w "We're Desperate," released by the seminal West Coast punk label Dangerhouse Records. The single sold well, and X's song "Los Angeles" appeared on the label's sampler LP Yes L.A., but the band was unhappy with Dangerhouse's business practices, and opted to record their first full-length album for Slash Records, an offshoot of the key L.A. punk zine. X had also won a valuable ally in Ray Manzarek, former keyboard player with the Doors; Manzarek was impressed with X's bold music and literate songs, as well as their open admiration of his former group (they had taken to covering "Soul Kitchen" on-stage). Manzarek played keys at a few X gigs and offered to produce their first album. Recorded on a slim budget of $10,000, Los Angeles was released in April 1980, and immediately received rave reviews from punk fanzines and the big-league music press; it was an immediate success in the band's home town, and as word spread nationwide, the album sold over 50,000 copies, an impressive sum for an independent punk album. Along with steady touring, fans outside of California were seeing X thanks to the documentary The Decline of Western Civilization, which focused on the L.A. punk community and gave the group a healthy amount of admiring screen time. 1980 also marked the year Doe and Cervenka became man and wife, with their relationship informing the lyrics to many of their songs.
X's second album, Wild Gift, appeared in May 1981, a few months after the release of their single "White Girl." Also produced by Ray Manzarek, the critical reception for Wild Gift was just as enthusiastic as it was for Los Angeles; sales also matched those of the debut, and before long, X were not just L.A.'s most popular punk band, but one of the town's biggest bands period, and became the first unsigned rock band to headline L.A.'s Greek Theater. Major labels finally came calling, and X signed a deal with Elektra Records, who released Under the Big Black Sun in July 1982. Manzarek once again produced, and while the bigger recording budget resulted in a fuller sound, the group's approach was essentially the same, and while critics and fans were once again impressed with X's passionate music and street-level lyrics, radio still wasn't ready for them, and the album failed to sell significantly better than Los Angeles or Wild Gift, despite plenty of touring and occasional television appearances. The same fate befell 1983's More Fun in the New World, as the band continued to sit at the top of the heap in L.A. without making significant headway elsewhere.
In 1984, Doe, Cervenka, and Bonebrake released an album by their acoustic side project the Knitters, while X recorded a bombastic cover of the Troggs' "Wild Thing" which appeared on the soundtrack of the film Major League. The "Wild Thing" single was produced by Michael Wagener, who had worked with heavy metal bands such as Mötley Crüe and Dokken; Wagener returned to produce X's next album, 1984's Ain't Love Grand, and while one tune from the album, "Burning House of Love," earned steady MTV airplay, the album's more polished sound didn't favor the band, and both critics and fans were disappointed while radio programmers and mainstream audiences paid little attention. Disappointed with the band's failure to break through to a mass audience, Billy Zoom left X in 1985, and the divorce of Doe and Cervenka, who had wed in 1980, didn't help relations in the group. Dave Alvin, guitarist with the Blasters and a collaborator in the Knitters, was recruited to join the band, and while he was an ideal fit for X, by the time they completed the recording of 1987's See How We Are, he was offered a record deal as a solo act and opted to leave. Tony Gilkyson, formerly with Lone Justice, took part in the recording of See How We Are and became X's lead guitarist after the album was released. While the album was a strong piece of work, sales were disappointing, and after releasing Live at the Whisky A Go-Go in 1988, X quietly broke up.
After the band's breakup, Doe launched a solo career with the album Meet John Doe in 1990, and also pursued a career as an actor, appearing in a number of notable film and television projects. Exene Cervenka released her first solo LP, Old Wives' Tales, in 1989, and recorded both acoustic and rock music as a solo artist and with the bands the Original Sinners and Auntie Christ; Cervenka also wrote and published poetry, created visual art, and acted in the film Salvation, where she met actor Viggo Mortensen, whom she married in 1987 and divorced in 1997. Billy Zoom stayed out of the public eye, primarily working in his own shop fixing and modifying guitar amplifiers, while D.J. Bonebrake stayed busy working with a wide variety of musicians and playing with a pair of jazz combos, the Bonebrake Syncopators and Orchestra Superstring. In 1993, after the success of Nirvana's Nevermind had opened up radio to more adventurous sounds, X reunited with Tony Gilkyson on guitar and recorded the album Hey Zeus! Reaction to the album was polite but not enthusiastic, and after the release of 1995's Unclogged, a live album drawn from a series of acoustic shows, the group once again retired. In 1998, to the surprise of many, the classic X lineup of Doe, Cervenka, Zoom, and Bonebrake reunited for a handful of shows in Los Angeles. The reunion shows were rapturously received by both fans and critics, and the band has staged periodic reunion tours ever since. A late-2004 stand at the Los Angeles House of Blues resulted in the live CD and DVD Live in Los Angeles, and X continue to perform despite Cervenka's announcement in 2009 that she had been diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. ~ Mark Deming
- Los Angeles, CA
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