Classic Album Review



BEST TRACKS: Your Phone’s Off the Hook, But You’re Not; Nausea, Johny Hit and Run Paulene, Los Angeles

How do you choose the song to open a film like Penelope Spheeris’ seminal survey of LA’s emerging punk wasteland: “The Decline of Western Civilization?”.  Among a pool of bands like Black Flag, the Germs, Fear, or Catholic Discipline, how could you possibly choose a single artist to represent the chaotic atmosphere of west-coast degeneracy? Well, there is one band that explicitly embodies the death of 60s counterculture optimism; a group that built their sound and vision off of repurposed American ideals rather than being representative of their disintegration.  So, as the vital documentary begins, viewers are forever introduced to “Nausea”, an atonal masterpiece off Los Angeles, the debut album from California’s most culturally significant punk act: X. Even as the song runs over footage from fellow band’s writhing around on stages glazed with broken glass, X can be immediately identified as an entity which hovered above simple brutality. It’s hard to concisely process what it is about X, their sound, image or attitude, that simultaneously exists apart from all of their LA contemporaries, yet is undeniably instilled to the bone with punk rock.  They were sophisticated poets obsessed with old western sounds and sensibilities; they had a magnetic affinity for Chuck Berry riffs and frequently covered the Doors; they looked more like disgruntled greasers than bobby pinned brats. But they were punks. In fact, they were probably the most important punks to ever come out of LA. In a time when the question of civilization’s decline was represented in Los Angeles’ rotting metropolis by a primal, anarchist musicianship, X was the one band who actually stepped up to answer it. In other words, while Black Flag and the Germs were rejecting Americanism in their baseness, X was a purely American unit whose subverted guitar leads and poetry addressed the massive failures of post-war suburbia and 60s counterculture utopianism.  Los Angeles is likely the most ambitious and holistically representative work to capture the decrepit reality of the country’s former golden pride. 

The legend of X’s formation is an almost laughably perfect story of artists fully enamored with living on the mythical edge of society.  Guitarist Billy Zoom met fellow Illinois expatriate John Doe through a guitar ad in the free LA weekly: “The Recycler”. Both musicians were immensely talented, a practical anomaly in the typically brutal punk rock code.  Zoom (born Tyson Kindell) descended from a family of woodwind players who primed to him to pick up a variety of instruments such as the clarinet, alto sax, accordion, and banjo. By the time he had met Doe, Zoom had moved to LA to attend technical tube repair school and was working as a session guitarist.  Doe (born John Duchac) was a country and western music fanatic. With his pompadour and knack for a wrenching croon, Doe’s ability to locate vocal harmonies granted he and Zoom’s group the ability to embody haunting longing, perfectly conveying the lost paradise of late 70s LA. DJ Bonebrake, a Bay Area passenger tapped to join Zoom and Doe as their drummer, shared his bandmate’s affinity for technical prowess, quickly establishing himself as a jazz-loving wunderkind obsessed with polyrhythm.  And so with these three unlikely champions of counter-culture became an entity known as X. If their formation had ended here then they probably would have still been tight, popular, and maybe even a culturally influential band. But it wasn’t Zoom’s plastic rockabilly enamel or Doe’s dirty folk croon that placed them completely in their own musical domain. No, in fact, the amalgamation of all of these factors was only, at most, half of the reason why X became so atypically beautiful. When Doe initially began practicing with Zoom, he brought along his then-girlfriend Exene Cervenka.  Cervenka, a poet, would often write and recite her poetry for Zoom and Doe, who decided that she would be a perfect singer and lyricist. Sharing lead vocals with Doe, she became the only member of X lacking a classically trained musical background. Acting as the ingredient which pushed them from a tongue-in-cheek power folk trio to California’s most scholastic punks, Cervenka’s dissonant harmonies which delivered lyrics of alienation, sublime anxiety, and life after destruction acted as a microcosm of LA’s disgruntled youth. As they began performing in clubs like Whiskey a Go Go and The Masque, X gained traction in local zines which had emerged to cover the largely underground congregation of anti-authoritarian musicians. Upon reading a particularly positive review a live performance (specifically of the song “Johny Hit and Run Paulene”) Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek was compelled to produce the band’s debut full-length.  Aptly named “Los Angeles”, the album is a confusing digestion.

Unlike their contemporaries, X was not fixated on blistering volumes or ridiculous speeds. Rather, they demanded a thematic subversion of American classics. Los Angeles is raw, shellacked guitar tones or well-mixed drums certainly absent, yet rock’s distant folksy and rockabilly forefathers are not trashed for the sake of complete rebellion. The album’s first track “Your Phone’s Off the Hook, But You’re Not” is instantly reminiscent of British glam with it’s sliding, chunky power chords.  In fact, isolating the instrumental would honestly produce an unremarkable T-Rex era romp. But, again, Cervenka’s lyrics and delivery are X’s crucial tipping point. She and Doe double each other for the majority of the track, with Doe remaining (boringly) on key while Cervenka’s atonal shout punches the listener with lines like “Someone clean to chew on a wife that no one likes/ He called and they said all of New York Is a tow-away zone”.  It’s both abstract and mundane; her lyrics epitomizing the daily horrors of a decaying nation filled with excess.  “Johny Hit and Run Paulene” centers around an over driven Chuck Berry riff, declaring itself the postmodern extension of the most classic essentials of Rock and Roll.  When Doe sings he sounds overly self-contained, compressing a bellow into more of a pained whimper. Through this suppression, the listener can make out “He bought a sterilized hypo/To shoot a sex machine drug/He got twenty-four hours/To shoot all Paulenes between the legs” before Cervenka joins in for the slithering, eponymous chorus.  It’s insanely dark, grotesque, and despondent lyrics are juxtaposed by this utterly American, swung guitar lead.  Adding to their commitment to a kitchen sink, twisted rockabilly attitude is their cover of the Doors “Soul Kitchen”.  It’s more acerbic than the original, but it isn’t done mockingly. You can tell that X has a deep respect for their LA outsider predecessors and it’s this appreciation which sets them so definitely apart.  “Nausea”, is a resigned, monotonous conviction of an environment which was so suffocating in its distress. Cervenka and Doe synchronously deliver a chorus which details a body betraying its master while Zoom’s fat power chords are supplemented by occasionally meandering licks. It’s an anthem to pissed of kids forced to live in a supposedly ideal putrid wasteland. 

X is one-of-a-kind in their commitment to a holistic delivery of an America in decline. When individual bands competed in decadence in order to largely constitute the panic of a new generation, X was able to verbalize that discontent while maintaining a love for previous traditions that were too rich to do away with entirely. Los Angeles is the only album I’ve heard to come out of the first-wave punk movement that was not only a product of its environment but did everything in its ability to address and critique it.

-Cliff Jenkins