X: one of the best and most important bands in the history of American rock-and-roll is a legendary band that far too many in the mainstream have never heard of. That may have something to do with the fact that X is generally classified as a punk rock band, and for many that conjures images of short, fast-paced songs with little to no melody and questionable musicianship. Make no mistake, X is definitely a punk band, but their sound is loaded with melodies, the songwriting is among the best of the genre (right up there with The Clash, in my opinion), and they’re all top-notch musicians.
Formed in Los Angeles in 1977, X emerged from the local underground clubs and house parties as one of the most lasting and diverse legacies of the early L.A. punk scene. Although the band was linked with fellow L.A. punk bands like Black Flag, Circle Jerks, Fear, and Germs, thanks in large part to being heavily featured in Penelope Spheeris’ 1981 documentary about the Los Angeles punk scene, The Decline of Western Civilization, they’ve proven much more than the punk label might suggest.
Now, more than 40 years later, X is still going strong with their X-mas ‘19 Holiday Tour, which touched down at Ace of Spades last Thursday night. Not long after opening band Los Straightjackets finished their set, original members Exene Cervenka, John Doe, Billy Zoom, and D.J. Bonebreak took the stage and launched into “Beyond and Back”, a rockabilly-tinged song about Exene and John’s seemingly always strained relationship, their trademark vocals entwined at times like lovers holding hands, or alternately gripped tight in an arm-wrestle.
As X played through 21 songs from their first four albums (plus one non-album song that was re-recorded and officially released for the first time last month), the breadth of styles was apparent. Punk, rockabilly, bluesy R&B, folk-tinged rock– all were on display during the energetic and heartfelt set.
Equally apparent was how relevant the decades old lyrics are today. From their Raymond Chandler-esque look at late ‘70s/early ‘80s Los Angeles, to the timeless songs of heartbreak and the occasional political rant, it seems not much has changed in four decades.
After opening the set with four songs from their sophomore album, 1981’s Wild Gift, the band broke out a “new” old song, “Delta 88 Nightmare”, which first appeared as a bonus track/demo on a 2001 of reissue their debut album Los Angeles and was re-recorded and officially released in October of this year. It’s a song about the time they drove to Cannery Row in Monterey after reading John Steinbeck’s novel of the same name, expecting to find “remnants of those romantic hobos and bohemians”, only to find the canneries mostly abandoned, with one having been turned into a shopping mall of fancy eateries. The original demo was an outtake from their first album, but the sentiment is just as relevant today.
Next up was 1983’s “New World”, from the band’s fourth album More Fun in the New World. When John and Exene sing “Honest to goodness, the tears have been falling / All over this country’s face…It was better before, before they voted for What’s-His-Name / This was supposed to be the new world,” they could have been talking about today’s climate as much as Reagan’s America in the 80s.
The set flexed its diversive muscle with songs like the fantastic cover of 1930’s “Dancing with Tears in My Eyes” by Al Dubin and Joe Burke, which was included on X’s third album, 1982’s Under the Big Black Sun, followed by the mournful “Come Back to Me” from the same album. “Come Back to Me” was written by Exene Cervenka about her sister, who was killed by a drunk driver on her way to one of the band’s shows at The Whiskey. It’s a slow bluesy R&B tune with heartfelt but sad lyrics as Exene sings “Please, please come back to me / I cry and talk to you / Through the bathroom wall / Oh please come back to me.” Billy Zoom plays a beautifully sad saxophone part on this song.
Other standouts included “Los Angeles”, title track from their debut album of the same name, “Johnny Hit and Run Paulene” (an anti-rape song), and the hard-charging “Nausea”, all from the same album, but really there were no letdowns in the entire 22 song set. The enthusiastic crowd, which had formed a multi-generational mosh pit in the middle of the crowd, was animated and engaged throughout the night and left both fully satisfied yet wanting more, a contradiction fitting for a band like X.
The X-mas ‘19 Holiday Tour pulled into Sonoma on December 7 before heading to San Francisco for three nights at The Independent (December 9-11), then heading north to Seattle before finishing the tour in their hometown of Los Angeles. X is supported on this tour by Los Straitjackets, an instrumental surf-style band that plays songs by the likes of Dick Dale and The Ventures while wearing lucha libre style masks.
Full list of tour dates here.