Thirty-five years ago, a brash new band burst onto the Los Angeles music scene.
Known for its off-kilter vocals, soul-searching lyrics and hard-hitting sound harkening back to the early days of rock ’n’ roll, X became one of the most influential acts to emerge from punk rock’s second wave.
“When you launch a band, you imagine hitting your peak in five years and (then) dropping off the face of the Earth,” said John Doe, singer, songwriter and bassist for the band. “We never in our wildest dreams imagined this would have lasted so long.”
X performs this weekend alongside Latin rock band Los Lobos and Mariachi El Bronx, the Mexican-flavored side project of hardcore punk group The Bronx, at Festival Blacklake, a Cinco de Mayo celebration at Blacklake Golf Resort in Nipomo.
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Doe, whose real name is John Duchac, attributes X’s staying power to “everything from determination, a short memory, ambition (and) sometimes needing to pay the bills.”
“In a way, X is relevant because we’re still ‘last man standing,’ ” he said.
The punk reaction
According to Doe, X followed the footsteps of earlier punk groups including The Clash, The Ramones and Patti Smith.
“Punk rock was a reaction to classic rock at its most self-indulgent,” he said, citing acts such as Bob Seger, Peter Frampton and the Eagles. “It was more about getting back to the origins of rock ’n’ roll, Chuck Berry and Jerry Lee Lewis.” However, most fans probably weren’t aware of punk’s roots, he said. “(They thought) ‘This is dangerous. This is freedom. This is rock ’n’ roll,’ ” Doe said. “For that alone, it was terrific music.”
The Baltimore native teamed up with Billy Zoom, a seasoned guitarist who performed with rockabilly legend Gene Vincent, in 1977 after both placed “wanted” ads in a local music publication. Soon afterward, Doe met Exene Cervenka at a Venice Beach poetry workshop and brought her aboard as a vocalist and songwriter.
Drummer DJ Bonebrake joined the band after Doe spotted him playing at the underground Hollywood club The Masque.
X released its first album , “Los Angeles,” in 1980 — earning the attention of “Wayne’s World” filmmaker Penelope Spheeris, who featured the band in her 1981 documentary, “The Decline of Western Civilization.”
The band gained more mainstream attention when their sophomore album, 1981’s “Wild Gift,” was named “Record of the Year” by The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times and Rolling Stone magazine. “Under the Black Sun,” released in 1982, also garnered critical acclaim.
According to Doe, X strove to create unique songs with chord changes and lyrics that kept listeners on their toes.
“Good songwriting comes from challenging yourself, having a musical sense of discovery,” Doe said. “With X, all of those songs were adventurous.”
Like Charles Bukowski and Raymond Chandler before them, Doe said he and Cervenka drew inspiration from Los Angeles’s darker side.
“At the time I moved there, the first or second ‘O’ in the Hollywood sign had completely fallen down,” he recalled, describing city life as “being in the belly of the beast.” “You felt you were part of a Tennessee Williams Southern Gothic (play).”
Ahead of its time
Unfortunately, X’s adventurous approach to songwriting didn’t translate to widespread commercial success — prompting Zoom to leave the band in 1986, the same year the documentary “X: The Unheard Music” was released. (He was briefly replaced by Grammy Awardwinning guitarist Dave Alvin, formerly of The Blasters.) By the early ’90s, X was on permanent hiatus.
“We never had a hit. That’s one of the reasons we still have some credibility now,” Doe said.
Still, he said, the band — which reunited for good in late 1997 — was ahead of its time.
“If X would come out now, we would gain great audiences. We would be much more popular,” he said, just like Grammy-winning punk band Green Day. “Green Day finally got to the audience that the Ramones and the Clash always wanted: young teenagers that didn’t fit in and wanted to think for themselves.”
In a way, Doe said, X has also come into its own.
“At this point, we’re enjoying the role we’re able to take as an iconic punk rock band,” said Doe, who’s also found success as a solo artist and actor. “It’s exciting to see someone who’s 17 years old enjoying music that they wish they could have been there (for) in 1979.”
Reach Sarah Linn at 781-7907.