Review Summary: L.A. punk legends X hit on all cylinders and propel themselves into an artistic peak that few bands can sustain over one album much less a number of years. Los Angeles is a landmark album in punk and American rock history. Pick it up and find out why.Los Angeles by X is #286 on Rolling Stone Magazines Top 500 Albums Of All Time
A poet from Florida, a recent college grad from the midwest, a rockabilly guitarist from all over the place, and a big band/jazz combo drummer from Los Angeles would not at first impression seem the ingredients to make a great punk rock band. But with all four ingredients making their home in Los Angeles in 1977 looking to make a living anyway they could whether by making music or waiting tables, fate it seems would be on the side of the future members of X.
Excited by the punk rock scene of NYC circa the mid seventies after reading an article describing a live Ramones show as "too loud, too noisy, too violent, no guitar solos, dumb lyrics, and stupid", experienced musician and rockabilly die hard Billy Zoom thought those sounded like "pretty positive things" and put an add in a free classifieds paper looking for musicians to start a punk rock band. And a week later he took on a college grad from the midwest named John Doe to be his bass player because he "liked his shoes". Whatever the real reason though, soon after drummer DJ BoneBrake was snatched from a local band he was playing with, and Zoom decided they should focus on John's songs rather then his own because they were a bit more "quirky". John as it turns out would take a bed with that poet from Florida now known as Exene Cervenka after they met at a writers workshop, and brought her to rehearsal one day. Realizing her poetry was actually lyrics John asked the guys if she could sing a few bars with the band, the band shrugged, and a punk rock legend was born.
Los Angeles, X's first album and one of the best debut albums ever released in all of rock would be the result of this unlikely gathering of musicians from diverse musical backgrounds. Produced by former Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek who would gain interest in the band after reading a review of a live show headlined simply "It Sounds Like Murder" that quoted lyrics from the incendiary track "Johny Hit And Run Pauline" which made him think "wow, this is some serious poetry", (sample line: He got a sterilized hypo/To shoot a sex machine drug/He got 24 hrs/To shoot all Paulines between the legs/96 tears through 24 hrs/Sex once every hour) Ray decided to check out the group and a four album union of punk rock bliss between band and producer was soon to follow. Not as unlikely a marriage as one might think, Manzarek felt X was doing the same thing The Doors and other more dangerous bands of the '60's had done before, but that rock n roll had somehow lost its way between that time and the now exploding punk movement. Emboldened by this new sound and an opportunity to take part in this new scene Manzarek jumped at the chance to produce X after the band accepted his offer to do so one night post gig. And in January 1980 Los Angeles was unleashed on an unsuspecting public not quite ready for it, but would spend nearly a decade and a half catching up to it nonetheless.
From the outset it's obvious this isn't your run of the mill late '70's LA punk band as "Your Phones Off The Hook" comes roaring out of the speakers. Hard charging, blistering, but also melodic in almost a pop sort of way, it has the beat and heart of a punk rock record but the soul of something else. Something older and knowing. "Someone clean to chew on/A wife that no one likes", singer Cervenka wails to open things up, and as if giving notice of one of the things that set X apart from many of their contemporaries the lyrics are vague and poetic, in stark contrast to the then simmering L.A. hardcore scene filled with bands who did nothing more then rant and rage. The music is tight and furious, the playing spot on and clean, all elements balanced and equal. And the electrfying "co-lead vocals" of John Doe and Exene Cervenka make them nothing short of a punk rock Johnny and June Carter Cash with John's smooth, deep tenor and Cervenka's sometimes homey banshee wailing. Delivering on this promising start the band plows headlong into the notorious aforementioned "Johny Hit And Run Pauline" and the Billy Zoom side of the band comes out for the first time of many, as his rockabilly licks kick things off in firey fashion. No, not the cheesy "punkabilly" that has since become well known, or even a foray into rockabilly style. But simply sharp, "authentic" rockabilly playing at a punk tempo and loud volume. Something you may not think of as punk until albums like this and The Clash's "London Calling", to name just a couple, came along and began to change what punk was and what it could be by using punk itself to break down musical barriers and musical stereotypes. Only unlike The Clash who "experimented" with music and were influenced by funk, jazz, reggae, etc...X simply came to the table raw and spit it out. Which makes for a very spontaneous musical experience, to say the least.
Not that this is eclectic stuff or arty by any stretch of the imagination. The straight forward and literal title cut is no less then a raging slab of punk rock anger that rants at everything from jews to blacks to mexicans to gays from the perspective of a young woman fed up and out of luck in the City Of Angels. And the hard hitting "The Unheard Music" sounds like either a heavy metal dirge or a long lost Doors tune depending on who you ask. To this reviewers ears it sounds like both, with its dreamy vocal harmonies, repetetive riffing, and drone like Ray Manzarek provided organ flourishes. The hungover and out to dry tune "Nausea" similiarly trudges along at a sludgy mid tempo pace as Exene and John sing of their drunken woes (a favorite topic of theirs in the years to come) and "Sugarlight" is as daring and poetic a song about heroin addiction as you are ever likely to hear. This is all great stuff, as the songwriting is keen, musicianship sharp and precise, and certainly it's performed with the verve and attitude required. But more interesting are the cuts which go down other musical roads as the ones mentioned before. These are the kind of musical adventures and twists that would truly set this band apart. The bold and daring punk cover of the Doors "Soul Kitchen" with all the spirited bashing and Zoom's rockabilly lead at the bridge, the sexually charged and finger pointing of the melodic "Sex And Dying In High Society", and the closing track "The World's A Mess, Its In My Kiss", which is very much the X of past, present, and future at this early stage with its perfectly intertwined harmonies, rockabilly inspired guitar, steady beat, and fast and furious pace. Wrap it all up and you get not just a punk rock classic for the ages, but also a fairly standard rock n roll album that perhaps even a child of the '60's can embrace. Punk rock for the "classic rock" enthusiast? Maybe? Or maybe simply good, rebellious rock n roll waiting for a tired and stale mainstream to catch up. Whatever you call it its undeniably vital, undeniably intense, and undeniably, earth shakingly powerful. And with this group that would continue to be the case for three more classic albums and beyond, as you can catch this band perform even today, better then ever.
Listening to this album today I can find some niggles. Ray Manzareks production, although clean and uncluttered, is nonetheless plain and somewhat subdued for such a raw and loud band. Likewise his organ playing is disruptive in some places and downright intrusive in others. Thankfully this would be the last time he would play on an X album in earnest, keeping it to production duties from here on. But as said before, small niggles when you consider the larger whole. Los Angeles is not the best X album. In fact it may be the least of the first four important ones. If the band hadn't followed with three more albums which built on it's strong foundation it may simply stand as a singular and influential moment in punk rock history, but no more then a footnote, at best. Rather with X continuing its strong work and helping to carry the punk rock flag forward Los Angeles has become an album that signals the start of something. Something new, something bold in music, and something that has stuck around long enough that we are able to feel its impact even today. Classic albums are very often more then the music contained on record, but also what the music does off the record. The lives it touches, the bands it inspires and influences, the moment it lives in. X's Los Angeles is a classic album of rock n roll inspiration for all the right reasons and none of the wrong ones. Dedicated, hard, committed, and performed with great heart, it was simply the first shot fired from one of rocks great bands of the last 25 years. Their best shot? Maybe not. But as with many great battles won and lost, even punk rock battles, X proves with this album its often the first shot that matters most.