It might not be the first thing that fans think of when they’re looking at punk rock and trying to decode how the genre has evolved, but the fact is that the breed which was borne of Los Angeles in the late Seventies and early Eighties drew from a very deep well of inspiration – arguably a deeper one than that which spawned the scenes in both New York and London. Los Angeles featured a more ethnically diverse community than the aforementioned cities (at least, when it came to the members of the bands making the music), and aspects of that diverse ethnic makeup definitely informed the scene; different musical tones and colors came with those ethnic backgrounds and, of course, the financial climate of the area affected the music too. Simply said, ALL of those factors played a role in the sound produced by bands like The Germs, The Bags, Black Flag, Social Distortion, Flipper and Circle Jerks. Unlike in New York and London – where the bands all started in one place stylistically and then quickly branched out in different directions, the L.A. Bands were already far-flung in form and began to converge on punk rock in the name of community and the security of it; in L.A., “punk” was the place where all the freaks seemed to congregate.
Arguably, one of the greatest things to come out of the early artistic congregation in Los Angeles (before hardcore came along) was X – the first band from the scene to really see some great crossover success into the mainstream. X was the first L.A. Punk band to really get noticed on a large scale and generate some hype outside of the punk and hardcore communities, and a lot of that had to do with the fact that the rich inspiration which fuelled the music was already large in scope when they started. The spectacular guitar supplied by Billy Zoom featured elements of surf rock, blues, folk and more, while DJ Bonebrake’s drumming was mechanically tight. On top of that, bassist and co-songwriter John Doe was composing songs which featured equally diverse timbres, and he traded stanzas on the mic with Exene Cervenka to produce movement and structure in each song completely unique from any other band in punk rock at the time. When one factored in the assistance of Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek (who “produced” the first four albums that X released – which also happen to be the band’s best), there’s no question that, while their success might not have been a foregone conclusion at the time, their ability to break through and win fans even beyond the punk rock community makes perfect sense now, in hindsight.
With all of the above in mind, the quality of X as they were at the dawn of their career is apparent from the moment “The Phone Is Off The Hook, But You’re Not”opens the A-side of Los Angeles. There, all the pieces of what would ultimately get the band over arrive, already aligned; Billy Zoom lives up to his name as he blazes through a chord progression which sounds like Southern-fried Ramones, and DJ Bonebrake chases after him with spare drumming comparable to that of Ringo Starr if he was on amphetamines, while John Doe’s bass adds a slight but consistent low end to the proceedings and he and Cervenka help each other sail over the top of the mix like lights over the street on an L.A. night. The effect is simultaneously confrontational (in the finest punk tradition) and mesmerizing; on this VERY FIRST CUT, X establish a perfect and perfectly picturesque sound which is more refined than the nervous angles that The Bags took at the same time, the “slightly grimier Stooges with a side of PCP” sound that The Germs captured or the absurdly poppy miasma that The Go-Gos were trying to put a polish on at the time. To this day, that start is, well, startling in its clarity.
The pattern set by “The Phone is Off The Hook…” continues into “Johnny Hit and Run Pauline” – albeit with a more assertive John Doe performance on the mic – before the band indulges their producer with a cover of The Doors’ “Soul Kitchen,” grinds their way into a flawless impression of The Stooges with “Nausea” (which Jane’s Addiction would eventually cover, but do little justice to) and then dreamily closes the side with a different kind of moonlight drive in “Sugarlight.” Unlike the other L.A. Punk bands of the time – who all sort of relished wearing an image of anger – or at least fronting it pretty hard – X deliberately goes out of its way to stand apart from its peers by tightening their sound and playing a little cleaner than any of the rest of the bands on the scene were given to doing. That cleaner, better-defined sound guarantees that the music has aged better than most of the other bands from the period.
… And while the album’s title cut isn’t exactly the single best choice the band could have made to be the one which opens the album’s B-side (Doe’s gooey, saccharine-soaked vocal coupled with palm-muted power chords and the contrast that the combination of those things strike against Cervenka’s vocal draws obvious comparisons to the dynamic that Debbie Harry and Chris Stein had in Blondie in the Seventies, and continue to have – in a way), “Sex and Dying in High Society” more than makes up for that perceived false start. There, with a fairly lean and surly guitar tone, Billy Zoom lays out a needs-first assault which doesn’t so much batter listeners as slice and dice them; between lines like “And keep your pekinese/Turkish cigarettes/ And your lighter that looks like a gun/ So you marry your daddy” and “That pretty man of yours/ The one hiding inside the director’s clothes/ The one who calls you dear/ After banging away at you in the night “ Zoom keeps a torrent of great distorted licks lurking in the song’s mix, ready to pounce at any moment. That presentation is impressive, and sets up a great contrast with “The Unheard Music” (and its boisterous, stomping demeanor) which com3es immediately after it. The raucous vibes which dominate the B-side of Los Angeles culminate nicely with the speedy snarl of the guitar which drives “The World’s A Mess, It’s In My Kiss.” To this day, the album’s closing cut feels like Cervenka and Doe were handing their typewriter back and forth between them as they were drafting the lyrics, or may have knit two half-songs together, as couplets like “No one is united And all things are untied/ Perhaps we’re boiling over inside/ They’ve been telling lies/ Who’s been telling lies?/ There are no angels/ There are devils in many ways/ Take it like a man” suggest. Regardless, no argument can be made against the quality of the song, as it leaves listeners ready to run the gauntlet with
the band again, as soon as the album’s running runs out.
Now, forty years since its original release, Los Angeles has gone through a few different sets of hands (it was originally released on Slash Records, was reissued on Warner’s classics imprint Rhino on CD, vinyl and digitally with a few bonus tracks tacked onto the CD in 2001 before being reappearing on vinyl again thanks to Porterhouse Records in 2015 and now being mastered and pressed by Fat Possum Records), but Fat Possum’s vinyl reissue takes the prize for “brilliance in simplicity.” The sound and fidelity on this vinyl reissue renders it second in quality only to the original release of the album, if it can even be called second at all; longtime fans of X will easily be able to find value in this reissue, and new fans can be won with it too. There is value to be found by everyone, here.