Los Angeles band X was identified as standard-bearer for the bourgeoning LA punk scene in the late ‘70s, but its enduring success hinges upon a cathartic sound incorporating dashes of whatever your favorite style might be. Chuck Berry, the Sex Pistols, Django Reinhardt, Hank Williams, Eddie Cochran, Patti Smith, and the Ramones are all vital elements.
“Who said, ‘There’s two kinds of music — good and bad?,’” asks bassist John Doe, referencing Duke Ellington’s famous quote. “I believe that. There’s music that has soul, and there’s music that’s contrived.”
Vivid storytelling lyrics by Doe and singer Exene Cervenka also stoke X’s appeal, echoing writers like urban poet Charles Bukowski and hard-boiled detective author Raymond Chandler. Songs like “Los Angeles” offer unflinching portraits of disillusioned city life. “Hot House” and “True Love” examine troubled relationships. “The Hungry Wolf” celebrates strength in unity.
X’s occasional forays into political territory remain potent. 1983’s “The New World” is surprisingly timeless. “It always will be, because we don’t name names,” says Doe. “Politicians are unreliable and self-serving. I’m pretty cynical about that, but you just try to choose someone who’s not going to completely screw things up.”
The quartet also has the goods sonically. Cervenka and Doe’s inimitable vocal blend is ignited by DJ Bonebrake’s versatile percussion. Grinning guitarist Billy Zoom unleashes psychobilly surf on “Devil Doll” and borrows classic Chuck Berry riffs for “Johnny Hit and Run Pauline.”
The band’s four influential LPs produced by Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek were recently reissued by Fat Possum Records. X’s current tour partially celebrates that, but Doe insists it’s mostly business as usual for a working band. “It’s just X doing what we do,” he says.
Business hasn’t included new albums since 1993, but the wait for fresh material is waning. “We recorded five songs,” says Doe. “Exene and I are working on writing more. We’ll do some more recording, then figure out what to do with it all.”
Doe’s second book with co-author Tom DeSavia arrives this summer. 2016’s “Under the Big Black Sun” covered LA punk’s formative years from 1977 to 1982. June’s “More Fun in the New World” covers the scene’s apex from 1982 to 1987. “We see what happened with the seeds that were thrown earlier,” says Doe. “Some of the writers return, including Jane Wiedlin of the Go-Go’s and Dave Alvin of the Blasters.”
“There are new people like Maria McKee, who talks about Lone Justice’s journey and how it went off the tracks,” says Doe. The scope of music broadens. “We include Keith Morris [of Circle Jerks] and Henry Rollins from the hardcore side.” The book also describes LA punk’s influence in other arenas, with chapters by actor Tim Robbins, street artist Shepard Fairey, and skateboarding icon Tony Hawk.
The overall impression of both titles is the importance of community. “If it wasn’t for the punk rock community in LA, none of us would have any kind of career,” says Doe. “We had to work together, because the odds were against us.”
* X, with the Damned and the Detroit Cobras, 8 p.m. May 30, House of Blues, 329 N. Dearborn, $45-$50 (17+over); www.houseofblues.com/chicago
Jeff Elbel is a local freelance writer.