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Members include Dave Alvin (bandmember 1985-87), guitar; Mick Basher (bandmember 1977), drums; D. J. Bonebrake (born December 8, 1955, in Burbank, CA; married; joined group 1978), drums; Exene Cervenka (born Christine Cervenka, February 1, 1956, in Chicago), vocals; John Doe (born February 25, 1954, in Decatur, IL; son of librarians), bass, vocals; Tony Gilkyson (joined group 1986), guitar; Billy Zoom (born February 20, c. 1949, in Illinois; bandmember 1977-85), guitar. Cervenka and Doe were married. Both have remarried and had children. Addresses: Record company-- Mercury Records, 825 Eighth Ave., New York, NY 10019; 11150 Santa Monica Blvd., Los Angeles, CA 90025.
One of the most highly regarded groups to emerge from the Los Angeles punk rock scene, X brought a commitment and maturity of vision to a genre best known for its expressions of rage. Fronted by vocalist Exene Cervenka and bassist-vocalist John Doe, both of whom wrote the band's material, X stunned critics and fans alike with their debut album, Los Angeles, in 1980. After struggling to carry their music beyond a cult audience for the better part of a decade, the group finally disbanded, pursued solo projects, and then--after the multi-platinum success of such "alternative" rock bands as Nirvana--reunited for a new album and tour in the early 1990s.
John Doe was born in Illinois to a family that moved frequently; they finally settled in Baltimore, where Doe spent his teenage years in local rock bands. Tiring of the city's limited music scene, he moved to Los Angeles in 1976. The following year he was united with guitarist Billy Zoom through an ad in the venerable free-ad newspaper The Recycler. Zoom's roots were in rockabilly, and he played tasty, economical leads that fit the emerging punk aesthetic of the period. "John and I had two totally different approaches," Zoom explained to Rolling Stone' s David Chute. "We influenced each other and turned it into one thing. But we really didn't have a sound until John met Exene in Venice [California]."
That meeting took place at a poetry workshop. Immediately impressed by the Chicago-born Cervenka's writing, Doe asked her out; the two began a romance that would last the better part of a decade and ultimately lead to marriage but would not outlast their artistic collaboration. Cervenka--who used "Exene" as an "Xmas"-type abbreviation of her given name, Christine--reworked one of her poems as a song lyric and auditioned for Doe and Zoom's new band. "At the beginning, I wanted to do gospel vocals, all up and down with every word somehow bent," she noted to Chute. "But it seemed that a sort of flat delivery, more like country singing, worked better." While some listeners would consider "sort of flat" an understatement of Cervenka's unusual, sometimes grating vocals--especially when compared to Doe's supple and rich countrified tones--the two's unique harmonies helped to define the group's sound. Newsweek later called Cervenka's approach "a keening kind of punk plainsong"; Doe told the magazine he considered it "good and natural."
Drummer Mick Basher initially rounded out the foursome, but Doe and Cervenka were so impressed with D. J. Bonebrake's work with the punk group the Eyes--whose performance they caught at the legendary underground club The Masque--that they persuaded him to leave his group and replace Basher. Bonebrake, the group's only native Angeleno, debuted with X in February of 1978.
Over the next two years, X built a powerful reputation on the local rock scene through relentless gigging. Soon they were, in the words of Rolling Stone reporter Chris Morris, "the city's most respected and written-about punk band." Their 1978 single "Adult Books"/"We're Desperate" helped fuel their underground success. The group's sound was nonetheless too radical for the major record labels, which gravitated toward safer-sounding "New Wave" bands. X cast their lot with the fledgling company Slash, a tiny operation run by friends. They achieved a major coup, however, by enticing Ray Manzarek, keyboardist of the legendary L.A. band the Doors, to produce their debut album. Recorded for a mere $10,000 and titled Los Angeles, it would make X a musical act of national importance.
Rolling Stone' s Ken Tucker called Los Angeles "a powerful, unsettling work," claiming, "X have already perfected a style that achieves jolting effects through enormously compressed, elliptical imagery held together by succinct, brutally played guitar and drum riffs." Featuring such blistering original tunes as "Johnny Hit and Run Paulene," "Sex and Dying and High Society," and the shattering title song, along with a souped-up cover version of the Doors classic "Soul Kitchen," Los Angeles became one of the most critically celebrated records of the year. The group's sound during that period was captured live in Penelope Spheeris's film The Decline of Western Civilization.
In 1981 X aced the sophomore jinx by releasing the compelling Wild Gift, which further refined the formula of their debut. The blazing "We're Desperate" became something of a punk anthem, declaring, "We're desperate/ Get used to it." The group also explored more diverse musical territory, even offering a touch of retro-balladry on the anguished "Adult Books." Wild Gift made the Top Ten lists of the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, Rolling Stone, and Time magazine, among others. X's increased popularity enabled them to leave Slash and sign with a major label, Elektra; the move angered friends at Slash and led some of the band's industry-distrusting hardcore fans to accuse them of selling out. Undaunted, the group released Under the Big Black Sun in 1982; Parke Puterbaugh declared in his Rolling Stone review, "America needs to hear this album." He added that the group "evince a surefootedness, a throttling punch, that's deliriously subversive." In addition to rockers like "The Hungry Wolf," the album contained two songs commemorating the death of Cervenka's sister: "Riding With Mary" and "Come Back to Me."
X released its second Elektra album, More Fun in the New World, the next year; full of political fury aimed in large part at the values of President Ronald Reagan's administration, it also represented a further development of X's sound. Cervenka's lyrics for "I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts" targeted radio cowardice, an issue first explored on "The Unheard Music," from Los Angeles. This time out she decried the predominance of modish British pop--"glitter disco synthesizer night school"--and asked, "Will the last American band to get played on the radio/ Please bring the flag?" More Fun sold fairly well, though X's predictions about adventurous domestic music's fate on radio would hold true for the rest of the decade. Indeed, Creem writer Richard Riegel proclaimed somewhat prophetically in 1984, "We can't have a whole generation grow up who don't realize until 1991 or so that they wish they'd gotten into X way back when."
In 1984 the group released the single "Wild Thing," a manic cover version of the rock classic by the Troggs. Doe and Cervenka recorded a punk/folk/country album for Slash as the Knitters; it was released in 1985, as were The Unheard Music, a documentary film about X that was some five years in the making, and the X album Ain't Love Grand. The latter contained the single "Burning House of Love."
Billy Zoom left X after the release of Ain't Love Grand, and by the end of 1985 Doe and Cervenka had divorced. They decided to keep working together, however, and in 1986 were joined by guitarists Dave Alvin, known for his work with the Blasters, and ex-Lone Justice member Tony Gilkyson. In addition to their work with the Knitters and other L.A. groups, Doe and Cervenka pursued a variety of projects; Doe began fairly steady work as a film actor, while Cervenka, who had co-written a 1982 book of poetry with Lydia Lunch, became increasingly involved in political activism and toured as a spoken-word performer. She also did some film and television acting. Bonebrake became a popular sideman for local performers.
X released the album See How We Are in 1987; it fared poorly both with critics and consumers, despite the inclusion of Dave Alvin's lyrical rocker "4th of July," which seemed destined for radio success. Alvin left the group soon after the album's release. X was named band of the year by readers of L.A. Weekly, but its members felt little momentum. They put out a double live album in 1988 and then lapsed into retirement.
Cervenka unveiled two solo albums, one in 1989 and another in 1990. Doe released a solo venture as well in 1990 and continued to act in films, including Roadside Prophets and Pure Country. X seemed a thing of the past. Then, in 1991, the commercial equivalent of a tornado hit the music industry. Its name was Nirvana, a punk-derived "grunge" trio from Washington that achieved mega-platinum success with Nevermind, an album of well-crafted but sonically abrasive songs. Suddenly, major labels, Top 40 radio stations, and MTV were very interested in "alternative" rock and the success of other bands who had felt the influence of groups like X, including Jane's Addiction, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, and Faith No More. This musical climate convinced Doe, Cervenka, and company to reunite. "Radio has changed," Cervenka reflected in 1993 to Gary Davis of the Los Angeles Reader.
X signed with Big House, a British-based subsidiary of Mercury Records. Joining first with an English producer, the group ended up recording with Tony Berg, a music-industry veteran who would soon be an Artists & Repertoire executive for the Geffen record company. Working at Berg's house, X recorded tracks that would become their 1993 release, Hey Zeus! While in their earlier days Doe and Cervenka had largely collaborated on songs, this time they wrote independently for the most part, offering a kind of song-by-song counterpoint. Doe penned the album's first two singles, "Country at War" and "New Life." As he told the L.A. Village View, "What's different with X these days is that we have an incredible musical history, musical vocabulary, with each other." He added, "The band's friendship stayed intact, so it was a fairly smooth transition coming back together." Both he and Cervenka had had children with other spouses, though any mellowing was not apparent on Hey Zeus!
Rolling Stone, in a generally positive review, noted that the group "seems to have come to terms with their postpunk identity." Robert Hilburn of the Los Angeles Times, who insisted that "X still has much to tell us," reported, "X's music remains honest, liberating and welcome," though he did feel the record had its shortcomings. Spin, meanwhile, panned Hey Zeus! as little more than a "commodity," qualifying this critique only by concluding, "When asked 'How's the new X album?,' the correct response is, 'Not as bad as it could've been.'" The band, however, seemed prepared to accept relatively poorer reviews and higher visibility, a marked contrast to its earliest reception. After a tour of southern California "area codes," X planned a series of national shows. When Davis of the Los Angeles Reader asked John Doe how it felt to be a "survivor of punk," the bassist replied with characteristic wit, "It's fabulous! It's just like being a non-survivor, except that you're still alive."
by Simon Glickman
Group formed in Los Angeles, 1977; released debut single, "Adult Books"/"We're Desperate," Dangerhouse Records, 1978; signed with Slash Records and released debut album, Los Angeles, 1980; signed with Elektra Records and released Under the Big Black Sun, 1982; signed with Big Life/Mercury Records and released Hey Zeus!, 1993. Appeared in films The Decline of Western Civilization, 1980, Urgh! A Music War, 1981, and The Unheard Music, 1985. Cervenka is the author (with Lydia Lunch) of poetry collection Adulterers Anonymous, Grove Press, 1982; Doe and Cervenka released solo records, contributed to film soundtracks, and pursued film roles, among other projects, 1989-92; Bonebrake worked as session player and sideman, late 1980s-1992; Gilkyson played on Cervenka and Alvin solo albums.
Wild Gift named album of the year by Los Angeles Times, New York Times, Rolling Stone, and Time, among others, 1981; named band of the year in L.A. Weekly readers' poll, 1987.
- Selective Works
- "Adult Books"/"We're Desperate," Dangerhouse, 1978.
- Los Angeles (includes "Johnny Hit and Run Paulene," "Sex and Dying and High Society," "Los Angeles," "Soul Kitchen," and "The Unheard Music"), Slash, 1980.
- (Contributors) "Beyond and Back," "Johnny Hit and Run Paulene," and "We're Desperate," Decline of Western Civilization (soundtrack), Slash, 1980.
- Wild Gift (includes "We're Desperate" and "Adult Books"), Slash, 1981.
- (Contributors) Urgh! A Music War (soundtrack), 1981.
- On Elektra Under the Big Black Sun (includes "The Hungry Wolf," "Riding With Mary," and "Come Back to Me"), 1982.
- More Fun in the New World (includes "I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts"), 1983.
- "Wild Thing," 1984.
- Ain't Love Grand (includes "Burning House of Love"), 1985.
- See How We Are (includes "Fourth of July"), 1987.
- X Live at the Whisky-a-Go-Go on the Fabulous Sunset Strip 1988.
- On Big Life/Mercury Hey Zeus! (includes "Country at War" and "New Life"), 1993.
- The Knitters Poor Little Critter on the Road Slash, 1985.
- Solo recordings by Exene Cervenka Old Wives' Tales Rhino, 1989.
- Running Sacred RNA, 1990.
- (Contributor) "Clean Like Tomorrow," Roadside Prophets (soundtrack), Fine Line/Vanguard, 1992.
- (Contributor) Tahachapi (soundtrack), Hemdale, 1993.
- Solo recordings by John Doe Meet John Doe Geffen, 1990.
- (Contributor) "Beer, Gas, Ride Forever," Roadside Prophets (soundtrack), 1992.
- (Contributor) "I Will Always Love You," The Bodyguard (soundtrack), Warner Bros., 1992.
July 27, 2004: X's album, Best: Make the Music Go Bang, was released. Source: Billboard.com, www.billboard.com/bb/releases/week_4/index.jsp, August 5, 2004.
- Stambler, Irwin, Encyclopedia of Pop, Rock and Soul, St.
- Martin's, 1989.
- Periodicals BAM, September 10, 1993.
- Billboard, June 5, 1993.
- Creem, February 1984.
- Factor X, July 1993.
- L.A. Village View, September 10, 1993.
- Los Angeles Reader, September 3, 1993.
- Los Angeles Times, June 6, 1993.
- Mademoiselle, January 1983.
- Melody Maker, March 17, 1984.
- Newsweek, April 19, 1982.
- Ray Gun, August 1993.
- Rolling Stone, July 10, 1980; August 7, 1980; October 15, 1981; August 19, 1982; September 30, 1982; June 24, 1993; September 2, 1993.
- Spin, July 1993.
- Venice, July 1993.
- Additional information for this profile was provided by Mercury Records publicity materials, 1993.
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