I have produced and written liner notes for many Rhino Records reissues. I was asked to write the liner notes to Rhino's recent reissue of X's Under the Big Black Sun. The band decided to go with notes written by an old comrade, so here's a place to read my notes, which include excerpts from recent interviews with John and Exene:
"Robert Johnson never got this."
That's Exene Cervenka talking in 1981, comfortable in a clean, climate-controlled conference room, as her band X signed a deal with Elektra Records, a division of the Warner Brothers recording empire. For someone who discovered X at the Masque or some similar waiting-for-the-fire-marshal-to-close-them-down club around Hollywood, seeing the quartet—singer Cervenka, bassist and singer John Doe, guitarist Billy Zoom, and drummer D.J. Bonebrake—in such plush surroundings might have felt surreal. Surely it did to the band members. Some of their heroes, like Johnson, never got out of the Masques of their times.
Yet high morale was contagious among left-of-center rock'n'roll fans for months before the signing ceremony to which they invited the press. The Clash had scored a bona fide hit single off London Calling and their new Sandinista! was both weirder and deeper, John Lydon (you may know him as Johnny Rotten) had stormed back with Metal Box, and communities across the U.S. were spawning punk bands that were angry with a purpose—even bands that weren't overtly political spit out venom meant to cure complacency. Along with the Clash, Los Angeles's X helped refine the idea that punk was rock'n'roll's deathbed reprieve. On the band's first two albums, 1980's Los Angeles and 1981's Wild Gift, recorded for independent Slash Records, X didn't damn rock tradition so much as wrestle it to a draw.
On their independent releases, X conjured up a hurricane. Zoom scrawled whiplash guitar lines that sounded like Chuck Berry's Airmobile pushing 300 m.p.h. (with nods to Gene Vincent and Johnny Ramone as it whooshed by them), and Bonebrake concentrated on hitting a snare drum on the two and four beats as hard and precisely as possible. But it was the songwriting of Cervenka and Doe that set X apart. They were able to direct both their vocal and songwriting harmonizing to championing fidelity—to an idea, to a way of life, to a lover. (Cervenka and Doe were married.) They made everyday relationships sound like a tightrope walk, exhilarating if you made it across but don't count on it. And they didn't sugarcoat anything: nearly all their songs seemed to be about substance abuse or fear, if you listened in a certain way.
Not the sort of topics that beckoned major labels. Consider the climate: 1981's biggest hits included Olivia Newton-John's "Physical" and Kim Carnes' "Bette Davis Eyes." (Wild Gift snuck onto Bilboard's album chart for five weeks, topping off at a mere #165.) Wild Gift was a critics' favorite—a lead review in Rolling Stone, winner of several prominent year-end polls—but if critics influenced sales and airplay we'd all be listening to Billy Bragg and the Mekons on our local Top 40 stations. X emerged from the same muddy scene that launched such aggressive and aggressively uncommercial acts as the Germs, the Plugz, the Flesh Eaters, and sundry other bands you can see and hear documented in films like and Urgh! A Music War and the first installment of Penelope Spheeris's The Decline... of Western Civilization series. A major-label deal? It wasn't supposed to happen to a band like X.
Those who saw the members of X as the inheritors of a particular Los Angeles rock'n'roll tradition might have differed. Even without the involvement of Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek, who produced both of X's Slash records, X's focus on the dark side of the Los Angeles myth—the worldview of songwriters Cervenka and Doe was far more Nathaniel West than Brian Wilson—had much in common with the brooding desperation that characterized the work of Jim Morrison and company. (To underline the point, X covered the Doors' "Soul Kitchen" on their debut LP, Los Angeles.) Elektra had been the Doors' label; it made some sense for X to land there, too.
"Ray was great, but Ray didn't really have anything to do with our being at Elektra," says John Doe. "We'd been selling out 5,000 seat halls, 6,000-seat halls. They had to come to us. The time was right for us to step up."
"Recording for a major label was no different," John recalls. "We had the same engineer, same producer. We used a better studio, though, and got to spend two more weeks there, six weeks instead of four. It was good to be in a studio where everything worked—and sounded better."
"We were separated from the L.A. punk scene, I guess because rockcritics liked us so much," says Exene. "That critical acclaim gave us the confidence to do what we wanted to do. Elektra figured we knew what to do, so we did, without ever thinking about the consequences artistically or commercially. Elektra wanted us to make our record. They saw us as artists."
"It was important for us to have had a better studio for the third record," John says. "At this point creatively we felt we were ready to spread out some. Our first record was punk rock; our second record was a look at the American roots as a real force in our music. When we made Under the Big Black Sun, we felt we had opportunity to stretch out some, use different elements." So songs like "Come Back to Me," a ballad built on a saxophone riff, and "Dancing With Tears in My Eyes," a Tin Pan Alley song associated with the great Leadbelly, worked their way into the mix. "I'd credit the inclusion of those songs to influence of people like Jeffrey Lynn Pierce from the Gun Club and the guys in the Blasters. It was an exciting time."
But weren't some of the hardcore fans complaining the band was 'selling out,' whatever that means, by hooking up with a major. "That's not how I remember it," John says. The people who mattered to us saw it as a chance for us. Sure, there were people moaning about us being sellouts. But some people were moaning about us selling out when we signed with Slash! We didn't feel like Blondie or any of the New York bands were selling out by using good studios and getting great recordings. And the best thing was that Elektra was coming to us on our terms. Believe me, there was no calculation in what we did."
One other thing: making Under the Big Black Sun was, in Doe's words, "the first time we experimented with drugs in studio. We were always drinking, of course, but the drugs were never overdone. We were incredibly serious about making this record. All the main instruments were done at once, tracked live. The idea was to make it real, make it live. Exene and I would always sing together to the track. That's the only way it would make sense. We didn't nitpick or labor over arrangements. We did what you do when you're on a roll: you know what's right, you don't think about options, you just do it."
This informal way of writing and recording, just moving forward without worrying about editing, proved the ideal method for John and Exene as songwriters and X as a band. "John and I inspired each other," Exene says. "That's way more important than chord changes. Anyone can write a fucking chord change."
"Billy Zoom was the engine of the car that was X," John says. "He was all about rock and roll. Billy was on a mission to bring 1950s rock back to rock'n'roll music. In the studio, he was direct on what was good and what wasn't. He kept us directed. His influence added to our economy and keeping things straightforward. He kept reminding us that this wasn't art, this was rock'n'roll. ''I'm much more seduced by art, I guess. If there was any bullshit going on, Billy's meter would go off. He was resistant to our doing 'Dancing With Tears in My Eyes' until we could make it surf and fit in with his idea of rock'n'roll."
X's Elektra debut, Under the Big Black Sun, came out in July 1982 and the crash that opened the first cut, "The Hungry Wolf," put to rest any fear that the move to a major label might soften the band's sound. All the band's trademarks—barbed lyrics put across via minor-key harmonies, Zoom's sly and raucous guitar, Bonebrake's overpowering tom-toms—were in full evidence. And this time, perhaps because the record was recorded under slightly less chaotic circumstances than its Slash predecessors, it all sounds a bit clearer—although no one would mistake Manzarek's production for what labelmates like the ex-Eagles were coming up with at the time. Bonebrake's Bo Diddley patterns were as brutal as the lyrics, written by Doe, in which the feral wolves were both killers and "lived together for life." Says John, "I wrote this at a time when there was a huger resurgence, reintroducing wolves into the world and I read a lot about wolves. At the same time, we had a loosely knit social club called the Wolves that lasted about six months. It was like a motorcycle club without motorcycles. The lyrics gave me a chance to explore ideas of loyalty and fidelity."
Similar ideas showed up in the similarly harsh "Because I Do," which Exene wrote. "I love cheating songs," she says. "Country is my favorite music, with its focus of writing about love and not love. I didn't think there was a problem in writing a song about being married and thinking about someone else. All I cared about was whether I had great songs." Adds John, "that song is about the frustration of being attached to someone constantly, understanding the pleasure and the downside." You can hear that in "Motel Room in My Bed," which calls on many sources (if you've read about Gloria Swanson's wedding night, you'll understand it better), but as Exene says, "this song was about privacy. On the road all the time, I wanted some privacy. I was never allowed my own hotel room away from the boys. I should have known that I could have paid a little out of my own pocket and gotten one."
Hanging over the album, though, was a tragedy: the death of Exene's sister Mirielle in a car crash (the album is dedicated to her). Mirielle's death would inform two of the album's 11 songs directly—"Riding with Mary" and "Come Back to Me"—and cast shadows over many of the others. Exene wrote "Come Back to Me," but John wrote "Riding With Mary." On those two songs, Exene delivered some of the most delicate and precise vocals of her career. But it wasn't just her emotions that helped her voice: Under the Big Black Sun was the first of several X records to include on its inner sleeve a thank-you to Gloria Bennett, Exene's vocal coach.
A vocal coach thanked on a punk record? Delicate and precise vocals? It may seem incongruous, but it must have been something on Exene's mind for some time, as evidenced by this back-and-forth years earlier during an interview for Slash magazine (this was before Slash became a record company and X began recording for it):
Slash: How do you respond to the question, Exene, if someone told you you should take singing lessons?
It's that attitude—dark humor in the face of setbacks both tragic and piddling—that characterizes Under the Big Black Sun, an enthralling, energetic set despite its noirish settings, both musical and lyrical. It's best-evidenced in "How I (Learned my Lesson)," of which Exene has said, "Getting sick of everything taking place in a bar, I moved the song setting to a church. They're both the same thing, really."
The band saves its best bar song for the last cut, though. "The Have Nots" is a breakthrough, a move into Rolling Stones-style punk-attitude-but-not-punk-rock rock'n'roll that shows how broadly X could paint without compromising. According to John, "'The Have Nots' came out of traveling a lot, seeing many people in the lower classes and thinking about their similarities with us. Exene wrote this while we were on tour stranded in a hotel in Davenport, Iowa, waiting to get a broken-down car fixed. Exene, Billy, and I were born in the midwest. Being in Davenport, the center of the midwest, all these feelings, memories, reality of that world we'd left behind came home to Exene. Everything on this record is a statement of its time, the influences in our world and our lives." In the song, Zoom's country-rock riffs (for once the Gene Vincent disciple pays homage to Keith Richards) run circles around the lyrics, plaintive evocations of bar life spilling into and a list of bar names), able to unite X's influences without paying short shrift to any of them. As Mike Ness of Social Distortion once said, "X saw the link between Sid Vicious and Woody Guthrie." On Under the Big Black Sun, X discovered this wild place, somewhere few others had attempted to travel. They weren't alone for the ride. Peaking at #76, this album turned out to be this band's biggest hit.
But for the band, connecting to a crowd was more important than any Billboard chart figure. "The audience response from that time I what I'll remember forever," says Exene. "Everyone in the crowd, everyone in the community, was celebrating the same thing. Watching the audience from onstage was better than them watching me, I'm sure. I was there to play, of course, but I was there to see their show. It was really inspiring, to see people needing so much to hear those songs. It kept us writing. It kept us playing."
Bio line: Jimmy Guterman has produced and annotated many collections for Rhino.