Having recently seen Roger Waters perform The Wall without his Pink Floyd bandmates, the Dead Kennedys without Jello Biafra, Procol Harum without Robin Trower or Matthew Fisher, and Further play Grateful Dead songs but missing the deceased Jerry Garcia — all good shows, mind you, with other musicians filling in nicely — it was refreshing to catch a classic band with their classic lineup intact.
This was the case when Los Angeles punk band X played Thursday night at the Majestic Ventura Theater. And the band — Exene Cervenka on vocals (who despite having MS thankfully seems to be doing well), John Doe on bass and vocals, Billy Zoom on guitar, and DJ Bonebrake on drums — still sounds great 30 years after their debut album Los Angeles was released.
And what a debut album that was. Los Angeles is about as darn near perfect as an album can get. Featuring the poetic lyrics and approximate harmonies of Doe and Cervenka, the turbo fretwork of Zoom, and the propulsive drumming of Bonebrake, this is a whirlwind of punk-rock energy. Luckily for those in attendance, X played the entire Los Angeles album in Ventura in sequence, only the second time that they have ever done so in concert.
Like the album, the concert kicked off with the wittily named “Your Phone’s Off The Hook, But You’re Not,” a blast of punk attitude that showcased Cervenka’s still piercing punk queen vocals. Next up was “Johnny Hit And Run Paulene,” a disturbing tale of date rape at 200 beats per minute.
This was followed by a punked-up cover of The Doors’ “Soul Kitchen,” then the pounding “Nausea,” which came across as more raw than the album version without former Doors keyboardist and X producer Ray Manzarek’s organ. Next came the frenetic “Sugarlight,” followed by the album’s soul, the song “Los Angeles,” which paints a gritty picture of the city that a small-town friend couldn’t handle. Incidentally, this is a song that nicely demonstrates that punk rock doesn’t need to be musically simple three-chord tripe.
The Los Angeles portion of the show wrapped up with the moral bankruptcy of “Sex And Dying In High Society,” the catch-your-breath song “The Unheard Music,” then the closer “The World’s A Mess, It’s In My Kiss.”
X then performed tracks off its other albums, including several from the stellar follow-up album Wild Gift such as the urgent “We’re Desperate” (also a pre-Los Angeles B-side), with the declaration “Our whole f***ing life is a wreck / We’re desperate, get used to it / It’s kiss or kill.”
The band successfully captured the energy and vibe of its decades-old material, and sounded amazing, although the vocals could have been mixed a bit higher in my opinion. I found Zoom’s effortless riffage and soloing, which he typically pulled off with an infectious grin for the audience, to be particularly awe-inspiring.
As a special treat, before the concert began there was a rare screening of The Unheard Music, W.T. Morgan’s extraordinary rockumentary about X filmed between 1980 and 1985. This features vintage live and studio footage of X cleverly interspersed with old TV commercials and insightful interview clips. There are also arty videos to accompany some of X’s songs, including an unsettling film for “Johnny Hit and Run Pauline” and surreal footage of a building being transported on trucks through Los Angeles for the song “The Unheard Music.”
A highlight was the amusing sequence cross-cutting between interviews with Bob Biggs from the independent record label Slash, which first signed X, and Al Bergamo from media conglomerate MCA who touts the now-mostly forgotten band Point Blank as the sort of commercial band that they prefer to distribute rather than X. Needless to say, Biggs and X come across much better than Bergamo and Point Blank.
There is a poignant scene in which Cervenka shows the window at the Whiskey A Go Go that Doe smashed upon hearing that Cervenka’s sister was killed in a car accident on the way to their show. Amazingly, the band still played that night despite being in emotional turmoil.
On the lighter side, Doe recounted the amusing story of how he claimed a giant “X” from the about to be demolished Ex-Lax building, which was then
used as part of their stage set.
Watching this movie, one is struck by how good the band members are as musicians. In particular, Zoom plays some cool jazz guitar and clarinet, and Bonebrake demonstrates a whacked-out polyrhythm inspired by a coffee percolator and plays TV theme songs on marimba. This musicianship — channeled into punk rock — and the songwriting craft of Doe and Cervenka came through loud and clear at the concert.
The world is still a mess, and X’s music still deserves to be heard.
Your Phone’s Off The Hook, But You’re Not
Johnny Hit and Run Paulene
Sex and Dying in High Society
The Unheard Music
The World’s A Mess, It’s In My Kiss
In This House That I Call Home
The New World
It’s Who You Know
Some Other Time
Riding With Mary
Because I Do
See How We Are
Beyond and Back
Motel Room In My Bed
— Noozhawk contributor Jeff Moehlis is an associate professor of mechanical engineering at UCSB. Upcoming show recommendations, advice from musicians, interviews and more are available on his Web site, music-illuminati.com.