Los Angeles, 1976: rockabilly genius guitarist Billy Zoom and bar band bassist/Beat Generation fan John Doe decide to form a band. The duo's inspired by the "classic rock & roll music and kind of funny, sick lyrics" Zoom says he's found on the Ramones' self-titled debut album. 1977: Doe attends a poetry workshop and meets a girl from FL, Exene Cervenka. He wants to use her poems as lyrics, but she doesn't trust him alone with them, so she joins the band. The pair finds a way to sing together, wailing in harmony. 1978: jazz-schooled drummer DJ Bonebrake joins, and the band, X, proves to be an intersection of insight and sheer flash. Both can be found in words and music alike, as their Aug. 23 show at Tremont will no doubt demonstrate.
The band's first single, 1978's "Adult Books" (on the Dangerhouse label), is the ripe embryo of all Xstory. Cervenka yowls (and Doe chants): "Many, many guys and girls, all real beauties. Everybody's making a stab, they hurt themselves. Singles rule the world, feeding on fresh blood." Not exactly Oscar Wilde, but the droll drawl of their delivery suggests a twisted version of an old comedy routine, about Southern hicks, fresh off the bus -- like Homer & Jethro taking a walk on the wild side. Doe and Cervenka marvel at "all real beauties," rather than sneering in the stereotypically punk manner, and the clumsy, self-destructive violence seems cartoonish. Cervenka exclaims, "They're all in a line! Like adult books?! I don't understand!" But to us city folk, it's a familiar sight: young'uns lined up like a row of trashy books, stuffed full of bad ideas and pulp fiction fever. Mercy!
The last verse is about a girl who finally gives in to a sadistic date, which seems to save her, because "he just goes for that special girl, who says no." This final twist is a b-movie gimmick for a b-side song, but it's still jarring, no matter how many times I listen. The A-side of that single, "Los Angeles," became the title song of X's first album, on the indie Slash label. Los Angeles wasn't recorded and released until 1980, three years after X began writing and performing. But by that time, they'd built on all the ideas of "Adult Books," editing songs with transitions meant to startle listeners into becoming more aware of how they're being "edited" by manipulators of greed and fear.
Just as that last sentence suggests, Los Angeles is an album about what "they" do -- until its last track, which tops the tumult of the third-person songs, by confessing, "The World's a Mess, It's In Our Kiss." Accompanied by the happy, trashy organ of former Doors keyboardist/longtime X producer Ray Manzarek, X is ready to dance this mess around, as the B-52s would put it.
Wild Gift (1981), X's second album, develops from "The World's" breakthrough, and "our" even becomes "my," though songs about the married life of Doe and Cervenka re-mix the funky details, so as not to reveal too much or drive all the cool single people away. Things aren't so violent here, except for self-torture and a bit of mental revenge. For instance, on "White Girl," Doe moans about his attraction to a neighbor, and Cervenka keeps reminding him, "She's 19," sounding reproachful, then taunting, and then suggestive, stirring the mix of guilt and desire around and around (talk about your devil's food).
X's next album, 1982's Under The Big Black Sun, was its first for a major label, Elektra, where the band stayed until 1988, when it went on hiatus. Although X had maintained its high standards through the fourth album, More Fun In The New World (1983), it still wasn't selling many albums. It was too idiosyncratic, too arty and too rowdy for increasingly polarized hardcore punks and new wave popsters of the Big '80s. Billy Zoom left, but they all got back together to tour in 1998. Many of its best songs come roaring through 2005's Live In Los Angeles (Shout! Factory).
Also in 2005, Doe, Cervenka and Bonebrake reconvened their proto-alt-country side project, the Knitters, for The Modern Sounds Of The Knitters, a playfully soulful set on Rounder. Doe's recent Yep Roc releases, Forever Hasn't Happened Yet and For The Best Of Us, are his best solo work ever, as sleepless ballads and wellspring rockers continue to spin their way through worlds, messes and kisses.
X, the Rollins Band and the Riverboat Gamblers play the Tremont Music Hall; Aug. 23; 8pm; $25.00. www.tremontmusichall.com.