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X: Sign of the times

L.A.'s original punk band still packs a punch

The fliers are posted all over town and the buzz is out. The late-'70s punk rock L.A.-based scene setters X are coming to town with the original lineup of John Doe (guitar/vocals), Exene Cervenka (vocals), Billy Zoom (guitar) and D.J. Bonebrake (drums) to tear up the stage together again. Now, young fans who have never seen the group before can experience the awesome power, and older folks who saw X in its prime can relive those old glories. Sounds great, right?

The only strange thing is that it's not the first time X has passed through Atlanta with its original lineup. It's not even the second time. X has been touring solidly as a museum piece since 1998 and has played stellar shows at both the Masquerade and the Tabernacle over the last decade. So why is all of the hype hitting the people of Atlanta this time around?

The short answer is that it's all a matter of the stars lining up just so, and a window has opened up at the right time and place for X to return and bask in the glory of the group's full cultural impact.

Press play on X's 1980 debut album, Los Angeles, and the songs are still just as vibrant and hard-rocking as they were the day the record hit the streets. The same goes for any of the group's following three albums, Wild Gift ('81), Under the Big Black Sun ('82) and More Fun in the New World ('83).

The secret to their longevity as punk and rock 'n' roll classics lies in their timeless approach to songwriting. Throughout such quintessential songs as "Los Angeles," "Johnny Hit and Run Pauline," and "White Girl," Doe and Cervenka's alternating sweet and savage vocal harmonies clash in a seesaw of dissonance and perfect harmony in a way that personifies melancholy and gut-wrenching heartache.

Behind them, Zoom's quick, abrasive chops and winding melodies, alongside Bonebrake's hard, fast and staccato rhythms hit with a concise one-two punch. The group's raw approach to refined harmonies and country-western moods butted against an urban, punk rock strut packs a timeless and unrivaled punch.

X rose above the outsider anger of their Los Angelean contemporaries Black Flag, the Germs, the Screamers, et al., to culminate a sound that embraced bold but agitated Americana.

In short, X was greater than the sum of its parts and had a solid run through the first four albums that transcended the group's role as punk rock innovators. Jamming on three simple and sloppy chords was never the group's forte. But as Zoom explains, everyone knew their way around an instrument in the early days of punk, and everyone was coming to the music from somewhere else.

Zoom, whose father was a big band leader, cut his teeth playing jazz, folk, country music and just about everything else under the sun before joining X. "The original wave of punk rock was more concerned with getting back to the roots of rock and roll," he says from his home in Orange County. He answers every question with short, sharp barks and a sneering tone that embodies the raw power that it took to pioneer such a revolutionary sound. Just uttering "punk rock" to him, one gets the impression that he thinks you are up to no good.

"With the original punk rock groups, we wanted to get away from the over-produced, slick, corporate, shallow sound of the times and take it back to the charge of '50s rock," he says. "The 'do it yourself' thing didn't come until later. That's when the kids in the audiences started putting their own bands together."

Music aside, there are other contemporary cultural and political factors that, as a matter of coincidence, are working in the group's favor. On the local level, Atlanta is on the map as a punk rock town right now. New labels are springing up and offering new and vibrant punk rock 7-inches every week. And on the national level, the words "gas crisis" and "turmoil in the Middle East" are recurring themes that bookend X's career. Granted, the War on Terror and the $4-plus per gallon we're paying now rings with a different tone than President Carter's debacle with gas prices and American hostages in Iran circa '79 – but only slightly.

"The only difference between then and now is that back then we were trying to throw out a Democrat," Zoom says. "The only thing we were rebelling against back then was there wasn't anything good to listen to on the radio.

"But really, though, I think people know that we're coming through town because we got a new manager who finally wrote a press release, or something."