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A band named X

Los Angeles punk heroes have compilation out

By Todd Leopold

X in its '80s heyday: D.J. Bonebrake, Exene Cervenka, Billy Zoom and John Doe.
Los Angeles (California)
Ray Manzarek
John Doe

(CNN) -- Those who were once punkers are now parents, and some may be embarrassed by the contrasts between their youthful, safety-pinned and slam-dancing selves and the responsible adults they've become.

Not John Doe of X. For him, telling his three children of his previous life as singer and bassist for one of the West Coast punk scene's leading bands is "a source of pride."

His kids -- three of them, ranging in age from 12 to 16 -- know his former bandmate (and ex-wife) as "Aunt Exene," and when they hear Green Day on the radio they can hear the echoes of their father's old group.

"It's a great thing," says Doe in a phone interview from his home in exurban Los Angeles, helping to promote a new best-of collection, "Make the Music Go Bang" (Elektra/Rhino).

And why not? X may not have enjoyed huge record sales during its '80s heyday, but the band's influence -- its eerie harmonies, rockabilly roots (guitarist Billy Zoom was a former Gene Vincent sideman) and propulsive, imagistic songs ("Johnny Hit and Run Pauline," "Blue Spark," "Los Angeles") has been wide-ranging, discernable in bands from the aforementioned Green Day to Wilco. They were considered a punk band, but had a more melodic sense than L.A. compatriots such as Black Flag.

Not that any of it was planned.

"We had no preconceived notions of what we were going to be," says Doe. The chord structures came from '60s influences such as the Beatles and Bob Dylan; the sense of freedom from Lou Reed and Patti Smith.

The harder punk bands like Black Flag and DOA, he adds, had more of a hard rock/metal influence. That wasn't Doe's thing.

"They came from Led Zeppelin and AC/DC, which I hated, and still do," he says. "Oh, I could appreciate it. ... But I can't get past it."

'X was scary in a different way'

What gave X its edge, Doe believes, was the band's air of being in the moment.

"It was a sense of mystery. X was scary in a different way [than other punk bands]," says Doe. "It was like, 'Where do they go after we see them?'

"I give Exene a lot of credit for that," he adds. "That and the fact that we were married."


Indeed, X was an interesting brew of personalities. There was Doe, lanky, laconic and powerful; Exene Cervenka, his wife and later ex-wife, possessed of an angular, haunting voice, like a Shangri-La crossed with Yoko Ono; Billy Zoom, the rockabilly guitarist 10 years older than his bandmates; and the appropriately named D.J. Bonebrake, the crushingly accurate drummer.

Add to that Ray Manzarek, the former Doors keyboardist who asked to produce the band after his wife heard X's frantic cover of "Soul Kitchen" at L.A.'s Whisky a Go-Go.

"To have someone like Ray -- like rock 'n' roll royalty -- embrace what we do, it was great for our confidence," Doe recalls. "In the studio, he knew what to try to do. He went for performance. He was smart enough to realize that the band had the arrangements all worked out."

In turn, X learned a lot from Manzarek, especially: Don't waste time.

"When you set up to play, you made sure to give the performance of your life," Doe says. "Our first two records were done in [a total of] six weeks."

Fast and slow

But despite the support of Manzarek, rock critics and college radio, X couldn't break through to bigger sales.

"We started believing our own press," Doe says. By the group's fourth record, 1983's "More Fun in the New World," even they were wondering why they hadn't become the Next Big Thing (though, in retrospect, Doe says, "It was a blessing"). The next album, "Ain't Love Grand," had a harder, more radio-friendly sound and its single, "Burning House of Love," got a bigger push from the record label.

But mainstream success didn't happen. Zoom left, Doe and Cervenka got divorced and the band faded away, though it regrouped in 1993 for another album, "Hey Zeus!"

More recently, X gets together from time to time, doing perhaps 25 shows a year. Each member also does solo work.

"Make the Music Go Bang" is actually the second X collection, but the first best-of. The previous anthology, 1997's "Beyond and Back," consisted of mostly unreleased material. At the time, says Doe, "We thought it would be our only shot ... so we thought we'd make it as weird as we can." The band dug up every old cassette and demo it could.

Now that the new best-of and re-releases of the band's albums are coming out, Doe is amused. "We shot our entire wad [on the previous anthology]," he says. "When Rhino told us it was doing each album individually, we said, 'That's nice' ... but when we had to find [new] bonus tracks, I thought, 'We're [expletive].' "

Doe doesn't expect X to do much new recording, but one story he tells is revealing as to how the music landscape has changed from 20 years ago, when X had the buzz but couldn't find mainstream success.

Seems some movie men wanted an X version of the Doors' "Crystal Ship" for a soundtrack. The band inquired whether the producers wanted it fast or slow. Fast, X was told, and the band performed a rave-up version and turned it in.

Soon word came back that, no, the movie needed a slow version. X redid the song. The film, of course, paid the band for both versions -- tens of thousands of dollars.

Doe is still amazed. For X, even in its heyday, that was a lot of money. But for the film, "That was probably their catering budget for three or four days."

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