Twenty-twenty is living up to the phrase that’s often immediately associated with vision acuity: hindsight. It’s a year of a pandemic-induced lock down at the same time of social upheaval in demand for global and social changes.
The year also marks the 40-year anniversary of legendary band X. The band’s original lineup with drummer D.J. Bonebrake, guitarist Billy Zoom, vocalist Exene Cervenka, and vocalist-bassist John Doe have beaten the odds in terms of industry cliches, beaten health worries tenfold, and have been relentless in maintaining their rightful place in rock and roll history.
The band are often cited from their appearance in Penelope Spheeris’ documentary The Decline of Western Civilization, about the early ’80s punk and hardcore scene. They have multiple records entered in Rolling Stone’s top 500 records of all time; their music has been in countless television episodes and films; they’ve even been an answer on the game show Jeopardy!
This year, the band had planned to celebrate the anniversary of iconic album Los Angeles with a live tour, but as with many other things, those plans were cancelled.
As a small consolation, John Doe did livestream an acoustic set of originals and covers in May of this year and just this past Friday, June 25. You can watch the replay on the band’s facebook page.
In terms of reasons to celebrate the band’s longevity however, not all was lost. The band digitally released their eighth studio album and first release in 27 years, Alphabetland, to high praise as a formidable comeback. The album was also initially released on vinyl via Fat Possum with a more comprehensive rollout of formats to follow later in the year. On April 29, the band released a music video for “Water & Wine.”
Thirty-five years ago, this month was a much different story for the band. After four albums of some of the most creative and energetic rock ‘n’ roll created, produced by Ray Manzarek, the quartet were hoping to make a bigger break in the music industry and most of all land a hit on the charts.
The band brought in Michael Wagener, then known mainly for his talent with 80s metal bands Dokken and Motley Crue, to control the boards. An album whose title is as quaint as it was sarcastic, Ain’t Love Grand would later be understood as a final send-off to singer-songwriters Exene and Doe.
The album was released not long after the longtime pair divorced, and the pain felt and caused by one another throughout the album’s recording was undeniable. The albums’ vocal duty trade-off of songs acts like a reading of last love letters recorded and left to be found by one another. For decades after, many assumed this was also the final studio album with original guitarist Billy Zoom.
Regarded by fans and critics as the record when X tried to sell out but couldn’t quite buy in, there have been some retreads over the years. “What’s Wrong With Me” has the classic guitar chug sound and the biting vocal sneer, but feels restrained. The haunting, bluesy ballad “My Goodness,” has things to love, but Exene’s vocals and lyrics sound as buried and disconnected as her heart was at the time.
The band did earn an opportunity to play TV’s American Bandstand thanks to minor hit and opening track “Burning House Of Love,” but it’s with that track the album’s direction off course is apparent. Disdain from longtime fans occurs at the onset of the album. The much more polished and programed mix of Ain’t Love Grand abandoned the band’s revered, raw sound on prior albums. It’s natural for a band to change their sound over time, but this was less like new growth and just pure pain.
Unbridled poetry had been traded for choruses more cliché than catchy, and passionate, raw, artistic attitude was swapped for the overproduced sound of the time. Guitar and drum tones alone sound digitally added rather than played. The band retains the ability to reach your heart with the song “I’ll Stand Up For You,” and there are moments that shine through the glam and gloss, reminding you this is still X, but this was no longer the X you’d want to show your friends if they were new to the band.
The album became the now-well-established moment in the band’s career that so many others have followed when greater commercial success seemed a solid gamble in exchange for a sacrifice of identity and sound.
X would learn a lesson from this strange time in a long, storied, successful, and respected career. They would bounce back with strong follow-up records, and fans would forgive them for the misstep and welcome back the powerhouse with open arms.
Subsequent albums and eventual reunions proved to the band and fans just how important of a band X were and remain. They jumped the shark, got bit, but lived to tell the tale. There is a story people tell, or tell themselves, about pain and creativity that if you’re not suffering then your art somehow isn’t real. Ain’t Love Grand might not be the best thing the band produced, but it would seem even at their ‘worst’ X is always real.
Find out more at X the band.
Band photo:Allen J. Schaben