X is a Californian punk rock band, formed in Los Angeles in 1977. Established among the first wave of American punk, the original members are vocalist Exene Cervenka, vocalist/bassist John Doe, guitarist Billy Zoom, and drummer DJ Bonebrake. The band released seven studio albums from 1980 to 1993. After a period of inactivity during the mid to late 1990s, X reunited in the early 2000s, and currently tours.
X achieved limited mainstream success but influenced various genres of music, including punk rock and folk rock. In 2003, X's first two studio albums, Los Angeles and Wild Gift, were ranked by Rolling Stone magazine as being among the 500 greatest albums of all time. Los Angeles was ranked 91st on Pitchfork's Top 100 Albums of the 1980s. The band received an Official Certificate of Recognition from the City of Los Angeles in acknowledgment of its contribution to Los Angeles music and culture.
1977-1979: Formation and Dangerhouse era:
X was founded by bassist/singer John Doe and guitarist Billy Zoom. Doe brought his poetry-writing girlfriend Exene Cervenka to band practices, and she eventually joined the band as a vocalist. Drummer DJ Bonebrake was the last of the original members to join after leaving local group The Eyes.
X's first record deal was with independent label Dangerhouse, for which the band produced a sole single, "Adult Books" / "We're Desperate" (1978). A Dangerhouse session version of "Los Angeles" was also featured on a 1979 Dangerhouse 12" EP compilation called Yes L.A. (a play on the now-famous no wave compilation No New York), a picture disc that featured other early-punk-era LA bands like the Weirdos and Black Randy.
1980-1981: Los Angeles and Wild Gift:
As the band became the flag bearer for the local scene, a larger independent label, Slash Records, signed the band to issue its first LP. The result was their first LP release, Los Angeles (1980) (produced by The Doors' keyboard player, Ray Manzarek). It was a minor hit and was well received by the underground press and mainstream media. Much of X's early material had a rockabilly edge. Doe and Cervenka co-wrote most of the group's songs, and their slightly off-kilter harmony vocals remain perhaps the group's most distinctive element. Their lyrics tended to be straight-out poetry; comparisons to Charles Bukowski and Raymond Chandler were made from the start.
Their follow-up effort, 1981's Wild Gift, broadened the band's profile when it was named "Record of the Year" by Rolling Stone, The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, and Village Voice.Wild Gift, like their debut album, was released on Slash records, and was similar in musical style, although Wild Gift featured shorter, faster songs; arguably their most stereotypically punk-sounding record.
1982-1984: Elektra era and The Knitters:
X then signed to Elektra in 1982 to release Under the Big Black Sun, which marked a slight departure from their trademark sound. While still fast and loud, the album's country leanings were evolving and its raw punk sound was channeling raw guitar power chords. The album was heavily influenced by the death of Exene Cervenka's elder sister Mirielle (Mary) in an automobile accident in 1980. Three songs on the album, "Riding With Mary", "Come Back to Me", and the title track all directly relate to the tragedy. A fourth, a high-speed version of Al Dubin and Joe Burke's "Dancing With Tears in My Eyes", was indirectly attributed to Exene Cervenka's mournful state of mind years later. The stark black-and-white cover art and title were also a reflection of the somber mood of the band during this time. She has said it is her favorite X album
"You know, my favorite record is Under the Big Black Sun, so everything else is kind of . . .
I'm saying if I had to sit down in a room and put on an X record--which I don't generally do--I have recently listened to some X records but I generally don't listen to myself--the record I would pick to listen to would be Under the Big Black Sun.
1983 saw the release of the More Fun in the New World album. X slightly redefined their sound with this release, making it somewhat more polished, eclectic and radio-ready than in previous albums. With the sound moving away from punk rock, the band's rockabilly influence became even more noticeable, along with some new elements: funk on the track "True Love Pt. II" and Woody Guthrie-influenced folk protest songs like "The New World" and "I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts." The record received critical praise from Rolling Stone and Playboy, who had long been stalwart supporters and fans of X and their sound.
A side project of some of the band members was Poor Little Critter on the Road in 1985, under the name The Knitters: X minus Zoom, plus Dave Alvin (of The Blasters) on guitar and Johnny Ray Bartel (of The Red Devils) on double bass. The Knitters were devoted to folk and country music; their take on Merle Haggard's "Silver Wings" "may be the definitive version."
1985-1987: Commercial era and departure of Zoom:
Despite the overwhelmingly positive critical reception for their first four albums, the band was frustrated by its lack of wider mainstream success. Billy Zoom had also stated that he would leave the band unless its next album was more successful. The band decided to change producers in search of a more accessible sound. Their fifth record, Ain't Love Grand!, was produced by pop-metal producer Michael Wagener. It featured a drastic change in sound, especially in the polished and layered production, while the band's punk roots were little in evidence, replaced by a countrified version of hard rock. The change in production was intended to bring the band more chart success, but although it got somewhat more mainstream radio play than their earlier releases, it did not represent a commercial breakthrough. Zoom left the group shortly thereafter in 1986, the same year in which the feature-length documentary film, X: The Unheard Music, was released.
Zoom was initially replaced by ex-Blasters guitarist Dave Alvin on guitar. The band then added a fifth member, guitarist Tony Gilkyson, formerly of the band Lone Justice. By the time the band released its sixth album, See How We Are, Alvin had already left the band, although he plays on the record along with Gilkyson. Like Ain't Love Grand, the album's sound was fairly far removed from the band's punk origins, yet featured a punchy, energetic, hard-rocking roots rock sound that in many ways represented a more natural progression from their earlier sound than the previous record had. After touring for the album, X released a live record of the tour entitled Live at the Whisky a Go-Go, and then went on an extended hiatus.
Back in 1984, X had released a cover version of "Wild Thing" as a non-LP single. In 1989, the song was re-released as the lead single from the soundtrack to the hit film Major League. It has since become a staple at sporting events, particularly baseball games.
1993-1995: First reunion, Hey Zeus! and Unclogged:
X regrouped in the early 1990s to record their seventh studio album, Hey Zeus!. The album marked somewhat of a retreat from the increasingly roots-rock direction that the band's past few records had gone in, instead featuring an eclectic alternative-rock sound that fit in well with the then-current musical climate. Despite this, it failed to become a hit, although two of its songs, Country at War and New Life peaked at numbers 15 and 26 on the Billboard Modern Rock charts, respectively. The band followed it with an acoustic live album Unclogged in 1995. In 1994, they contributed a cover of the Richard Thompson song, Shoot Out the Lights to a Thompson tribute album called Beat the Retreat, which featured David Hidalgo of Los Lobos on electric guitar. On the same album, Doe sang harmony and played bass and Bonebrake played drums on Bob Mould's cover of Turning of the Tide, and Bonebrake played drums on the title track, which was performed by the British folk artist June Tabor.
1997-2004: Hiatus and second reunion:
In 1997, X released a compilation called Beyond and Back: The X Anthology, which focused heavily on the early years with Billy Zoom and included a number of previously unreleased versions of songs that had appeared on their previous albums. At the same time, they also announced that they were disbanding. However, they did a farewell tour to promote the compilation in 1998, with Zoom returning on guitar. The original lineup also returned to the studio for the final time, with Ray Manzarek reprising his role as producer, to record a cover of The Doors' The Crystal Ship for the soundtrack for The X-Files: Fight the Future. Although the band has not released any new studio material since then, they continue to perform live with Zoom on guitar.
X: The Unheard Music was released on DVD in 2005, as was the concert DVD X - Live in Los Angeles, which commemorates the 25th anniversary of the band's landmark debut album, Los Angeles.
2005-2007: Reunion of the Knitters:
In 2005, Doe, Cervenka and Bonebrake reunited with Dave Alvin and Johnny Ray Bartel to release a second Knitters album, 20 years after the first, titled The Modern Sound of the Knitters. In summer 2006, X toured North America on the "As the World Burns" tour with the Rollins Band and Riverboat Gamblers. In the spring of 2008, the band embarked on their "13X31" tour with Skybombers and the Detroit Cobras, with all original members. "13X31" is a reference to their 31st anniversary.
2008-present: Recent activities:
X appeared at the 2008 SXSW Festival. Footage of their performance is viewable on Crackle. X appeared at the Coachella Valley Music and Arts Festival on April 19, 2009 and at the All Tomorrow's Parties festival in Minehead, England from May 15-17, 2009. They were invited to perform at the latter by the festival's curators, The Breeders.
In June 2009, the band publicly announced that Exene had been diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. However, she told the Orange County Register in 2011 that the doctor who originally diagnosed the disease believes he misdiagnosed her. Exene stated that "I've had so many doctors tell me I have MS, then some say I don't ... I don't even care anymore."
In June 2010, X played a free show at the North by Northeast festival in Toronto, Canada, and on June 18, 2011 the band headlined the third annual Johnny Cash Music Festival in Ventura, California.
X performed at The Voodoo Experience 2011, held at City Park in New Orleans, Louisiana, on October 28-30, 2011. The band also opened for Pearl Jam on their 2011 South and Central American tour in November and their European tour in June and July 2012.
On September 2, 2012, X performed at the Made in America festival in Philadelphia, PA.
Over the years, both Doe and Cervenka have released solo albums, with Doe having a stronger emphasis on roots music in his solo work. While Cervenka's solo albums have also been in a more folk or country vein, she has also fronted punk bands like Auntie Christ and The Original Sinners. She also has done tours featuring her poetry, sometimes along with either Lydia Lunch or Henry Rollins. Since 1986, Doe has also maintained a busy second career as an actor, appearing in such films as Oliver Stone's Salvador, Allison Anders' Border Radio and Sugar Town, the Jerry Lee Lewis biopic Great Balls of Fire, Miguel Arteta's The Good Girl, Craig Mazin's The Specials, Paul Thomas Anderson's Boogie Nights, and the independent feature Roadside Prophets, in which he starred with Beastie Boy Adam Horovitz. He was a regular cast member of the television series Roswell on WB Television Network and UPN, and made a memorable appearance as an aging rock star on Law & Order.