In July 1979, former Doors keyboard player Ray Manzarek was reading an article in Los Angeles paper LA Reader when something in it caught his eye. Titled Sounds Like Murder, the piece was an overview of Los Angeles’ burgeoning punk scene, zooming in on such bratty contenders as the Alley Cats, The Screamers, The Plugz and The Last. But it was another band, called X, who stopped him in his tracks.
Manzarek – a man who knew a thing or two about singers with poetic tendencies – was instantly struck by the lyrics to X’s song Johny Hit And Run Paulene: ‘He got a sterilised hypo, to shoot a sex machine drug/He got 24 hours, to shoot Paulene between the legs.’ “These aren’t lyrics,” he thought, “this is poetry.”
A few days later an intrigued Manzarek went to an X show at the Whisky A Go Go, the Sunset Strip sweat-box where The Doors had made their name more than a decade earlier. A short way into X’s set, one song sounded familiar to him.
“It was Soul Kitchen, the Doors song, at a thousand miles an hour,” Manzarek says now. “I was completely hooked. It was like you were standing behind a 747 with the engines on full blast.”
After the band’s set, he went backstage and introduced himself: “I’m Ray Manzarek of The Doors. Do you guys have a producer? I want to produce you.”
As fans of The Doors, X – singer Exene Cervenka, bassist John Doe, guitarist Billy Zoom and drummer DJ Bonebrake – were equally enthusiastic.
“We made our handshake agreement right there,” says Manzarek, “in the dressing room at the Whisky A Go Go.”
Few bands before or since have captured the sound and feel of Los Angeles quite as well as X. Like their spiritual forebears The Doors, they transcended the scene they emerged from to shine a light on the underbelly of both their home town and modern America in general. Both their masterpieces – 1980’s Los Angeles album and 1982’s Under The Big Black Sun – sounded like nothing else, their initial punk fury giving way to rocket-fuelled rockabilly.
Manzarek wasn’t the only one who was won over. Red Hot Chili Peppers bassist Flea lists X alongside The Doors and Love as one of the LA bands “who capture and define the times in their music”. Pearl Jam’s Jeff Ament cites X, along with Jane’s Addiction, as “the two LA bands we looked up to the most”. Henry Rollins describes them simply as “one of the best live bands ever”. As X bassist John Doe says: “When you mention the name X, people say either ‘You changed my life’ or ‘Who?’”
In 1977, in their search for musically like-minded souls, John Doe and Billy Zoom both placed ads in LA paper Recycler in the same week. Although both men were born in Illinois, they arrived in LA by way of very different routes. After graduating from high school in Baltimore, Doe (born John Nommensen Duchac) moved first to New York, before venturing west to the land of his literary heroes Raymond Chandler and Nathanael West. Arriving in LA, Doe found a city whose once glamorous lustre was fading.
“Hollywood was in real decline,” he says. “The Tennessee Williams in me said: ‘Yes! The perfect moment!’ Be in the heart of the beast when it’s all falling to pieces.”
Zoom – real name Tyson Kindell – was born into a musical family; his father had played clarinet with jazz great Django Reinhardt. Proficient on a variety of instruments, Zoom contemplated a career as a jazz saxophonist before focusing on guitar. After moving to LA in the 60s, he juggled session work with playing in various bands, including a summer touring with Gene Vincent. But it was the simplistic approach of The Ramones that inspired Zoom to form a band, and their similarly worded ads that drew he and Doe together.
“It was something like: ‘Looking for someone who doesn’t play bullshit,’” recalls Doe, who describes the LA music scene of the time as “pretty dead”.
Desperate to get away from Tallahassee, Florida, 20-year-old Christene Cervenka bummed a ride to California. She arrived in LA with 80 dollars to her name, and quickly found a job and accommodation at Beyond Baroque, a famous literary and arts centre. It was there, at a poetry workshop, that she found herself sitting next to Doe.
“They asked us to make a list of our top 10 favourite poets,” she says. “I didn’t really know very many poets. I looked over and saw he’d put John Lennon twice. I said: ‘Excuse me, but you’ve written John Lennon twice.’”
It was an unpromising introduction, but not enough to prevent the two from becoming romantically entwined.
Cervenka had already changed her name to Exene (“Like Christmas and Xmas – X, Christ”). Although she’d been a fan of The Doors since hearing Light My Fire when she was 12, she considered herself a literary writer rather than a songwriter.
“It never entered my mind to come to LA and play music,” she says. She had, however, written a song, I’m Coming Over. Impressed, Doe asked if he could have the song for the band he was forming. “Absolutely no you can’t fucking take my song!” snapped an indignant Cervenka. So Doe invited her to a rehearsal to sing it and to “see how it goes”.
Zoom didn’t exactly embrace the idea of bringing Doe’s girlfriend into the band. “I thought John and I both sang fine and we didn’t need an extra singer.”
Whatever doubts he had before were compounded as soon as Cervenka started singing. “I didn’t think Exene was very good at the time,” Zoom remembers.
“Exene sings really unconventionally,” Doe concedes.
But it would be the combination of her hiccupping, high-pitched vocals and Doe’s rich baritone that provided X with their distinctive identity. “There is a unique sound produced when John and Exene sing together,” Henry Rollins tells Classic Rock. “It’s incredible.”
Despite his own reservations, Zoom quickly became aware that their audience had none. “They were chanting: ‘Ex-ene, Ex-ene, Ex-ene!’ It was obvious people just liked something about her.”
Almost immediately, X stood apart from the other bands who gravitated towards the Masque, the dingy Hollywood club-cum-rehearsal space that was the ground zero of the LA punk scene. With her vintage dresses and thrift-store-boho chic, Exene was a world away from the other women there. More importantly, they could actually play. Zoom’s rockabilly guitar and Bonebrake’s scattering percussion, together with Doe and Cervenka’s discordant vocal harmonies, separated X from the straight-ahead punk of such contemporaries as The Germs and The Avengers.
“It didn’t make us better, it just made us different from some of the bands,” says Cervenka. “There were a lot of outstanding people in that scene. But I think because we had three musicians that were so talented, it set us apart.”
In 1978 the embryonic independent label Dangerhouse released X’s debut single, Adult Books. The following year the label included what would become the band’s signature song, Los Angeles, on the compilation album Yes L.A., which was a direct response to the Brian Eno-produced No New York album that showcased the Big Apple’s emerging No Wave movement.
It was the buzz around these two releases that prompted Ray Manzarek to offer his services as producer on X’s first album when he met the band backstage at the Whisky. Despite punk’s year-zero philosophy, Doe had no reservations about working with a member of the old guard. “I didn’t care. Ray saw a lot of similarities between us and The Doors; that we were exposing a darker side of LA. It wasn’t the Beach Boys.”
With a tight budget of $10,000 from the newly formed Slash label, X and Manzarek headed into the studio. The role of producer was a new one for Manzarek. “Technically I lost my virginity to X,” he jokes.
Looking back, Bonebrake has nothing but praise for Manzarek’s contribution: “He believed in what we did and didn’t try to change us, which is just what we needed at the time.”
For Manzarek, it was important to emphasise the element of the band that had first made him a fan: “I wanted those lyrics to be heard, so John and Exene’s voices were up there and out.”
The resulting album, Los Angeles, was released in 1980 on the ground-breaking US indie label Slash. It was a landmark album, rooted in the punk scene of the times but plugging in to something simultaneously older and more forward-looking. Manzarek’s organ stabs consciously echoed his old band, while Doe and Cervenka came on like a latter-day Johnny and June Carter Cash.
At the same time, it presaged the roots-rock boom of the following decade. Ranking on many critics’ lists of that year’s top albums, it went on to sell more than 100,000 in its first six months – an unheard of figure in punk terms.
Their follow-up album, Wild Gift, released a year later and again produced by Manzarek, cemented the band’s reputation.
“The best album by an American band this year,” declared Rolling Stone magazine. Although critics praised them, radio stations were less enthusiastic. Corporate America had a stranglehold on FM radio, and X’s raw, uncompromising sound didn’t nestle comfortably among their conservative playlists.
“Stadium rock was going on at the time on Top 40 radio, so X didn’t have a chance,” Manzarek offers. Despite being ignored by the mainstream, X were selling out venues such as LA’s 6,500 seat Greek Theatre and gaining interest from major record companies. But the band had become increasingly frustrated with their label. In-store signings had become farcical, as fans were met by the band, but no records.
“We were bigger than Slash,” says Cervenka. “They just didn’t have the machine.” After courting several offers, the band signed to Elektra, former home of The Doors. While well aware of the band’s limited commercial potential, Manzarek also knew that to a major label, cache can be as important as cash. “They would be hipper than shit to have them on your label.”
Flushed with a budget of $100,000, X headed into the studio to record a new album. Under The Big Black Sun toned down the primal punk rock, replacing it with a furious rockabilly sound that once again moved X several steps on from their peers.
For Cervenka, the album took on a special significance. In 1980 her older sister Muriel had been killed in a car crash on her way to see X play at the Whisky. Given the news just prior to taking the stage, Cervenka turned to Manzarek, who was set to play with them, and said: “You’re so fucking cosmic. What do I do now?” They played the show, and later Cervenka poured her heart out in her lyrics. Two of the tracks on Under The Big Black Sun – Riding With Mary and Come Back To Me – were directly about her sister.
To this day it’s Cervenka’s favourite X album. “Under The Big Black Sun is just a lot more emotional and raw and directly from the source of the pain and the joy of life,” she says.
When neither Under The Big Black Sun nor its 1983 follow-up, More Fun In The New World, delivered that all-important hit, for the next album Elektra suggested using Motley Crue producer Michael Wagener. The album they made together, Ain’t Love Grand, is universally reviled by the band.
“The worst thing we ever did, and the only regret of my life, in terms of my career, was that record,” Cervenka declares.
Doe is only slightly less damning: “I can’t listen to it. And couldn’t listen to it fairly soon after doing it because it didn’t sound like us.” According to Doe, they were looking to Wagener to give their records a more polished sound. “We thought, what if we tried to marry the metal sound to the punk rock world? But it was a bad idea.”
Even though the single Burning House Of Love garnered some radio play, Ain’t Love Grand failed to find the wider audience they’d hoped for. Instead of being the band’s breakthrough album, it broke the band.
“We hadn’t succeeded,” says Zoom. “I felt it was time to get a real job.”
By 1985 Doe and Cervenka’s five-year marriage had ended. Tensions within the band were already strained prior to Ain’t Love Grand, but the album’s failure was the final straw for Zoom, who quit.
With Blasters man Dave Alvin and Tony Gilkyson of Lone Justice alternating on guitar on the road and in the studio, X released a string of albums that failed to stir the public’s imagination. The band went on hiatus twice during this period but never actually called it quits. It’s something they regret now.
“We should have broken up,” reflects Cervenka. “But no, we kept going, and that didn’t work out that good.”
In 1997, Elektra released Beyond And Back: The X Anthology to mark the group’s 20th anniversary. The two-CD collection included previously unreleased tracks plus demos and live recordings. For its release, X held a record signing at Tower Records in Hollywood. When Zoom and Doe met up, it was the first time the two men had seen each other in more than 12 years.
Asked about what words they exchanged, Doe laughs. “You know, it was typical of many men. Like, [nonchalantly] ‘Oh, how’s it going?’ That was about it.”
If some X men were being blasé about seeing each other, the large crowd was anything but.
“It was amazing,” Bonebrake smiles. “We must have been there three hours. There was a line going down the block.”
The enthusiastic response to Beyond And Back prompted lucrative offers for two reunion shows. After his years away, Zoom found it strange being thrust back into the turbulent world of X. “All of that seemed more like a movie I’d seen as a kid, rather than like my real former life.”
The initial shows in San Francisco and LA were sell-outs, leading to further dates – and a degree of comfort for Zoom. “It all came back pretty quickly once we started gigging again.”
Since then X haven’t stopped playing, even if they’ve recorded just one new album: 2020's well-received Alphabetland, the band's first since 1993's Hey Zeus!.
Cervenka is surprised to still be touring. “God knows I did plenty of things that I should be dead from,” she says.
Doe is philosophical about the band’s status. “I have no disappointments,” he says, “because the flip side of getting bigger success is as high as you rise you will fall.”
Manzarek is more forthright: “No, they’ve never received the acclaim they deserve, absolutely not.”
While X might not have scaled the commercial heights, they more than made their mark in other ways: pushing open the door for other bands, influencing a generation of younger musicians, and encapsulating a time and a place like few other bands have managed.
“We didn’t disgrace Los Angeles, that’s for sure,” Cervenka offers humbly. “We are a soundtrack to Los Angeles, and that is a big deal.”
The original version of this feature appeared in Classic Rock 171.