X in a Los Angeles basement

LOS ANGELES, 1980: We were a group of kids, borderline orphans, shuffled to the basement of a complex on an LA summer day in 1980. Left to our own devices, a few of us tooled over the concrete on skateboards. I made short runs around the empty room on my tiny orange plastic K-Mart board, trying to avoid the other bodies. There might have been music on the tape player.

The boredom was broken when Mike came through the door. He was 12 years old – three years my senior – and our group’s unspoken leader. A god to me – always with a new idea, a new twist – he was worldly and alive, physically sure and a little bit crazy in the eyes. He traveled the streets on his own, but sometimes took us along for the ride.

X, Los Angeles

He burst through the door, pulling a cassette from his army-green coat, announcing to the room that something important had happened. The tape cover was a stark, colorless photo of a burning “X” on a black background, with “LOS ANGELES” in red letters at the top left. Even at nine years old, the image of a burning cross meant something to me. Turning the cross on its side on a cassette cover added a question mark, but still implied something evil and violent.

Mike championed the image’s challenge while also dismissing its importance. This was our music, he told us. X was a band made for us, built from ashes and named for our city.

I hadn’t heard of The Sex Pistols, Black Flag, The Ramones, The Dead Kennedys, etc. Some of us were into Devo and The B-52s. I didn’t know what punk rock was. Mike changed that.
He forced the tape into the player and the room came alive with the classic opening guitar riff of Your Phone’s Off the Hook, But You’re Not.

Exene Cervenka wailed, threatened and droned: “Someone clean to chew on/A wife that no one likes/He called and said all of New York/is a tow-away zone/Paid 50 dollars on 12th Street today/and now all our money’s gone … I don’t care who you don’t like/You don’t have to answer me.”

Then came Johnny Hit and Run Paulene. “LA bus doors open/Kicking both doors open/When they rested on 6th Street/that’s when he drugged a girl inside/He was spreading her legs and didn’t understand dieing/He was still awake.” As an adult, the twisted combination of Billy Zoom’s Chuck Berry guitar riffs and Doe’s depressing story of drugs and sex have connotations I didn’t understand when I was nine. But even back then I got the violent, desperate imagery that was all over its surface. And the hollow break in John Doe’s voice when he sang, “She wasn’t what you’d call living, really/She was still awake,” at the end of the song explained it without words anyway.

Doe and Cervenka’s vocals were spit and growl contempt when they sang alone and dense and damp as the concrete walls when they sang harmony. This was like the B-52’s smashed a window, stuck their heads through the shards and spit gutter scum down our throats. It tasted better than it sounds.

Recorded in Dec. 1980 and released in April that year, the rock critic cliche was that X exploded on the scene and put West Coast punk on the national map with this debut album. Okay. Sure. Los Angeles begins like a gunshot. The first three songs – Your Phone’s Off The Hook, Johnny Hit and Run Paulene, and a cover of Soul Kitchen that obliterates memory of the original – are flawless. Nausea introduced me to anti-social bodily functions in pop music, but producer Ray Manzarek’s organ just got in the way. There are hits and misfires – sometimes both simultaneously.

If the “punk” tag leads you to expect the consistent speed, slop, thrash and sneer you know from the Circle Jerks or Black Flag, you won’t find what you’re looking for in X, on this first album or the The Gift and Under The Big Black Sun which followed in 1981 and 1982. Unlike their West Coast contemporaries, X veered down much more diverse musical roads, from country to soul – and did it more sincerely, if still full of anger in their storytelling and sparse delivery.

There’s plenty to say about the rest of Los Angeles and other X albums (if We’re Desperate from Wild Gift doesn’t force you off your couch, then I say you can’t move), but I really just know that in that basement on that afternoon, my mood changed; boredom and dislocation attached themselves to the sound of dirty guitar, primitive drums, and fuck-you vocals. This improved my day ten-fold.

Mike said the band was playing a show on Sunset Strip and suggested we sneak in. I was excited by the idea, but Mike wound up going alone and getting kicked out. I still regret not following him to that show at the Whiskey A-Go-Go. Months later I would graduate from my tiny plastic skateboard to a massive Kryptonics board that took me around the city in imitation of Mike’s adventures, but before that I had X in a basement. Even 31 years later, Los Angeles can still save me from a shitty, claustrophobic afternoon.


About Jedd Kettler

Jedd is a musician, writer, graphic designer and woodworker. He is a member of Vermont band farm and recently released several EPs under the name Dashboard Hibachi.