Sheer curiosity led me to Los Angeles, the 1980 debut of X – I had heard John Doe do a relatively genial interview on The Adam Carolla Show – and in an interesting coincidence, in front of me on the telly as I am tying this is another episode of Bravo’s Work of Art: The Next Great Artist. Of course this show takes the ever-durable Top Chef formula, and attaches it to aspiring artists, as the host and critics go out and offer apparently erudite (I am a luddite – how can I contradict them?) critiques of these people’s pieces. It is funny and intriguing and whatnot – as these sorts of shows are – but it is funny as hell that this format could choose “The Next Great Artist”, especially thinking about what total basket cases some of the true greats actually were. Of course, these artists on this show are emotional, dramatic and cry a lot (hey, it’s reality TV!) – but it is hard not to think that they are dramatic the way that cops nowadays studied cop movies to be cop, that somehow they have internalized that this is how artistes roll. The show produces people with talent, but the work – and for that matter, the artists themselves- don’t exactly seem to be sweatin the auteur theory. I guess it was stuff like this that punk was meant to repudiate.
Now, I am no expert on punk. I know the same bands you do. We have your Clash, your Sex Pistols, your Ramones. I’ve heard “Blitzkrieg Bop”, but then, who hasn’t? ** But a real unvarnished punk record – something touching the notion of “work of art” in that sort of non-Bravo way – that is new. So how does a true hallmark of the genre – but one by a band that has largely disappeared from a lot of radar screens – sound fresh a scant 31 years later?
** True Story: I knew The Ramones knew “Blitzkrieg Bop”, and I knew the SONG which has that title. However, I did not know that the song was THAT song. Ever sit around and have someone point out something that apparently everybody but you knew? Like this time, my wife was telling me, ahead of going to see them at the concert, that she was telling her co-worker how she appreciated the pun in the name Fitz and the Tantrums. I sat there blank faced as she went on totally correctly presuming that I would have picked it up. Except that I didn’t, because I am a retard. **
Los Angeles, it must be said – oozes commitment. Switching in my IPod between this and something that has seen the board room like a Wiz Khalifa, that sort of je ne sais quoi is evident. X leans into the performance in a way that you see rarely in arts these days – maybe some of the seasons of Def Comedy Jam possibly. For instance, consider the opening song “The Phone’s Off the Hook – But You’re Not”. We get the gnashing of the guitars, and the voice of Exene, the female lead vocalist. The voice is not polished – this is not a vocal style you are going to be inviting to Broadway – but she is belting it out with the same sort of passion. That passion is evident, and it shows in the final product, in a way that a more produced work might have obfuscated. The dish here is baked with love.
At the same time, sitting here and complimenting the commitment and the passion evident in the music – the love – shortchanges that skill here. Yeah, the musicianship and vocals are not the REASON to listen to it, and the production is raw and, well, punkish – but there is some finesse going on here too. In particular, the second track, “Johny Hit and Run Pauline” has a lovely riff which almost hints at rockabilly stuff of today. The hook is legitimately fun – evident of a pop sensibility that belies how unfiltered it is. There is skill here. The skill is further evident in the phenomenal finish to the album, with “Sex and Dying in High Society:, “The Unheard Music” and the cheeky “The World’s a Mess: In My Kiss”. Especially with the latter track, we are getting riffs and hooks that are really catchy and show a knowledge of what works musically in songs. The finesse – even borrowing Ray Manzarek for organ at times – is evident, and Exene’s voice really works. It’s like a rawer, rougher – Beach Boys Goes Punk. I did not expect to enjoy this album really – or to even understand it – but I must say, it’s worth it, and a better theme music for LA than that crap Randy Newman wrote.