The American Ruse: X's 80s
By Dante Garland

Rhino continues to reissue X’s back catalog with three CDs that portray a band equally at odds with the American status quo and its own image. The first three X CDs (Los Angeles, Wild Gift, and Under the Big Black Sun) could easily be seen as a piece; low-fi production by Ray Manzarek characterized the songs, providing a stark foundation for ruminations on urban outsiders. For the most part, X’s lyrics reflected their punk take on Charles Bukowski’s skid row L.A., a refugee camp for the confused, desperate, and self-destructive, but above all for those who had not, or simply could not, buy the spit and polish of the American dream. As X moved into the 80s, the band often seemed motivated by dissatisfaction with the boundaries of their art, which gave rise to both new musical territory and unwise compromise.

The first chronologically in the current batch of reissues is More Fun in the New World, an album similar to the first three in overall sound (most likely due to Manzarek’s production). The mix is slightly slicker, however, creating a sound less at odds with pop than the indie 45 garage tech that had been associated with the band’s previous efforts. The music is also less guitar driven; vocals are front and center, the lyrics clearer in relief against instrumental tracks that sometimes seem low in the mix. The album opens with "The New World," almost a slow country boogie with lyrics that are a cross between "Route 66" and Noam Chomsky and reflect X’s growing interest in Americana. The use of a slightly rootsier sound seems to be a precursor to the full-out use of Americana for American dissent on See How We Are. By the end of the first song, it is clear that X have expanded the scope of their creative vision both musically and lyrically. Their demimonde is not simply L.A. and its fringe characters, but the whole country, and the liberal borrowing of Chuck Berry-isms and rockabilly on the previous albums has expanded to a full embrace of the possibility that lies in America’s musical vernacular.

This shift in style does not mean that X had in any way abandoned their penchant for full-throttle punk numbers. The second track, "We’re Having Much More Fun," is a tongue-in-cheek celebration of the cheap brand of decadence afforded to underground rock stars. The song could easily belong to the first batch of X songs if not for the slight change in outlook and production. Drums and guitar create a bedrock for the now more melodic role of John Doe’s bass, and the smoother texture of Doe’s and especially Exene Cervenka’s vocals is more accessible than the jarring duets on Los Angeles and Wild Gift, perhaps to make the lyrics clearer in the mix. In a similar vein, "Make the Music Go Bang" and "Devil Doll" are self-reflective uptempo rockers with production that clarifies the lyrics without sacrificing the basic drive of the music. More uncharacteristic of X is the album closer, "True Love Part II," an upbeat funk that reprises the stream of consciousness lyrics of "True Love" as a catchy sonic experiment.

Other than the radical whistlestop tour of "The New World," the other stand-out statement of the album is "I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts," a song in which content and form are welded together so effectively as to be subtly manipulative. The eerie broken, building tempo of the vocals seems slowly to whirlpool into the chorus over the near-folk of the instrumental track. The chorus and the title reflect the numb know-nothing approach of many Americans to desperate political situations in the interior monologue of someone beginning to break through indoctrination. The chorus, a self-admonishment to clear one’s mind to blissful ignorance in the face of atrocities, shifts the song over to a more X-like rock, at the same time reflecting the schizophrenia of the song’s stance. The song is as bewildering as the revelation of complicity the narrator must cope with. Rock has rarely dealt with paranoia and political disorder so well—only "Gimme Shelter" comes to mind for comparison.

After the artistic success of More Fun in the New World, X’s choices became a bit perverse, but out of an understandable restlessness that can only be associated with their desire to communicate. It is easy to sense in More Fun’s wider scope of subject matter and flirtations with roots a desire to change, but more importantly, a desire to cross boundaries. While X had been the seminal 70s L.A. punk band, their aspirations went far beyond the clique-frenzied club scene. Often criticized for signing to a major label (Elektra), X was simply doing what was logical artistically for a band that wanted to make themselves heard. X had certainly evolved musically since the first album (the growing confidence in Cervenka’s vocals is particularly interesting), and the need to broaden their audience reflected in their major label signing was becoming a source of self-doubt. The result of this conflict between hard work and lack of listeners (i.e., commercial response) was the next album in the Rhino series, the unfocused (or too focused) Ain’t Love Grand.

On Ain’t Love Grand, X, dissatisfied with radio’s lack of response to new music (as strongly outlined in "I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts"), decided to play by the rules. At its low points, the album is pop-metal; at its best it’s a family album of the band’s inner conflict. The strongest material on the album is also seemingly the most autobiographical. "Burning House of Love," despite the MOR keyboards, ranks with "White Girl" as one of John Doe’s best songs of romantic confusion. "My Goodness" has Cervenka creating a "Fever" atmosphere with simple lyrics warning of femme fatale danger. "What Is Wrong with Me" is a stunted anthem due to production, a song otherwise capable of standing with X’s best desperate ballads. Production is the main suspect throughout; while X seems incapable of recording a truly disposable album, Ain’t Love Grand is perhaps the closest they have come. The sound is radio-friendly, not the low-fi that complimented the early material so well. Pop keyboards weave in and out of a guitar sound that would not be out of place on some of the arena rock albums that dominated the 80s charts. It is a startling album in that it seems to reflect a rapid loss of direction and a departure from the experimentation of only a year before. Many of the songs are simply nondescript, a word that could never before be applied to X’s challenging music.

By the time of 1987’s See How We Are, John Doe and Exene Cervenka were divorced, guitarist Billy Zoom had left, and the band’s sound was being reinvented in the wake of an unsuccessful commercial compromise. See How We Are has a different sound than all the previous X albums, yet at the same time it was a conservative response to the recent dip in X’s creative fortunes. The album retains some of the hit factory production of Ain’t Love Grand, but the lyrical lapses of the last album have been discarded for a return to X’s pet subject, the American outsider. "I’m Lost" reestablishes the link with a gun-toting transvestite and homeless pleas, while "In the Time It Takes" and "Anyone Can Fill Your Shoes" recapture the edge that had been repressed for Ain’t Love Grand with the fast emotional viscera that had been the band’s hallmark. Focusing on the album as a return to form, however, detracts from the real sense of invention on some of the tracks. The title track, lyrically a close relative to "The New World" in its picture postcards of America’s left-behinds, can easily be seen as a precursor to the first wave of "alt. country" as characterized by early Uncle Tupelo, which used the slow acoustic approach to Americana in order to evoke a world of quiet desperation. X had used country elements before on More Fun in the New World and most notably on the straight-ahead country side project The Knitters, but never had they welded it to their own lyrical approach so convincingly for the length of an entire song. In effect, the song is a slow, mournful take on the righteous anger behind "The New World," complete with the snatches of dialogue and portraits of day-to-day life that had been such an integral part of their first four albums. The song is another step in evolution from More Fun in the New World’s growing preoccupation with the mingling of roots music and politics.

Rhino’s repackaging of the three albums includes bonus tracks intended to give some insight into the band’s creative process; there are plenty of demos for the rabid completist but only a few shed any light on the development of the band’s sound. Most of the demos seem close to a finished state. But the exceptions are notable; on More Fun in the New World, "Devil Doll" has a slightly rougher, more guitar-centered mix, Ain’t Love Grand’s demo of The Replacements’ "I Will Dare" has Doe carrying the whole song with vocals and bass, and a couple of demos on See How We Are, notably Cervenka’s "Holiday Story," cut the album tracks with a more scaled-down approach. Particularly interesting is the Creedence-like take on Dylan’s "Highway 61 Revisited," which makes the song more of a vamp with bursts of country rock guitar. These tracks, along with insightful notes and recent interviews with the band members, give the albums the attention they deserve and (especially in the case of See How We Are) so rarely receive. What becomes clear is that X were not content to rest on underground credibility and continually explored new territory in the 80s. As with any digression from the safe and familiar, the band sometimes followed a crooked path, but even their misses indicate an inability to follow even their own formula for too long.