POP MUSIC REVIEW : A Revitalized X Reunites : The pioneering ‘80s band returns to the L.A. rock scene for the first time in nearly two years with new-found energy. Can an album be far behind?
It took X less than two hours Sunday night at the Hollywood Palladium to resolve most of the questions--and doubts--of the last two years.
In a blistering homecoming performance, the long inactive quartet--one of the half-dozen most important and influential American rock bands of the ‘80s--demonstrated that it still has a viable place in the rock ‘n’ roll world of the ‘90s--if it wants it.
The significant thing about the shrieks and cheers that filled the ballroom during the group’s key stop on its first tour in two years was that the enthusiasm wasn’t coming from just the old faithful who had seen the group work its way up from the Masque and the Whisky to national acclaim a decade ago. Most of the hundreds of fans jammed in front of the stage were young enough to have been in grade school when X was making its mark--and it was must have been reassuring to band leaders John Doe and Exene Cervenka to be able to look down and see all the wide-eyed, body-slamming verve.
More than the reaction of today’s pop audience, however, the real test of this brief, four-show tour was probably how the band members themselves would feel about playing together again.
Count on it: There’ll be another X album.
There was no confirmation Sunday, but it’s hard to imagine the band members walking away from the opportunity and challenge after the joy they displayed on stage. Turning to material from all phases of its career, the band played until after midnight with an energy and commitment that recalled its earliest days together.
In those early days, X was the leader in a Los Angeles rock scene that helped set standards of artistic integrity and purpose for hundreds of other bands around the country--the nucleus of what eventually became known as alternative-rock scene.
The message of the band--and such allies as the Blasters, Black Flag and Los Lobos--was that success was measured in the quality of the music not in sales.
That hardly seems like a revolutionary concept today, but it was an important breakthrough in the ‘80s because there was a time in pop-rock when the best attractions--from Elvis Presley and Little Richard to the Beatles and Bob Dylan--did find a mass audience. Accomplishment, then, was largely measured by sales.
But that was no longer true by the time X surfaced in the wake of the punk revolution in England. Radio had become conservative, leaving challenging bands as long shots in the new commercial game plan.
Rather than compromise its sound, X stayed, for the most part, true to its artistic vision--and triumphed under the new guidelines of the alterative scene.
But after six studio albums, the group took an open-end break. It had been a long, glorious run, but also a sometimes frustrating and tense one. Original guitarist Billy Zoom--whose invigorating style brought a celebration and lift to the frequently somber themes--had left the band and the marriage of Doe and Cervenka ended in divorce.
For many observers, it seemed the end of the line. And the questions remained as the band hit the road again for the four shows that ended with the Palladium date.
Even if the band members, including original drummer D.J. Bonebrake and Zoom-replacement Tony Gilkyson, found the motivation to continue, there was the matter of the continued relevancy of X’s music.
At the band’s peak, the music mixed rockabilly guitar and aggressive, almost brutal rhythm with songs sung by Doe and Cervenka with such urgency that they seemed to be dispatches from the urban battlefield.
Only the Eagles of post-'60s Los Angeles rock groups wrote about life in the city with such fearless accuracy and command. But the Eagles mainly charted the glamorous life in the Hollywood Hills, while X explored life on the streets and alleys of Hollywood.
Gradually, the band--which also wrote about the tensions of relationships--expanded its turf to include the national political climate, offering some of the earliest statements about the victims of the nation’s economic hard-times. Part of the power of the band on stage was the almost journalistic immediacy of the songs.
Some of the themes did seem a bit dated Sunday--others have delved even deeper into the anxiety of urban life and songs about society’s indifference have become commonplace in the post “Live Aid” rock world.
But the music itself--despite the absence of Zoom’s rainbow bursts of guitar personality--continued to be as invigorating a blend of punk and roots-rock vitality ever offered on stage. Rather than return to action stale, X was revitalized.
Doe, wearing a white shirt and jeans, and Cervenka, in a bright red holiday sweater over her dress, threw themselves into the vocals with an energy and intensity that matched Bonebrake’s flailing, powerhouse drumming.
For all the energy, however, one of the most affecting moments Sunday was during the encore when Doe, who normally plays bass, stood on stage with an acoustic guitar and sang “See How We Are,” the title song from the group’s last studio album.
In some ways, the song--with its references to personal relationships and social victims--summarizes X’s music in the ‘80s and it was endearing to watch Doe sing the song in almost campfire fashion to the young, hushed audience.
The challenge for X, if the band does go back into the studio, is to apply the same poetic eye to today’s world as Doe and Cervenka did to the world of the ‘80s.
X wasn’t the only veteran band on the Palladium bill that was testing its relevancy. Killing Joke, a once-influential English band that hasn’t played here in nearly two years, pointed new directions for underground music in the early ‘80s by merging punk’s dark themes with metal sensibilities and disco’s danceable beats.
But the group seemed severely dated Sunday. Not only have other bands moved more aggressively into those areas, but Jaz Coleman also seemed for most of the band’s hour set to be a strangely ineffective front man.