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Raw Power and Poetry Too 

Reissues capture LA's premier punk band blasting out of the gate

Nostalgia doesn't get much sweeter than this: It's a hotter than usual Arizona night in a jammed-to-the-gills, all-ages Tucson venue and local legend Giant Sand is whipping up a storm when a surprise guest suddenly appears onstage. As the band slams into the Chuck Berry-in-the-jungle throb of the classic X song Johny Hit And Run Paulene, none other than P.J. Harvey joins Sand frontman Howe Gelb at the mic and the duo brays/moans their lustiest Exene Cervenka & John Doe impressions. From the vantage point at the rear of the cramped, steamy club, watching pockets of spontaneous pogoing breaking out in the crowd while the song blasts full throttle, it's almost like. . . Like seeing X in the late 70s! John Doe exclaims when the scene is described to him. Get out of here! P.J. Harvey doing Johny'?!? I am just fucking floored! Doe laughs with delight then chuckles conspiratorially and adds, Now why doesn't she call me up and have me open her shows?

What was it like seeing X in the late 70s on their home turf of Los Angeles? In a recent interview with respected indie zine Shredding Paper, Brendan Mullen, who ran LA's notorious Masque punk rock club back then and lists X among his favorite bands, described a typical nightly scene:

A hundred people ranging in age from mid-teens to late 20s getting completely blasted out of their minds with bands playing at 130 decibels, with terrible acoustics, and overflowing toilets, and everybody jumping up and down and bouncing off the walls.

And while Doe calls Mullen's recollection maybe a little romanticized, he's not about to deny the excitement of the times or the visceral power that his band channeled, nostalgia or no nostalgia. With Rhino's new editions of the first three X albums -- 1980's Los Angeles, 1981's Wild Gift and 1982's Under the Big Black Sun -- that power gets a righteous, overdue airing. Jointly produced for reissue by Doe and Rhino Senior VP of A&R Gary Stewart, the CDs benefit from all the usual Rhino hallmarks.

Explains Doe, Rhino offered us an opportunity to have our records in stores. They haven't been, which pissed me off. So we just jumped at it! You're gonna put out each individual CD? Excellent!' There had been that crappy two-for-one CD on Slash with the first two albums, so that alone is worth it. We're gonna be able to put in bonus tracks? Even better! And we're gonna be able to put in a 10-page booklet and Rhino has excellent distribution and is the king of the fucking hill where it comes to reissuing and compilations?' It was a natural.

Doe himself took charge of organizing the archival end of things, consulting old photos and gig flyers, Mrs. Doe, Sr.'s collection of clippings about her son's band, even bits of memorabilia sent in by X fans in response to ads that Rhino posted (an ardent collector from Detroit was rewarded for his efforts by having one of his live X tapes tapped for a bonus track).

I'm not that much of a control freak that I have to be in on everything, says Doe. But it's better to go to the source and be able to like what's going on as it's happening rather than be upset later. And this is sort of the last chance to get [the reissues] as good as they can be. I had to keep reminding myself as I was playing X's secretary and trying to remember which engineer did, for example, the Adult Books' [bonus track] demo, that this was a good thing. [emits mock groan] You wanted to do this, John!' But it was worth it, all the headaches, the pondering, who did what, how do we credit this, going over liner notes, looking at hundreds of photographs, seeing all your friends that are dead now.

By the time X -- vocalist/bassist Doe and singer Cervenka, drummer D.J. Bonebrake and guitarist Billy Zoom -- went into the studio in January 1980 with producer Ray Manzarek to record its debut, the band was at the top of LA's club heap, additionally having logged widespread kudos for its 1978 single Adult Books b/w We're Desperate.

X brought to the table an uncommon level of musicianship, songwriting that was steeped equally in Americana traditions and impressionistic-poetic firsthand narrative (one song, The Unheard Music, was even adapted from a T.S. Eliot poem) and charismatic group chemistry. In Kristine McKenna's liner notes the band is described as being like Botticelli's Venus on the half shell. . .fully formed and perfect. . .gorgeous and glamorous. . .on fire from the very start. Punk bands of that era tended to be sloppy, but X was tight, and you never worried that one of them might take a wrong turn and derail the show. X stood out in a crowd, even by Punk's sideways standards.

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