While most of the bands that birthed the Los Angeles punk scene in the late ’70s burned out long ago, the era’s most notable alumnus, X, celebrates 40 years with a 2017 anniversary tour.
X – which still consists of original members John Doe (the frontman), his ex-wife Exene Cervenka (the co-vocalist), guitarist Billy Zoom, and drummer D. J. Bonebrake – was always a bit of an anomaly. Its early albums were produced by the Doors’ Ray Manzarek. Its sound drew on rockabilly, country-western and ’50s rock, albeit with more bite. And the couple at its center brought a poet’s sensibilities to the lyrics.
According to Cervenka, it was a product of an eclectic scene far removed from the clichés and stringent fashion and musical boundaries that came to define it.
“The punk scene was about diversity. Every single band was completely different,” says Cervenka, citing peers like the Avengers, the Dickes, Del Fuegos, and the Dils. “We were in a vacuum. There was no TV and no radio, except college radio – if you could find it. No one was imitating each other. It was just fantastic not to have to worry about peer pressure.”
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It’s a subject Doe addresses in his 2016 book, “Under the Big Black Sun: A Personal History of L.A. Punk,” which includes recollections from peers who were part of it.
“It wasn’t until 1980 when hardcore fans started coming to punk shows and spitting on the bands and not getting it at all, that the scene became regimented,” she explains.
She remembers it as a positive time for women in rock. It was the tail end of the women’s movement and exploitation wasn’t a big part of rock n’ roll.
“Look at Pat Benatar, Linda Ronstadt, Joni Mitchell, Janis Joplin. None of them are your standard sex symbol. Some were attractive. They didn’t dress in bikinis and run around on stage. We were past that sexist era. Then Madonna turned little girls into sex objects, sexualizing music. We had to go back in time.”
Both New York and L.A.’s punk scenes were full of strong female musicians who didn’t fit a specific mold. She lists the Bags, Bush Tetras, Patti Smith, and Blondie as examples.
“When Madonna happened, that took over the image of women. If she didn’t do it, someone else would’ve,” she adds. “It was a great moment before it happened.”
X watched other aspects of popular music change before them as its members experimented with country and collaborated with other artists. Testosterone-heavy glam and hair metal of the ’80s eventually gave way to grunge.
“Then you had the backlash. Grunge had a foot in hardcore and punk. All those bands were great. There was a certain maleness, an energy to it. Then riot grrrl started,” says Cervenka, who isn’t as warm about the feminist movement. “We didn’t need it in the punk scene. L7 and Babes in Toyland fell between riot grrrl and punk. They were just bands.”
She’s seen the trend swing back during X’s second half.
“It became normal to be a woman in a band again. You don’t have to be reactionary,” she says.
What hasn’t changed is political strife and dissatisfaction that makes X’s songs still resonate. Songs like 1983’s “The New World,” which Cervenka says she cites often: “The tears have been falling/All over this country’s face/It was better before, before they voted for What’s-His-Name/This was supposed to be the new world.”
“When Obama came in and there was all that controversy about his name, I thought that’s really timely,” she says. “Now people think things were better before Trump. We said it was better before, and it was 1980. It doesn’t matter who it is.”
When: 8 p.m. Monday.
Where: Neighborhood Theatre, 511 E. 36th St.
Details: 704-942-7997; www.neighborhoodtheatre.com