Wednesday, February 07, 2007
Classic Album Corner
Under The Big Black Sun
X burst on to the LA punk scene in 1980 with their raucous debut album, Los Angeles. The follow-up, 1981’s Wild Gift was a critical smash, but alas never received the nationwide airplay it deserved. Calling X a punk band seemed to be a bit of pigeonholing to me – they were at the core a rock band who played at faster tempos. For one thing, the songs of X had actual melodies, unlike much of the hardcore punk from that era. The vocal interplay between then husband and wife John Doe and Exene Cervenka was unlike any other band of the time. The fact that each record was produced by former Doors keyboardist Ray Manzarek lent the group a bit of credibility in the “rock” world. (though it was funny to read a letter in Rolling Stone in ’81 or so which decried the current state of music, specifically mentioning a photo of Ray on stage with X that appeared in an earlier issue, which the writer described as “Ray Manzarek playing with some New Wave band”). Give me a break, writer, this band could “rock” circles around the dinosaur acts of the era like The Who, were were retiring, and corporate bland crap like Styx and Journey. (This will have to be an entirely different post, but I do not understand the current wave of nostalgia for Journey. They sucked then, and they suck now, and the passage of time has not changed anything, at least in my eyes. Who enjoys this passionless garbage?)
In early 1982, X made the leap and was signed to a major label, Elektra. This kind of step was often seen as selling out by the hardcore members of the punk scene, but for X it seemed to be the next logical step – they had accomplished everything possible on indie label Slash, and were ready for the big time. If they could garner wider acceptance without compromising their sound (always the most difficult thing for a band to do), everyone would be satisfied.
My first exposure to the group came in early September of 1982. I knew of the band, but no radio station on the East Coast was playing them, so had never actually heard any of their songs. While watching the Jerry Lewis telethon (hey, I was working the late shift, and not much else was on in those pre-cable days), I saw them be introduced by Mr. Lewis. I was thrown for a loop – this was what major labels forced bands to do? I can only imagine the reactions from many of the older folks in the audience and watching at home when Exene took the mic and began to sing. She was really the only member of the band who could be classified as having an odd appearance – the other male members of the band, Doe, Billy Zoom and DJ Bonebrake, looked like very straight arrow types. They performed “Blue Spark”, from their new major label debut record Under The Big Black Sun, and they killed. I was immediately hooked, and wanted to hear more. I ran out the very next day and bought the record. Really, I ran. I was not disappointed, as you can probably tell.
The record kicks off with a bang, as “The Hungry Wolf” launches with Zoom’s powerful lead guitar riff, backed by the steady pounding drums of Bonebrake, and we’re off and running. Doe and Cervenka share the vocals on just about every song, at various times singing with each other, against each other, or one behind the other. This was one of the things that made X’s sound so unique.
While death is a theme which permeates the record, it would be a mistake to assume that X was a dark band obsessed with goth images, etc. As the liner notes indicate, Exene’s sister Mary was killed the previous year in a car accident, and the songs which allude to her are more mournful than anything else. “Riding With Mary” is the most direct, playing off the same name as the Saint while sporting the couplet “The next time you see a statue of Mary/ Remember my sister was in a car”. “Come Back to Me” is a poignant, slow song performed solely by Cervenka, as one imagines it should have been. The rest of the record rocks as hard as ever, even their cover of an old Leadbelly tune “Dancing With Tears In My Eyes”, and grows on the listener with each play.
X followed in 1983 with More Fun In The New World, which also failed to reach the critical mass Elektra had hoped for, though a cover of “Breathless” got a little attention. The band later explored a return to Roots based rock, hooking up with Dave Alvin of the Blasters (eventually making him a member after Zoom’s departure).
To most hard core X fans, Under The Big Black Sun is not even their favorite record (Wild Gift usually get that distinction). For me, there was just the magic of one’s first exposure to a band that makes that particular record the one listened to and cherished the most.
The album was reissued in 2001, and is available on iTunes.