Many people know the Los Angeles punk band X for its loud, metallic version of “Wild Thing,” Charlie Sheen’s entrance song in the 1989 movie “Major League.”
It was the only time the band sounded like that. A more representative clip is in “The Decline of Western Civilization,” the 1981 documentary on the Los Angeles punk scene. In it, the band stood out for its precise, wiry energy in a movie dominated by musicians who flailed out of control.
X never officially split, but it went through lineup changes and periods of prolonged inactivity, none of which showed when X played New Orleans in 2011 at the Voodoo Music Experience. Singers John Doe and Exene Cervenka’s harmonies remained as unconventional and affecting as they were when the band released its first album, “Los Angeles,” in 1980.
This time, X will be without guitarist Billy Zoom, diagnosed with bladder cancer in July. Jesse Dayton, who plays in John Doe’s solo band, will sub for him.
“Having toured with Jesse, I knew we could count on him to learn the songs right, travel easily, and honor Billy all at the same time,” Doe said recently by phone.
X have always been road warriors, even before there was a network of clubs that would book bands from outside the mainstream. When X got a chance to play New York’s famed CBGB’s, Max’s Kansas City and the lesser known Studio 57 — “three better than Studio 54,” Doe joked — the members got in the van and drove across country for the show even though they didn’t have any other gigs along the way.
Today, we know there are friendly clubs to play in Detroit, Cleveland and Chicago, but there was no way to know about them in the mid-1970s.
Los Angeles wasn’t much easier.
“In 1975, live music was in a terrible rut, and that included Los Angeles,” Doe said. “There was a great sense of DIY among everyone interested in new music. Early on, promoters like Brendan Mullen from The Masque stepped up to fill that gap. Later, there were clubs that realized there was some money to be made, so Club 88, The Hong Kong Cafe, Madame Wong’s, Blackie’s helped promote the growing scene.”
Recently, there has been renewed interest in the Los Angeles’ punk scene. The website CirculationZero.com made the entire run of the magazine that documented the scene, Slash, available as downloadable pdfs.
Slash was a cheerleader for the scene and a cultural provocateur in its own right, adopting a confrontational attitude similar to that of the bands it covered. Eventually, it became a label, as well, and released many seminal albums, including X’s first three.
“Slash was a flashpoint for the scene,” Doe said. “Along with a number of fanzines, they all collected, commented on and distributed all the news they could find or hear about punk rock. Through Slash and the L.A. Times, people began to realize that live new music was happening all around them.”
Meanwhile, Penelope Spheeris’ “The Decline of Western Civilization” has been rereleased on DVD.
John Doe has mixed feelings about the movie. He appreciates the effort Spheeris put into getting the sound right, and the dynamic live footage that she got. At the same time, he thinks she started with an agenda that shaped the final product.
“Penelope made the movie she had to make,” Doe said diplomatically. “It had to be sensational in order to get funded. It focused on a time when the L.A. scene was changing from eclectic to hardcore. Unfortunately, the movie left out many of the more interesting, challenging bands of that era, such as The Weirdos, The Plugz, The Alley Cats and the Go Go’s.”