In town this week for four shows at City Winery featuring the original lineup of L.A. punk band X, I spoke with actor/musician John Doe about the lasting influence of his band as well as the inception of punk music and whether we’re capable, as a society, of having the type of collective reaction that punk music was born out of in the seventies…
Putting their own spin on the concept of the full album performance, X arrives in Chicago this week to perform each of their first four records chronologically (one per night) over the course of four evenings at City Winery (full details below).
As reflected in those four albums, which each encompass a variety of sounds that wouldn’t necessarily all be classified as the stereotypical “punk” sound we expect today, X proudly wore their influences on their sleeve, proving that punk music, at its inception, was always more of an idea/reaction than it was one particular sound – a movement which embraced a variety of diverse artists (Blondie, Ramones, Patti Smith, The Clash, X, etc.) and cities (New York, Los Angeles, San Francisco, London, etc.).
Touching on the ideas that marked the fundamental cornerstone of punk music – as well as the misconceptions and revisionist history that have followed in recent decades – my interview with John Doe also explores whether we, as a society in the internet age, are even still capable of having the collective reaction that once sparked punk in the seventies…
Q. [This] week in Chicago at City Winery, over the course of four nights, you’ll be performing the first four X albums, in their entirety – which you also did recently in New York – revisiting some rarely played songs in the process. How has that gone?
John Doe: At first it was scary. It didn’t just fall into place. We had to actually buckle down. And we also have another player, a friend of [X guitarist] Billy [Zoom’s], and his name is Michael Kilpatrick. He plays guitar on a few songs, drums and percussion on a couple others, and it allows us to do it. By the time that we had recorded our third record [1982’s Under the Big Black Sun], Billy had more parts to his guitar landscape then he could handle as one person. So for songs like “Come Back to Me” – which we have a saxophone – we just couldn’t do it.
This is an opportunity and a bit of a treat for the concertgoer.
Q. Are you, personally, a fan of this whole playing an album in its entirety gimmick?
JD: Oh, I don’t think it’s a gimmick at all. I think that it gives someone who’s a real fan something that’s a piece – something that you created, whenever that was, from beginning to end. I think the first time we thought of that was probably when Cheap Trick was doing their first three records. Then we did a tour just playing Los Angeles – which I think was for the thirtieth anniversary.
So it’s a completist kind of thing. But, I think, especially with Under the Big Black Sun and More Fun in the New World, it shows the range that we have – which is the kind of range that you wouldn’t normally get at just a regular X rock show.
Q. Especially in some of your solo work, I can hear a bit of a blues influence. Are you a fan of the Chicago blues?
JD: Oh, yes. Actually, Jack Myers – who was one of the bass players that played with, I think, Buddy Guy and Junior Wells and Otis Spann and all those types – I listened to his bass lines quite a bit to learn how to play. I’d say that was one of my bigger influences.
Q. Between your acting roles and the different sounds present on each of your solo albums – and obviously your work with X – you cover a lot of different ground as an artist. Is it important to you, artistically, to kind of continually try and explore new things and work outside the comfort zone a bit?
JD: (Laughs) I like the comfort zone! I really do. I won’t take an acting job that I don’t think I can understand or really find a part of me that is part of that character.
I just like working. I think that anyone who has opportunities to be creative, you’re gonna take advantage of them.
Q. X records, especially early on, featured hints of what today would be called rockabilly as well as a lot of sounds that really don’t fit what would necessarily be stereotyped as “punk” today. When that genre was starting to develop in the early seventies, before it really became very strictly defined, was the whole idea of “punk,” per se, really more about an idea or a way of thinking than it ever was one particular type of sound?
JD: Exactly. And that’s something that people miss nowadays. Especially people who think that the Sex Pistols invented punk rock –stupid, uninformed things like that.
If you look at the bands from Los Angeles or San Francisco – definitely New York – and even London, they all had different sounds. Blondie didn’t sound like the Ramones. And The Damned didn’t sound like Siouxsie & The Banshees. And so forth.
It was much more about do it yourself, not following the company line and having something in common with the roots of rock and roll.
Circa its inception, punk rock music couldn’t get any airplay which kind of, at the time, kept it more of a subculture. Even the bands that we look back at now as these hugely successful punk bands – The Ramones for instance – never really got their due at the time…
JD: Not at all. And all that stuff is sort of b.s., revisionist history…
Q. So it’s obviously easier now, than ever before, to get your music heard – which I’d argue can be a good thing and a bad thing – but how do you feel about the fact that so much different music is able to find an audience now, via the internet, with arguably a lot less work than it used to take to get heard?
JD: There’s two schools of thought: One is that the cream rises to the top and the other is that great geniuses can die forgotten. I subscribe to the first. I think that if something is truly great, people will hear it and they’ll talk about it. People like Jeff Buckley or Elliott Smith are more recent versions of that. There’s also exceptions to the rule where someone who’s really great just slips through the cracks.
I think the real challenge now is to break through the static. There’s so much stuff going on. It’s kind of weird… Because the big game is all the Beyonce and pop kind of crap like that. And it’s a relief, I think, for people not to have to compete with that – because you can’t. You can find a niche and you can find a loyal following and you can get a lot of hits on your website or Facebook, you know?
Q. Punk really seems to have come out of the feeling that music, especially rock music, had become corporate, boring and predictable. I feel like that’s the case again now just as much as it was in the seventies. In your opinion, are we still capable of having the type of collective, social reaction that sparked the inception of punk music ever again?
JD: Oh, absolutely. I think it’s just going to be more difficult for the media to make an impact – to make the scene, or a scene like that, have an impact. Because, like I was saying earlier, there’s so much static.
I think it’s kind of happening now. I mean, there’s a lot of great music and a lot of music that’s influenced by early blues music.
There’s a guy that’s getting a lot of notice right now: Benjamin Booker. He reminds me of Chuck Berry. And there’s another guy from L.A., Son Little. He’s really great. There’s a woman from Australia, Courtney Barnett. There’s a lot of young people that are just playing some sort of rock and roll music. Or like indie rock.
I don’t know if it’s gonna be a scene in a city but there’s definitely a lot of great music being made now.
Q. Well looking back on your catalog and doing the amount of touring you’ve been with X over the past few years, do you think there’s any chance of new X music down the road?
JD: There’s always a possibility… as slim as it may be. (Laughs)
The other thing that we embarked on is doing an acoustic version of X… which isn’t really acoustic but acoustic by standards of the loud stuff that we play normally. And we did a whole run of that. We did a tour up the west coast. And I think that may unlock some possibilities for new music.
– Jim Ryan
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(Details on this week’s four X shows below)
X – 4 Nights, 4 Albums (One full album performance each night) _______________________________________________________________________________________________________
Tuesday, September 2 – Friday, September 5, 2014
Doors open at 6PM, Show starts at 8PM
Also performing: Not in the Face
Click HERE to purchase tickets
Tuesday: Los Angeles (SOLD OUT)
Wednesday: Wild Gift
Thursday: Under the Big Black Sun
Friday: More Fun in the New World