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LA Punk Band X Returns With Go-For-Broke Urgency In 'Alphabetland'

May 12, 2020
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TERRY GROSS, HOST:

This is FRESH AIR. Rock critic Ken Tucker says the quartet X was the greatest band to emerge from the LA punk scene in the 1980s and that the band's new album "Alphabetland" can take its place alongside the best work they've ever done. "Alphabetland" is X's first album of new material with the band's original lineup in 35 years. Ken says it's proof that getting older doesn't mean being less passionate.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ALPHABETLAND")

X: (Singing) Tearing up the sidewalks, pouring wet cement, erasing your initials, alphabet wrecked. I watched you pour white gasoline to cover up your scent, burned your name to cinders, alphabet wrecked. Blue you wear like martyr blue, atom bomb bruises, cold war flu. Blue you wear like martyr blue, atom bomb bruises, cold war flu.

KEN TUCKER, BYLINE: Listen to that. The hammering beat of the drums by D.J. Bonebrake, the razor-slash guitar riffing of Billy Zoom, the sweet and sour harmonies of John Doe and Exene Cervenka. Yes, X, the greatest Los Angeles band to emerge from punk rock, is back. The music on this new album "Alphabetland" is the sound of X snatching back its past in order to fuel the music of its future.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "WATER AND WINE")

X: (Singing) The divine that defines us, the evil that divides us. There a heaven and a hell, and there's an, oh, well. Who gets passed to the head of line? Who gets water and who gets wine? There's a heaven, and there's a never. There's no tomorrow, only forever.

TUCKER: When X first emerged in the late 1970s, it was a mixture of influences at once unique and familiar. Exene and John Doe met at poetry readings at Beyond Baroque, a bookstore and performance space in Venice, Calif. The two of them, poets turned songwriting collaborators who were also briefly married, shared a literary sensibility akin to the Beat poets of the 1950s. That same decade inspired Billy Zoom, who had played in throwback rockabilly bands. What made them punk was their vehemence, their concise bluntness, their contempt for the fat-cat decadence and oversensitivity of the Los Angeles music industry all around them. X didn't sound like anyone else, and the band knew that that meant they were on the right track.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "STRANGE LIFE")

X: (Singing) Wind up a top. It spins till it drops. It spins fast. Hit the gas. That's me falling. That's my calling. It's been a strange day, strange night, strange day, strange life.

TUCKER: Like a lot of bands, X had a big creative surge at the start of their career. They cut their four first four albums - all of them excellent, some of them great - in three years, then followed a period of creative and commercial struggle, a burnout and a breakup, other projects and silence.

The new material doesn't have a trace of nostalgia or a slackening of intensity. If anything, the words, the guitars and the drums possess a go-for-broke urgency, a feeling of if not now, when? Recorded shortly before our present situation shut everything down, "Alphabetland" dramatizes one widespread reaction to the current moment, the feeling that if you're ever going to get something done, do it now and don't waste time.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "GOODBYE YEAR, GOODBYE")

X: (Singing) Beats keep beating my brains in. Everyone's talking so loud. Why can't we stop for a minute and pull away from the crowd? What gives us the right to be so loud this silent night? Guzzling tequila, spilling cups of coffee. One lover died but another is hoping. Chimes are chiming for hearts that are broken. Goodbye year, goodbye. Please don't make us cry. So long year, so long. We'll sing you out with a song. The party started...

TUCKER: I was lucky enough to be living in Los Angeles when X first got together, and I spent many a happy evening slipping on and off various LA freeways to hunt down the tiny nightspots, Knights of Columbus meeting halls and the abandoned buildings that X found to perform in in the days before they were signed to a record label. I would look around these small, hot, cramped rooms and think, why isn't everyone in the world here? Who would not love this music? Forty-plus years later, John and Exene and D.J. Bonebrake are in their 60s, Billy Zoom is in his 70s. I listen to this new music and now I think, aren't we lucky to have this gift once again?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "DELTA 88 NIGHTMARE")

X: (Singing) We're going to go to Cannery Row. We're going to go to Cannery Row. We're going to flop at No Hotel. We're going to get drunk as hell. We're going to go to Canner Row. We're going to find Mack and Doc. We're going to go to Cannery Row. We're going to go to Cannery Row. Delta 88, Delta 88, nightmare. Delta 88, Delta 88, nightmare. Delta 88, Delta 88, nightmare.

GROSS: Rock critic Ken Tucker reviewed X's new album "Alphabetland."

Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, our guest will be a doctor working on treatments for COVID 19. He's best known for his research into the rare disorder he suffered from, Castleman disease. He created a network of doctors, patients and scientists to crowdsource the most promising research for the disease with startling results. He's written a new memoir called "Chasing My Cure." I hope you'll join us.

FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Mooj Zadie, Thea Chaloner and Seth Kelley. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.

We'll close with a recording by Little Richard, one of the first great rock 'n' rollers. He died Saturday at the age of 87. This is the title song from the 1956 rock 'n' roll movie "The Girl Can't Help It." Little Richard performs this in the film.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "THE GIRL CAN'T HELP IT")

LITTLE RICHARD: (Singing) She can't help it. The girl can't help it. She can't help it. The girl can't help it. If she walks by, the men folks get engrossed. She can't help it. The girl can't help it. If she winks an eye, the bread slice turn to toast. She can't help it. The girl can't help it. If she got a lot of what they call the most, she can't help it. The girl can't help it. The girl can't help it. She was born to please. She can't help it. The girl can't help it. And if she's got a figure made to squeeze - she can't help it; the girl can't help it - won't you kindly be aware, the girl can't help it. The girl can't help it.

If she mesmerizes every mother's son, she can't help it. The girl can't help it. If she's smiling, beefsteak become well done. She can't help it. The girl can't help it. She makes grandpa feel like 21. She can't help it. The girl can't help it. The girl can't help it. She was born to please. She can't help it. The girl can't help it. And if I go to her on bended knee - she can't help it; the girl can't help it - won't you kindly be aware that I can't help it. I can't help it. Because I'm hoping, obviously, that some day the answer will be the girl can't help it and she's in love with me. She can't help it. The girl can't help it. Oww (ph).

If she walks by, the men folks get engrossed. She can't help it. The girl can't help it. If she winks an eye and the bread slice turn to toast, she can't help it. The girl can't help it. She got a lot of what they call the most. She can't help it. The girl can't help it. The girl can't help it. She was born to please. She can't help it. The girl can't help it. And if she's got a figure made to squeeze, she can't help it. The girl can't help it. I'm hoping, obviously, that some day the answer will be... Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.