LA punk, and the most prominent product of that scene, X, was always more eclectic and broad than the New York version. Clear elements of rockabilly can be heard in their sound, and band made a country album, Poor Little Critter On The Road, under the name The Knitters.
While it might seem like the Squirrel Nut Zippers — who spearheaded the ’90s swing revival — were a weird fit to play with X in their recent appearance at the 9:30 Club, it made complete sense, even if the bands sound very different.
While there have been other players in and out of X over the years, largely because of health challenges faced by guitarist Billy Zoom, they’ve always returned to their original lineup: vocalist Exene Cervenka, bassist and singer John Doe, drummer DJ Bonebrake, and Zoom. That’s the lineup we got at 9:30 Club on Sept. 5, which was the second of two DC performances, with the previous night’s show taking place at The Atlantis, a new, smaller venue that opened earlier this summer.
Founded in LA in 1977, X burst onto the national scene with a series of classic albums they released in the early 1980s: Los Angeles (1980), Wild Gift (1981), Under the Big Black Sun (1982), and More Fun In the New World (1983). They continued to release albums at a prolific rate for the rest of the decade: Wild Thing (1984), Ain’t Love Grand (1985), and See How We Are (1987). Since that time, the band has largely been on hiatus with a number of reunions as the individual band members, especially Cervenka and Doe, went on to make a number of acclaimed solo albums.
Stream “Devil Doll” by X on YouTube:
The Squirrel Nut Zippers have followed a similar path to X: they released several albums in the late ’90s and early 2000s [The Inevitable Squirrel Nut Zippers (1995), Hot (1997), Christmas Caravan (1998), and Bedlam Ballroom (2000)], and, since then, they’ve also gone through a cycle of hiatuses and reunions as band members, especially Jimbo Malthus, have pursued other projects.
The Squirrel Nut Zippers started the evening at 8pm with a set that went just under an hour. They started with a cover of Milton Ager’s “Happy Days Are Here Again,” which had to be the spookiest version of this song I ever heard. The other cover in the set, Frankie Valli’s “Can’t Take My Eyes Off You,” was equally strange and unsettling. Their second song, “La Grippe,” written and recorded in the 90s, has taken on new life as the lyrics about an infectious disease have hit home during the Covid pandemic. Other songs included their original tunes “Put A Lid On It,” “Evening at LaFitte’s,” “Memphis Exorcism,” “Got My Own Thing Now,” “Suits Are Picking Up The Bill,” “Bad Businessman,” “Hell,” and “Ghost of Stephen Foster.”
There’s a saying you sometimes hear in reviews of shows, that someone played with a punk rock energy. It might be a cliche, but it’s true in this case: the Squirrel Nut Zippers may have been playing swing, but they attacked the music with a punk rock energy. At one point in the set, the fiddler/singer moved with such force that his hat flew off, revealing his long brown hair.
X, of course, played punk rock with punk rock energy. From the start of the set, John Doe went into something like the musical equivalent of a fighting stance. The set began with “Water & Wine,” followed by the instantly recognizable “In This House That I Call Home.” It was a packed night of music; after taking the stage about 9:15pm, X played 24 tunes, going late into the night. The variety of their influences was on display with three very different covers: “Breathless,” an Otis Blackwell song, “Dancing With Tears in My Eyes,” by the Regent Club Orchestra, and the Doors’ “Soul Kitchen,” which they’ve recorded, to start the encore.
The set included many of X’s classic songs, with the most coming from Los Angeles: the title cut, “Your Phone’s Off the Hook But You’re Not,” “Nausea,” “Sugarlight,” and, in the encore, “Adult Books.” The third song of the evening, “We’re Desperate,” was from Wild Gift, as was “White Girl,” and, in the encore, “It’s Who You Know.” Other songs included “Bitter End,” “I’m Coming Over,” “Sex and Dying in High Society,” “Some Other Time,” “Come Back To Me,” “I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts,” “Smoke & Fiction,” “Free,” “The Unheard Music,” “Motel Room In My Bed,” and “Devil Doll.”
Punk was always a political genre of rock, and many of X’s best songs, like “Adult Books,” take a strong political stance. That individual band members may have shifted their political allegiances — as many people do with age — doesn’t diminish the quality of these songs, or the importance of the statement they made. Great songs are timeless.
Here are some photos of X performing at 9:30 Club on Sept. 5, 2023. All pictures by Mickey McCarter.