Album Review: Los Angeles

I wasn’t alive, but an overwhelming majority of those with firsthand experience tell me that the 1970s sucked. I doubt anyone expected the decade to be prosperous, especially with the slow burning conclusion to the Vietnam War, the finally stagnated post war economy, and a general sea change from hallucinogenic drugs to scary, synthetic substances. It didn’t help that the country was lead by weak and/or unpopular figures, or that the drugs Americans were slowly dissolving into became a lucrative and violent business. It really didn’t help that the soundtrack to this country’s excess and misdirected distraction was disco and KISS. The 1980s must have really felt like a blessing.

The story of punk’s rise is a familiar one. Punk wasn’t necessarily a movement, but an involuntary reaction to a young critical distaste of American popular music. Punk’s cathartic explosion originated at CBGB’s isn’t original; the same sort of popular musical rebellion can be found throughout history, from Beethoven’s “Eroica” to the application of Negro spirituals in Gospel music to the European jazz explosion to Muddy Watters to the Rolling Stones to the four elements of hip hop to Kurt Cobain to Odd Future to forever into the future. A lot of aging punks will tell you that their style of music was a necessary response to the glamour and excess of 1970s rock n roll, and since they are the vanguards of a movement, their word should be given a lot of credence. But the explanation of punk’s rise is much simpler than a full-blown rejection of whatever the record companies were doing at the time. Bands started stripping down songs to the bare necessities of raw energy not as a middle finger to society, but because they thought it sounded better than “Detroit Rock City.” For the most part, they were right.

It makes sense that London and New York were harbingers of a truly gruesome movement, considering the grisly conditions of their respective urban areas. What makes less sense is punk’s unlikely third center point: Southern California, particularly Orange County, where young troublemakers felt oddly compelled to rebel against perpetual sunshine, placid lifestyles, and annoying but not nearly life-threatening smog. Their platforms weren’t as solid as bread riots and neo-nazisim in London or the AIDS epidemic and drug lords in New York, but for some reason untouchable acts like Black Flag, The Descendents, The Germs, Agent Orange, and The Circle Jerks formed in late 1970s Southern California. As great as they were, none of their recorded material can touch X‘s Los Angeles, what is in my opinion the greatest punk record ever released.

Los Angeles isn’t any more poignant or powerfully directed than other punk classics like Rockets to Russia or The Clash. X’s energy feels lethargic in comparison to Dead Kennedys or Minor Threat, and their fan base certainly wasn’t any less hospitable than that of The Sex Pistols or The Buzzcocks (either a point of pride or misery for a band, usually dependent on the members’ level of education). X was one of the best punk bands not because they were the most punk, but because they knew how to play their instruments really, really well.

Many punk purists scoff at the idea of a well organized and thought out song, and honestly, if they care so much about a phantom ideology that they are willing to sacrifice listening pleasure, its their loss. There’s hardly a better sound in punk than lead singers Exene Cervenka and John Doe’s wonderfully jagged harmonies. When they’re tied together with Billy Zoom’s Chuck Berry throwback guitar style, it blends into beautifully angry statements against rape, economic inequality, hardcore drugs, and general 1970s Los Angeles grime (certainly more important than smog). Los Angeles most certainly isn’t a list of complaints compiled by comfortably irate high schoolers passing rebellious notes in a social studies class, but a testament to the power of a well-thought out and impeccably delivered argument.

Despite it’s high praise, it remains a punk album, so there are some faults. For instance, it contains nine tracks and clocks in under thirty minutes, and though it’s not close to being the worst offender of punk’s “bang for the buck” fallacies, some more material would have been nice. It was also produced by Door’s keyboardist Ray Manzarek, and taking some creative liberties, he introduced his trademark sound on a few tracks, with mixed results.

It’s deficiencies hardly matter. Every track kills while simultaneously introducing a unique social problem, and Cervenka’s nasally and inflamed tone is the perfect medium for delivering their testament. I feel immediately empowered from the opening drum on “You’re Phone’s Off The Hook, But You’re Not.”  I melt every time the harmonies drop on the title track, and I can’t help but cringe when listening to their sadistic masterpiece “Johnny Hit and Run Pauline.” I shouldn’t divulge into explicit details because listeners should experience this album innocently. It’s the best punk record ever because it elicits every reaction a punk record should without sacrificing acceptable musical composition.


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