By the 1980s, rock musicians were taking themselves way too seriously when it came to politics. Despite all the excruciating earnestness, the handful of truly great political anthems to come out of that decade were the complete opposite: brutally sarcastic and defiantly hard to categorize, as if subverting musical genres would intensify the message of resistance.
Yet they were all, in one way or another, punk rock: the Dead Kennedy’s “Stars and Stripes of Corruption” (six and a half minutes on a punk record!), Mojo Nixon’s “Burn Down the Malls” (I still am not totally convinced he was joking), Fela Kuti’s “I.T.T. (International Thief Thief)” (his best and most vicious song since 1977’s “Zombie”), and X’s “I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts.”
The latter is almost indescribable, but it’s worth a shot: at the end of side one of the famous Los Angeles punk band’s strangest album, 1983’s More Fun in the New World, the song opens like some kind of lounge number. Lead singers John Doe and Exene Cervenka, who made their reputations shredding their vocal cords on their first two albums of powerful punk rock, 1980’s Los Angeles and 1981’s Wild Gift, harmonize in a near-whisper for the entire first verse, before the song suddenly speeds up and roars through a chorus, then goes quiet-loud-quiet until it ends on what is basically a drum solo. It’s a perfectly disorienting backdrop for lyrics like: “I’m guilty of murder/Of innocent men, innocent women, innocent children/Thousands of them/My planes, my guns, my money, my soul/My blood on my hands/It’s all my fault/I must not think bad thoughts.”
It’s one of X’s best songs; unfortunately, the fact that it doesn’t fit in with the short, propulsive attacks of other fan favorites like “Los Angeles,” “We’re Desperate” and “Johnny Hit and Run Pauline” means it has been left off of their set lists for years.
On this tour, however, that’s going to change, says Doe, who formed the band in 1977 with then-girlfriend Cervenka on shared vocals, rockabilly refugee Billy Zoom on guitar and D.J. Bonebrake on drums. Despite breakups (both the personal and professional kind), temporary departures, hiatuses and two reunions, the original lineup is intact, though it’s been added to for the band’s new experiment.
“We’ve added another member, Craig Packham—he plays acoustic guitar on a couple songs, he plays drums on a few songs. So D.J. will play vibes on a few songs, Billy plays sax on a couple songs. We’re playing numbers that we never played because they were too complicated.”
These deeper cuts include not only “I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts,” but also Leadbelly cover “Dancing With Tears in My Eyes” from the band’s third album, 1982’s Under the Big Black Sun.
“We also do straight-up punk rock like X has always done,” says Doe. “It’s a little bit broader and wider, it’s a little more of a three-dimensional show. We started doing it because we were getting offers to play performing arts centers and things like that, and it just seemed weird to play full-on punk rock at these venues where people were sitting down.”
Opening the show will be longtime X compatriot Mike Watt, whose former band the Minuteman is name-checked in “I Must Not Think Bad Thoughts.”
Watt also participated in Doe’s new book (co-authored with Tom deSavia) Under The Big Black Sun: A Personal History of L.A. Punk. The book’s approach is different than other books on punk rock in that Doe reached out to other figures in the late-’70s, early-’80s scene and asked them to each write a chapter about their experience. People had been telling Doe to write a book for years, but when he and collaborator Tom deSavia got a literary agent, an actual deal was suddenly on the table.
“I thought, ‘holy shit, this is actually going to happen,’” says Doe. “The best idea I had was I started thinking about what was unique about the L.A. scene, and the most unique thing was the collaboration and the community. And so I thought ‘Well, why don’t I just apply that to writing the book?’ Then we made a list of different topics of what was important to the scene.”
So, for instance, Dave Alvin of the Blasters wrote about the influence of roots music on the punk scene, Jane Wiedlin of the Go-Gos wrote about living at the Canturbury, a house that was essential to how the scene came together. Henry Rollins, Robert “El Vez” Lopez of the Zeros, TSOL’s Jack Grisham and several others also contributed their experiences. And, of course, Cervenka, who has published several books of poetry herself. Working with her on the book wasn’t a whole lot different than working with her in the band, Doe says.
“We’re partners, artistic partners. That’s pretty rare, and I think we’re both really grateful for the fact that we like each other still,” he says. “Exene’s was the chapter that I didn’t really need her to expand on, because it was so economical and like a long poem, even though it’s obviously not. It just seemed perfect.”
Info: 8 p.m., Aug. 28 at the Catalyst; $25/$30.